Virtue ethics is one of the top four or five ethical theories. Ethical theories are ways of organizing information regarding right and wrong. Typically, in science, theories can be shown in just one or two experiments or studies to be “false.” However, when it comes to ethics, it’s a bit more nuanced. The other major theories go by names such as utilitarianism, deontology (duty-based ethics), and religious ethics. Other contenders for the Top 10 include ethical subjectivism, consequentialism, relativism, casuistry, and authority-based ethics. Virtue ethics is one of my favorites for sure, and I will share some thoughts and perspectives about it in this blog. In the end, hopefully, the readers gain some appreciation for it, see how it is different than competing ethical theories, and recognize how to “use it” in real life (making ethical decisions, facing moral dilemmas, etc.).
One can tell what ethical theory they favor by filling in the blank in the sentence below when a moral decision is upon them (i.e., decide a real issue in real time—because engaging the emotions is necessary to get a “good read”). That sentence is: “It is wrong if I did X because this is an example of the principle that (fill in the blank) ____________________.” Basically, one goes from the specific situation to the general rule. Here is an example. You are thinking of quitting your job because your boss is driving you crazy. You are asking yourself if you can just get up and walk out, or if you should give notice. Now, all considerations of practicality aside (which is typically the case when deciding right from wrong), what should you do?
If you come up with a reason to not walk out that sounds like the following, you are thinking ethically—you’re considering the moral dimensions of a problem. “If I quit, Becky is going to have to deal with all my files until my lame boss gets someone new hired and trained. I don’t want to do that to her because I wouldn’t want her to do that to me if our roles were reversed; or because it is going to destroy her emotionally, whereas it is going to suck less for me if I just give notice and give two more weeks; or because a stand-up person isn’t the kind of person who walks out on jobs,” or the like.
As the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy puts it: “Virtue ethics is a broad term for theories that emphasize the role of character and virtue in moral philosophy rather than either doing one’s duty or acting in order to bring about good consequences. A virtue ethicist is likely to give you this kind of moral advice: “Act as a virtuous person would act in your situation.”
The phrase, because a stand-up person (a loyal person, a person with character and integrity) doesn’t walk out on jobs, is a good exemplar of this particular theory: virtue ethics. Here, the question: “What is the right thing to do in this situation?” is answered by the following: The right thing to do is to do that which a person of virtue would do in a situation such as this. We are talking about conscience here, and as the famous ethicist John Stuart Mill wrote, “It is not because men’s desires are strong that they act ill; it is because their consciences are weak.”
Looking in on oneself objectively is important. The famous Adam Smith, a moral philosopher, was keen on the idea of an observer—to consider an objective person viewing oneself: “We endeavor to examine our own conduct as we imagine any other fair and impartial spectator would examine it.” Thus, to improve one’s conduct, imagine that you are being observed – not just by some individual, but by one who is upstanding, good, wholesome, true, admirable. In a word, a person with character. He also wrote: “We suppose ourselves the spectators of our own behavior, and endeavour to imagine what effect it would, in this light, produce upon us. This is the only looking-glass by which we can…scrutinize the propriety of our own conduct.”
Likely you have seen this principle in action in modern culture. Have you heard the question, “What Would Jesus Do?” It was a popular thing for a while there, and you would see W.W.J.D. on bracelets and the like. That includes a religious element, but basically it is virtue ethics because it is asking: What would a person of high moral integrity, of good character, of excellent virtue, do in this exact situation? It’s sometimes reminiscent of, say, asking what your grandpa or your mom would do, or remembering their voice in your head (because by and large, we learn about virtue ethics – and other theories, as well—in the home).
There is also a neat, negative approach to this theory of right and wrong. What I mean is, you are also preventing wrong behavior by asking yourself what you should not do. Example: “I won’t cheat on my husband because then I would be a cheater, and cheaters are not good people.” Or “I don’t want to take the money out of that wallet I just found because what kind of man steals someone’s money when they are in the vulnerable position of having lost their wallet?”
It isn’t easy to define virtues such as loyalty, honor, integrity, goodness, character, honesty, fidelity, and moral praiseworthiness, but we know them when we see them. I would also suggest that you research these values a bit in The Wisdom Archive, which is the fruit of all my labor at collecting quotations, poetry, and proverbs about values, ethics, and “a life of value.” But once you get more practiced, more used to, doing the right thing according to virtue ethics, like Aristotle suggested was how character is formed, then it becomes a bit easier to execute one’s decision. It’s never easy for a good person (who is morally less committed than a Jesus or a devout member of Jainism or the Dalai Lama) to do good acts. However, over time, if one concentrates on a version of the WWJD reminder (in this case, “What Would a Moral Person Do?”), then it gets a bit more second-nature. The Dalai Lama, for example, arguably, goes through his moral decisions daily without much hesitation, regret, or doubt because his sense of ethics is thoroughly engrained.
