Why we need Virtue Ethics

by Martin Butler

Immanuel Kant

For many years I taught ethics to 16-19 year olds, and was often struck not only by how strongly certain ideas resonated with the students, but how unfamiliar they were with these big ideas, the product of hundreds of years of western culture.  Kant and virtue ethics in particular seemed to chime with them. It made me think that these ideas should not be restricted to the narrow group of individuals who happen to have chosen to study philosophy. They are not academic curios but immensely influential and should surely be part of any ethical education. I believe that a knowledge of virtue ethics in particular could help today’s young people navigate the complex and often frightening world that they face.

Traditionally religious education has been the arena where ethical topics are covered, usually with the focus on ethical dilemmas such as euthanasia, abortion, and the status of animals. These are important and interesting topics that need to be discussed but they don’t provide the kind of ethical framework I have in mind. The treatment of ethics at this level can often produce a kind of paralysis of neutralism, a kind of ‘some people say this and others say that – take your pick’ approach, though there are areas where a more assertive line is taken.

No one denies, for example, that we really do have certain rights, this is beyond opinion.  In the UK recently there has also been a push to include in the curriculum what are described as ‘British values’ (I have never been quite sure why they are distinctly British.)  These comprise the rule of law, tolerance, democracy, and individual liberty. Other values such as equality, respect, diversity, inclusivity are also often given prominence.  All of this is important but not enough. It is quite impersonal and abstract and hardly helpful to someone seeking a more direct guide on how their lives might be led. These ethical ideas are also quite static. You either accept them or you don’t, and there is no developmental dimension that could connect with someone wanting to improve their life both ethically and psychologically. Religious belief can give this more personal kind of guidance but there should surely be something that fills this role for those who are not religious.

Until quite recently there was a concern that ethical relativism had become the dominant cultural assumption, which meant that ethics was all just a matter of opinion, every view was ‘equally valid’ with no objective standard. We seem now to have been catapulted to the other extreme. Ethical positions are often held with a fervent certainty that would embarrass a medieval monk.  If your moral landscape is populated only with rights and universal principles then you either ‘believe in’ them or you don’t, and there is a natural assumption that if you do believe, the stronger the better.  It is worth noting here that the unfashionable virtue of humility can be a counter to this.  Philosopher Cathy Mason has linked the virtue of humility to moral development. Speaking of someone who displays the virtue of humility she notes that: “Since they do not care about being relatively superior, they are likely to be less invested in pernicious stereotypes about what others have to teach us. Properly listening to someone involves thinking that the speaker might have something to tell us, that they may know some things that we do not.”[i]  Humility here does not mean lack of confidence, or an inability to defend a particular ethical view, it does however involve a serious commitment to getting at the truth without regard for personal status.

There is also a deeper problem with an over emphasis on rights.  A picture is created which encourages a view of individuals as isolated and threatened centres of selfhood. Rights become a buttress for the individual from the intrusions of the external world.  A narrative where rights are centre stage points us towards ideas of individual fulfilment through self-realisation and authenticity, which have to work against the pressures we face from the social world around us. This is, I think, is a very one-sided approach. As we shall see, the virtue approach takes an essentially social perspective on human existence.

To those who have no experience of academic philosophy, the word ‘virtue’ might sound rather old fashion and even prim. However, since a pivotal paper written by Elizabeth Anscombe in 1958 virtue ethics has become one of the dominant traditions in moral philosophy.[ii] Without the religious assumptions of a Christian culture, she argues,  Aristotle’s virtue ethics starts to look more relevant than competing traditions imbued with Christian metaphysical assumptions.  Virtue ethics is a holistic approach in that it takes as its starting point human beings with emotions and reason who have to make concrete decisions in their life, and it provides a convincing framework for making sense of this. Rather than a private self that makes either morally right or morally wrong decisions, the focus for virtue ethics is on character and character is something that can be developed. Virtue ethics is obviously a big topic, so I’ll  just focus on three areas.

