Virtue Ethics

The Central Question of Ethics is how should I live? Or how should I decide how to live?

There are several answers available within the Western philosophical tradition:

The religious answer: Follow the set of rules provided by religious texts, e.g., the Bible

Utilitarianism: Act in such a fashion that can maximise pleasure and minimise pain.

Kantian ethics: Act in such a fashion that your action can become universal action.

In all these approaches the emphasis is on rules, duty, obligation, and the rightness or wrongness of actions.

Contrary to all these theories, virtue ethics does not provide any strict rules or laws on how a person should behave or act in a given situation; in fact, it focuses on a person’s virtues/character.

Virtues are positive/excellent character traits (kindness, compassion, honesty, and generosity), while vices are negative character traits (greed, short-tempered etc.). Virtues can and must be intentionally cultivated. They are necessary for the survival and well-being of individuals and society; hence they are moral in nature.

The Greek term that is usually translated as “virtue” is arête. Speaking generally, arête is a kind of excellence.

Virtue ethics does not focus on What I should do? But instead, it focuses on What sort of person should I be?

In other words, individuals are good if they have particular virtues (excellent traits) rather than following specific rules or laws.

Because virtues can be cultivated, they can also be described as a virtuous person’s acquired dispositions. As a result, virtues denote human character excellence, whereas vices denote character flaws.

In other words, these virtues refer to a person’s inner qualities. As a result, they make up the morality of being, whereas duty and good deeds refer to the morality of doing.

A virtuous person doesn’t take vacations from his virtues. The presence of virtues in a person can be inferred from that person’s habitual good behaviour.

Virtues promote the well-being of their owners and society, whereas vices are detrimental to their owners’ well-being.

Ethical Virtues vs Moral Virtues:

Ethical virtues are more specific than moral virtues. Ethical virtues, like honesty, focus on individual actions that align with a particular ethical code.

Moral virtues, like kindness or bravery, are broader in scope and encompass many different types of behaviour. For example, someone who is honest might also be kind; however, someone who is kind might not always be honest. This difference between ethical and moral virtues can help us understand why it’s important to consider both when evaluating an individual’s character.

The school of philosophy, which deals with various aspects of these virtues is called virtue ethics.

Virtue ethics is person-centred rather than action-centred, focusing on the virtue or moral character of the person performing the action rather than ethical duties and rules or the consequences of specific actions.

Virtue ethics addresses not only the rightness or wrongness of individual actions but also the characteristics and behaviours that a good person should strive for.

As a result, virtue ethics is concerned with a person’s entire life rather than specific episodes or actions. A good person is someone who lives virtuously – someone who has the virtues and practises them.

It’s a useful theory because it helps in judging a person’s character than judging the goodness or badness of a specific action. This suggests that rather than using laws and punishments to prevent or deter bad behaviour, the best way to build a good society is to help its members become good people.

The founding fathers of virtue ethics are Plato and Aristotle in the West and Mencius and Confucius in the East.

Three foundational virtues of ancient Greek philosophy are:

  • Arête=virtue (excellence),
  • Phronesis (wisdom practical or moral) and
  • Eudaimonia (usually translated as happiness or flourishing).

To possess a virtue is to be a certain sort of person with a certain complex mindset. A significant aspect of this mindset is the wholehearted acceptance of a distinctive range of considerations as reasons for action. Possessing a virtue is a matter of degree.

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