Conceptions of virtue have a long history in ethical thought, extending all the way to the ancient roots of Western philosophy. Plato and Aristotle are especially important thinkers in the early history of thought concerning virtue, as are the Stoics. Overall, Aristotle’s ethical thought remains the most influential version of a virtue-centered approach, and in recent decades there has been steadily increasing interest in it and in other thinkers’ conceptions of the virtues. (Thomas Aquinas and David Hume are two such thinkers.)
Recent interest in the virtues is motivated in part by internal and external criticism of consequentialist and Kantian approaches to ethical theorizing. Consequentialist theories explain the rightness of actions in terms of maximally bringing about certain kinds of states of affairs; that is, in terms of their consequences. Deontological theories explain ethically right action in terms of there being specific ethical duties, obligations binding on agents. Virtue-centered theorizing focuses on how an agent’s character, which involves dispositions of reasoning, sensibility, and motivation, shapes judgment and action. The virtues are dispositions enabling the agent to reason, to react, and to be motivated in ethically sound ways. Courage, justice, generosity, honesty, and compassion are examples.
However, it is important to see that virtues can have a role in diverse approaches to ethics. Virtues are not limited to virtue-centered theories, though they have an especially significant role in them. John Stuart Mill, who is a paradigmatic consequentialist, discusses virtue as understood by utilitarianism in Chapter IV of Utilitarianism. Immanuel Kant, who is perhaps the most influential deontological thinker, discusses virtue as an important element of his theory in his Doctrine of Virtue.
Still, virtue-centered theorizing is distinctive in that instead of maintaining that there is a single, fundamental criterion of right action, or a single, fundamental moral law, ethical rightness and the ethical significance of action are explicated in terms of features of virtuous agency. Virtue-centered approaches make the virtues— rather than a principle of right action—primary. Virtuous activity can involve multiple features and aspects of agents. The ethical soundness of an action depends upon the way in which the agent’s reasoning, judgment, sensibility, and motivational dispositions inform and orient the agent’s actions. Thus, the excellence of action is explained in terms of the virtues of the agent.
Virtue, Eudaimonism, and Practical Wisdom
Often, virtue-centered approaches are connected with eudaimonism, the view that through virtuous activity a person is able to flourish, a combination of excellence and gratification. Aristotle’s philosophy is a preeminent example. In such a view, the virtues are needed (actually, virtuous activity is needed) for a person to successfully realize goods proper to a human being, and thereby lead an excellent life. Also, it is an important part of Aristotle’s view that virtuous activity is naturally pleasing. Doing that which is excellent or fine is enjoyed and is found gratifying by the agent who engages in such activity for its own sake.
Not all conceptions of the virtues are connected with eudaimonism. Hume and Mill elaborated accounts of virtue without connecting it to a conception of human flourishing in the way Aristotle did. However, Mill did argue that virtuous activity promotes human happiness in general, and Hume held that there is an important relation between virtue and what people find useful and agreeable, which is often a matter of what sorts of rules and conventions govern human interaction. Rules of property ownership and transfer, and rules governing promise-making and promise-keeping, are examples of what he had in mind. Thus, Hume did not connect the virtues to an account of human beings having an essentially rational nature, which is the approach Aristotle took.
In addition, the notion of practical wisdom (phronesis), that is, an action guiding understanding of what is good for a human being, has an important place in Aristotelian conceptions of the virtues. Platonic conceptions also involve a key role for reason, for correct understanding of the good. Hume’s moral philosophy does not recognize a virtue of practical wisdom. In large part this is because Hume denied that moral values are objects of reason. They are not objective features of or entities in the world, and they are not objects of knowledge. That difference reflects some of the most significant contrasts between different conceptions of virtue.
Some contemporary proponents of virtue-centered ethics believe that, while certain virtues are essential to moral life and to a well-led life overall, the virtues need not be tied directly to a specific conception of excellent human life or a conception of human perfection. Human beings have distinctive capacities for end-oriented activity, and they act with a view to realizing certain ends and pursuing what they take to be good, but there is not just one conception of human good or of successfully actualizing human nature. Thus, it is possible to give up the Aristotelian idea of a best or most complete actualization of human capacities while still regarding the virtues as central to ethics.
Virtue Ethics and Deontological Ethics
One point of contact between virtue ethics and deontological ethics is that, from the perspective of the virtuous agent, certain actions are regarded as ethical duties. However, the virtue theorist argues that an agent needs certain sorts of understanding and states of character to recognize what is ethically required. That is, the virtues of the agent have a crucial role in explaining what is ethically obligatory, rather than that being accounted for by a principle independent of the conception of the virtues. Having the virtues involves awareness, perception, judgment, sensibility, and reasoning. Those are all aspects of the virtues in a manner that contrasts, for instance, with Kant’s notion that just by virtue of being rational one can recognize what is morally required. Virtuous states of character enable a person to recognize and appreciate ethically significant features of situations, persons, and actions and they underlie the person’s being motivated in certain specific ways that reflect a commitment to being responsive to the understanding of what is good.
