Charts by Dr. Peter Vardy,
Vice-Principal, Heythrop College
University of London
Virtue theory is not so much interested in the
question ‘What should I do?’ but rather in the
question ‘What sort of person should I become?’.
This has more to do with character and the
nature of what it is to be human than with the
rights and wrongs of specific actions. The saints
or heros that stand out as examples of exemplary
behaviour are rarely if ever motivated by one or
other ethical theory - instead their behaviour
stems from the consistency of the sort of person
they are.
Virtue Theory needs to seek to determine
whether there are any key virtues that underpin
the life of an admirable human being. There are
many different virtues and they may all be good moral choices may depend on how one ranks
different virtues and which ones outweigh others.
The Aim of Virtue Ethics
Virtue Ethics is about developing a vision
for life which is grounded in what it is to
be human.
Aquinas said that all human actions are
moral actions - in all the things human
beings do character and dispositions to act
are being formed.
Virtue Ethics rests on developing a
consistency of behaviour in accordance
with certain general ethical principles.
St. Thomas Aquinas says that we should
examine all our actions, even those that
are insignificant, and ask ourselves ‘Are
these ways of acting making us more just,
prudent, temperate and brave?’
Aristotle considered that virtue
was a habit, or at least it become
a habit if practised regularly.
Just as an athlete has to train
and practice, so the person who would be
virtuous has to train him or herself in
virtuous behaviour.
Normal discussion of ethics concentrates
on the ‘exciting issues’ such as euthanasia
or just war or abortion, virtue ethics
concentrates more on the day to day
activities of life and the sort of characters
which human beings develop.
A contrast can be drawn
The Ethics of Dilemmas - which uses
ethical discussion to decide on how
moral problems are to be resolved - for
instance abortion, euthanasia,
genetics, etc. – these are typically
represented by ‘hypotheticals’
Virtue Ethics - which seeks to
determine the sort of person one
should become and resists discussion
of dilemmas, emphasising instead
consistency of character
Alastair MacIntyre
MacIntyre in ‘After Virtue’ rejects the idea that modern
society has inherited any single tradition from the past. We
have accumulated a disconnected mixture of different
views. For instance we may be:
- Platonists in admiring perfection,
- Aristotelians in praising virtue,
- Utilitarians in trying to apportion medical
resources equally so as to maximise the good
that is done,
- Christians in praising compassion and charity,
- Followers of Locke in maintaining the right to
personal property and
- Kantians in insisting on the importance of
individual freedom and autonomy.
Given this background it is not surprising that individuals
have no clear moral sense since we are inheritors of a web
of different ideas and there is no single view that will
support all the ideas that we have.
MacIntyre’s diagnosis
MacIntyre seems to be right in his
diagnosis of the moral mess we
gfind ourselves in. This mess is
made worse by post-modernism and
the denial of truth.
However it is much more
problematic whether getting back to
‘the virtues’ provides a way forward.
As we shall see, it is not easy to see
what ‘virtuous behaviour’
amountsto in practice.
Parents as ‘Virtue Ethicists’
James Keenan likens parents to Virtue ethicists:
‘I have always thought that parents think this
way. Parents are not primarily concerned with
what action Johnny is doing. Rather, hey want
to understand how Johnny is growing. Certainly
there are times when, with young children,
parents talk like deontologists: ‘Don’t ever talk
to strangers’; ‘Don’t ever talk back to another
person’; ‘Don’t ever cross the street unless the
traffic light says so’. But behind all their
judgements is a more basic concern about how
Johnny is turning out..... Generally parents
judgements about their children focus on what
type of people their children are becoming and
whether they can help their child become more
fully integrated.’
‘Virtue Ethics’ in ‘Christian Ethics’ ed. B. Hoose
The Virtues
Aristotle put forward key cardinal virtues:
Courage, Temperance, Wisdom and Justice
and these were also accepted by Plato, Cicero and
St. Augustine.
To these St. Thomas Aquinas, writing in the C13th
century, added the theological virtues of:
Faith, Hope and Charity.
Aquinas was a theologian but he nevertheless believed
that one could work out what it was to be virtuous or
moral by looking at what it was to be human - to live
fully in accordance with human nature. MacIntyre
effectively maintains that we must move back
from the idea of formulating moral rules (in the
way that Natural Law, Kantian Ethics, Utilitarianism,
Emotivism, Intuitionism, etc. chooses to do) in order to
decide how to cultivate the virtues.
