The ethics of virtue is an expression used in contemporary moral philosophy, in order to distinguish it from two other major currents of normative ethics: deontological ethics, which insists on the moral duty proper to action, and consequentialism, which insists on the consequences of the actions. The ethics of virtue emphasizes the importance of a person’s characteristic traits, and thus pays more attention to what is usually considered as virtues. Different ethics of virtue exist according to the virtue or virtues put forward: honesty, sympathy, prudence, even Greek phronesis, or sagacity, gentleness, courage. These virtues are put forward because they allow the realization of oneself, in other words to lead a good life. Three of the central concepts of this type of philosophy are virtue, practical wisdom and eudemonism (thinking that a good life is a happy life).
Difference with consequentialism and deontology
The philosopher Rosalind Hursthouse introduces the difference between the ethics of virtue, deontological ethics and consequentialism:
“Suppose it is obvious that someone in need should be helped. A utilitarian will point to the fact that the consequences of doing so will maximize well-being, a deontologist to the fact that, in doing so the agent will be acting in accordance with a moral rule such as “Do unto others as you would be done by” and a virtue ethicist to the fact that helping the person would be charitable or benevolent.”
It must be emphasized that for a person who holds the ethic of virtue, the intention of the agent is essential to judge whether the action is good or not, where the consequentialist will not take into account the intention but only the consequences of the action.
Antiquity and modern times
Aristotle, and to a lesser extent Plato, are the precursors of the ethics of virtue in Western philosophy. Some ethicists of virtue also claim roots from even more distant roots in Chinese philosophy. Some proponents of the ethics of virtue criticize the moral philosophy of the classical age, claiming that it would have eclipsed the specific questions of such an ethic (Descartes’ Treatise on the Passions or Spinoza’s Ethics are, however, are the clear indication that such concerns have not been completely ruled out). The article by Elizabeth Anscombe Modern Moral Philosophy (1958), which criticized on the one hand consequentialism, on the other hand what she called the “legalistic conception of morality” (related to a theory of divine laws), would have initiated the return of this type of questioning.
G. E. M. Anscombe
In the 1950s, G.E.M. Anscombe has put the ethics of virtue back into fashion. She criticizes the classic moral models, the insufficiency of their psychological models. For her, the subject acts in consciousness, but with a particular practical knowledge, determined by its circumstances.
“I will begin by stating three theses which I present in this paper. The first is that it is not profitable for us at present to do moral philosophy; that should be laid aside at any rate until we have an adequate philosophy of psychology, in which we are conspicuously lacking. The second is that the concepts of obligation, and duty—moral obligation and moral duty, that is to say—and of what is morally right and wrong, and of the moral sense of “ought,” ought to be jettisoned if this is psychologically possible; because they are survivals, or derivatives from survivals, from an earlier conception of ethics which no longer generally survives, and are only harmful without it. My third thesis is that the differences between the wellknown English writers on moral philosophy from Sidgwick to the present day are of little importance.” (GEM Anscombe, 1958, Modern Moral Philosophy, in Philosophy 33 (124), Cambridge University Press, pp. 1-19).
This is why a theoretical morality, at a distance from practice, does not work. She is more interested in the whole person, body and soul, apprehended on the basis of her character, than on her actions. The virtue and character of the person determines his actions and like her, he is transformed by the exercise. This vision makes it possible to situate the acts in a larger context by situating it in the real context and in the intention or the project of life of the subject. It also avoids relativism by relying on the universal quest for happiness that founds every life project. The good life is then acquired by the practice of action for itself and by the attendance of virtuous persons.
Since the 1980s, this field includes thinkers like Alasdair MacIntyre. In 1984 in After Virtue, he shows how our current moral systems, consequentialist or deontologist, are incompatible. To find a universal morality, we must go back upstream of these systems. He then returns to the moral virtues of Aristotle because it relies on the strongest anthropology. It makes possible to advance the person towards the good from what he really is. The morality of virtues integrates human action into personal and community narratives to advance it and evaluate it. It helps to unify our vision of man, happiness and the means to achieve it. In fact, this is what the morals of previous centuries had destroyed, creating an incoherent and ineffective morality, reduced to emotivism.
“A virtue is an acquired human quality the possession and exercise of which tends to enable us to achieve those goods which are internal to practices and the lack of which effectively prevents us from achieving any such goods“. (MacIntyre, After Virtue, London: Duckworth, 1984)
The central concept at MacIntyre is that of practice. Practice, the source of good for itself, renews the concept of virtue.
“By ‘practice‘ I now mean any coherent and complex form of socially-established cooperative human activity through which the goods internal to that form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved, are systematically extended.“ (MacIntyre, After Virtue, London: Duckworth, 1984)
To show it, MacIntyre traces a history of virtue from Homer, Athens, Aristotle, St. Thomas, to the modern, showing how the morality of virtues can be expressed differently according to social contexts, always having something universal , linked to his quest for happiness.
The years 1990-2000
It led to a renewal for the interest of issues related to virtue and personal fulfillment among the proponents even of consequentialism or deontological ethics, while it prompted re-readings of the Kant’s Doctrine of Virtue , as well as Martineau, Hume and Nietzsche, leading to the development of different ethical approaches to virtue (Michael Slote, 2001, based on an ethics of care and a sentimentalist position in contrast to moral rationalism, and Christine Swanton, 2003).
An offensive approach of the proponents of this position claims that virtue is universal, which would overcome the philosophical problems revolving around cultural relativism and multiculturalism (Martha Nussbaum, 1988)