A Virtue Ethics Primer


  • One can observe the difficulties of employing an objective morality in the efforts of utilitarianism to reveal “the greatest good for the greatest number” and of duty ethics to discount the vagaries of circumstance.
  • The decisive and universal commonality is our species-specific nature as choice-making machines rather than anything more restrictive.
  • Virtue ethics relies upon a judgment of preference to distill experience so as to satisfy a catalogue of human needs; using this constant human activity as a standard will allow each preference to be judged as good, bad, or neutral.
  • But virtue ethics focuses less on individual evaluations than on their cumulative effects on character and so its methodology and motivation lean heavily on the cultivation of good habits.
  • Prominent among our needs are the goods of character that allow the cultivation of moral virtue; chief among them are temperance, courage, and prudence.
  • In terms of how we ought to treat ourselves and others, virtue ethics sets up a moral bullseye of duties to self, intimates, and strangers.
  • Central to such a moral structure is a clear understanding of the nature of justice.
  • No other moral system reconciles equitable desires and duties to loved ones and to strangers.
  • Human needs are human rights and establish what persons in polities are due.

Since our choosing what we consider good is always made in the context of the moment, we might be tempted to consider all moral judgments situational and unique to that moment. This is certainly how postmodernists see the issue, and so they endorse a relativism or subjectivism of moral outlook that pays due deference to the manifold complexities of experience, disdaining all moral systematizing and championing tolerance as an ideal. This view is based in part on their assuming that rational thinking is formed through experience and is therefore subjective or culturally determined (see “Postmodernism Is Its Discontents”). Utilitarianism attempted to embrace personal subjectivism yet derive from it what they call correspondence judgments of goodness through a system of majority rule, though conceivably any kind of values could thus be sanctioned by the majority, so the effort to somehow transform coherence judgments into correspondence ones through enlargements of scale must end in failure (see “The Problem of Moral Pragmatism“). It is possible, though difficult, to turn this argument on its head as Kant did and derive precisely the opposite conclusion from the diversity of moral experience. He thought only a rule-based system limited to intentionality could escape the maze of context and utility, freeing us to do our duty regardless of circumstance or personal interest. But of course that also meant robbing us of the motivation to respond to the circumstances that complicate any moral choice (see “Three Moral Systems).

The exigencies of is seem always to be dueling with the dictates of ought in moral systems. The virtue ethics of Aristotle manages this tension by shifting moral focus from actions to character. Many kinds of acts are thus permitted, their morality judged by their effect on the moral agent committing them.

The moral goal of virtue ethics is flourishing, the condition of having achieved all of the requirements of a full human life. Those requirements are laid out by the final cause of a human being; they are what we are designed to do and be. Call the designer God or genetics. So long as you think a human person is not infinitely malleable, you allow for the possibility that we have a final cause (see Needs Anchor Morality“). Still, I recognize the cultural headwinds blowing against this argument. We have long been immersed in notions of cultural determinism (“American exceptionalism”), class consciousness (Marxism), gender identity (feminism), and the like, as well as the entertainment media’s glorification of the antihero who “follows his own rules” (see “Freedom, Antihero and Zeitgeist). But virtue ethics asks you to see beyond these kinds of distinctions, real as they may be, to the true determinism that underlies these differences: our common humanity. It asks you to find the kernel of need that motivates the sprouting of all the variations we find so dizzying in our cultural experience. Consider food. Yes, we can enjoy haggis or hotcakes, sashimi or soul food. The buffet of things humans enjoy would fill quite a long table. But we all have the same general caloric needs, the same pyramid of nourishing proteins and carbohydrates. (We can allow for physical differences as matters of degree rather than of kind.) Arsenic, hay, or vodka will nourish none of us. Our human bodies are different sizes, different colors, different shapes, and these things affect our caloric intakes, sensitivity to the sun, ability to run a marathon, and so on. But their effects are variations on the common theme of our need for nourishing food that fills not just our stomachs but our species-specific need for the right kinds of food in the right amounts. To frustrate or super satisfy this need is not good. To fill it to the degree our bodies were designed for is good.

This simple truth is the foundation of virtue ethics, for as our supersized nation has discovered to its dismay, even the most obvious of needs is difficult to satisfy properly. To identify the needs that make up the final cause of persons is sometimes difficult. Seeing clearly what are truly needs and what are merely desires requires a clarity of judgment that is called intellectual virtue. But the real trick comes with developing the habits of mind that make choosing not only possible but easy. The person who has mastered that trick has moral virtue. We also call that character. A rather dated word, perhaps, but similar in meaning to integrity, indicating a unified outlook, a oneness of mind that sees the relationship of all things in their order of importance. Here is someone with a virtuous circle.

So what kinds of needs does intellectual virtue identify? The list is surprisingly short.

Bodily needs: health (and all the ways it is maintained)

Economic needs: moderate wealth (and the means by which it is attained)

Sharing Needs: love for family and friends, awe (expressed both in religion and art)

Intellectual Needs: knowledge, skill, judgment (the goods of intellectual virtue)

Character Needs: temperance, courage, prudence (the goods of moral virtue), skill

Political needs: justice (the goods of public morality)

The theory insists that this brief enumeration of goods contains all human needs, meaning these are everything persons from any culture in the world require for flourishing, everything all humans everywhere have always required. This constancy is one test of human needs in truth and a way of determining whether something individuals or cultures desire is actually a need. For determining true needs in the chaos of ordinary living is a requirement of virtue ethics and a means of not only developing character but also of avoiding all the ills that afflict the pursuit of happiness.

