Virtue theory refers to theoretical accounts of the concept of virtue and its role in ethics. It addresses such questions as: What is virtue? How is virtue acquired? What is the moral status of virtuous acts? What is a virtuous character? Although related, virtue theory is not the same as virtue ethics. Virtue ethics is the prescriptive stance that gives precedence to the importance of character and the virtues in moral life, often questioning how humans should act and live. Not all virtue theorists are proponents of virtue ethics, and interest in virtue and character are not the exclusive concern of the advocates of virtue ethics.
Most modern discussions of virtue begin with the ancient Greeks, to whom virtue occupied a central place in moral life. The philosopher Aristotle, in particular, reflected at length on the nature of virtue and the importance of moral character, which he regarded as essential conditions of a good human life. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle links the good life to a state he called eudaimonia—usually, if inadequately, translated as happiness. This is a broad conception of human well-being that requires the full development of one’s natural capacities. Eudaimonia’s proper development depends on the cultivation of excellences of character and intellect, primarily by means of moral education and good habituation that dispose individuals toward virtuous feelings and conduct.
Although virtue ethics served as the dominant form of morality in the West among ancient and medieval philosophers, it was eclipsed in the modern age by conceptions of morality that focus on abstract rules and universal principles applicable in all situations, rather than on the cultivation of moral character and the virtues. The two most important forms of these modern moral theories are consequentialism (particularly utilitarianism), which judges the moral worth of actions based on their effects, and deontology (especially as found in the works of Immanuel Kant), which judges the morality of actions based on their intentions, regardless of their effects. However, virtue theory has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity and interest in the West since the late 1950s, in part as a reaction against these dominant theories of morality. G. E. M. Anscombe’s seminal 1958 essay “Modern Moral Philosophy” is usually credited as the starting point of this renewed interest in virtue theory, primarily because virtue theory emphasizes the role of the moral emotions in ethical life—something both deontology and consequentialism have marginalized. Virtue ethics has also challenged the rule-based approach to ethics typical of its modern rivals, favoring instead the cultivation of good practical judgment to guide agents through complex ethical dilemmas that are not always amendable to the application of abstract moral principles in concrete cases.
This revival of virtue theory has not only stimulated interest in virtue ethics, but has also prompted greater attention to the role of virtue and character within the dominant forms of moral philosophy that have traditionally ignored or marginalized it. For example, Kant’s later work, particularly the neglected “Doctrine of Virtue” section of his Metaphysics of Morals (1797), has recently attracted a great deal of awareness from scholars interested in revising the common perception of Kant as a typical deontologist indifferent to questions of character and virtue. In fact, Kant considered the cultivation of virtue to be an important means of strengthening the individual capacity to perform one’s duties. The same interest in the role of the virtues can be found among some contemporary consequentialists, such as Julia Driver, whose outlook is in striking contrast to that of Jeremy Bentham.
In the early twenty-first century, doubts are being raised about the robust conception of character that is usually assumed by virtue theory. Some studies by social psychologists strongly suggest that moral character is not very stable, consistent, or fixed but is actually extremely variable in different situations and highly sensitive to context. If true, then the goal of cultivating strong moral character may be psychologically unrealistic. Also, modern thought tends to be very skeptical about objective theories of the human good, particularly when they are rooted in an essential conception of human nature, as they were for Aristotle. For this reason, modern proponents of virtue theory tend to abandon a single view of the human good in favor of a plurality of conceptions.
- Anscombe, G. E. M. “Modern Moral Philosophy.” Philosophy 33, no. 124 (1958): 1–19.
- Nicomachean Ethics. Translated by Terence Irwin. Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett, 1985.
- Baron, M.W. Kantian Ethics Almost Without Apology. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995.
- Crisp, Roger, and Michael Slote, eds. Virtue Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.
- Dent, N. J. H. The Moral Psychology of the Virtues. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.
- Doris, John. Lack of Character: Personality and Moral Behavior. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
- Driver, Julia. Uneasy Virtue. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
- Foot, Philippa. Natural Goodness. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001.
- Hurka,Thomas. Virtue,Vice, and Value. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
- Hursthouse, Rosalind. On Virtue Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press,
- Kant, Immanuel. The Metaphysics of Morals. Translated by Mary J. Gregor. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
- MacIntyre, Alasdair. After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 2nd ed. London: Duckworth, 1985.
- Nussbaum, Martha. Frontiers of Justice. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2006.
- O’Neill, Onora. “Kant’s Virtues.” In How Should One Live?, edited by Roger Crisp and Michael Slote. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.
- Williams, Bernard. Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985.
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