Virtue ethics approaches focus on describing virtues (and vices) and explaining how to develop a virtuous character and live a good life. While acting in the right way and bringing about good consequences matter, developing a virtuous character is the central concern. The idea is that if one has the right kind of character, 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 in many different cultural traditions. Arguably, whenever someone tells a story about an exemplary human being with the clear implication that others ought to behave like this exemplar, they are engaged in a kind of virtue ethics. Although philosophers have different ways of identifying virtues and characterizing the good life, virtue approaches tend to have a set of things in common. They all recognize that developing a good character takes training and practice. The disposition to be good is, in effect, a habit of behaving well. Good habits are 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 and 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.
9.1. 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 ultimate 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. (The BBC has a nice little video about eudaemonia and Aristotle’s ethics, which you can view here.)
It is important to understand that Aristotle is not just saying that if you follow the virtues, then you will experience happiness. (This is one of the reasons why many translators prefer the term “flourishing” as a translation of eudaemonia.) 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. From eudaemonia positive and appropriate emotions flow. Emotional responses, like virtuous character traits, are acquired through habit and though they should not override reasons, 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. 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, pride is a kind of “crown of the virtues” 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 is angry at the right things and with the right people, and further, as [they] ought, when [they] ought, and as long as [they] ought.” This 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.
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.
9.2. The Good Life, According to Buddhism
A number of contemporary thinkers read 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: 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…”
Having recognized this, the aim of Buddhism is really about figuring out how to live so as to minimize suffering—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 suffering 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 suffering. 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 suffering 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.
The fourth noble truth further specifies the practices that the virtuous person should pursue to reduce suffering—the eightfold path. These are, in effect, a basic guide to living in a way that reduces suffering, both for yourself and everyone else. 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, for Buddhists, means cultivating compassion for all sentient beings. The next four focus on conduct. Right speech favors telling the truth over lying and slander and speaking kindly and usefully rather than using abusive language or engaging in gossip. Right action and right livelihood basically require one to find ways of living that don’t promote suffering, 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 is the reflection on and internal investigation of one’s thoughts, which is associated with meditation.
Again, the BBC has rather a nice little video encapsulating the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism and you can find it here.
9.3. 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.
Who to you exemplifies a good person who is living well?
What are their virtues?
Can you recount a story about them that reveals their virtuous character?
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.