Imagine that your boss is treating you unfairly. Your workload has been increased, your hours changed, your workplace moved to a small corner, and your requests for time-off are constantly denied. Enough is enough, and you complain to senior management. You hear that the top bosses will assign one of the directors to review your situation. You know all the directors, and the reviewer will be either Benevolent Bert or Careless Colin. Bert has an impeccable reputation: well-informed, thoughtful, honest, wise, and fair. Colin couldn’t be more different: dishonest, reckless, unwise, uncaring, and self-centred. So, Benevolent Bert or Careless Colin? Who do you hope will review your situation? The answer is obvious. You want Benevolent Bert.
The logic behind that choice is that a good, fair, thoughtful person will make good, fair, thoughtful decisions. And that’s exactly the logic that underpins what philosophy calls virtue ethics. The idea aligns with an analogy of Jesus: ‘every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit’ (Matthew 7:17). Whether a tree or a person, whatever is at the core is what emerges as ‘fruit’ from its life.
Virtue ethics is not at all new. More than 300 years before Jesus, Greek philosophers like Plato and his pupil Aristotle wrote about virtue. Aristotle said no-one was born either good or bad by nature. Virtue is not an accident of birth. Rather, according to Aristotle, virtues are choices. You use reason to know what’s right and to decide to do right, and the more you make that choice the more virtuous you become. Your inner nature – your disposition – becomes good, and in turn what you do is good.
Now, a tendency or a bias towards what’s good isn’t a guarantee of doing right every time. Joe exercises great control over his diet, unless, that is, someone brings cream doughnuts into the office, and that’s more than Joe’s discipline can resist. The Greeks had a word for that moment: akrasia. It means weak-willed – knowing what’s right but not doing it. Of course we can go wrong in several ways, such as making poor decisions because we’re too tired, or making a bad judgment because we hadn’t gathered all the facts of a situation.
But occasional carelessness or weakness of will doesn’t change the fundamental point: virtuous people tend to act virtuously. Someone whose character is good, kind, generous, thoughtful, will make decisions that fit with their character. Likewise, the person who is selfish, mean, careless, rash will make bad decisions.
So, that’s the moral theory called virtue ethics. It comes with several implications, including these three:
Virtuous actions are thoughtful, careful choices. Good people are not simply wired to be good, or have a habit of being good. They choose to be good. But surely a habit of doing good would help? Mostly it wouldn’t, because habits are thoughtless – actions which are really reactions. Suppose Colin began investigating your work situation and made up his mind after speaking only to your manager, completely convinced by his side of the story. Nothing you said later could change his opinion. You would feel badly wronged. He hadn’t investigated the whole situation, and heard both cases. He just reacted to what he was told first, and that meant an injustice was done. Finding the virtuous answer requires care. Swift reactions are usually inappropriate.
Virtue must be deeply embedded in someone’s character. That’s what makes it a consistent character trait, something deep in a person’s soul. As a child our family often vacationed at a seaside resort. As often as possible I got my parents to buy me a stick of rock. For the uninitiated, I’m not referring to a lump of stone but what is described as ‘a type of hard stick-shaped boiled sugar confectionery most usually flavoured with peppermint or spearmint’. Nothing could be worse for dental health, but I enjoyed licking or biting my rock stick until it got smaller and smaller. But what never changed? Answer: the writing in the stick that had the name of the resort. The writing on one end of the stick was the same at the other end, because it ran right through its whole length. Virtue should be like that: reliable, consistent, invariable. It can’t be there only one day and not the next, or there when the situation is easy and gone when it’s tough.
Many years ago, when the Glasgow area called the Gorbals had the worst of tenement slums, I visited a young Christian worker who lived in the most troubled-area of the Gorbals. Not only were these tenements in dangerously poor condition, gangs and drugs dominated the streets. That young man’s small flat was over-run with local kids, who ate his food, watched his TV, lounged on his sofa, and sometimes stole his property. No matter how tough his life was, that Christian didn’t leave. He kept right on befriending youth, helping them and forgiving them. And because his commitment never varied, they listened to him, and some lives were changed. Real virtue is a through-and-through trait. There’s nothing superficial or temporary about it.
Real virtue is costly. That’s clear from the last example, but it’s not an isolated case. Think how tough it is to stand up for a bullied fellow-student or colleague. Or how hard it is to give generously to alleviate poverty. Or how worrying to take a phone call at 3 am from someone threatening to commit suicide. Or how difficult to tell the truth when that will hurt a friend or damage your own reputation. But virtue doesn’t take the easy road. It doesn’t shy away from hard situations or challenging decisions. Virtue faces hardship head on and doesn’t blink. It keeps on doing what’s right, whatever the cost.
So, does virtue ethics – as a moral theory – have the answer to every dilemma? Can we abandon the theories mentioned in earlier blogs like deontology (strict observance of rules) or consequentialism (defining rightness by whether outcomes are good or bad)?
