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Virtue ethics is a theory that evaluates moral actions based on what a virtuous person should do, disregarding the consequences of the actions or the duty to carry them out.
Good and right moral acts, according to the moral theory virtue ethics, do not depend on the consequences of your action nor on doing your duty, but instead arise from being a virtuous person. Virtue ethics (also called virtue theory or value theory) prompts the question of how should a moral person act. It replies that a moral act is right if founded on a morally virtuous character and wrong if it stems from a corrupt, depraved or vicious character.
Virtue ethics is an ethical theory about the kind of person you are and as such it differs from the two other basic ethical theories, that of consequentialism (acting for the best outcome) and deontology (doing what duty says you should do). Whereas both these two other theories ask what is the right thing to do, virtue ethics instead brings personality into consideration.
Virtue ethics says you cannot isolate the making of ethical decisions from your personality. Your good actions are the result of good character and possessing admirable personal qualities makes you a virtuous person. Virtue ethics assumes that moral education is important and that childhood is a critical time for developing virtuous character. A person of good character is someone who has good admirable personal qualities, such as empathy, compassion, kindness, loyalty, honesty, prudence, wisdom and courage. Virtue ethics says you should always improve your character to make moral judgements through wisdom and you should always act appropriately morally with the right intention.
A virtuous person is said to hold these moral values:
- Beneficence: doing moral good to others.
- Autonomy: maximising the moral rights of others to make their own decisions.
- Equality: viewing all others as moral equals.
- Finality: taking moral action that overrides the demands of law, religion or social customs.
- Justice: treating all others morally fairly.
- Non-maleficence: causing no harm.
- Respect: consideration for the moral rights of others.
- Tolerance: understanding and accepting the viewpoints of others.
- Universality: basing your moral actions on decisions that hold for everyone, everywhere, for all time.
As a virtue ethicist you might, for instance, approve or reprove individuals or companies. You might only support the ones that do not harm animals and nature. Are these individuals or companies advancing or opposing virtue? Are they progressive, admirable and responsible entities? Or are they insensitive, negligent or dishonest? Do they support virtuous or immoral values? Again, as a virtuous person, you could abstain from eating animals and from wearing fur and could keep a low environmental impact lifestyle.
Virtue ethics flourished in Ancient Greece and Aristotle (BC 384 - 322) is often cited as its main philosophical representative. He said the opposite of a virtue is a vice, and that a virtue lies between two vices, that is between two extremes; courage is better than fearlessness and cowardice. Aristotle argued that a virtue is the mean or middle path between two vices. Virtue ethics expired in the fourth century AD when moral theories purporting to be given by God supplanted it. However, the 20th century brought it back to life and modernised it. Modern virtue ethics does not emphasize specific moral traits but says you should be virtuous in all aspects of your life and be a good person all the time.
An advantage of virtue ethics over consequentialism and deontology is that it brings in all the qualities of being human - like reason, responsibility and emotion - to influence ethical consideration. You can apply virtue ethics in situations where you ask what sort of person you should be.
Some criticisms of virtue ethics are these. What is a good virtue? Some Ancient Greeks said virtues exist in their own right independently of man and are indisputable. Many people today hold that a virtue depends on people's attitudes and since attitudes vary from person to person and from society to society, so virtues must also vary. Thus there is no indisputable list of virtues and a virtue to one person or culture may be a bane to another. Virtue ethics is therefore relative. It is not a consistent guide on how to act.
Another criticism is that admirable personal qualities or traits do not in themselves tell us how to deal with moral problems. As a virtuous person you would not innately know the right thing to do. You would then have to turn to some other moral theory for guidance, like consequentialism or deontology. Therefore you might claim that virtue ethics is not a basic ethical theory and is redundant.
A final criticism is that even the most virtuous people make wrong moral decisions. So virtue ethics is not infallible.
Also see the entry Ethical Theories, and compare Virtue Ethics with the entries Consequentialism and Deontology.
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