5 Focus on Character (and Virtues)

While acting in the right way and bringing about good consequences matter for the ethical theories we discuss in this chapter, their central focus is on developing virtues, avoiding vices, living well, and being a good person. The idea is that if one has the right kind of character, developing one’s virtues and correcting one’s vices, then one will, as a result of this, do the right things and good consequences will follow. As with consequentialism and deontology, we can find versions of this approach, often called virtue ethics, in many different cultural traditions.

Although philosophers have different ways of identifying virtues and characterizing the good life, most virtue ethics approaches recognize that developing a good character takes practice. The disposition to be good is, in effect, a habit of behaving well. Good habits are typically acquired by repetition, whether we repeat these actions mindfully or simply by inclination; just as bad habits are acquired by repeatedly behaving badly. Thus, many virtue ethicists emphasize the importance of education or having a social environment that supports the acquisition of virtue as well as discussing how those of us who want to be better people can shape our own characters. Often, when someone tells a story about an exemplary person with the clear implication that others ought to act the same way, they are engaged in a kind of virtue ethics.

5.1 The Good Life, According to Aristotle

The most famous virtue ethicist in the European tradition is Aristotle (384–322 BCE). His book, The Nicomachean Ethics, begins by identifying the good as that which people pursue for its own sake.  While we can see that many people pursue things like pleasure and wealth, these are not the kinds of ends that Aristotle has in mind. After all, wealth is only an instrumental good as it merely provides a means for obtaining things that we hope will make us happy but does not provide happiness directly (or particularly reliably). Similarly, pleasure is often a sign of the good—particularly for virtuous people who take pleasure in acting virtuously—but it is not itself good. Aristotle believed that what we pursue is happiness and a happy life is the ultimate good that humans seek. Although we have used the term “happiness,” this isn’t a perfect translation. The Greek term Aristotle used is “eudaemonia,” which is variously translated as happiness, flourishing, and well-being.[1]

It is important to understand that Aristotle is not just saying that if you behave virtuously, then you will experience happiness. Eudaemonia is nothing other than living virtuously, functioning well as a human being over a continuous period of time by consistently doing the right thing. (This is one of the reasons why many translators prefer the term “flourishing” as a translation of eudaemonia.)

From eudaemonia positive and appropriate emotions flow. Emotional responses, like virtuous character traits, are acquired through habit and, though they should not override reason, Aristotle believed they had an important role in our moral lives.

Aristotle had a very particular account of the virtues, each one of which he thought was situated between two vices—one of excess and the other of deficiency. So, for instance, Aristotle thought that the virtue of courage is a middle way between the vices of cowardice and recklessness.[2] He has a long list of virtues with their attendant vices, and even with its length, there is little reason to think his list is exhaustive.

Although we may wonder if this account of virtue accurately captures the character of all virtues and vices, careful consideration of some cases shows its usefulness. One of the virtues Aristotle considers is proper pride, what we might think of as appropriate self-regard. Someone with proper pride thinks themselves worthy and is worthy; they make claims to appropriate treatment by others in accord with their merits. Thus, Aristotle notes, proper pride is a kind of “crown of the virtues”[3] as one must have already achieved great things to properly feel it. This virtue sits between the excess of vanity, where one believes that they deserve more than they truly merit, and a vice of false modesty or inappropriate humility. Both of these vices reflect a failure to accurately appreciate one’s own merits. Such failures may lead one to act badly because one has over-estimated one’s capacities, in the case of the vanity, or fail to act at all, as in the case of the inappropriate humility.

Similarly, anger can be virtuous or vicious. Aristotle identifies the good-tempered person as someone “who gets angry at the right things and with the right people, and also in the right way and at the right time and for the right length of time.”[4] Being good-tempered rests between the vices of being hot-tempered—where one easily angers, directs one’s anger at the wrong targets, or is sulky or vengeful—and a deficiency where one doesn’t care about anything at all or is willing to accept abuse of oneself or others.

Stop and Think

We have mentioned three virtues—proper pride, courage, and being good tempered—and how they are each situated between two vices—one of deficiency and one of excess.

What are some other examples of virtues and their concomitant vices?

Are there any virtues that aren’t situated as a mean between two vices?

The thing to notice in these examples is that there isn’t a rule that will tell you how to be courageous, how to have proper pride, or how to feel and express appropriate anger. Nor is there an ordering of virtues and vices that tells you which virtues are more important than others. Indeed, the appropriate action in any given situation is often particular to that situation. What we can say is that the virtuous person will act well no matter the situation and will, by so doing, flourish and live a successful, happy life.

Critics have complained that, without more specific guidance, Aristotelian ethics is of little use when it comes to solving moral dilemmas. To implore us to do what’s virtuous doesn’t help us assess what exactly that is. After all, unless we have more to go on, we might choose people with terrible character flaws as our moral exemplars and cultivate vices while thinking that we are following a life of virtue. Similarly, being told that a virtuous character is one that avoids too much and too little of anything seems like empty advice. Aristotle does not provide recipes or calculations for virtue. He assumes that what constitues a virtuous life is an objective matter, rooted in out human nautre, and that we can recognize it when it appears in ourselves or others.

