Moral Theories part 2: Virtue Theory

A few meetups ago we talked about the two most popular moral theories among contemporary philosophers: deontology and utilitarianism, both principlist theories (theories based on one or a very few principles taken to be universally determinant---see that topic write up for more). Not everyone is impressed by those theories or thinks they capture the essence of what is moral, so we'll consider Virtue Theory and Moral Sense theory, the next two in line among theories taken seriously in ethics.

It looks like each of these theories will occupy a meetup all by itself.

Virtue Theory

Virtue theory presents one of the oldest pictures of what constitutes a good human being and the kinds of acts that would flow from one. Dating from the time of at least Aristotle, it focuses on sculpting moral character, and has recently experienced a resurgence, owing in part to dissatisfaction with the apparent inflexibility and abstractness of the principlist theories. (Virtue theory is still a distant third in popularity behind principlist views among moral philosophers, however.) We will look at virtue theory's "virtues" and some of its problems.

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle locates the excellence of a thing in its salient function. That of have a hammer is to hammer nails well, of a horse to run fast, of a fish to swim, etc. The excellence of a thing seems connected to the highest function it is designed by nature to serve: what it does better than almost anything else. What is the highest function of a human being? We have no physical prowess that some other animal might not better exemplify. What is unique to us is our rational capability, the ability to steer our action by reason---and so overcome natural impulses or environmental forces that completely determine the lives of other animals. As such we can deliberately shape not only our environments but ourselves.

Since we have the capability to transcend the limitations of nature to an extent no other animal shares, what should guide this capability? That is what ethics is about for Aristotle. Given that we can shape ourselves, how ought we to shape ourselves?

But there is another factor pressing on Aristotle's ethics besides the highest, most specialized, natural function of a kind of being. While the knack for self-sculpting might be individual, the forms that guide it involve another feature of our kind: the fact that we are social and live in communities. For Aristotle the community meant the Greek city state---a social unit not quite like anything we have today, placed somewhere between a very large tribe and a very small but autonomous nation. The cohesiveness of the city state mandated a shared value system, necessary for survival in a world where if you and those close to you do not cooperate and live in relative peace with one another, another group will and enslave the lot of you. Survival of a familiar way of life requires a great deal of conformity. Sustainably promoting  peaceable relations within the community is essential for the survival of the group. It is not by accident that the group is motivated to stay largely homogeneous (hence its xenophobic tribalism). Ethics is about serving this political end. As individuals we need to behave in the best interest of the group---not just any group, the one at hand.

Aristotle's took his model of how this conformity might be achieved from the most basic social unit of all, the family. How are children socialized? By modeling their behavior on their parents'. Good parents will model well because, relative to their children, they have developed a higher level of practical wisdom and self-control. In the best cases, they are worthy models. But, worthy or not, there is no other natural way to shape children into adult citizens of the state.

In the beginning, it is not the child's place to ask questions about how it should be raised, what it should do, believe, etc. Children are to conform, become habituated to patterns of behavior which they cannot have the wherewithal to fully understand until they develop some rationally discriminative abilities. But the basic values are inculcated first, only much later, if ever, is one in a position to understand and (perhaps) question them. This model of childhood development Aristotle extends well into adulthood. The best wisdom a young person can show is to pick their role models from among their elders carefully and then do as they do. The best way to select their models is to see which among them are respected in the community and follow them. By doing as the models do you will one day become like them and understand why this is the best way to be and how it best exemplifies the highest function of beings of our kind. Thus we attain practical virtue. So runs Aristotole's account of moral development.

Virtue is an accomplished psychological state. It is the excellence that comes from no longer having to struggle against unruly impulses and poor influences. One has so absorbed the highest practical wisdom (at hand). One is virtuous when the right thing comes naturally. Getting to this point, to being virtuous (as opposed to merely aping it, which even the unvirtuous or virtuous-in-training can do) is a lifelong task. Few really pull off a virtuous character, when virtue just flows from you. But it is the goal of ethics anyway. Some do better than others. These we should recognize, elevate in our regard, and imitate. (Only a very few may aspire to something even more rarefied like intellectual, in addition to practical, virtue---where one may theorize about why things ought to be this way. Presumably, a philosopher might! This is too much to ask of non-specialists, Aristotle suggests).

What is the best way to act? Aristotle's famous answer was in moderation, a measured reaction to stimuli. Anger or fear, for example, may be bad or good depending on context and appropriateness. Too much or too little in some contexts is bad. The right amount in the right circumstances is virtuous. A (culturally-informed) reason determines the judgment of appropriateness. The goal is an ingrained temperance. Very few human acts are entirely good or entirely bad. It all depends on how, when, where and why they are done. If reason is pulling the strings and not a raw passion or whim, there might be virtue in it. There might be some things that are just plain bad no matter what, but everyone knows what those are, or so Aristotle, in his circumscribed world, thought. The hard part of ethics is not attaining knowledge of what is right and wrong but implementing that knowledge. That is virtue ethics.