The theory places all of our desires in one of three categories.

We desire a thing we need. This is a good, obviously.
We desire a thing that is innocuous in that it is neither a need nor a choice that frustrates a need. This is neither good nor bad.
We desire a thing that frustrates a need, or we fail to desire a thing we need. This is an evil.
This being said, remember that our actions are not the end of virtue ethics. The goods and evils we accumulate are the means of developing the habits that make choosing easier with the ultimate goal of developing moral virtue. The character goods listed above are particularly important in that effort. Temperance is the habitual disposition to not desire those things that are evil, courage to desire those that are good even when achieving them is hard. Prudence is the habit of pursuing all of our desires concurrently in the manner best suited to their achievement. Justice regulates our behavior in regard to others (see “Justice Is Almost Everything“). And that brings up another way of looking at the system.

We may think of our choices as forming a kind of target. In the center are those options that affect only ourselves. The next ring might represent our choices in regard to family and friends, edging toward neighbors and coworkers that we might not include in an inner circle of intimacy. The outer ring might represent strangers, people we see at the market or pass on the street right on out to those far away whom we will never meet (see “The Moral Bullseye“). Now a moral system would be immorality itself if it could not properly apportion our ethical responsibility to everyone in all of those rings or if the duties owed to some conflicted with those due to others. Here virtue ethics demonstrates its strength. Notice again the brief category of needs listed above. The system spells out proper relationships with all the persons whose lives we touch and does so in an ingenious way that avoids the perils of excess egotism or altruism.

The problem I refer to here centers around issues of justice. Classically defined, justice means simply giving to each what is due. Virtue ethics defines quite clearly what we are due. Every human in order to flourish must satisfy all of her needs. That is a condition of being. We are in the bullseye. This does not imply that our needs are more important to us than to others. Of course, they are! But remember that this is a correspondentist system, not a coherentist one, which means that I could never justify to anyone else that my needs—needs by the way identical to anyone else’s—are for some reason more important. Reason indicates and equity demands that I regard my own needs as neither more nor less important than anyone else’s. This is why neither egotism nor excessive altruism are warranted in this system. My needs form the bullseye of my moral system not because of their importance but because only I can satisfy the majority of my needs. Indeed, satisfying them is my most important moral responsibility. But if you look at the listing of needs, you find others that I simply cannot complete on my own, for example, friendship and love, which require that I reach out to the next ring. My needs in these areas mirror yours, provided you are someone I care deeply about. We satisfy each other’s needs. Let us distinguish, though, between our need and the responsibility for its satisfaction. No one in justice is required to give friendship or love to another. This special relationship is a problem for all other correspondence moral systems (see “What Do We Mean by ‘Morality’?).

Both duty ethics and Utilitarianism treat those in our inner circle as the equals in importance to all others, and so entitled to the same degree of justice. But it doesn’t sound quite right to treat our family as strangers, does it? Does anyone do that or wish to?  And absolutist religious systems require that we treat all as we treat those in our inner circle, which is equally impossible. It is a weak love that embraces millions of strangers lying over the horizon. Yet the issue of equity in correspondence still applies, so if we don’t treat those we love with justice or those we don’t know with love, how can we call our moral system correspondentist and rational? Aristotle saw this one clearly. If all were friends, he said, there would be no need for justice (see “Foundations of the Law: An Appetizer“). We treat those in our inner circle with far more than justice requires, so though we give them more than their due because of our love for them (they do after all help us to meet our needs as we do theirs), we still meet the requirements of justice for those in the outer ring of our moral system . This kind of justice may be exemplified by obeying traffic laws. Other drivers we come in contact with are strangers. We give them their due. What are they due? Again, the list of needs informs us. We (and they) need to be given the freedom to go about our lives pursuing our needs. Our duty to strangers is largely passive. But don’t forget political and economic goods. Here we interact with strangers actively to fulfill our needs. We participate in equitable economic activities to produce the modicum of wealth we need to fulfill our needs (It should be obvious from experience that too much money can frustrate our needs nearly as easily as too little), and in doing so assist in creating an economic sphere of activity that actively benefits others in our society in the same way it benefits ourselves. In the same way we participate in civil society, choosing the political arrangements that exist to facilitate everyone’s fulfillment of their own political needs (for more on the relationship between virtue ethics and rights theory, see “Where Do Rights Originate?“). In these efforts to satisfy needs, our obligation to strangers is positive and active. We owe them justice. We owe them their due. Their due is the satisfaction of their needs, most of which they must seek on their own, but some of which require our active cooperation in community and polity (see “Natural and Political Rights”).

What I have presented here is only the briefest outline of virtue ethics. Many good analyses are available. The gist of it is the consistent satisfaction of universal, rationally comprehensible human needs as the final cause of being human. The goal of what turns out to be a lifelong quest of unnerving complexity is the development of virtue: identification of the good through intellectual virtue and its pursuit through moral virtue, together producing the person of habitually good character who flourishes.

For all of that, I see one of its most compelling arguments as this one: the catalogue of human needs is the catalogue of human rights. The profound implication of this aspect of virtue ethics expands it into a working theory of laws that arbitrate the competing demands of liberty (see “Our Freedom Fetish“) and equality (see “The Riddle of Equality“), surely a problem as vexing to political theory as the resolution of moral disagreement is to ethics. It is a tribute to virtue ethics that it resolves both issues by enlarging the scale of virtue from individual to state without slighting either. Natural Law Theory may be considered the political arm of virtue ethics, and it resolves thorny issues of justice in a polity just as virtue ethics resolves the moral duties of the individuals who compose it.

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