The Advantage of Virtue Ethics: The Development of the Moral Character

Topics: Moral

When considering morality in modern theories, we need to have good reasons that are based on fact and from reliable sources; and always be impartial, not relying on our feelings and giving all interests equal weight, but this may not be the best way. Morality is doing the best thing that is supported by the arguments, and there are many ethical theories are used to evaluate morality. Some of them include Ethical Egoism, Social Contract Theory, Utilitarianism, Kant’s Theory and Virtue Ethics.

Each of these theories has various advantages and disadvantages. Virtue Ethics stands out among these because it focuses on moral character rather than a standard of rightness and obligation.

Some philosophers such as Elizabeth Anscombe believe we should stop focusing on the rightness and obligation and return to virtues initially proposed by Aristotle. Ethical egoism is the idea that each person should pursue only their own interests. An argument for ethical egoism is that altruism is self-defeating. The argument considers interfering with other’s needs an invasion of their privacy, and that the act of charity is degrading, or saying the person is not competent to care for themselves.

This argument is flawed because, most of the time the help we give others does not fall into any of those categories.

A second argument for ethical egoism comes from 20th-century writer, Ayn Rand, who believes individual life should be valued above all else, and altruism requires the sacrifice of an individuals life (not by death, but by what they do).

Get quality help now
Marrie pro writer

Proficient in: Moral

5 (204)

“ She followed all my directions. It was really easy to contact her and respond very fast as well. ”

+84 relevant experts are online
Hire writer

Altruism does not value the individuals life and therefore we should accept ethical egoism because it values the life of the individual. This argument is flawed because there is a commonsense option that values both the individual and others. The argument that ethical egoism is compatible with commonsense morality tries to explain our morality in terms of our self-interest. This argument is flawed because we may do horrible things that benefit us, and ethical egoism would not be able to explain why we should not do them.

Arguments against Ethical Egoism claim it endorses wickedness. The fact that people can commit horrible acts and benefit by them, ethical egoism would have to approve because they are acting in their own self-interest. Ethical egoism is unacceptably arbitrary. The principle of equal treatment that all people should be treated equally unless there is a good reason not to ensures fairness when it comes to others. Ethical egoism violates this principle by encouraging us to put ourselves above others.

Another Theory disadvantageous to Virtue Ethics is Social Contract Theory, which is described as a theory that states, people will ultimately agree to a social contract because humanity has the intelligence and ability to reason, leading us to know we cannot survive without others. Social Contract Theory defines what moral rules we are required to follow and justifies them. Society would not exist if we allowed murder, assault, theft, lying as well as other poor behaviors.

The rules against this behavior are justified because they promote agreement and cooperation in society. The social contract also provides our rationale for agreeing to follow the rules: we want to avoid punishment and enjoy the benefits of living in a peaceful place.Social contract theory also provides answers for when is it okay to break the rules. If someone breaks the rules, then we are no longer obligated to maintain the rules in our relationship with that person. We may disregard the rules when dealing with someone who does not follow them; this is how the government can enforce the law.

Social contract theory requires the rules that are accepted with the condition that others accept them as well. It is not rational to make an agreement to which we do not expect others to follow, thus limiting the self-sacrifice required by morality.

Sometimes in societies, not all of the people share the same rights and receive the same benefits from the burdens of society. In these instances, a non-violent protest where people break the law but do not resist arrest, known as civil disobedience, is used to protest the unfair treatment. The social contract provides an argument for civil disobedience because the individuals affected are not required to follow the rules since they do not receive the benefits of following them.

While social contract theory has advantages, there are two major objections. Many suggest that the theory is built on fiction, however, the social contract is implicit, meaning we accept the benefits that it brings and when we disregard the rules, we are treated differently. It is in our best interest to follow the rules and receive the benefits, so we do. Another objection is that some individuals cannot benefit us such as animals, future generations and oppressed populations. The social contract theory does nothing to prohibit harm to these groups because there is no benefit for us from them.

Utilitarianism is a theory developed by Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and Henry Sidgwick and has three basic assumptions. They are morality of an action depends only on the consequences of the action, an action’s consequence only matter in terms of greater or lesser happiness, and every individual’s happiness gets equal weight. An action is deemed right under this theory if it creates the most substantial balance of happiness compared to unhappiness Utilitarianism defines happiness as pleasure, which includes all mental states that feel good (Rachels, 2019).

The idea that things are good or bad because of how they make us feel is flawed. Humans value other things in life than happiness, so to say that is the only factor to determine the rightness of an action is incorrect. Utilitarianism also relies only on the consequences of an action. Just as happiness should not be the only measure of morality, neither should it depend only on the outcome of an action.

