The Legal Theory Lexicon already includes posts on Deontology and Utilitarianism--representing two important families of ethical theory. This week, the Lexicon provides an introduction to virtue ethics. As always, the Lexicon provides a quick and dirty summary with an eye to law students (especially first-year law students) with an interest in legal theory. Together, these three posts provide a rough and ready introduction to the three most prominent approaches to normative ethics.
What is virtue ethics? Obviously, virtue ethics has something to do with virtue, which in this context is closely related in meaning to the English word "excellence," the Latin "virtu," and the Greek, "arete." Sometimes "virtue ethics" is also called "aretaic moral theory," using the adjective form of arete.
Virtue ethics is currently one of three major approaches in normative ethics. It may, initially, be identified as the one that emphasizes the virtues, or moral character, in contrast to the approach which emphasizes duties or rules (deontology) or that which emphasizes the consequences of actions (consequentialism). Suppose it is obvious that someone in need should be helped. A utilitarian will point to the fact that the consequences of doing so will maximize well-being, a deontologist to the fact that, in doing so the agent will be acting in accordance with a moral rule such as "Do unto others as you would be done by" and a virtue ethicist to the fact that helping the person would be charitable or benevolent.
It might be illuminating to compare virtue ethics to deontology and utilitarianism via the following simplified formulas:
- Utilitarianism: An action is right if and only if the action will produce the best consequences as compared to the alternative actions that could be undertaken by the agent.
- Deontology: An action is right if and only if the action is either (a) required by a moral duty, or (b) allowed by a moral permission, and not (c) forbidden by a moral prohibition.
- Virtue Ethics: An action is right if and only if the action is one which a virtuous moral agent would characteristically perform under the circumstances.
Formulas are tricky, and I haven't tried to get these formulations exactly right. Instead, my aim was to paint broadly to give a sense of the basic structure of these three approaches to moral theory. Whereas, utilitarianism makes consequences (or states of affairs) and the central idea of moral theory and deontology focuses on moral rules, virtue ethics focuses on character and human excellence.
Modern Moral Philosophy
Historically, virtue ethics finds its roots in ancient Greek philosophy, particularly in the work of Plato and Aristotle, but the contemporary revival of virtue ethics can, in a sense, be traced to G.E.M. Anscombe's article, Modern Moral Philosophy published in the journal Philosophy in 1958. Anscombe's famous article noted the well-known deficiencies and problems associated with utilitarianism and deontology and suggested that a return to Aristotle's moral philosophy might provide a fruitful alternative. This marks the beginning of what might be called the aretaic turn in moral philosophy--initiating both a return to Aristotle's theory of the virtues and the development new varieties of virtue theory.
What are the virtues? One good way to answer this question is to examine Aristotle's account of human excellence. For Aristotle, the virtues are acquired dispositional qualities; they are potentialities or powers which are states of character or of mind. Aristotle characterizes the virtues as intellectual or moral, and his views can be sketched by examining these two categories.
The moral virtues are states of character concerned with choice; examples include courage, temperance and justice. Aristotle thought that virtues such as courage related to human emotion in a particular way. In the case of courage, there is a morally neutral human emotion--fear. The disposition to excessive fear (fear that is disproportionate to the situation) is the vice of timidity. The disposition to insufficient fear is the vice of recklessness. Courage is the disposition to feel fear that is proportionate to the actual threat or danger. Hence the virtue of mean is a mean between two opposed vices, timidity and recklessness. Moral virtues, says Aristotle, are acquired as a result of habit; one must act courageously in order to become courageous.
The intellectual virtues are practical and theoretical wisdom. Practical wisdom or phronesis is excellence in deliberation: the person of practical reason is able to choose good ends and the means to achieve those ends. Practical wisdom operates in realm of praxis: action in particular situations. Theoretical wisdom or sophia, on the other hand, operates in the realm of theoria; abstract thinking, science and theory. The intellectual virtues are initially developed by teaching and mature through experience.
A fully virtuous agent, then, would be someone who possesses the full complement of the moral and intellectual virtues. This may be rare, as most humans lack some of the virtues and possess others in an imperfect form.
