ᐅ Virtue ethics definition | Ethics Philosophy (2023)

Virtue (Greek ἀρετή, Latin virtus, German Tugend) is a fundamental moral concept that characterizes a person’s readiness and ability to consciously and firmly follow good; a set of internal, mental and intellectual qualities that embody the human ideal in its moral perfection. Virtue is one of the two basic forms of objectifying morality along with principles, norms; in contrast to the latter, fixing the transpersonal and universally valid essence of morality, it expresses the individuality and arbitrariness of morality. It can be defined as the manifestation of morality in the individual, the integral characteristic of the moral personality, the morality that has become the motivation for behavior. For the concept of virtue, the following are significant. Virtue:

  1. is always correlated with a higher, self-sufficient goal, which can never be reduced to a level of means and coincides with human perfection;
  2. is associated with special, only her peculiar pleasures (joys) and practiced for the sake of herself;
  3. occurs at the intersection of the natural-affective states (instincts, passions, inclinations) and the cognizing mind, is a qualitative characteristic of the person (morality, ethos, temperament, “soul”) of the person (virtue, order, disposition, moral certainty): “Virtue – it is the ability to do the best in everything that relates to pleasure and suffering, and vice is its opposite “(Aristotle, EN, 1104 b);
  4. is an active discovery of the moral essence of a person, is realized in actions, in correlation with practices of behavior in society;
  5. acts as a free (self-imposed, deliberate, consciously-weighed) mode of action, during which the individual assumes the risk of his own decisions;
  6. is vigorously opposed to vice. Among the specific theories of virtue, the most significant, marking the most important historical milestones in its understanding are the theories of Aristotle and Kant.

Aristotle created the theory of virtue by constituting ethics in the narrow and narrow sense of the word (in a broad sense it is the most important political science, including in its subject the doctrine of the highest good and ways of life) as a field of knowledge studying ethical (ethos-related, moral) virtues. Virtue in its interpretation is associated with happiness (identical with the highest good) and represents both the path to happiness and an essential part of happiness itself. The ancient Greek word ἀρετή did not have an explicitly moral meaning (doing good), it denoted the goodness of the thing, the part of the body, the living being, their conformity to their purpose; this basic meaning became the starting point for Aristotle. Realizing virtue as the best, perfect state of the soul (the quality of the soul), Aristotle sees this state in the fact that “a correctly directed mind can agree with the movements of the senses” (MM, 1206b), or in other words, the unreasonable affective part of the soul obeys the instructions its reasonable part is similar to how the child obeys the orders of his father. The result is the possession of the middle: “As in passions, and in deeds, vices transcend due either to excess or to the disadvantage, virtue knows how to find the middle, and it elects” (1107 a).

Virtue and vice are not distinguished by subject, but by the way in which this or that business is carried out; the boundaries between them are mobile. The middle is not an average and not a general rule, but a perfect one, and every time a concrete one, a choice that depends on who chooses and on the particular circumstances of choice. “There are no established rules in actions and actions” (MM, 1189 b). But this does not mean subjectivism and arbitrariness of behavior since virtue is implicated in right judgment; so the virtuous habits (habits) of a person are correlated with the usual forms of a polis life, which is also an embodied, objectively developed mind. A virtuous individual is the main supporting structure of a polis morality. “Virtue is a consciously chosen warehouse (of the soul), consisting in possessing the middle concerning us, and determined by such judgment as its judicious person determines” (1107a).

Kant develops his doctrine of virtue in direct controversy with Aristotle and his tradition. For his position, the following points are essential: virtue is associated with a goal that is in itself a duty; it is derived from pure principles and is not at all a habit, a habit of good deeds; Virtue can not be defined as the middle, the difference between it and vice is of a qualitative nature. Kant breaks the connection of virtue with happiness and subordinates her to duty: “Virtue is the moral firmness of the will of man in respecting his duty, which is moral coercion from his legislative mind, for this mind is itself constituted as a force fulfilling the law.”

Aristotle and Kant, with their approaches to virtue, designate two eras in the history of ethics and morality. For Aristotle, morality is predominantly in the form of a moral (virtuous) personality; ethics is a doctrine of virtue. This understanding fully corresponded to the public relations of antiquity and the Middle Ages, which largely preserved the natural shell, which had the form of personal ties. For Kant, morality coincides with the absolute law, and ethics is transformed primarily into metaphysics of morals, the doctrine of virtues becomes secondary to the doctrine of duty. Behind this view, there was a historical shift, during which public relations acquired an impersonal, proprietary character, and morality from the field of personal virtues moved to the field of normative systems (first of all, rights).

Since virtue is connected with all concrete human activity (to the extent that the latter depends on the moral choice of the individual), depending on the sphere, the objective certainty of this activity, it falls into many separate virtues. Sophist Hippias believed that one could not speak of virtue in general, a man has one virtue, a woman has another virtue, a child has a third virtue. According to the Stoics, on the contrary, virtue is always the same. The predominant in European ethics was the Platonic-Aristotelian tradition, according to which the general definition of the notion of virtue receives a continuation and addition in the analysis of individual virtues. From Socrates and Plato, there is a tradition of singling out four cardinal virtues: wisdom (reasonableness), justice, courage, moderation. According to Plato, wisdom is the quality of the contemplative mind, the virtue of philosophers.