Other measures of morality, such as justice, human rights, and backward-looking reasons such as making a promise, are all essential to determining the morality of an action and should not be disregarded as they are in utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is flawed in that it states we should consider all person’s happiness as important as anyone else’s.

This concept places a massive demand for people to give up the things they love for the greater happiness of others, ultimately destroying personal relationships because we would be expected to care about a total stranger just as much as we care about our families. Building loving relationships and friendships are part of human nature and utilitarianism goes against this by expecting us to care the same for everyone no matter who they are.

Those who still choose to defend this theory have three arguments: 1. contesting the consequences, 2. The principle of utility is a guide for choosing rules, not actions, and 3. “common sense is wrong. Contesting the consequences can be explained that when a horrible action is said to promote the most happiness, that actions doesn’t actually do so. However, while this may be true in some cases, it is not always true, some horrible acts actually do have good consequences.

The second argument essentially states that instead of judging individual actions, a set of rules is created from a utilitarian viewpoint, and individual acts are judged by whether they abide by the rules. If we can make exceptions to the rule, then really, it is no different from classical utilitarianism, and if we cannot ever break the rule then, rule-utilitarianism really is not utilitarianism. Finally, when utilitarianism conflicts with common sense, then common sense must be wrong.

When utilitarianism is confronted with arguments against the theory, believers have developed responses to those arguments. The argument that the theory does not address other essential values can be contested by stating that all values have a utilitarian basis. For example, a utilitarian would say people do not lie because they will get caught and their reputation and relationships would suffer.

Second, our gut instincts about right and wrong are wrong. When we instinctively condemn all lies, we are also condemning beneficial lies and, therefore, should trust the principle of utility. (Rachels, 2019) Finally, instead of focusing on the negative consequences of actions, we should focus on all the consequences.

Immanuel Kant was a significant philosopher who believed in absolute moral rules and developed what is known as Kant’s Theory. When speaking of what we should do based on our desires, he used the term hypothetical imperatives, meaning we should only do something if it aligns with our desires. Moral obligations were known as categorical imperatives, meaning that it is something one should do regardless of their desires.

Kant explains the categorical imperative as “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” (Rachels, 2019). A maxim can be defined as the rule one follows when doing something. Under this principle, if the action can be expected to be followed by all people at all times, then it is acceptable; if not, then the act is not acceptable.

Kant had substantial feelings against lying and believed there was no exception to this rule. If lying became common, people would stop believing each other altogether and no one would pay any attention to what is said. So, therefore lying is forbidden. This argument however, because what if telling a lie saved someone’s life, most people would choose to lie and save a life. Kant counters this argument with the idea that we cannot be confident about what the consequences of an action will be and therefore, the best option is to avoid lying and accept whatever consequences occur.

However, regardless of which action precedes the consequences, we will still be responsible for them and have a responsibility to try to obtain the best outcome, even if we are not sure. Another flaw in Kant’s Theory is that sometime, two rules may conflict with each other. The example Rachels provides is an event that occurred during hurricane Katrina in New Orleans; doctors were faced with the choice to euthanize patients or let them suffer and die a painful death. The rules against killing innocents and not letting anyone suffer without benefit were clearly conflicted in this situation and a choice had to be made.

While his theory had flaws, there was useful information to learn, as well. When we make a moral judgment we are required to have good reasons, it can be said that these reasons should not only apply to the current situation but in all similar situations. For example, if we should not steal from a friend because it would upset them, damage the friendship, and cause them harm, then we should not do anything else that would cause those things to happen either.

It is also important to realize we cannot think we are above anyone else, that we can do something, but others cannot. If there were exceptions to the rules under this principle, then we would be able to consider it a valid argument, as rules do not need to be absolute, we need good reasons to support our choice when making an exception to the rule.

Another aspect of Kant’s Theory was that he believed that humans are special and have a value above other animals. He believed other animals were only valuable in the ways they were useful to humans. He considered animals no more valuable to us than any other material thing. He supports this argument by stating that people have desires that can be satisfied while animals do not.

However, today, we believe that animals do have desires and goals. Another supporting argument is that humans have dignity; we are rational, make our own decisions and use reason to guide our actions. Animals cannot use reason, so without humans, there would be no morality in the world. He states, ” Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only” (Rachels, 2019).

When he said this, he meant we are to promote the welfare of others, protect and respect their rights and avoid harming them. Kant believes punishment described in utilitarian theories is using the criminals as a means to our ends.

Imprisoning criminals is viewed as using them for the benefit of others, and rehabilitating them is just a way of making them do what we want them to do. He believed this was violating their rights and taking away their ability to make their own decisions. Kant believed the punishment should be only used when someone commits a crime and it should be equal to the crime as well. Since humans are rational beings, they are responsible for their own actions and in return, should be held accountable for them.