Virtue Ethics and Human Good
What are the implications of virtue ethics for human ends and actions? Here is a very simple (and simplified) answer. Virtue ethics counsels us to cultivate virtue--to acquire the human excellences insofar as that is possible. Virtuous agents will then aim at the right goals in life, because their intellectual and emotional makeup naturally points them towards a just and flourishing life. Thus, a fully virtuous human will characteristically act in the right way for the right reasons.
And what about those who lack full virtue? Many humans, however, lack fully virtuous characters. What counsel does virtue ethics offer those who lack the full complement of human excellence? The answer to this question can be developed in at least two ways. First, we might ask ourselves, "How would a virtuous human act in these circumstances?" This is, of course, part of ordinary human deliberation. When faced with a difficult choice situation, sometimes we think of someone whose character we admire, and ask, "How would she (or he) deal with this?" Second, we might ask ourselves, "What do the virtues counsel in this situation?" That is, we can take our understanding of the human excellences, and ask questions like, "What action would be courageous?" or "What action would accord with the virtue of justice?"
Particularism and Phronesis
Contemporary virtue ethics is distinctive in part, because it denies something that both deontology and utilitarianism seem to affirm--that there is a decision procedure for ethics. Utilitarianism claims that there is a very simple rule (which if correctly applied) yields the morally correct action for each situation: act so as to produce the best consequences. Deontology has a similar claim: to do the right thing, simply consult the moral rules, and perform that action which is required or if no action is required, choose from among those that are permissible. Virtue ethics characteristically denies that there is any mechanical rule that generates the morally correct action. Why not? One answer to that question lies in Aristotle's idea of the phronimos, the person who possesses the virtue of practical wisdom. The phronimos has the ability to respond to the complexities of particular situations, to see what is morally salient, and to choose an action that will work given the circumstances.
Behind the virtue of phronesis or practical wisdom is an assumption about the complexity of life. Virtue ethics characteristically argues that life is more complicated than our theories and rules. It would be impossible, the virtue ethicist might argue, to write a code of rules for moral conduct. No matter how complicated the rules, situations would inevitably arise that were not covered or in which the rules produced a perverse and unintended result. Acting morally requires more than a knowledge of moral principles; it requires a sensitivity to particular situations. One way of putting this is use the metaphor of moral vision, the ability to size up a real-world choice situation, perceiving the morally relevant circumstances.
Virtue Politics and Virtue Jurisprudence
What are the implications of virtue ethics for the questions that legal theorists ask? One starting point for an answer might be the development of "virtue politics," i.e. a political theory that builds on the foundations of virtue ethics. A virtue politics might begin with the idea that the goal of the state should be the establishment of the conditions for the development of human excellence. Thus, the aim of the legislator might be described as the establishment of a political and legal framework within which individual citizens can realize their full potential for human excellence. A virtue politics might also consider the implications of virtue theory for the design of political institutions. For example, institutions might both seek to counteract the fact that both citizens and office holders will frequently be less than fully virtuous and also to establish conditions under which legislators, executives, and judges are selected at least in part for their possession of the virtues.
What about the implications of virtue ethics for legal theory? We might call an aretaic approach to legal theory "virtue jurisprudence." Among the topics that aretaic legal theory might explore is a virtue-centered theory of judging, which describes the particular excellences required by judges. A virtue-centered theory of judging offers an account of the characteristics or excellences that make for a good judge. These include: (1) judicial temperance, (2) judicial courage, (3) judicial temperament, (4) judicial intelligence, (5) judicial wisdom, and (6) justice. We might say that a virtuous judge is a judge who fully possesses the judicial virtues. Although every theory of judging can incorporate some account of judicial virtue, a virtue-centered theory of judging makes the distinctive claim that the judicial virtues are central, i.e. that they have basic explanatory and normative significance.
In particular, a virtue-centered theory of judging would contend that a correct legal decision is a decision that would characteristically be made by a virtuous judge in the circumstances relevant to the decision. Thus, the central normative thesis of a virtue-centered theory of judging is that judges ought to be virtuous and to make virtuous decisions. Judges who lack the virtues should aim to make lawful or legally correct decisions, although they may not be able to do this reliably given that they lack the virtues. Judges who lack the judicial virtues ought to develop them. Judges ought to be selected on the basis of their possession of (or potential for the acquisition of) the judicial virtues.
