To begin with, recall that virtue-based ethics is a theory of ethics that maintains that an action is to be evaluated based on how that action informs the aspects of the agent's character.
The character traits of an agent are seen as either morally good or bad. They are called virtues and vices, respectively. Traditionally, things such as patience, courage, generosity, and honesty are seen as virtues; and things such as impatience, cowardice, greed, and dishonesty are seen as vices.
Because of the emphasis on character, the kind of question you would ask yourself is different to the kind that you would ask if you were primarily concerned with evaluating actions.
In the next section we will look at the various ways virtue-based ethics can evaluate actions. But before doing so, let’s remind ourselves of the terms that ethical theorists use to evaluate actions.
Make sure you’re thinking about these evaluative terms when we go onto see virtue-based ethics in action in the next section.
For virtue-based ethics, an action is permissible if it isn’t a sign of vice in the agent. For instance, eating your dinner is an action that doesn’t indicate any particular vice on your part. But if it was your fifth dinner of the evening, then this would indicate a vice, namely gluttony or intemperance. Since this action now indicates vice, it would be considered impermissible by virtue-based ethics.
Now let’s look at the different types of permissibility. First, an action is obligatory if failing to do it would encourage a vice in yourself or discourage a virtue.
Imagine that you work in a government department that deals with people’s requests for help in times of hardship. You have targets to meet, otherwise you could lose your job. So you have to deal with people as quick as possible.
In order to do this, you need to detach yourself from sympathizing with their struggles. Treating people like obstacles to your targets every day could make you cold or callous. Since it’s obligatory for you to avoid fostering these vices, you would need to either treat people better (and risk missing your targets) or quit your job.
For virtue-based ethics, a neutral action is one that indicates neither virtue nor vice in the agent. This would cover many of your daily activities such as having a cup of coffee or watching a film. On their own, actions such as these aren’t signs of virtue or vice.
It’s a bit more difficult to think of supererogatory actions in this account of ethics. That’s because virtues are generally about having the correct measure of a trait, neither in excess nor in deficiency.
Despite this difficulty, there are some examples that seem to show an exceptional degree of virtue without it falling back into a vice.
Now that you have seen how ethical evaluations can be based on the way actions indicate or impact upon character, you can think about using this in a specific situation. Consider the example below and think about how you would evaluate each action from the perspective of virtue-based ethics.
The actions would have been evaluated in the following way: