3 Tutorials that teach Virtue-Based Ethics
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Virtue-Based Ethics

Virtue-Based Ethics

Author: John Lumsden

Identify the characteristics and descriptors of virtue-based ethics

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In this tutorial we will introduce virtue-based ethics and look at some of the things that make this a distinct ethical theory. Our discussion will break down like this:
  1. Introduction
  2. Virtues and Vices
  3. Action and Character in Ethics

1. Introduction

To begin with, recall that ethics is the branch of philosophy that analyzes and defends concepts of value and thereby seeks to determine right and wrong. Ethics can evaluate actions in lots of different ways. For instance, it can evaluate the consequences of an action, or its intention instead. But virtue-based ethics evaluates an action in terms of its relation to the kind of person someone is.

There are lots of ways that the kind of person you are affects, or is affected by, your actions.

If you talk to everyone you meet, this could reveal that you have an outgoing personality and strengthen this trait. But we could also say that forcing yourself to take part in social situations could encourage you to become more outgoing.

So actions can express or reinforce your character, but they can also develop it.

Virtue­-Based Ethics
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

2. Virtues and Vices

Virtue-based ethics tends to split up character traits into those that are considered morally desirable, and those that are not. The former are called virtues, and the latter are called vices. Here are samples of both.

Some examples of virtues include honesty, justice, generosity, patience, temperance, courage and modesty.  Some examples of vices include dishonesty, injustice, greed, impatience, self-indulgence, cowardace, immodesty.

Philosophers that advance virtue-based ethics usually claim that everyone should try to cultivate virtues and avoid vices. This tells you what type of ethical theory this is.

All ethical theories come under one of two categories. Objectivist says there are at least some ethical judgments that everyone must recognize as true and relativist says there are no ethical judgments that everyone must recognize as true. Virtue-based ethics is an objectivist theory.

A character trait of moral value
A character trait of moral disvalue

3. Action and Character in Ethics

Ethical theories can evaluate an agent’s actions and the character of the agent. Types of theories, such as utilitarianism and deontology, make actions the primary object of evaluation. Here, the character of the person is only seen in light of their actions. Therefore, character is secondary for these theories.

By contrast, virtue-based ethics makes character the primary object of evaluation. Here, actions are understood in terms of how they impact the character of the agent.

If you saw someone drinking excessively, you could see this as a sign of that person's character, namely intemperance or self-indulgence.

You would also evaluate actions in terms of how they encourage certain virtues or discourage certain vices.


If a naturally shy person made an effort to take up public speaking any opportunity they got, you would see this as a good action because it’s an attempt to overcome the vice of excessive shyness or bashfulness.

But if someone was already very confident, then speaking publicly all the time might be seen as a sign of arrogance. In this case, this action is bad because it encourages the vice of arrogance.

Because of this emphasis on character, the kind of question you would ask yourself is different than the kind that you would ask yourself if you were primarily concerned with evaluating actions.

Non-virtue base ethics asks what ought I to do as the evaluative questions while virtue-based ethics asks what kind of person should I be?

We started this tutorial with an introduction to virtue-based ethics, focusing on the primacy of character over actions in ethical evaluation. This led to a discussion of virtues and vices as the main way to evaluate characteristics of agents. We also briefly listed several different virtues and vices. Finally, we focused some more on the relation between action and character in ethics, showing how the one is evaluated in light of the other.
Terms to Know
  • Vice

    A character trait of moral disvalue

  • Virtue

    A character trait of moral value

  • Virtue-Based Ethics

    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