Virtue Ethics vs. Deontological Ethics

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  • 0:03 Bases of Ethics
  • 0:51 Virtue Ethics
  • 2:14 An Example of Virtue Ethics
  • 2:53 Rule-Based Ethics
  • 4:40 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Mark Koscinski

Mark has a doctorate from Drew University and teaches accounting classes. He is a writer, editor and has experience in public and private accounting.

In this lesson, you'll learn about Aristotle's philosophy of virtue ethics and Kant's deontological philosophy of ethics. You'll also learn how to distinguish between these two competing ethical conceptualizations.

Bases of Ethics

We have all faced difficult moral situations. We would all like to act virtuously in these circumstances. The question is how. What will we do when we are faced with such ethical situations? What forces guide our ethical judgment or how we will react to any moral predicament?

Philosophers have suggested there are many possible bases for ethics. William Paley thought ethics rested squarely on divine command. A moral action was one that was in accord with God's commandments. Thomas Aquinas believed ethics was the result of natural law. Aristotle believed ethics was the result of virtue theory, while Immanuel Kant believed ethics had to be rule based. Let's examine Aristotle's and Kant's philosophies of morality.

Virtue Ethics

Aristotle was a Greek philosopher who lived in the fourth century B.C.E. He was famous for being the tutor of Alexander the Great and leaving a prodigious number of philosophical musings, including his virtue theory of ethics. Virtue theory states morality comes from an individual's character, not from rules or laws. Perhaps you have met people that seem to know the right thing to do, in the right way, at the right moment. Aristotle defines this type of person as being virtuous. The actions of a virtuous person would be moral since they will know what to do in any difficult ethical situation.

Becoming Virtuous

How do we become virtuous? Aristotle believed the desire to be virtuous had been built into us. It is our job as humans to fulfill our nature and be virtuous. The way to be virtuous was to learn through experience. Virtue forms out of habit. As we repeat virtuous actions we will learn to live a virtuous life. He also suggested we find virtuous people, or moral exemplars, to be our guides in life.

Golden Mean

Central to Aristotle's virtue ethics was the concept of the golden mean. Aristotle thought of potential actions existing on a moral spectrum. At the end of each spectrum was vice, which constituted extreme action. Aristotle believed ethical actions were the mean, or average, between two points of extreme vice. Consider the following table of virtues:

Deficiency Golden Mean Excess
Cowardice Bravery Recklessness
Miserliness Charity Profligacy
Deceitfulness Truthfulness Brutal honesty

An Example of Virtue Ethics

Let's look at an example of virtue ethics…

Suppose you were walking on a beach, and someone was drowning in the surf. You know that saving drowning people is dangerous because they could pull you under as well. Aristotle would say the moral action would be to first determine if you could swim well enough to assist the person without causing undue danger to yourself. If you do not have sufficient swimming skills, the courageous course of action would be not to try and save the person yourself, but to find capable help. Being brash enough to intervene when you could not help the person would be recklessness and, therefore, a vice. Aristotle believed all ethical action proceeded in this fashion.

Rule-Based Ethics

Immanuel Kant was an eighteenth century German philosopher who believed ethics should be rule-based, or deontological, in nature. Kant proposed the following deontological rules for ethical actions:

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