Virtue Ethics


Aristotle’s character based virtue ethics

Eudaimonia is best translated as flourishing, living well or living a good life. If you ask someone, for example, why they study for A levels, their response will be to get good grades. If you then ask them why they want good grades, they might say to get into a good university, and so on, however if you keep asking, eventually they will have to say ‘because I think it will enable me to flourish – to live a good life.’ Whatever humans choose to do, the reason will ultimately trace back to that they think it will help them live a good life. Aristotle claimed this shows that living a good life is the goal (telos) of all human action. Flourishing is the only thing valued for its own sake. Everything else we value only as a means to that end.

The function argument and virtues

Living a good life is the goal of human action, but what does it actually involve? What counts as living well verses not living well? The function argument answers that question.

Aristotle notes that we call something good when it performs its function well. A things’ function is its distinctive characteristic, what it is uniquely good for. You could use an axe to play the piano, but it is uniquely good for chopping. An axe is good when it chops well. The unique characteristic of human beings is our ability to reason. So, we are living well, living a good life – flourishing – when we are reasoning well; when we are guided by reason, when we have good reasons for our actions.

Virtues are whatever enable a thing to perform its function well. The function of an axe is to chop, so its virtues would be things like sharpness and solidity. Our function is to reason well. The virtues for human beings which enable us to reason will be character traits, dispositions and habits.

E.g., the virtue of temperance is having the right attitude towards pleasure. A deficiency of temperance would be greed/addiction. If we are greedy and addicted, then we won’t be able to use our reason as well as we could. Cultivating all the virtues are essential to performing our function and attain eudaimonia.

The doctrine of the Golden Mean

Virtues are habits that enable a person to perform their function of reasoning well and thereby attain eudaimonia. The doctrine of the mean is that virtues exist on a spectrum between the vice of excess and the vice of deficiency. Courage would be the ‘golden mean’ between the excess of recklessness and the deficiency of cowardliness. A virtue is the habit of choosing the mean between the extremes. A virtuous person is one who has cultivated all the virtues and fully developed the habit of choosing the golden mean.

So, virtues are dispositions and habits. A disposition is a tendency to behave in a certain way under certain conditions. Having a virtue of courage means we are disposed to behave courageously and be in the habit of doing what a courageous person would do.

Aristotle thinks we are not born virtuous. We have to learn to be virtuous through experience and education. Humans are creatures of habit. We tend to do what we habitually do. The habits we cultivate during childhood are especially important as they are hard to break. So, education in cultivating virtuous habits, such as by following the example of virtuous people, is crucial for the development of a moral character. However, this process extends beyond childhood. It is life-long. The cultivation of virtues involves cultivating the moral character which is in the habit of choosing the mean between the extremes.

Sphere of action or feeling


Golden Mean


Fear and confidence




Pleasure and pain








Social conduct



Being too friendly



Righteous indignation


Practical Wisdom (phronesis) 

Practical wisdom is a virtue. It has the role of mediating between our virtues and our actions. It involves general knowledge about the world and the consequences of actions. When faced with a moral situation, we need to understand the practical reality of the situation we are in, if we are going to know what a virtuous person would do in it. E.g. if you see someone getting stabbed, you might think you should call the police or intervene if you can – however if you then learn that the person being attacked is Hitler then that would change the view of what a virtuous person would do.

Virtue ethics & the clarity of guidance moral systems can provide

A strength of virtue ethics is that it acknowledges the uniqueness of different ethical situations and thereby is capable of taking the situation into account.

One of Aristotle’s arguments for virtue ethics is that we have to accept the imprecision of ethics. It’s not possible for a set of general rules to actually be calibrated to particular ethical situations. Life is too complicated and situations too diverse and nuanced for that. A virtuous person will have the practical wisdom to figure out the right action for the situation. This gives virtue ethics flexibility and an ability to progress which ensures perpetual relevance in enabling whatever promotes human flourishing whatever the society or age.

Weakness: Virtue ethics fails to give clear guidance. The seeming strength of Virtue ethics actually is a weakness. It’s possible to take the situation into account while also providing more guidance than Aristotle manages to. Consequentialist theories like Situation ethics and Utilitarianism are also flexible and capable of taking the situation into account, but still also provide clear guidance. Our moral obligation is still calculatable under Utilitarianism. So, it’s possible to have an absolutist approach while also taking the situation into account, if the moral absolute is a principle rather than set rules. E.g. the principle of utility, or Fletcher’s principle of agape.

Furthermore, consider ethical dilemmas like whether the USA should have dropped the nuclear bomb on Japan in WW2. If it helped the war end faster, does that justify killing civilians? It’s hard to see how being a virtuous person could give you an answer to that. In fact being a good person might only make you see how difficult the dilemma is.

