Of the “Big Three” moral philosophies, virtue ethics seems to be the most problematic. Criticisms and rebuttals of the other two theories, utilitarianism and deontology, are relatively simple to state and understand, or at least I found them so. On the other hand, I was able to easily compile a dozen criticisms of virtue ethics from a very few professional papers on the subject in a short amount of time. That intrigued me. In this paper I intend to defend virtue ethics as the best moral philosophy by addressing several of the excellent criticisms.
The theory is straight-forward: Moral life should have a purpose and lead to happiness. Virtue ethics is about building character. Developing good moral character leads to contentment that comes from “doing the right thing.” This moral theory is not about rules or something called “utility.” Virtue ethics requires a lifetime of practice to develop. The way to become a moral person is to be moral. This theory is more about being or becoming, not so much about doing. It’s about who you are. The concept of the “mean” is crucial to this philosophy. The focus is on balance, moderation and avoiding extremes. Aristotle taught in order to achieve a virtuous and potentially happy character, we must first be taught by teachers and by experience. Later, we then consciously choose to do the best or virtuous things when presented with moral choices. This requires a lot of pondering of our choices and ultimately, feeling about things in a certain way. It is this feeling which causes, motivates or empowers virtuous or good actions.
Perhaps it is this component of feeling that raises such criticism. Those who practice virtue ethics are seeking eudemonia (Greek), a state meaning well-being, blessedness, or for our purposes, a state of human flourishing. That makes it hard to measure and hard to determine when such a state has been reached. How can virtue ethics be useful in a society if the objective is so subjective to the individual? This is just one of the criticisms I will address in this essay. Of course, just because a theory has legitimate criticisms does not negate the value of the theory, especially if favorable rebuttals can be presented. I am going to assume you are familiar with the theory beyond the basics presented in the preceding paragraph and will therefore focus on the rebuttals as the core of the argument advocating my position.
Let’s address the applicability problem right up front. What sorts of actions are morally permitted and which ones are not? What sorts of measureable outcomes are desired with virtue ethics? What are the duties or rules of virtue ethics that can be used in specific moral situations? The difficulty in this objection is that it focuses on a lower functioning level of human nature – having to be told what to do in all situations. Such a lower level is indicative of immaturity. Virtue ethics works best as one seeks to do the virtuous thing partly by avoiding vices. Let’s take the specific example of a raped fifteen year old girl trying to decide whether or not to have an abortion. The moral guidance of virtue ethics would have her avoid vices such as selfishness, irresponsibility or short-sightedness. Abortion is a personal choice but has consequences that reach far beyond the individual. Adoption is an alternative to abortion. Virtue ethics provides moral guidance in this situation by allowing the young mother a choice. She can make a very difficult situation better by applying the moral guidance afforded by seeking the virtues of love, patience, unselfishness, forgiveness, tolerance, kindness and charity. She may choose to raise the child herself but is probably not yet suited to provide the child the best care. She can have the abortion but perhaps she has strong feelings that she might regret her decision. Action guidance from virtue ethics allows her to choose to endure the unwanted pregnancy and give the child up for adoption as being a better choice. The criticism that virtue ethics does not provide action guidance in specific moral situations demonstrates an unwillingness to think things through, weigh the alternatives and make a choice, a process that rule-based systems don’t do well.
Now let’s address the cultural relativity problem. This is not unique to virtue ethics, but seems to be made less difficult by the unique aspects of this theory. You are probably familiar with the example of the differences in how some societies treat their dead. With virtue ethics, we can readily see that something abhorrent to Western civilization like cooking and eating a piece of flesh from your recently deceased grandmother might actually be an acceptable practice because it embodies the virtue of honoring your ancestors. Such a virtue is applicable to most cultures even though we may disagree with the way a specific culture implements it. Another example is the idea of slave-holding. In some cultures it was considered morally acceptable, even virtuous to enslave human beings. Virtue ethics does not necessarily require a static ranking of virtues over time. In the slave-holding example, there is an obvious conflict of virtues at work, which in the minds of some, justified the vice of enslaving another human being against their will (I’ll address the conflict problem and justification problem next). Virtue ethics embraces the idea of community. Our values are determined in large part by the communities to which we belong: nation, family, school, church and private and public associations. We accept that some virtues will hold a greater influence upon us according to the time and place in which we live. We are social animals, grounded in a particular place and time. The ethos of our society shapes our moral views and moral activity. The application of virtue ethics allows for the influence of our community to determine the ranking of our values according to our circumstances.
A good moral system must address dilemmas. The requirements of different virtues can bring about conflict because they seemingly point to different courses of action. However, this conflict is only apparent and can be resolved by those possessed with phronesis, translated as practical wisdom. This wisdom comes only with time and through practice, which of course means making mistakes. In reality, virtues do not make opposing demands. One course of action, which some may consider a rule, may outrank another in a particular case. Or it may be that there is an exception to a standard course of action based on the specific circumstances of a moral choice at hand. Over time, the practitioner of virtue ethics will come to know instinctively, or by a feeling, what is the right course of action in this situation. Since the complexities of every dilemma cannot be determined in advance, virtue ethics teaches the skills needed to study the problem out, ponder the choices and make the best decision. At first, this is difficult and prone to mistakes, but over time, it becomes second nature to know the best course of action.
I only have room to address one other criticism of virtue ethics known as the justification problem. In short, how do we justify or ground our ethical beliefs of what is moral? Which of all the character traits are the virtues? Perhaps this is where the idea of the mean comes into play. We can make lists of all kinds of character traits and then note the extremes of each end. While this may be an exercise to teach the skill for the uninitiated, I do not recommend it as a regular course of action. At one end of the spectrum is excessiveness, while the other end represents deficiency. For the virtue of courage we have recklessness and cowardice. For the virtue of work, we can consider laziness on one end and frenetic on the other. The Golden Mean is the virtue that is to be found in between two corresponding vices. As virtue ethicists, our objective is to be somewhere in the middle. Plato gave us the four Cardinal Virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. Aristotle then added five additional virtues of wisdom, courage, liberality, magnificence and magnanimity. There is no master list of virtues because it could never be all-inclusive. This moral theory is not grounded in a list of rules, desired outcomes or even specific virtues, but rather on the idea of balance, moderation and avoiding extremes. Virtue ethics is grounded on a skill of how to choose wisely, which only comes with practice over time.
In conclusion, it is my contention that virtue ethics is a superior moral system because it is more flexible and embraces a wider range of possibilities than rule-based or outcome-based systems, mainly because of the central component of endorsing agent-based choice as the best way to guide one’s life. Just because a person is continent or falls short of a perfect virtue does not negate the value of virtue ethics. There is something particularly admirable about people who manage to act well when it is especially hard for them to do so. They may not yet have achieved eudemonia, but they are still practicing, which is a major part of the theory of virtue ethics. They may fall short of the ideal again and again but continue to seek the goal of perfection through an ever-so-slightly different approach. This may seem repetitive or even counter-productive, but perhaps that is part of the beauty of the theory. Eventually, given sufficient time and effort and with encouragement from teachers and leaders, practice will pay off. The performance will be complete and the practitioner of virtue ethics will reap the benefits of a moral life well lived.