Can a rapist be courageous??
MacIntyre, like Anscombe, thought that Kant led
the study of morality astray by concentrating o
duty as an abstract concept. They thought that
ethics based on moral principles and duties could
be eliminated altogether by concentrating solely
on the virtues.
Greg Pence argues that this is not possible and he
does so by concentrating on discussion of one of
the virtues - namely courage.
Socrates rejects the idea that any brave act is
courageous. Courage, argues Socrates, cannot
serve evil ends. Courage is not the same as being
foolhardy or daring as courage is directly related
to fostering some ethical ideal.
According to Socrates, a rapist or bank robber
cannot be courageous…..
Temperance is the Aristotelian mean - it
calls people to live by the middle way,
avoiding extremes. A small amount of
wine may be beneficial, none may impair
one’s pleasure and too much may lead one
out of control.
Some sport may be a good thing, but none
will mean your body is out of condition
and if life is all sport then the balance is
lost. Life is multi-dimensional and to live
life to the full means keeping a proper
balance between many different aspects.
VIRTUE ETHICS involves living by the
Aristotelian mean – nothing to excess..
People at the centre
Virtue ethics is concerned with persons and it can
be argued, it is therefore incapable of providing
guidance with specific ethical problems. There
are various possible replies to this:
1.Traditional ethics may not actually help to
change behaviour so that people act more
2. In medical ethics, and particularly in nursing,
Virtue Ethics has succeeded in bringing about
changes in relationships which have not be
achieved in other ways and has also changed
some practices which other ethical theories do
not address.
3. Virtue Ethics maintains the view that there is
no single way to be good - human beings are
diverse and St. Teresa of Lisieuz and Martin
Luther King are radically different. As Owen
Flanagan puts it: “persons find their good in
many different ways”
Many of the great moral heros and
different from the societies in
which they lived but, in spite of
their differences, we can still
recognise about them qualities of
compassion, concern for others,
passion and integrity by which
they lived their lives.
James Keenan suggests that each individual is
relational in three ways: generally to all
humanity, specifically to certain individuals and
uniquely to ourselves and “that each of these
relationships demands a cardinal virtue.
1. As a relational being in general we are called
to justice and to treat all people fairly,
2. As a relational being specifically we are called
relationships that we enjoy, and
3. As a relational being uniquely, we are called
to that self-care that no one else can provide.
Keenan maintains that the fourth cardinal virtue
is temperance (or prudence as he terms it)
which balances the three interests and the other
cardinal virtues.
A CHRISTIAN would add relationship to
God to this list.
There are two sides to the Natural Law
approach to ethics:
DO – e.g. lying, stealing, adultery, etc..
This has tended to be the side emphasised
by Christians,
TO BECOME FULLY HUMAN – this is Virtue
Ethics and is to do with character
Both, however, have the same purpose –
to concentrate attention on human beings
becoming ’fully human’.
Natural Law tends to see the
virtuous life in terms of refraining
from doing evil acts which diminish
our humanity. It therefore
concentrates on what one should
NOT do.
Virtue Ethics is more positive,
concentrating on developing a
virtuous character. This means
DOING acts which are virtuous.
Aristotle held that the virtuous life
demands practice and training.
1. Whether there IS a single human nature
from which we can fall short or to which
we should aspire, and
2. Defining what this nature is.
Both these are problematic – genetics
seems to indicate that there IS no single
human nature and, even if there is held
to be, there is no agreement as to what
it is.
However it may not be as simple as this!
1. Is there a single human nature?
2. Does this human nature evolve or
3. Does our understanding of what this
nature is evolve or change?
These answers given to these questions
will determine the future of Christian
For instance, the claim that homosexual
activity is.’a perversion’ or that a
homosexual inclination is ‘a defect’ are
based on the claim that there is a single
human nature which should be
If there is a single human nature, then anyone
who falls short of this nature is to that extent
defective – they are SUFFERING AN EVIL.
Downs Syndrome, blindness,loss of an eye, etc.
are all DEFECTS.
This can lead to the language of ‘correction of
defects’. If a homosexual inclination is a defect,
then this can lead to the suggestion that this
defect should be ‘rectified’ at the embryo stage.
Human nature could, then, be changed to what
it ‘ought to be’. The problem, of course, is who
(The ethics of genetic engineering is dealt with in ‘Being Human’ DLT 2003 by Peter Vardy)