While consequentialism and deontological ethics play a major role in shaping the debate around normative ethics, there is a third much older perspective regarding ethics that is enjoying contemporary resurgence. Called virtue ethics, this perspective emphasizes the role of character and character traits as opposed to universal principles emerging from the systematic aspects present in either deontological or consequentialist ethics.
The importance of virtue ethics
Virtue-based ethics is as old as Western philosophy itself, perhaps even older if you include aspects of Chinese tradition. Until the invention of theories that were perceived to be more robust (like utilitarianism and Kant’s interpretation of ethics) virtue ethics was ethics. One of the things that makes virtue ethics unique is that, generally speaking, it does not universalize ethics. In other words, unlike consequentialism and deontological ethics, virtue ethics is not about creating general principles that inform how one should act or see the world in every specific instance. You can sort of see consequentialism and deontological systems as theories which emphasize the importance of certain types of rules based on abstract principles. On the other hand virtue ethics focuses more on individuals and the ideals they aspire towards realizing. If consequentialism and deontological ethics allow us to ask what we should do, then virtue ethics is all about asking what type of person we should become and which ideals we should strive for.
The resurgence of virtue ethics was a direct result of the dominance of the big two ethical theories of modernity, deontological and consequentialist ethics. Proponents of virtue ethics, like Elisabeth Anscombe, articulated that rigid, universal notions of ethics were odd in the absence of a “lawgiver.” Anscombe’s point illustrates the metaphysical hang-ups associated with certain types of ethical systems. Assuming there’s no G/god(s) and morality isn’t objective, coming up with an abstract framework that applies in every situation, like an objective theory of morality, might seem somewhat unintuitive.
Bernard Williams, another influential virtue ethics proponent, believed that abstract and systematic ethical theories, like the big two we talked about, make false assumptions about the nature of ethics. He suggested that ethics, like human life, isn’t neat and tidy and reducible in the way these two theories assume. In his attempt to broaden ethics, Williams made a distinction between ethics and “morality.” For Williams morality encompassed what the big two ethical theories were designed to discover – What exactly is it we are supposed to do? But the rest of ethics, he believed, encompassed a lot else and had implications for friends, family, and society at large.
Examples of virtue ethics
Because virtue ethics is not one systematic theory, there are dozens of approaches that fall within its umbrella. There are roughly three major flavors of virtue ethics:
Eudaimonia. Eudaimonia is a Greek word which translated literally means “Good Spirit.” The etymology or history of the word is important because in Greek tradition daimon was a culturally significant concept. Daimon is where we get the word “demon” but, unlike demon, daimon can potentially refer to something positive. In the writings of many Greek philosophers and writers, daimon often took on a positive connotation – usually a divine essence (sometimes a literal guardian, like an angel) that drove humans to a higher understanding. Eudimonia is the combination of “eu” or good and diamon, and typically refers to the greatest state a human life can obtain. Modern translations of the word typically refer to terms like “happiness,” “well-being,” and “human flourishing,” but some argue that these can obscure the original connotation of the word which seems to have a more objective nature. Eudaimonia can be thought of as the “best possible” choices and life a human can live. However the contents of eudaimonia are of great debate in both ancient and contemporary philosophy.
The history of eudaimonia is a long and detailed one, going back as far as Socrates who suggested that the concept was exemplified by a life of virtue, especially wisdom. This idea is illustrated by Socrates unwillingness to apologize to the Athenian state when he was put on trial. It’s also illustrated by Plato’s concept of the “examined life.” For Aristotle (who officially coined the term) eudaimonia involves both internal virtue and action in correspondence to those virtues. Other thinkers outside of the Greek tradition have contemplated the nature of eudaimonia. It appears that in other cultures outside of the Western tradition, virtue ethics is not only more common but may have concepts similar to eudiamonia as well.
Agent-based virtue ethics. Agent-based virtue ethics refer to conceptions of virtue ethics that rely on internal justifications within actors, to distinguish between good and bad. That is to say, someone’s intentions are seen as the primary means of deciding upon what is good and what is bad as regardless of the resulting outcome or any duties they were fufilling. For example, if you donate to charity with the sole intention of making yourself look good, from an agent-based perspective it could be argued that you have not engaged in a good action because your intention was not to be a good person.
The ethics of care. Although typically associated with feminist ethics, the ideas contained within the concept of “the ethics of care” go back to older, non-Western philosophies like Confucianism, albeit with some critical differences across cultures and eras. Ethics that fall under this category tend to prioritize actions with relation to the relationships actors share amongst one another. This is why care ethics is sometimes referred to as “relational ethics.” The ethics of care often begins by defining its scope of evaluation, like ethics on the family level which can be used as a starting point for evaluating broader issues.
These three concepts aren’t meant to be all encompassing, as virtue ethics can invoke other concepts. However these are some of the most popular concepts being discussed in contemporary virtue ethics.