Virtue ethics


Eudaimonia is best translated as ‘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 why they want that, 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 life, because it 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

So, Aristotle establishes that the goal/purpose (telos) of human beings is living a good life, but what is a good life? Aristotle’s function argument answers that. He claimed we call something good when it performs its function well. For example, we say a knife is good when it performs its function of cutting well. Everything has a function, which is a things’ distinctive characteristic. You could use a knife to play the piano, but that is not what a knife’s distinctive characteristic is uniquely good for. Aristotle claimed the distinctive characteristic of humans is reason. The function of a knife is to cut. What enables a knife to cut is its various qualities i.e sharpness. Similarly, what will enable humans to fulfil their function of reasoning well is whatever qualities help us have good reasons for our actions. These are the virtues.

The doctrine of the Golden Mean.

Aristotle states that a virtue is ‘the habit of choosing the mean between the extremes’. The idea is that each virtue exists in a sphere of action or feeling and within that sphere there can be an excess, a deficiency or the golden mean. Being virtuous is the habit of choosing the action which best manifests the golden mean in the relevant sphere.

Sphere of action or feeling


Golden Mean


Fear and confidence




Pleasure and pain








Social conduct



Being too friendly



Righteous indignation


Practical Wisdom (phronesis).

This is akin to common sense. It’s not enough to know that you should be courageous, for example, you need to know which courageous action to actually do, or which action would best exemplify the golden mean in the sphere of fear and confidence. Aristotle says we figure this out using our practical wisdom, by which we analyse and understand each moral situation we find ourselves in, and thereby figure out how to connect the virtues to that situation.

Learning from the example of virtuous peopleVirtue is acquired through action. One way to learn how to be virtuous is to follow the example of virtuous people. Watching others and imitating them. Examples of moral heroes or excellence could be Jesus, Ghandi, Socrates and Nalson Mandela.

Moral vs Intellectual virtues

Aristotle argued there is a rational part of the human soul and an irrational part. There are virtues in each part that require cultivating, but the moral virtues in the irrational part of the soul cannot be reached by reason and can therefore only be cultivated through experience and habit. E.g if you have some new recruits to an army, you can’t teach them courage by sitting them in front of a blackboard and talking about it – they have to learn it through experiences and habits. Examples of moral virtues are courage, temperance, righteous indignation. Intellectual virtues in the rational part of the soul can also be learned through experience and habit, however since they can be reached by reason, they can also be taught. Examples of intellectual virtues are reason, scientific knowledge, technical skill.

Conflicting virtues. if a friend asks you to keep a secret and someone else asks you to reveal it, there is a conflict between truthfulness and friendliness.

Aristotle would argue however that the use of practical wisdom would reveal that this case isn’t really within the sphere of self-expression in such a way that demands we must tell the truth. Practical wisdom should tell us that what matters regarding the virtue of truthfulness is not at stake in this situation.

Virtue ethics fails to give clear guidance. Utilitarianism and Kant provide systems which explain how to figure out which action is right. Virtue ethics doesn’t do that. It doesn’t give clear guidance on how to act. For example, 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.

Aristotle never intended his theory to provide clear guidance. Aristotle argued that because life is so complicated, and situations so diverse and nuanced, ethics can’t be about applying rules to situations anyway. A good/virtuous person for Aristotle will have practical wisdom which they will then use to figure out the right action for the situation.

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.

Aristotle argues however that knowledge of the good comes in degrees. Most people will have a good enough degree of knowledge of the good to get along well enough such that they can improve themselves. Those people can ask whether a certain action in a particular situation will manifest the virtuous – will it be courageous, friendly, the proper sense of pride, etc. While people will certainly vary in their ability to judge that, Aristotle is convinced that many will be able to do good enough a job to get it right to increasing degrees. Regardless of that success rate however, fundamentally Aristotle doesn’t see any other way for ethics. Telling someone what’s right isn’t enough to get them to do it.

Virtue ethics is anthroprocentric since it ignores the interests of animals. It might think it wrong to mistreat an animal if that mistreatment were likely to cause a cultivation of unvirtuous habits. For example, if someone inflicts pain on an animal, for whatever purpose, they might become desensitised to the expression of pain-behaviour and this might at the very least reduce their friendliness towards humans. In more extreme cases it may even increase their levels of anger and violence.

Aristotle would respond that the good of human life is whatever directs us towards our flourishing. The well-being or interests of animals are only ever indirectly relevant to human flourishing, therefore animals have no intrinsic value.

Aristotle’s claim that the good for human life is human flourishing is an anthropocentric view. That problem with that is that it is based merely on a baseless, irrational and selfish preference for our own flourishing. Just because we happen to be human, that can’t justify the view that it is only our flourishing which matters. That is to commit what Singer called speciesism.

Furthermore, it’s becoming more clear thanks to modern science that since humans and animals share a planet, sustainability is necessary for our flourishing. It’s also arguable that it’s impossible to inflict pain on animals without infecting our own virtue. Some would even go as far as to suggest that the viewing of animals as mere property or raw materials to be used is undermining of our humanity and makes us into bad people.

Elizabeth Anscombe: the strength of virtue ethics is that it encourages people to become good people. The consequentialist theories of utilitarianism and situation ethics which came after Aristotle failed to develop a more successful ethical theory because they rely on punishment and reward either by a God or by bringing about good consequences in order to motivate good acts. Bribing or scaring someone into acting well is morally inferior to the goal of virtue ethics, which is for someone to act well because they want to be a good person.

Aristotle thought it’s perfectly possible to know what the right thing to do is yet fail to do it because they are not good enough as a person. Arguably that’s the source of most immoral action in the world. Therefore, an ethical system should help people become good rather than telling them what’s good as that is the most pressing issue holding humanity back.

Too utopian. Arguably Anscombe, and virtue ethics is general, is too utopian in its hope that we can rely on people to cultivate virtuous habits. Arguably consequentialist theories are more realistic. The reward/punishment aspect of consequentialism is more in line with the reality of what it means to be human than the utopian vision of Virtue Ethics.

Furthermore, arguably people need rules and we cannot rely on human autonomy to decide to do the right thing, since granting people the power to decide what is right or wrong gives grants them power which is corrupting.

            Arguably a focus on a person’s personal virtue would solve these problems.

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.

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.

Nussbaum defended virtue ethics from relativism in a very different way. She thought that virtue ethics could aim to discern universal types of human experience and that a list of virtues could be developed in reference to that. Although there is significant moral disagreement there are also core similarities such as justice.

Cultures can be so different, however, including on their views on justice. It’s very difficult to find features of human experience that are universal.