Virtue Ethics: Principles, Application & Examples

Instructor: Laura Foist

Laura has a Masters of Science in Food Science and Human Nutrition and has taught college Science.

In this lesson, we will discuss the basic principles of virtue ethics and its application to ethical decision making. Further, we will break down the key components of virtue ethics including arete, phronesis, and eudaimonia.

What is Ethical and Right?

Have you ever seen someone harassed, and debated in yourself what you should do? Or, perhaps, you found a wallet full of money and wondered if you should keep it, find its owners, or do something else? We frequently encounter decisions, and we need to decide how we will respond. Hopefully we will respond ethically - although even trying to determine what is the ethical choice can be difficult to determine. One method that philosophers have used to try to determine what is ethical is called virtue ethics (sometimes called moral ethics).

Virtue ethics relies on virtues (qualities that are considered morally good) to make good, ethical, decisions. In order to understand virtue ethics, let's compare it to some other approaches to ethical decision making. There are three major approaches to ethics:

  • Rules (deontology)
  • Consequences (consequentialism)
  • Moral character (virtue)

Let's look at the harassing example. If you were to take a deontology view to this problem, you would focus on the rules as the proper course of action to take. This can be the rules of your work place - are you supposed to report all harassment to HR? In this case, deontology will dictate that the ethical decision would be to report this harassment to HR.

Or, perhaps you know that the consequences of not stopping the harassment will lead to a hostile work environment for everyone, and the consequences of stopping the harassment will lead to a good work environment. This would be a consequentialism view to take.

Finally, a virtue ethics view will look into yourself and believe that it is morally good to stand up for other people. Thus, you will stop the harassment because you believe it to be morally good to do so.

All approaches could end with the same result (although in many cases we do end up with different results). The main difference between the approaches is simply how we reach that result.

Virtue Ethics Principles

In order to understand the principles of virtue ethics, we need to understand what virtue is. There are several different ways that we can look at virtue. Virtue can be dependent upon what society and individuals determine is morally good. This can differ from one society to another. Furthermore, an individual can deem something to be morally good while the society may not.

Aristotle, one of the earliest philosophers to examine virtue ethics, explained that virtue is ''the mean'' (or the average) of two extremes. On one end of the extremes, we have a deficiency of the trait, while the other end is an excess of the trait. As an example we can look at courage as a virtue. Those who are deficient are cowards, while those who have an excess are rash.

Aristotle was one of the earliest philosophers to examine virtue ethics

How would you determine what your virtues are? What are the virtues of society around you? A eudaimonist view would determine virtue to be something that brings you happiness or helps you to flourish. But this must be a happiness and flourishing that isn't based upon physical pleasure or luxury. The agent-based or exemplarist view would base virtue upon what drives you, or what motivates you. Another method to determine virtues is a target-centered view; using this view virtues are things that allow you (or society) to receive a checkmark of approval.

We can already see how virtue can be different for each person - thus changing what the ethical choice is. This is one of the objections to virtue ethics; there is no real basis or standard guidelines for everyone.

Virtue Ethics Application

As a scientist, there are several opportunities to make ethical (or non-ethical) decisions. Let's say you were researching the effect of a pollution in a lake. You know that if the pollution has a large enough negative impact on the environment then you can force a large company to pay for proper clean-up of the pollution. After performing your experiment, you realize that the results were not what you were expecting, and the negative impact is not quite big enough to force the company to pay for the clean-up.

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