5.2 The Good Life, According to Buddhism

Though it is a controversial reading, a number of contemporary thinkers treat Buddhist ethics as a type of virtue ethics. One of the complications here is that even if we concede that much of Buddhist ethics addresses the acquisition of virtuous ways of thinking and acting, it starts with a big dose of consequentialism. Like Aristotle’s ethics, Buddhist ethics begins with an observation about human lives. Indeed, this insight about the nature of life is Buddhism’s first noble truth: dukkha—which is translated as “dissatisfaction” or “dis-ease”, and (more controversially) “suffering”—is an inescapable part of life. The Buddha is thought to have said:

…[B]irth is suffering; aging is suffering; sickness is suffering; death is suffering; sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief and despair are suffering; association with the unpleasant is suffering; dissociation from the pleasant is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering…”[5]

Having recognized this, the aim of Buddhism is really about figuring out how to live so as to minimize dukkha—clearly a consequentialist goal.

However, the guidance that Buddhism gives for achieving this goal focuses on the cultivation of ways of thinking and behaving that fit the model of virtue ethics. For instance, the Second Noble Truth identifies the source of dukkha as what are, in effect, vices. The central vice identified here is attachment. Attachment includes things like greed and lust but more generally refers to craving or desire for things. Along with attachment, ignorance and hatred constitute the “three poisons” that tend to give rise to dukkha. So, dispositions to dismiss or be indifferent to the truth, despise and harm others, or constantly acquire or desire more things are serious character flaws.

The Third Noble Truth just makes the obvious point that you can decrease dukkha by renouncing or rejecting what gives rise to it. In terms of the three poisons, instead of ignorance one should pursue wisdom, instead of hatred one should cultivate loving kindness, and instead of attachment, one should practice a selflessness and generosity.

Stop and Think

In your own experience, can you think of a case where one of the three poisons—attachment, hatred, or ignorance—led you to behave badly?

Did your behaviour cause dissatisfaction, dis-ease, or suffering (for others or yourself)?

The Fourth Noble Truth further specifies the practices that the virtuous person should pursue to reduce dukkha—the Eightfold Path. These are, in effect, a basic guide to living well. While, for practicing Buddhists, this is part of a complex system of religious praxis, here we focus on the aspects of the Eightfold Path that are helpful for a secular ethics. Two parts focus on wisdom. The first is right view, which is the effort to gain the correct view of reality. The next is right intention or thought, which means (in part) cultivating compassion for all sentient beings. The next four focus on conduct. Right speech favors things like telling the truth over lying and slander, as well as speaking kindly and usefully rather than employing abusive language or engaging in gossip. Right action and right livelihood basically require you to find ways of living that don’t promote dukkha, and right effort recognizes that this kind of virtuous conduct requires self-discipline. The final two parts of the Eightfold Path concern mental discipline. Right mindfulness requires cultivating an awareness of all one’s activities and thoughts, while right concentration stills the mind and aids in the realization of peace and tranquility.[6]

5.3 The Exemplar of a Virtuous Person

Often virtue ethics approaches offer an ideal or exemplary person as a kind of role model to emulate. Similarly, we tell stories about vicious people to understand how their lives can go awry so that we do not make the same poor choices that they did. Such exemplars redirect ethics from the individual actions and moral dilemmas that are, typically, the focus of consequentialism and deontology to a more holistic way of thinking about a moral life.

Stop and Think

To you, who exemplifies a good person who is living well?

What are their virtues?

Can you recount a story about them that reveals their virtuous character?


Further Reading

In addition to the sources in the footnotes, the following may be helpful:

The Good Life, According to Aristotle

Annas, Julia. “Being Virtuous and Doing the Right Thing.” Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 78 (2004), 61-74.

Crash Course. “Aristotle & Virtue Theory: Crash Course Philosophy #38.” YouTube, December 5, 2016, Video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PrvtOWEXDIQ&list=LL_2eTGyTR8aA3DjTN2lKuCw&index=2324

Hursthouse, Rosalind. On Virtue Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1999.

See esp. Chapters 1-3.

Warburton, Nigel, and Roger Crisp. “Roger Crisp on Virtue.” Philosophy Bites. Produced by the Institute of Philosophy. October 12, 2008. Podcast. https://philosophybites.com/2008/10/roger-crisp-on.html

The Good Life, According to Buddhism

Fink, Charles K. “Cultivation of Virtue in Buddhist Ethics.” Journal of Buddhist Ethics 20 (2013). https://blogs.dickinson.edu/buddhistethics/2013/11/14/cultivation-of-virtue-in-buddhist-ethics/

Garfield, Jay L. Buddhist Ethics: A Philosophical Exploration. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2021.

See esp. Chapters 1, 2, 6, and 7 (“Methodological Introduction”; “The Broad Structure of Buddhist Ethics”; “Ethics as Moral Phenomenology”; “The Four Noble Truths”; “Path as a Structure for Buddhist Ethics”)

Keown, Damian. Buddhist Ethics: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

See esp. Chapter 1 (“Buddhist Morality”) and Chapter 2 (“Ethics East and West”).

Whitehill, James. “Buddhist Ethics as Virtue Ethics.” Journal of Buddhist Ethics 1 (1994). https://blogs.dickinson.edu/buddhistethics/2010/04/05/buddhist-ethics-in-western-context-the-virtues-approach/

  1. The BBC has a nice little video about eudaemonia and Aristotle’s ethics, which you can view online. See Nigel Warburton, "Aristotle on 'Flourishing,'" BBC, March 2015, video, https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02n2bhz.
  2. Aristotle, Ethics, trans. J.A.K. Thomson (London: Penguin Classics, 1976), 1115a6-1116a17.
  3. Aristotle, Ethics, 1124a1.
  4. Aristotle, Ethics, 1125b31-3.
  5. John M. Koller, Asian Philosophies, 5th ed. (Upper Saddle River: Prentice-Hall, 2002), 53.
  6. Koller, Asian Philosophies, 59-61.


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Applied Ethics Primer Copyright © 2021 by Letitia Meynell and Clarisse Paron is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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