Firstly, for the virtue approach ethics is as much about habits as following freely made moral decisions. To acquire a virtue is, among other things, to develop the relevant habits, and there is no abrupt distinction here between ethical and non-ethical habits. That ethics is not parcelled off into a separate compartment of life is indeed an important feature of the virtue approach. (It is revealing that Aristotle and Plato pepper their discussion of ethics with examples of occupations with no obvious ethical relevance – e.g. cobblers, archers, wrestlers, carpenters.) In any case it’s difficult to draw a clear borderline between the two; habits of thought such as attention to detail, thoroughness and evaluating evidence, although not obviously ethical can be said to have an ethical dimension. For the repetitive behaviours that make up much of our lives, the automatic pilot of habit allows us to bypass the process of conscious decision making. Habits can of course take over when they shouldn’t, when for example you find for yourself driving to work during a weekend simply because you are on the same road you take on a work day (something I’ve done a few times). The key feature of habitual thought and behaviour is that it is easy, natural, and can be so embedded in your life it is difficult to bypass. This last feature can be an important benefit; I, for example, find it almost impossible to go to sleep at night without cleaning my teeth. But importantly, habits do not appear overnight; they take time to develop. In the early part of our lives, it’s usually our parents who are responsible for inculcating good habits, but I think we are wrong to assume that there must come a point in early adulthood when this process stops. We can continue to work on our habits just has we can acquire new skills such as playing a musical instrument or participating in a new sporting activity. Many selfish behaviours, for example, often result simply from bad habits. (I have, rightly I think, been accused of just not answering people when they ask a question simply because I’m thinking about something else – this is just a bad habit.) These are not necessarily conscious decisions to act without regard to others; more thoughtlessness than consciously unethical. So good habits, I think, are an important component to an ethical life, and not sufficiently recognised by other ethical perspectives.

Secondly, the idea of good judgment (Aristotle’s phronesis) is given a key role. Traditionally ethics puts the moral principle centre stage and the application of these is given a secondary status; it is regarded almost as a mechanical process. Just as in geometry, for example, once the formula for the area of a triangle is known, the calculation is easy if we know the relevant values for the particular triangle in question. Knowing the formula is the important bit. The virtue approach recognises that ethics is not like this at all. Knowledge of ethical principles can be very general and quite abstract and there is a wide gap between this knowledge and the actions which are suppose to follow. Love your neighbour as yourself, for example, although admirable, really does not tell us much in terms of specific actions in particular circumstances. This is a point Sartre makes in his famous example of the French student in WW2 who has to decide whether to join the resistance or stay and care for his ailing mother.[iii] Good judgment is the capacity to actually assess a particular situation and make the right choice in this situation. After all, human life is complex and has many variables, including the capacities of the individual making the judgment. To make a sporting comparison, two football matches never follow the same course and so a good footballer must have the capacity to make the right decision in a novel situation. There might be general rules of tactics or strategy but knowing these will leave us well short of the decision-making required in unique situations. The focus on good judgment puts virtue ethics closer to case law than statute law. Case law does not develop through grand general prescriptions but through rulings in particular cases, which then serve as precedents for future cases, which in turn either follow the precedent or, because of key differences, diverge.  Ethical judgment improves in the same way that case law becomes more refined as new and subtly different cases are confronted. So the key point here is that good judgment is sensitive to difference in circumstance, something that is often ignored by universal ethical ideals; we might say the devil is in the detail.   Ethical decisions for most of us do actually consist in individual judgments sensitive to particular circumstances rather than following directly from a list of ethical commandments. In this respect virtue ethics just reflects the reality of how lives are lived. Rather than ethical principles, the raw materials for the process of developing good judgement are virtues such as patience, generosity, humility, friendliness and so on. By themselves these are very open-ended qualities; it is only through the long process of learning how to apply these ideals in specific circumstances that we can be said to have gained such virtues as character traits. This learning process occurs through role models, good counsel, trial and error and critical reflection. So, as with habit, judgment is something we can continue to improve throughout our lives.  We might regard habits as responding to recognisable similarities, and judgment to uniqueness.

Thirdly, virtue ethics gives us a wide and sophisticated notion of self-interest. In the popular imagination self-interest is usually assumed to be the enemy of ethical behaviour: egoism bad, altruism good. We see acting for selfish reasons as equivalent to putting our own self-interest before the interests of others, even though being selfish very often does not promote self-interest.  Many students I have taught assumed that being self-interested meant being selfish until it was pointed out that studying for their exams could be described as self-interested but was hardly selfish. Philosophers have provided theories which reconcile self-interest with ethical behaviour – the social contract theory is a prime example (I act well towards others on the condition that they act well towards me). Virtue ethics however provides what seems to me the most convincing of these theories.  The development of ethically good habits and good judgment is not something which requires putting self-interest aside. Quite the reverse, it is a fundamental part of living a good life. The ambiguity of the word ‘good’ here is crucial. For the virtue ethicist, the ethically good life is the life which is also good in the sense of being a fulfilling life. And to live a fulfilling life is surely in our self-interest. The important assumption that underlies this argument is the intrinsically social nature of human existence.  The virtue ethicist can to a large degree collapse the self vs other conflict through the assumption that our best life is lived within a settled community (or polis) over a period of time, where self-interest and the interests of others coalesce. To be sustainable, such communities both depend on the virtuous behaviour of inhabitants and at the same time provide a space for the inhabitants to develop these virtues. There is an obvious sense in which pro-social virtues such as patience, generosity, friendliness etc., are self-interested. Human beings will tend to feel and act more positively to individuals who display these virtues than those who lack them.

