Virtue ethics is arguably the oldest ethical theory in the world, with origins in Ancient Greece.

It defines good actions as ones that display virtuous character, like courage, loyalty, or wisdom. Bad actions display the opposite, such as cowardice, treachery, and ignorance.

For Aristotle, ethics was a key element of human flourishing because it taught people how to differentiate between virtues and vices. By encouraging examination, more people could live a life dedicated to developing virtues.

But it’s one thing to know what’s right – it’s another to actually do it. How did Aristotle advise us to live our virtues?

By acting as though we already have them.

Excellence as habit

Aristotle explained that both virtues and vices are acquired by repetition. If we routinely overindulge a sweet tooth, we develop a vice, – gluttony. If we repeatedly allow others to serve themselves dinner before us, we develop a virtue – selflessness.

Virtue ethics suggests treating our character as a lifelong project, one that has the capacity to truly change who we are. The goal is not to form virtues that mean we act ethically without thinking, but to form virtues that help us see the world clearly and make better judgments as a result.

In a pinch, remember: vices distort, virtues examine.

A quote most of the internet attributes to Aristotle succinctly reads:

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit”.

Though he didn’t actually say this, it’s a good indication of what virtue ethics stands for. We can thank American philosopher, Will Durant, for the neat summary.

 

 

Aim for in between

There are two practical principles that virtue ethics encourages us to use in ethical dilemmas. The first is called The Golden Mean. When we’re trying to work out what the virtuous thing to do in a particular situation is, look to what lies in the middle between two extreme forms of behaviour (the middle being the mean). The mean will be the virtue, and the extremes at either end, vices.

Here’s an example. Imagine your friend is wearing a horrendous outfit and asks you how they look. What are the extreme responses you could take? You could a) burst out laughing or b) tell them they look wonderful when they don’t.

These two extremes are vices – the first response is malicious, the second is dishonest. The virtuous response is the mean between these two. In this case, that would be gently but honestly telling your friend you think they’d look nicer in another outfit.

Imagination

The second is to use our imagination. What would we do if we were already a virtuous person? By imagining the kind of person we’d like to be and how we would want to respond we can start to close the gap between our aspirational identity and who we are at the moment.

Virtue ethics can remind us of the importance of role models. If you want someone to learn ethics, show them an ethical person.

Some argue virtue ethics is overly vague in guiding actions. They say its principles aren’t specific enough to help us overcome difficult ethical conundrums. “Be virtuous” isn’t very practical. Others have expressed concern that virtues or vices aren’t agreed on by everybody. Stoicism or sexual openness can be a virtue to some, a vice to others.

Finally, some people think virtue ethics breeds ‘moral narcissism’, where we are so obsessed with our own ethical character we value it above anyone or anything else.

A virtue ethicist might refuse to do what will benefit the most people if it doesn’t position them as the good guy. Is that the right thing to do?

Join the conversation

What are your habits of good character?