Character of the Virtuous Agent
One of the notable features of many virtue-centered ethical theories is the importance of an agent’s character. A virtuous person has certain sorts of commitments and dispositions and those shape character and action. Those are necessary elements of leading a well-lived life, being responsive to objective goods, and striving to realize them (though not in the consequentialist’s maximizing sense). The virtuous person has the kind of character necessary for acting rightly and finding it pleasing to do so. Thus, character is important to the individual’s prospects for happiness. That is not to say that the virtuous agent acts virtuously in order to be happy. Virtue-centered ethics is not a form of hedonism. Genuinely virtuous action is undertaken because of its rightness. However, the virtuous agent enjoys acting well and is minimally vulnerable to the kinds of regret and internal conflict one might experience as a result of being torn over how to act if one did not have firmly virtuous motives. Generally, in virtue ethics happiness is interpreted in terms of enjoying activity that is (correctly) understood to be good because the virtuous agent desires what reason understands to be good. This harmony of desire and understanding is one of the main theses of many versions of virtue ethics.
An agent lacking virtue may be a continent person; that is, someone with a basically correct understanding of ethical values but not firmly disposed to act rightly. Such a person may still be inclined to act contrary to what virtue requires but will regret acting wrongly if the inclination prevails. A person with vices has a wrong or corrupt ethical understanding, yet acts on that understanding, thinking it is correct. That is a reason it can be so difficult for vicious persons to ethically reform; they do not even recognize the wrongness of their values, and they may find it pleasing to act on them. According to Aristotle, the vicious person’s pleasures illustrate the fact that there are bad pleasures, namely, the ones dependent upon corrupt character.
Critics of virtue-centered ethics sometimes object that this philosophy does not offer adequate guidance to practical reasoning, and that it cannot account for the requirements of say, justice, which (the objection says) surely are ascertainable independent of what a virtuous agent would judge to be the just action. Critics argue that numerous important ethical matters can be formulated in terms of principles and considerations that do not depend upon how the virtuous agent sees things. Also, individuals need ethical principles because the notion of the virtuous agent cannot provide satisfactory guidance for ethical reasoning.
However, a virtue theorist can certainly appeal to ethical rules and principles as elements of the virtuous agent’s understanding. Also, a virtue-centered theorist does not simply say, “Do what a virtuous person would do.” The virtue theorist can explain the reasoning of the virtuous agent. The point is that one needs certain virtues in order to fully grasp those reasons and to be motivated by them. Also, the theorist can point out that often multiple considerations are relevant and ethical judgment typically involves appreciating diverse considerations. One needs the virtues to attain that appreciation.
In addition, it is not as though a virtue theory has nothing to say by way of explicating correct ethical judgment. The virtuous agent can explain how the various specific considerations figure in sound judgment, indicating how the relevant features of the situation have ethical weight. While a virtuous agent can be said to “see” what to do, one should not confuse a virtuous agent’s ability to make correct judgments with the idea that such judgments are not explicable or are not based on anything. The “seeing” indicates that, in some cases, a virtuous agent is able to appreciate the ethical features of a situation without explicit, discursive consideration of how they figure in it. That means the agent’s virtues are well established, not that the virtuous person has some inexplicable, unreasoned grasp of ethical requirements.
The objection that virtue ethics lacks guiding principles and is incapable of explaining correct ethical judgment and action may confuse the way in which virtues can be “second nature” to the virtuous agent with the notion that what is informed by habit cannot be rationally explicated or justified. A defender of the virtues will argue that it is a mistake to claim that judgment shaped by virtue, and action motivated by it, lack reasoned bases. They do have reasoned bases, and that is what the virtuous agent understands, recognizes, and responds to in ways that are not distracted by other types of considerations. A virtue is not just a matter of sensibility or a disposition uninformed by understanding. The virtuous agent may have a disposition to do what is ethically right but that disposition requires understanding, perception, deliberation, and motivation. It is not just a thoughtless, mechanical response. It is a disposition that only a rational agent could have.
Issues of Unity
The question of the unity of the virtues is a longstanding, important issue. This is the issue of whether having a virtue in a full-fledged way requires having other virtues as well. The unity thesis says that the virtues are not independent of each other. Critics often charge that (1) the unity thesis seems implausible, yet (2) without it there is no clear, systematic way in which the various virtues figure in ethical life. Again, the objection is that the virtues cannot offer principled, reliable guidance required by ethics. However, the unity thesis can be understood as a claim about the relation of mutual support between virtues and the fact that ethical judgment typically requires being responsive to multiple, diverse ethical considerations. Sound ethical judgment and decision often require seeing how to weigh and integrate numerous aspects of a situation and that makes demands upon more than one virtue at a time. An ethically excellent character includes many interrelated virtues. For example, in a single situation someone may need to be just, courageous, and honest in order to know what to do and to do it. This is a reason there is often a central role for practical wisdom in theories of the virtues. Practical wisdom (phronesis) supplies guidance concerning what is good, and that guidance can help orient and connect the exercise of the various virtues of character.
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