Virtue Ethics

… a core concept in Ethics, Rights, and Accountability and Atlas111M

Concept description

In the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Rosalind Hursthouse and Glen Pettigrove (2018, reference below) describe virtue ethics as “currently one of three major approaches in normative ethics … the one that emphasizes the virtues, or moral character, in contrast to the approach that emphasizes duties or rules (deontology) or that emphasizes the consequences of actions (consequentialism).”

See also: Normative Ethics; Deontological Ethics; and Consequentialism.

Hursthouse and Pettigrove write:

“Suppose it is obvious that someone in need should be helped. A utilitarian will point to the fact that the consequences of doing so will maximize well-being, a deontologist to the fact that, in doing so the agent will be acting in accordance with a moral rule such as “Do unto others as you would be done by” and a virtue ethicist to the fact that helping the person would be charitable or benevolent.

“This is not to say that only virtue ethicists attend to virtues, any more than it is to say that only consequentialists attend to consequences or only deontologists to rules. Each of the above-mentioned approaches can make room for virtues, consequences, and rules. Indeed, any plausible normative ethical theory will have something to say about all three. … Whereas consequentialists will define virtues as traits that yield good consequences and deontologists will define them as traits possessed by those who reliably fulfil their duties, virtue ethicists will resist the attempt to define virtues in terms of some other concept that is taken to be more fundamental. Rather, virtues and vices will be foundational for virtue ethical theories and other normative notions will be grounded in them.”

Hursthouse and Pettigrove describe two foundations of virtue ethics: virtue and practical wisdom:

Virtue

“A virtue is an excellent trait of character. It is a disposition, well entrenched in its possessor – something that, as we say, goes all the way down, unlike a habit such as being a tea-drinker – to notice, expect, value, feel, desire, choose, act, and react in certain characteristic ways. To possess a virtue is to be a certain sort of person with a certain complex mindset. A significant aspect of this mindset is the wholehearted acceptance of a distinctive range of considerations as reasons for action. An honest person cannot be identified simply as one who, for example, practices honest dealing and does not cheat. If such actions are done merely because the agent thinks that honesty is the best policy, or because they fear being caught out, rather than through recognising “To do otherwise would be dishonest” as the relevant reason, they are not the actions of an honest person. An honest person cannot be identified simply as one who, for example, tells the truth because it is the truth, for one can have the virtue of honesty without being tactless or indiscreet. The honest person recognises “That would be a lie” as a strong (though perhaps not overriding) reason for not making certain statements in certain circumstances, and gives due, but not overriding, weight to “That would be the truth” as a reason for making them. …

“Possessing a virtue is a matter of degree. … Most people who can truly be described as fairly virtuous, and certainly markedly better than those who can truly be described as dishonest, self-centred and greedy, still have their blind spots – little areas where they do not act for the reasons one would expect. So someone honest or kind in most situations, and notably so in demanding ones, may nevertheless be trivially tainted by snobbery, inclined to be disingenuous about their forebears and less than kind to strangers with the wrong accent.

“Further, it is not easy to get one’s emotions in harmony with one’s rational recognition of certain reasons for action. I may be honest enough to recognise that I must own up to a mistake because it would be dishonest not to do so without my acceptance being so wholehearted that I can own up easily, with no inner conflict. Following (and adapting) Aristotle, virtue ethicists draw a distinction between full or perfect virtue and “continence”, or strength of will. The fully virtuous do what they should without a struggle against contrary desires; the continent have to control a desire or temptation to do otherwise.”

Practical Wisdom

“Another way in which one can easily fall short of full virtue is through lacking phronesis – moral or practical wisdom. … Quite generally, given that good intentions are intentions to act well or “do the right thing”, we may say that practical wisdom is the knowledge or understanding that enables its possessor, unlike the nice adolescents, to do just that, in any given situation. The detailed specification of what is involved in such knowledge or understanding has not yet appeared in the literature, but some aspects of it are becoming well known. Even many deontologists now stress the point that their action-guiding rules cannot, reliably, be applied without practical wisdom, because correct application requires situational appreciation – the capacity to recognise, in any particular situation, those features of it that are morally salient. This brings out two aspects of practical wisdom.

“One is that it characteristically comes only with experience of life. Amongst the morally relevant features of a situation may be the likely consequences, for the people involved, of a certain action, and this is something that adolescents are notoriously clueless about precisely because they are inexperienced. It is part of practical wisdom to be wise about human beings and human life. (It should go without saying that the virtuous are mindful of the consequences of possible actions. How could they fail to be reckless, thoughtless and short-sighted if they were not?)

“The second is the practically wise agent’s capacity to recognise some features of a situation as more important than others, or indeed, in that situation, as the only relevant ones. The wise do not see things in the same way as the nice adolescents who, with their under-developed virtues, still tend to see the personally disadvantageous nature of a certain action as competing in importance with its honesty or benevolence or justice.

“These aspects coalesce in the description of the practically wise as those who understand what is truly worthwhile, truly important, and thereby truly advantageous in life, who know, in short, how to live well.”

Atlas topic, subject, and course

The Study of Ethics in Public Policy and Management (core topic) in Ethics, Rights, and Accountability and Atlas111M Ethics.

Source

Rosalind Hursthouse and Glen Pettigrove (2018), Virtue Ethics, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), at https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2018/entries/ethics-virtue/, accessed 12 March 2019.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified on 12 March 2019.

Image: Aneesah Bakker, Using Your Practical Wisdom, at https://rulesthatsetyoufree.wordpress.com/2012/05/21/using-your-practical-wisdom/, accessed 12 March 2019.