Unfortunately I don’t think we can. Just as those other moral theories had weaknesses, so does virtue ethics. I’ll list three.
Understandings of virtues differ across cultures Today we regard slavery as a terrible evil. But both Plato and Aristotle (mentioned earlier) had slaves. Aristotle had no problem saying slaves were essential to a household’s economy. Was Aristotle simply being a man of his time? Yes, he was. But that means people then had different virtues from people now. And people in the future may have different virtues to ours. Even people who live at the same time but in different places have different lists of virtues. If there’s no lasting universal understanding of virtue, that must leave a theory like virtue ethics resting on a changeable foundation. And, at any particular moment, applicable only within its own culture.
Virtue responses can vary from person to person A deontologist will tell you what the rule is that addresses the rightness of an action. No negotiation – the right thing is predetermined. A consequentialist will calculate whether the action, on balance, gives a good result – if so, it’s right and if not, it’s wrong. These theories give precise answers about right and wrong. Virtue ethics doesn’t. Sometimes all it offers is ‘do whatever is best in the circumstances’.
But what one virtuous person thinks best may be different from what another thinks best. In previous blogs I illustrated what dirty hands means by using an imagined scenario by Michael Walzer: a terrorist has planted bombs with timers; he is arrested but won’t reveal where the bombs are planted; a politician must decide whether torture can be authorised to make the terrorist talk; torture is evil and illegal, but not torturing the terrorist may mean hundreds die. So, what is the right thing to do? That’s the challenging scenario. Now let’s adapt it by imagining the decision will be made either by Politician Maureen or Politician Nancy. Both are highly virtuous people, but they’re virtuous in different ways. Maureen is strong in care towards the needy: giving generously; visiting homeless shelters; talking with people sleeping in shop doorways. Nancy has past experience of dealing with major emergencies: she has the ability to assess priorities; courage to take hard decisions; awareness of the needs of first responders; boldness in demanding government resources. If I had to choose the right person for the ‘torture or no torture of the terrorist’, I would prefer Nancy, because she has experience of extreme situations. But I can believe others would choose Maureen because her sensitivity might win over the terrorist. And they might be right about that. But my point is this: there’s a problem when the decision made depends on the strength of the particular virtues someone has. A sensitive Maureen will choose a different action from a decisive Nancy. The dominant virtues in one are soft and caring, and the dominant virtues in the other are boldness and certainty, and their particular character traits may be yielding opposite solutions when faced with exactly the same circumstances. How can that be right or good? Are we simply to hope that the politician who shows up is strong in exactly the virtues necessary for a particular situation?
Virtue ethics doesn’t specify right actions This follows on from my previous point. Many criticise virtue ethics because the theory may point you in a good direction but it never tells you exactly what to do. To be fair, you can’t be deemed a failure for not doing what you never claimed you could do. And this theory only claims that a virtuous person will act virtuously, but, because circumstances vary, it doesn’t spell out what exactly that would mean. But is that a flaw?
I don’t think it is for two reasons.
First, we must be reasonable. No-one is unfailingly right, and therefore the virtues of even the best person will not be unfailingly correct. Nor, of course, will rule-followers always apply their rules perfectly, or consequentialists identify the right outcome perfectly. There are problems defining exactly what is right with those systems too, so why blame virtue ethics when it can’t specify what’s provably right?
Second, all moral theories need a healthy dose of humility. If a parent thinks their child isn’t applying himself to his schoolwork, does he punish or encourage? Or a neighbour is struggling with debt, so do you give them money or let them learn their lesson the hard way? Many times we just don’t know what is right, and even afterwards we may not be certain. In the end, we do what we think best. And that’s exactly what virtue ethics does too – what’s reasonable, what seems helpful, what looks correct. After all, the outcome from someone truly trying to do the virtuous thing can’t be too bad.
Personally, in whatever the situation (the dirty hands kind or any other moral dilemma), I would want virtuous people to be the leaders and deciders. Could virtue be the sole-guide? I don’t think so. Virtue ethics should be influential, but I think rules are also an important guide, and consequences always have to be considered.
If you’ve found this blog on virtue ethics confusing, I apologise. My mind goes back to my early journalism years when I would call a professor or top scientist for details of their new breakthrough. They’d talk without pause for five minutes, and I understood nothing at all they said. When they drew breath, I’d ask them to put it more simply. Another three minutes of rapid talk would follow. I still had no idea what they were on about. I might try one more time, still get nowhere, thank them for their time and write for the paper the two sentences I’d actually grasped from their explanations. People who have been absorbed in a subject are rarely able to explain it clearly and concisely to others. I am sorry if I am one of those.
I’ll do better next time… I hope.
 Plato lived from around 428 to 348 BC, and Aristotle from 384 to 322 BC.