Now, one does not need religiosity to be a good, secular, moral decision-maker. Though, let’s face it, it might be easier. Religious adherents believe a significantly ethical figure is watching them all the time, and cannot be hidden from! If I am not mistaken, I also believe that Thomas Jefferson was an admirer of the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.
So how does virtue ethics differ from the two biggies – utilitarianism and deontology? With utilitarianism, it’s easy to describe. Utilitarianism was a 19th-century invention of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill that sought to reform society by considering more than just the special people—the aristocrats and the politically connected and those on the religious side of the equation. They looked around and saw plenty of suffering in Charles Dickens’ England, and thought: There must be a better way. There was: it was to consider what a decision would mean for the majority. Basically, an action is right if more people will be better off if you do X than if you do Y. So, if you drive drunk and hit someone, you have wronged them not because good people don’t harm others by becoming impaired and driving a vehicle and having an accident, but simply because that victim is going to suffer because of acts or omissions on your part. It’s why terrorist bombings are wrong: because pain and devastation are rained down on innocent peoples’ heads. Or consider a tax raise—societal issues are very amenable to using a utilitarian calculus.
Or, consider a tax increase—societal issues are very amenable to using a utilitarian calculus. The question is, Would raising an additional ten billion dollars by raising the tax rate 1% be right or wrong? Well, people don’t like to be taxed, but the money could be used for position and prosocial things. It would have to all be weighed and balanced to find out if it’s right. Virtue ethics is harder to utilize with such a question.
Deontology was an invention of German philosopher Immanuel Kant, also from way-back-when (though, virtue ethics can be traced to Confucius and others who are much older than either utilitarianism or deontology. His philosophy of right and wrong is a bit like virtue ethics. It is duty-based ethics. In other words, one should make up one’s own rules of conduct ahead of time, and then in moral situations, apply them rigorously and without exception. To do one’s duty. How does one know if doing X or doing Y is a moral act?
One, all utilitarian considerations are dispensed with: it doesn’t matter how it turns out, what the results of an action are. It only matters what one’s intentions were when they made their moral decision. Lying is an illustrative example: for Kant, one should never lie. One can determine this by asking about the categorical imperative: should lying become a frequent and universally-done thing? Or would that not be something that you would like to see happen? If you lie easily and everyone else does as well, then what you have is truth having virtually no meaning. That is not a good state of affairs. Truth should be truth and lies should be lies. Admittedly, this is somewhat similar at this point to a virtue ethics approach, in that both are trying to get at proper behavior for the sake of the behavior, and not because the act would be praised, approved of, successful, or create great results. One of the problems with deontology is when duties conflict: like, should you lie, or should you turn your friend in – you can’t avoid one of those in a situation where your friend was caught cheating on an exam.
The other hallmark of deontology is to treat others as ends in themselves, and not as means. For example, according to duty-based ethics, it is wrong to use people. Thus, whereas a utilitarian would torture a terrorist if the terrorist knew where a ticking time bomb was hidden in a crowded urban setting, a deontologist would lament the loss of life, but wouldn’t torture because torturing is wrong. Why? Because one cannot do wrong to a person to bring about some positive end. The ends don’t justify the means. One can’t do three wrong acts and end up with a positive/moral outcome. Positive moral outcomes must be the end of a string of right actions. The careful reader might see that this is somewhat reminiscent of virtue ethics, too: good people don’t torture people. However, virtue ethics would suggest that a good person might decide that a lowly terrorist waste of space does not deserve to sit there with a smile on his face while authorities hunt in vain for the ticking time bomb, because, after all, good people save lives.
Ethics is truly interesting, almost fun—at least for me. Knowing (believing) that there is no God who wrote laws down in stone for obedient humans leaves us open to a world of possibilities. From a more existential perspective, the fact that we are the masters of our fate; that we have the power to decide right from wrong—is bracing. We must face the consequences of our actions and decisions, too, though. That makes morality a high-stakes game, and it can quicken one’s pulse to have to deal with moral dilemmas and make garden-variety decisions of right and wrong. In the end, one would do very well to study both positive values (truth, justice, honor, etc.) and try to behave in keeping with those virtues. A person of character rarely does wrong, not because they are of superior stock, but because they have developed the habit of behaving in a manner that would be described as “the right thing to do.” Act like a virtuous person, and your moral decisions will not be very difficult to solve.
Here is an external source for learning more about the idea of ethical theories.