Online Guide to Ethics and Moral Philosophy


Robert Cavalier

Philosophy Department
Carnegie Mellon

Part I History of Ethics

Preface: The Life of Socrates
Section 1: Greek Moral Philosophy
Section 2: Hellenistic and Roman Ethics
Section 3: Early Christian Ethics
Section 4: Modern Moral Philosophy
Section 5: 20th Century Analytic Moral Philosophy

Part II Concepts and Problems

Preface: Meta-ethics, Normative Ethics and Applied Ethics
Section 1: Ethical Relativism
Section 2: Ethical Egoism
Section 3: Utilitarian Theories
Section 4: Deontological Theories
Section 5: Virtue Ethics
Section 6: Liberal Rights and Communitarian Theories
Section 7: Ethics of Care
Section 8: Case-based Moral Reasoning
Section 9: Moral Pluralism

Part III Applied Ethics

Preface: The Field of Applied Ethics
Section 1: The Topic of Euthanasia
Multimedia Module: A Right to Die? The Dax Cowart Case
Section 2: The Topic of Abortion
Multimedia Module: The Issue of Abortion in America
Postscript: Conflict Resolution

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Virtue Ethics

(For the most recent description of Virtue Ethics in Beauchamp and Childress, see Chapter Two of Principles of Biomedical Ethics, 5th Ed)


Historical Perspective

There is a long tradition in ethics that places great importance on the "kind of person one is." We not only want those around us to "tell the truth" (for example, according to the Categorical Imperative), but also to be honest. Both Aristotle (arete) and Aquinas (virtu) emphasized this aspect of ethics by highlighting the role of what we would today call character in their discussions of ethics (and the classic virtues of courage, justice, and moderation). David Hume also gave virtue and personal merit a key role in his ethical theory. The recent revival of interest in virtue ethics can be traced back to Philippa Foot. She writes that a person’s "virtue may be judged by his innermost desires as well as by his intentions; and this fits with our idea that a virtue such as generosity lies as much in someone’s attitudes as in his actions" (Virtue and Vices, 1977, 5).

The Moral Concept of Virtue

We should distinguish the virtues found in a particular society or culture (e.g., chastity) from those virtues that can be supported by moral reasoning (e.g., honesty). "A virtue is a trait of character that is socially valued, and a moral virtue is a trait that is morally valued…Moral reasons must support a claim…of moral virtue" (B&C, 27).

By emphasizing the priority of character in discussions of ethics, virtue theorists can say: "…rather than using rules and government regulations to protect subjects in research, some claim that the most reliable protection is the presence of an ‘informed, conscientious, compassionate, responsible researcher’" (Beecher, quoted in B&C, 28-29). The underlying view here is that "character is more important than conformity to rules and that virtues should be inculcated and cultivated over time through educational interactions, role models," etc. (B&C, 29)

A practical consequence of this view is that the education of, for example medical doctors, should include the cultivation of virtues such as compassion, discernment, trustworthiness, integrity, conscientiousness as well as benevolence (desire to help) and nonmalevolence (desire to avoid harm).

Critical Evaluation of "Virtue Ethics"

Often times we encounter "morality between strangers" (as when one enters an Emergency Room after a car accident). At these times, it’s not the person’s character, but his/her need to follow rules and procedures that seem to come to the forefront ("Virtue is not enough"). Furthermore, persons of ‘good character’ can certainly formulate ‘bad policy’ or make a ‘poor choice’ -- and we need to evaluate those policies and choices according to moral principles.

Constructive Evaluation of "Virtue Ethics"

Yet "…ethical theory is more complete if the virtues are included…motives deserve to be at center stage in a way that some leading traditional theories have inadequately appreciated" … "To look at acts without also looking at the moral appropriateness and desirability of feelings, attitudes, forms of sympathy, and the like is to miss a large area of the moral picture" (B&C, 4th Ed., 69)

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Copyright 2002 (first published 1/96)

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