One thing that rings unquestionably true about Aristotle's picture is the developmental story he tells about how people get socialized, become sort of rational, that is, transformed from wild animals to at least passable citizens. Try explaining to small children Kantian deontology or why we should maximize utility in order to get them to stop beating up on each other. ("Shut up and do as I do! I'll explain Kant later...if ever.")

And does the influence of role models stop with childhood? Most adults are barely more critical than children. The thing about virtue theory is that this vulnerability to role models is a good thing: it is the very glue that holds societies together!

The bottom line about virtue theory is that it seeks to get people to form sustainable social units by forming them in a way that they may contribute to that sustainability. The be all and end all of the ethical is the political. It is about contributing to a unified, internally (at least) tranquil community with little in the way divisive value diversity.


A major problem with Virtue theory is the almost circular way it establishes value:

Critic: How are we to select our role models?

Virtue Theorist: We select those who are widely respected in our community.

C: Respected by whom?

VT: By those who are widely respected in our community.

C: So I am supposed to model my behavior, and thereby my character, on those who lots of others, who mutually respect each other, respect?

VT: Yes.

C: Isn't there a problem here?

VT: Well, not if you have fully absorbed the excellences touted in your community and we all live in some community or other, right?

C: It's just that I am disturbed by the possibility that my community might be wrong in its values.

VT: Why would you think such a thing?! Unless, of course, you have not fully internalized those values? But that is what becoming virtuous is all about--- internalizing those values.

C: Which values and why those?

VT: The ones that surround you. What others are there?

C: I can envision better ones. Ones less contingent on the culture that surrounds me.

VT: Really? Where would the idea of such other values come from if not from the culture that surrounds you? Perhaps you have an expanded view of culture, but it still surrounds you, right? Whatever it is, that culture has its paradigms which set the parameters of what are good and bad actions and, hence, who models them best.

C: What if my models of virtue disagree with one another? The culture that envelopes me is not unified in its assessment of which is correct? What then?

... and so on....

It is sometimes said in philosophy that not all argument circles are vicious. That some may be virtuous. Is this one?

Virtue theory has other problems, such as how can transforming yourself into a creature of habit, even "virtuous" habit, be a virtue? Dogs can be so trained. Whatever became of exercising your highest function: critical reason? Can the full exercise of that faculty ever be compatible with any settled belief system? *

Here's a dilemma for the virtue theorist: either virtue is almost a Platonic form, a never-ending quest, not attainable in this world (we die for lack of adequate time getting there)---or it is realizable in some degree this side of the grave, but how can it be realizable "in some degree"? You either have it or you are still in training? If still in training, it is not attained. If you have it, what role can reason play? Isn't it the "exercise" of critical reason that makes for virtue? We are led to the thought that if you are truly virtuous, you cannot very well trumpet it, let alone be celebrated for it, let alone be anyone's exemplar....

Humility must be the greatest virtue then. How can the humble be role models? Since when has humility been celebrated as the highest virtue within Greek thought. Was Socrates an exemplar of Aristotelian ethics? Or not?...

There is enough here to get us started thinking.


More objections and responses can be found in Rosalind Hursthouse's  SEP entry on Virtue Ethics.

A short audio tour of virtue ethics by Roger Crisp.

*For a defence of a form of virtue ethics that tries to address this "exercise" problem see "Temptation and Easy Virtue" by Roderick T. Long. Thanks to Dan for the link.

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  • Ballard G.

    Victor, maybe some confusion graced the discussion. Gene’s objection to your unusual take on moral sense theory as first order theory reminded me I took a radical position to the standard taxonomy in framing ethics. I’m afraid I argued virtue ethics might be claimed to be a form of moral sense theory, a position out of line with the normative modal. I surely was swimming upstream with the idea we take Hume as more clearly articulating a view of ethics, often labeled moral sense theory, as making Aristotle’s virtue ethics a subset of this moral sense theory. I suspect Anscombe looms big in forming the current standard taxonomy of ethics. Your sense that moral sense theory may hide a first order viewpoint could also alter the current taxonomy as an upshot. With no room to lay out my argument here I apologize for any dissonance my position may have keyed. I assume Gene, understandably, would also find difficulty with my take here.

    August 10

    • Victor M.

      It thrives in such environments.

      August 13

    • Ballard G.

      It would appear most things are a MESS!!!!!

      August 14

  • Ballard G.

    I too felt this meeting gets a good rating. It seemed to feature more participation from the group than in the past. The format has seemed to be based on a higher educational concept featuring a lecturer speaking on the subject hopefully followed by some kind of limited question and answer period. At this meeting there appeared a meaty participation of the attendees who provided a wonderful myriad of insights and independent opinions that could only be described as rich compared to some previous meetings maybe dominated by the speaker and some long time members. At some midpoint the crowd seemed to sense the speaker’s presentation had come to a kind of unsteady or uncertain end and they eagerly jumped in to take over with an abundance of insight and critique. The Meetups and leaders get kudos for agendas to educate on detailed fundamentals of philosophy.