Evaluation defending virtue ethics

Consequentialist theories have their own issue regarding clear guidance, however. They rely on our ability to predict the future. Aristotle seems to have the best approach of cultivating virtuous habits so people are in the best position to appropriately respond to each unique moral situation.

Evaluation criticising virtue ethics

Furthermore, Aristotle could be accused of wishful thinking for supposing a virtuous person will just be able to figure out ethical questions using practical wisdom, without any carefully thought out system of ethics. Furthermore, only virtuous people have practical wisdom, therefore his theory gives no guidance to those who need it most.

Whether there are universal virtues

An argument for and strength of virtue ethics is that it is rooted in universal human nature. All humans seek flourishing as our natural end (telos). Martha Nussbaum argues that there are universal types of human experience and that a list of virtues could be developed in reference to that. She points out that many virtues are universal, such as justice.

Weakness: Virtue ethics and relativism. Aristotle presents us with a list of virtues which is objective because he claims it is rooted in human nature. However, different cultures seem to value different virtues. There doesn’t seem to be a way to figure out which culture’s values are the ‘correct’ ones. If you are raised in a culture, its values are deeply ingrained such that you might be tempted to think that its values are more than just the way you were raised to feel. Aristotle’s list of virtues thus merely reflects his culture. Seen from this view, Aristotle’s ethics does not tell us what we should do in any objective sense, it just looks like an expression of his culture’s opinion about what we should do.

Evaluation defending virtue ethics:

McIntyre defends virtue ethics by accepting that Aristotle’s list of virtues were just his culture’s virtues. Different culture will have different lists of virtues, but the rest of virtue ethics is not culturally relative. There will still be a golden mean for those virtues, practical wisdom in how to apply them and so ethics can still be about being virtuous even though there is no universal list of virtues. So, virtue ethics actually is compatible with different cultural views on what the virtues are.

Evaluation criticising virtue ethics:

Nussbaum’s attempted defence of virtue ethics fails because of the radically different ways that justice is conceived and implemented in different societies and in the same societies across time.

Slavery used to be considered acceptable. In fact even Aristotle himself supported it, seeing no conflict with his ‘justice’.

Virtue ethics and the treatment of animals

A strength of Aristotle’s Virtue ethics is that it fits with the arguably most common intuition about animal ethics, that humans are more important because we have reason.

Aristotle was the first biologist; the first to study plants and animals in a scientific way. His scientific findings led to an ethical view of human superiority. Plants can only gain nutrients. Animals can do that plus move. Humans can do both and yet also reason. This creates a hierarchy of souls where humans are superior due to their reasoning. He assumes animals have desires like we do, but that only humans have the power to control their desires. This gives humans the right to rule over animals.

“there is no friendship or justice towards inanimate objects. Nor is there toward a horse or an ox” – Aristotle.

“other animals are for the sake of human beings … If then nature makes nothing incomplete or pointless, it must have made all of them for the sake of human beings.” – Aristotle.

Weakness: Virtue ethics is anthropocentric. Aristotle’s claim that the only good for human life is human flourishing is an anthropocentric view, meaning irrationally focused on human interests.

Peter singer accuses attitudes like Aristotle’s of ‘speciesism’, which means irrationally discriminating against other species out of a baseless preference for one’s own species. Humans may have greater reasoning abilities, but there is no logical basis for thinking that makes them superior. So, it must be thought due to irrational prejudice.

Furthermore, we now know more about how intelligent many animals can be. Many humans also have learning difficulties and Aristotle gets into ethically troubled waters if his standard for what gives humans moral status has such variance. In fact, Peter Singer argues it was Aristotle’s hierarchy of souls doctrine that led to his acceptance of slavery. Aristotle said that some humans are as far below other humans as ‘beasts’ are from humans, so enslaving them was good for them. Pro-environmentalists would argue this shows the danger of a hierarchical mindset that claims to judge which lives are more important than others. Such ‘ethics’ quickly degenerates into an ideology of selfishness.

Evaluation defending Virtue ethics:

Virtue ethics could be reformulated so it isn’t anthroprocentric.

Martha Nussbaum attempts that. Justice is a central virtue in Aristotelian virtue ethics. In her book “Justice for animals” Nussbaum argues that all sentient beings are capable of flourishing in their own way. Justice requires that they be allowed to pursue their flourishing. Humans must work towards the end of animal mistreatment if they are to cultivate the virtues of justice and compassion and thereby flourish themselves.

Evaluation criticising Virtue ethics:

Aristotle’s Virtue ethics fails because it equates human flourishing with rationality and yet, being speciesist, is irrational.

Furthermore, it’s becoming more clear thanks to modern science that humans and animals are dependent on each other. Sustainability is necessary for our survival. Aristotle’s approach would not lead to flourishing.