One of the judicial virtues is "judicial wisdom," the judicial form of the phronesis. If the world is too complex for a complete code of moral rules, then what about the law. Aristotle suggested that justice according to law would inevitably fall short in at least some particular cases, because the legislature must speak in relatively general and abstract language which sometimes will produce unintended consequences that are contrary to the purposes of the law. Here is Aristotle's discussion from Chapter 10 of Book V of the Nicomochean Ethics:
What causes the difficulty is the fact that equity is just, but not what is legally just: it is a rectification of legal justice. The explanation of this is that all law is universal, and there are some things about which it is not possible to pronounce rightly in general terms; therefore in cases where it is necessary to make a general pronouncement, but impossible to do so rightly, the law takes account of the majority of cases, though not unaware that in this way errors are made. And the law is nonetheless right; because the error lies not in the law nor in the legislator but in the nature of the case; for the raw material of human behavior is essentially of this kind.
Thus, the particularism that characterizes virtue ethics may translate into a concern with equity in virtue jurisprudence.
While utilitarianism and deontology are well-known to legal theory, virtue ethics is only beginning to have an influence on contemporary jurisprudence. Most contemporary American legal theorists were trained before virtue ethics reached its full flower in the 1980s and 1990s, and many law professors who have broad theoretical interests are only vaguely aware of the substantial impact that virtue ethics has had on contemporary moral philosophy. Nonetheless, a theoretically inclined law student can bring virtue ethics to bear on a variety of legal problems. One good example concerns the use of the "reasonable person" standard in tort law. It is interesting that tort law frames the standard of care in negligence cases with reference to the concept of an agent (the reasonable person)--and does not use the "reasonable action" or "reasonable consequences" as the fundamental idea.
If thinking about the reasonable person in tort law is a good place to begin, virtue ethics can be applied to a variety of legal problems. Here is one suggestion. Sometimes, you will find that a strict application of the rules leads to a result that is manifestly unfair and unintended. Ask yourself: "Is this a case where a virtuous judge might choose to depart from the rule on equitable grounds?" And here is another suggestion: Whenever you find yourself dissatisfied with consequentialist or deontological approaches to the moral problems that law addresses, ask yourself, "What would virtue ethics say here?" What character traits or virtues are relevant to this problem? When you start to list the relevant virtues, you will be on your way to a virtue-theoretic analysis of the legal problem!
Related Lexicon Entries
- Legal Theory Lexicon 008: Utilitarianism
- Legal Theory Lexicon 010: Deontology
- Legal Theory Lexicon 016: Positive and Normative Legal Theory
- Legal Theory Lexicon 031: Virtue Jurisprudence
- Anscombe, G.E.M., Modern Moral Philosophy, 33 Philosophy 1-19 (1958), reprinted in G.E. M. Anscome, Ethics, Religion and Politics: Collected Philosophical Papers (1991).
- Crisp, Roger (ed.), How Should One Live?: Essays on the Virtues (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1996).
- Crisp, Roger and Michael Slote (eds.), Virtue Ethics (Oxford Readings in Philosophy) (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1997).
- Foot, Philippa, Virtues and Vices (Oxford: Blackwell 1978).
- Paula Gottleib, The Virtue of Aristotle's Ethics (Cambridge University Press 2009).
- Hursthouse, Rosalind, On Virtue Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1999). The single best one-volume statement of virtue ethics.
- Solum, Lawrence B., Virtue Jurisprudence: A Virtue-Centered Theory of Judging, 34 Metaphilosophy 178 (2003).
- Solum, Lawrence B., Natural Justice, 51 American Journal of Jurisprudence 65-105 (2006).
- Statman, D. (ed.), Virtue Ethics: A Critical Reader (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press 1997).
Links to Online Resources
- Virtue Ethics in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy by Rosalind Hursthouse. I highly recommend this as a starting point for further reading on virtue ethics.
- Ethics Updates Page on Aristotle and Virtue Ethics
- Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy Entry on Virtue Theory
- Wikipedia Entry on Virtue Ethics.
- Wikipedia Entry on Virtue Jurisprudence
- Online Guide to Ethics and Moral Philosophy: Virtue Ethics
(This entry was last revised on February 14, 2016.)