The theories discussed so far are similar in their focus on principles of right and wrong as a standard of morality for our actions. The difference between them lies in which rules we should follow primarily. Virtue ethics is different from these theories because it focuses on the character of a person and not merely their actions.

A theory that is based on virtues should be constructed with several vital elements, including defining virtues, a list of the virtues, what the virtues consist in, an explanation of why they are good, and whether they are culture-based or apply to all people. A virtue can be defined as a consistent character trait that would be good for anyone to have. Some examples of traits that would be virtues are compassion, dependability, friendliness, honesty, loyalty, and tolerance.

The are two primary advantages to virtue ethics in general, Moral Motivation and that it “doubts the ideal of impartiality.” Virtue ethics gives us natural moral motivation to do the right things. An example presented by Michael Stocker illustrates this perfectly; if you were ill and a friend came to visit but says he is only visiting because it is his moral duty, then there is no connection to build the relationship.

If your friend came to visit because he is genuinely concerned for your well being and enjoys your presence, it would create a stronger relationship because we value love, friendship, and respect. Modern moral philosophy is all about impartiality; however, virtue ethics requires partiality in some aspects. It may not be right for us to be impartial when considering our friends and family’s interests.

Each of the virtues has particular features and may raise some problems. Aristotle expressed that virtues are midpoints between extremes, and Rachels explains this through examples of four different virtues. Courage falls between cowardice and foolhardiness. In ordinary cases, we need courage to create situations that are unpleasant for us, such as apologizing or doing something we do not want to do. Generosity falls between stinginess and extravagance. It is too demanding to give away all of our possessions and money, so we end up poor and to live in extravagance while others suffer is purely selfish.

The best practice for generosity is to share as much of one’s resources while still maintain a normal life. Honesty is often defined as someone who does not lie, but it is possible to deceive people without lying, which is also dishonest behavior. Besides, there are times when deceiving or lying is appropriate, for example, in order to save a life. Understanding that lying violates trust, one only needs to be honest with those who deserve their trust.

Loyalty to friends and family is a virtue that humans need, someone to share accomplishments and failures to confirm their worth as a human being. These and all other virtues are important because, as Aristotle states, the virtuous will fare better in life. Those who are virtuous will have better relationships with others, perform their jobs well and build communities. While some virtues apply to all people, all people do not need to exhibit all virtues.

Virtue Ethics is considered to be advantegous to ethical egoism because several of the virtues require that we care about the interests of others. Social Contract Theory doesn’t benefit animals, future generations or oppressed populations while virtue ethics does. Utilitarianism only measures morality in terms of happiness and our actions where Virtue Ethics measures morality in terms of our character and what it means to be a good person.

Kant’s Theory is based on firm rules that everyone should follow and Virtue Ethics are designed in a way where rules are not rigid and applied to all people in all situations. All of the reasons Virtue Ethics is different from other moral theories adds to its advantages. Although it is clear there are many advantages to Virtue Ethics it is important to consider it’s flaws as well.

One issue with virtue ethics is that it does not directly address issues of behavior or conduct. The most logical answer to this problem is applying virtues to an existing moral theory such as utilitarianism. This would give us a basis on which we can assess the rightness of an action using virtues. Others believe virtue ethics is an alternative to other theories, known as radical virtue ethics.

Those who believe in this theory suggest we should abandon the idea of “morally right action” and address conduct as better or worse in other terms. Some advocates of the radical virtue ethics theory suggest actions can be determined morally right or wrong by providing reasons for them, which align with the virtues.

The primary issue of radical virtue ethics is that it is incomplete. One cannot say we should be reliable because it is a virtue. It must be explained why the virtues are good. Without knowing why virtues are good, we would not be able to tell how they apply in difficult cases. For example, If you were to hear bad news that would upset a friend, do you tell them or not? Is it kind not to tell them and prevent their pain if they will never find out? Or is it kind to tell them because they would want to know and it is honest to do so, even if it causes them pain? These situations and others where more than one virtue may apply can be difficult to assess without full interpretation of the virtues.

In conclusion, Virtue Ethics has the advantage of being applied to individuals and communities by relying on character traits rather than actions, moral motivation because people want to be good human beings, and it acknowledges that it is not necessarily essential to be impartial. Although advantageous over previous theories, Virtue Ethics is considered incomplete and would more likely succeed when combined with another theory, such as utilitarianism.

Cite this page

The Advantage of Virtue Ethics: The Development of the Moral Character. (2023, Mar 14). Retrieved from

Let’s chat?  We're online 24/7