Aristotle distinguished wisdom as the quality of a theoretical mind aimed at contemplating the eternal, single, from judiciousness as the quality of the practical mind directed at the cognition of the changeable, the individual. It is judiciousness (Greek: φρόνησις, Latin prudentia, German Klugheit), which in European ethics has been regarded as the first among the cardinal virtues. It coincides with the ability of a person to find concrete ways and means to achieve morally beautiful goals; it is not identical with the ingenuity of the mind: the latter becomes judicious only in conjunction with the good; ingenuity, aimed at evil, turns into resourcefulness. Judgment is the property of the mind, the rational part of the soul (the dianetic virtue, according to Aristotle’s classification) and relates to all other virtues (the Stoics just considered it the only virtue). “As without judgment, and without virtue, the conscious choice will not be right, because the second creates a goal, and the first allows one to perform actions leading to the goal” (EN, 1145a).

Justice is a moral measure in the distribution of the advantages and disadvantages of people’s living together. Courage is a military virtue, a way of behavior that allows you to overcome physical pain and the fear of death when morality demands it. Moderation is a moral way of behavior regarding sensual pleasures. Aristotle expanded the catalog of virtues, adding mildness, generosity (along with magnificence), ambition (along with majesty), friendliness, courtesy and truthfulness. In patristic and scholastic ethics some virtues were replenished with theological (theological) virtues of faith, hope and charity-love borrowed from the apostle Paul (I Cor 13:13).

In modern times, there have been changes in the context of which the traditional catalog of virtues was expanded, on the one hand, and on the other, shifted from the center to the periphery of moral life: a virtue of tolerance was formed that sets the moral measure of attitude toward people of other beliefs and beliefs; in connection with the triumph of philistine (bourgeois) ethos over the aristocratic to the level of socially significant virtues, such qualities as labor, thrift, diligence, etc. were raised; the ratio of virtues and universally valid norms in favor of the latter has changed. The ancient vertical of virtues as the steps of perfection, bringing the individual closer to the highest good, was replaced by a horizontal line of various moral relations. Kant calls virtues duties and divides them into duties to themselves and duties towards others.

Ethics, understood primarily as the ethics of virtue, which it was in antiquity and the Middle Ages, proceeds from the fact that:

  • the person is initially aimed at goodwill
  • morality, fixed in the form of virtues, becomes the direct motive of behavior, and for the moral individual, this motive proves to be stronger than all other motives (fear, social recognition, wealth).

These prerequisites have been criticized and revised in the philosophy of modern times. In ethics, the notion of a person as a utilitarian being who legitimately strives for self-preservation, selfish interests, self-interest (Spinoza, Hobbes, the French materialists, and English utilitarianism) has gained predominance. Kant developed the stoic idea of ​​morality as an autonomous institution in a man who does not integrate into a series of real maxims of behavior but builds up over him, representing a special view of human behavior that does not at all abolish necessity, the rigid determinism of the latter.

Finally, the question was raised about the falsity and sophistry of moral consciousness, which appear in the form of virtuous motives (K. Marx, F. Nietzsche). Philosophical ethics set a qualitatively new perspective, according to which the pragmatist of life is liberated from the direct dictates of morality and the belief that moral reveals its effectiveness indirectly through ethical, ethical, scientific, ethical – economic and other regulatory systems; ethics of virtue began to be replaced by institutional ethics. In the real moral consciousness (the moral language used by people in everyday life), the belief remains about the fundamental importance of virtues and a virtuous person in the moral life of man and society. This belief is reflected in the ethical appeal to the Aristotelian tradition, which is also observed at present, although it is not decisive (I. Ritter, A.Macintyre).


What is virtue ethics in philosophy? ›

Virtue ethics is a broad term for theories that emphasize the role of character and virtue in moral philosophy rather than either doing one's duty or acting in order to bring about good consequences.

What is virtue ethics short? ›

Virtue ethics is a philosophy developed by Aristotle and other ancient Greeks. It is the quest to understand and live a life of moral character. This character-based approach to morality assumes that we acquire virtue through practice.

What is virtue ethics explain with example? ›

Virtues are habits. That is, once they are acquired, they become characteristic of a person. For example, a person who has developed the virtue of generosity is often referred to as a generous person because he or she tends to be generous in all circumstances.

What is virtue ethics and why is it important? ›

Virtue ethics recognizes that resolution of difficult problems depends, above all, on the character (that is, on the virtues) of the people making decisions. It is important to note that, strictly speaking, virtue ethics is focused on character rather than on specific actions.

What does Aristotle say about virtue ethics? ›

According to Aristotle's ethical theory, the virtuous person exhibits the joint excellence of reason and of character. The virtuous person not only knows what the good thing to do is, she is also emotionally attached to it.


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