But there is a deeper sense in which virtues are good for us. Alastair MacIntyre makes the distinction between what he calls external goods and internal goods.  In order to illustrate this distinction, he imagines an intelligent child who is induced to learn chess by means of candy rewards. Once the child has learnt the game, she is given further rewards every time she wins. It is made clear that winning is always possible though it is not made unduly easy.  Macintyre notes that as long as the candy is the prime motivator there is a clear inducement to cheat. However, he plausibly suggests that a time is likely to arrive when the child will start to enjoy the skill she is developing for its own sake. He says, “so we may hope, there will come a time when the child will find in those goods specific to chess, in the achievement in a certain highly particular kind of analytical skill, strategic imagination and competitive intensity, a new set of reasons, reasons now not just for winning on a particular occasion but for trying to excel in whatever the game of chess demands.”[iv] Unlike the candy which acts merely as an external good, Macintyre is here characterising the internal goods which can be gained from playing chess. (The recent series Queen’s Gambit illustrates Macintyre’s example nicely, for although the central character Beth clearly plays chess for the prize money – external good – it is the participation in the game itself which is the source of deep satisfaction and fulfilment – internal good). Chess is just an example of what MacIntyre describes as a practice, that is, “any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity”, and as with any practice we can improve performance through acquiring the right habits, appropriate virtues and good judgement.[v]  So the important goods of human life are not the external ones, although these cannot be dismissed; rather they are those internal to the engagement in practices. For deep long-lasting fulfilment, the satisfaction of engaging in, and becoming proficient in, a ‘socially established cooperative human activity’ cannot be beaten by material reward. And the engagement in a polis is perhaps the practice with which we must all to some extent be proficient. This leads us to the idea that there is such a thing as being good at life, and by life we mean the ability to live harmoniously with others within a polis. But like any participation in a practice it should be seen as a project that leaves room for continual improvement. There is, then, an art to life which is more than just a succession of rudderless ‘free choices’ as liberalism sometimes seems to assume.  In contrast to the idea of an ethical life as sticking to principles and not being swayed by self-interest, ethics here is conceived as a long-term project of character development within a community, which is based on acquiring the good habits and good judgment associated with virtue, and this is very much in our self-interest. Participation in community is not simply the means to the end of peace and security for the individual, as the social contract would have it, it is constitutive of human flourishing itself.

There are, I think, two ways in which an understanding of virtue ethics can be of benefit to young lives. Firstly, on a personal level it provides a sophisticated model for how to make sense of a life as a project which requires effort and engagement in practices but can lead to a deeper fulfilment beyond consumer capitalism and assertions of identity. It is a model of an ethical life which is both good, and good for you. In the West there is a tendency to give a high value to innate ‘talent’ which you either have or you don’t. (This, apparently, is one reason why East Asian children do so well at maths, they make no such assumption.) Virtue ethics works against this tendency. (I have heard it said that Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics is the greatest self-help book ever written.) Secondly, and more broadly, it provides us with a deeper understanding of a good society. Getting the right political and economic structures in place might be a necessary condition but is certainly not sufficient for such a society. A culture of virtue is also needed.  Or to put this point another way, we might argue that getting the right political and economic structures in place requires virtuous characters.

One criticism of virtue theory is that it implies its own kind of relativism in that there is no one set of virtues that we might want to regard as the right set, and it is possible to construct circumstances in which virtues conflict. The virtues of ancient Greece will not be the same as those of Confucius or Christianity. Although there is perhaps a greater degree of overlap than divergence. We are not, after all, aiming to identify one set of correct virtues, and in any case there are some core virtues that surely need to be developed in any good life, but that’s a debate to be had.  Friendliness, patience, justice, humility, generosity, courage, care would be on my list.  Although much of this might seem obvious to many, in my experience an account of what virtues are, how they can be developed, and how they might help someone live a better life was far from obvious to my students.


[i] Mason, C., 2020. Humility and Ethical Development.  Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy. Vol. 17, No. 1 · March. p71.

Available at: 732-Article Text-3944-1-10-20200324.pdf  [Accessed 20/2/2021]

[ii] Anscombe, E. 1958. Modern Moral Philosophy. Philosophy: Journal of the Royal Institute of Philosophy. Vol. 33, No. 124 (Jan., 1958), pp. 1-19

[iii] Sartre, J-P., 1948. Existentialism and Humanism. London; Methuen. p36

[iv] MacIntyre, A., 1981. After Virtue. London: Duckworth. p188

[v] Ibid. p187