    August 10

    • Gene L

      Have you been to previous meetings?

      August 11

  • Victor M.

    Thanks to all for the input on an outdoor venue, see the postings for the next meetup:

    for more on this.

    July 16

  • Victor M.

    Christi's idea of an outdoor meetup has occurred to me also and seems especially viable at least during these days when it stays light and warm late. I was thinking Gasworks because it is more centrally located... maybe we could make a picnic... does anyone else have a particular park that you think might work? what do others think?

    2 · July 11

    • Christi A.

      The reasons not to have a meeting outdoors that dan and bill provided would only minutely affect conversation, probably about the same or less as a coffee shop. Unless some people have aspbergers like reactions and can't handle sounds, I still don't get why it would be bad. Hey, maybe I'll start my own outdoor philosphy group though. I'm going to do it no matter what this summer! If it were me, I would diplomatically propose a vote on the matter.

      July 14

    • Christi A.

      Also, at 8pm, the sunset is beautiful and there are less obnoxious people around than during the day when the heat could be dangerous for people.

      July 14

  • CJ K.

    Ethics, morality are my favorite subjects. The discussion among members are civil, concise, and useful. I especially enjoy the information provide3d by Dan about the historical background about Aristotle.

    July 11

    • A former member
      A former member

      Thanks. I think Aristotle is an overmuch berated philosophy too.

      July 13

  • Blake B.

    I'm definitely liking the outdoor idea. The discussion went well, although my the very nature of virtue theory is kind of round-a-bout. Looking forward to the next one, as intuition based/pre-intellectual moral theories are more my thing. Also, while this is a philosophy based group, bringing in ideas from biology and psychology should prove fruitful, though that may delve too much into experimental philosophy for this group.

    July 11

    • Christi A.

      But I also have been researching things and reading about magnetism and it's affect on the brain, particularly in relation to the area of the brain that makes moral

      July 13

    • Christi A.

      Well, anyway, I always look at everything through multiple lenses and research things in multiple lights, I just might be too experimental for the group, but I could try attending

      July 13

  • Christi A.

    Why not go to discovery park and watch the sun set while we talk about stuff ? Why does it have to be in a noisy shop with other people.

    1 · July 11

  • Bill

    From the discussion, I'm impressed, in part, that the moral theories that make it into the philosophical record depend in part on the concerns of the time. I suspect that Aristotle and even Kant pre-theoretically viewed some conduct favorably. At a time when explanation of the observed world was the ascendant intellectual virtue, Aristotle felt it important to theorize on how, to varying degrees, citizens come to exemplify the (objectively) good actor. We could also find some historical background to Kant's desire to derive the moral evaluation of every act from a minimal set of axioms. Likewise, consequentialism, by appealing to some readily available moral intuitions and sense has a place in a democratic (less constitutionally hierarchical) era. The meeting provided a bit of space to hear about these big ideas, especially virtue theory. Unfortunately the meeting was disrupted by one individual who spoke at length on how unimpressed he was with the discussion, which he wdn't follow.

    2 · July 11

  • A former member
    A former member

    Venue was too noisy.

    1 · July 10

  • Ballard G.

    I was worried for a bit that meetings were to be perpetually needing a date. Kind of got use to roughly monthly meetings. I presume many have looked forward to new meetings by the new leadership. It’s nice to have meeting dates to look forward to. I’m not sure it would be easy to arrange 28 attendees functionally at the Sit Sip Study Café. It could be interesting. No-shows might help. Aspira seemed to handle crowds well. The Seattle library system’s meetup rooms generally have good capacity but must be signed up sometimes three months ahead. I have a great sympathy for the logistics of meeting space and appreciate what we got. Thanks for the work, Victor, and the content and challenges you provide.

    July 9

    • Victor M.

      Christi, what would be a better location? Downtown would probably be better for all concerned. The U-District is probably next best because it is a major transportation hub. Short of paying for private space, or the occassional generosity of a member who knows someone, we are usually stuck with cafes. Libraries close too early. We are always open to venue ideas if you have any...

      July 10

    • Gene L

      The Aspira has been far and away the best venue the club has had. However, I suggest not using it again in the future as the person providing the venue must be there initially, and doesn't attend the meetups - so it is pretty clear to me that we are imposing on others.

      July 10

  • A former member
    A former member

    I'd like to see a good discussion of current neo-Aristotelean ethics. For example, Roderick Long's views on temptation and virtue:

    May 7

    • Victor M.

      We are always welcome to others presenting.

      May 7

    • A former member
      A former member

      I'll try to reread Long's short (sorry, couldn't resist a pun;) essay before the meeting. I also wouldn't reduce virtue ethics -- even Aristotelean virtue ethics -- to merely finding exemplars to imitate. (Long fits in the Aristotelean tradition yet doesn't take an exemplar-imitation approach.)

      July 1

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