Fact Value Distinction

Fact Value Distinction

Virtue-based ethics

The man who damages another damages himself,

and evil schemes are most harmful to the schemer.

—Hesiod (fl. c. 700 bce), Works and Days, 265-6.

§I. Introduction

1)Background: Virtue ethics as an ethical school of thought

a)Virtue ethics is now considered a major alternative to consequentialism (utilitarianism) and deontology (Kantianism).

b)It is a long tradition of ethical thinking with early advocates among ancient Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle.

c)Some argue that Confucianism is also a form of virtue ethics.

2)Some characteristics



c)Virtue ethicists deal with questions related to human nature and the very nature of morality itself.

3)Our focuses

a)What makes virtue ethics different from other ethical theories?

b)What are the main theses put forward by the virtue ethicist?

c)How to apply virtue ethics when we are dealing with real life ethical issues?

d)What are the limitations and weaknesses of virtue ethics?

§II. Contrasting virtue ethics with consequentialism and deontology

1)Two imaginary scenarios:

a)The Kantian who visits his friend in hospital


(1)This person performs this action for the sake of duty.

(2)While duty is his reason for action, he is not motivated to do so: he does not have any positive emotion associated with this action.


(1)Acting for the sake of duty seems to be undesirable in some forms of personal relationships.

(2)There seems to be a split between reason and (emotional) motivation.

b)The utilitarian and the trolley problem


(1)The moral rightness or wrongness seems to be located in the consequences only.

(2)The moral dilemma is presented in an impersonal way.


(1)The utilitarian seems to have neglected emotions such as regret and repulsion.

(2)What kind of person one is seems unimportant to the utilitarian.

(3)To act according to utilitarian principles may lead to a fragmented life.

2)The responses of the virtue ethicist

a)The consequentialist and deontologist have the wrong questions and focuses

i)Too much emphasis is put on the morality of acts.

ii)Morality is understood to be a matter of following certain principles which are concerned with:

(1)Consequences, or

(2)Duties and obligations.

b)Ethics should not be concerned only with individual acts. Instead, the question ‘How are we to live?’ should be given sufficient attention.

c)To answer the question how we should live, we need to deal with questions such as ‘What kind of person do I want to be?’ or ‘What sort of character traits or virtue can help us live well?’.

§III. Moral identity, the virtues and human flourishing

1)The moral agent and moral identity

a)While consequentialism or utilitarianism is clearly act-centred, virtue ethics is often considered to be agent-centred.

b)Whether an act or a practice is moral or immoral is related to what kind of person is perform the act or practice in question.

c)To deal with ethical problems or to try to live a good life, it is necessary to consider our moral identity, i.e., what kind of person one wants to become.

2)The virtues and human flourishing

a)The possession of the virtues makes up our moral identityfor the most part.

b)The virtues are responsive to reasons and they need to be developed or cultivated. (Consider the example of courage.)

c)While it is not always clear which virtues together are sufficient to make a good life, it seems that the possession of some virtues is necessary for a good life.

3)Why are the virtues necessary for human flourishing? On the virtues and the human condition (or human nature)

a)There are a number of fundamental problems facing human life:

i)How should be distribute resources and goods? Is there a just or fair way?

ii)How should we treat another human being? Should we be kind or should we treat others as if they are mere things?

iii)We need to plan our lives and control our desires, by what means can we manage this?

b)The virtues make human life more worth living by offering some solutions to the problems:

i)Life is more satisfying when we live in a just society. (The virtue of justice.)

ii)We can enjoy living in human communities when we are respected and liked by others. (The virtues of humanity and friendliness.)

iii)Our lives can become structured when we are not totally controlled by blind desires and external circumstances. (The virtue of temperance or self-control can deal with this.)

§IV. Applying virtue ethics in dealing with moral issues

1)Background: the characteristics of virtue ethics as an alternative ethical approach

a)The conceptual paradigm: The framework of virtue ethics makes the moral agent, emotions, the virtues and human flourishing its focuses.

b)Evaluative language: Instead of using ‘thin’ terms such as ‘morally right’, ‘rational beings’ or ‘greatness happiness’ to describe behaviour and ethical issues, the virtue ethicist attempts to use a more nuanced language to respond to the complexity of our moral life. As a result, ‘thick’ terms such as ‘cowardly’ or ‘generous’ are applied to acts, and such terms have both a descriptive and evaluative element. Aperson may be said to have acted ‘dishonestly out of weakness of will with tragic consequences for her life’. This concern of the virtue ethicist gives literature and narratives a role to play within moral philosophy.

c)Particularism: The moral agent and personal experience play a role: a virtuous or wise person would be in a better position to judge what is the virtuous thing to do in particular circumstances.

2)Applying virtue ethics: some examples

a)Abortion and callousness

b)Animal welfare and compassion

c)Patriotism: is it a true virtue?

d)Racism: how to combat it?

3)Virtue ethics on reason and emotion

a)Thinking about ethical problems from the perspective of virtue ethics is an expression of our rational ability.

b)Although the virtue ethicist pays attention to the emotional aspects of human beings, the emotions are not considered to be something totally distinct from reason.

c)The example of anger:

i)Anger has an object—we are angry about something (an event or someone).

ii)A judgement is involved in experiencing anger. (‘This person is insulting me!’)

iii)It is also possible to rationally evaluate whether our anger is appropriate or not. (‘Is it necessary for me to feel so angry with this person?’)

d)The absence of emotions such as sorrow or regret in some situations may indicate a flaw in a person’s ethical character. However, it is still possible to subject an emotion to rational evaluation. (Consider the emotion of disgust.)

4)Avoiding dangers

a)The distinction between indoctrination and the development of an ethical character

i)Indoctrination is the implanting of values in an unquestioned manner. Virtue ethics is distinct from indoctrination because it calls for rational justification.

ii)The emphasis on the virtues and human flourishing does not automatically give support to a traditional morality. We should see virtue ethics as a conceptual tool which can help us to reach a more defensible philosophical position. [Not final answers!]

b)The lure of relativism

i)The list of desirable virtues may vary between different cultures. However, it is important to note that the virtues are based on some reasons or purposes so a culture may revise its list of virtue critically.

ii)A particular character trait within a culture may become an obstacle to human flourishing. In this case, it need not be considered a virtue by the virtue ethicist. (Consider the traditional ‘female’ virtues such as virginity and obedience.)

iii)Reason and the virtues: the virtues are not natural, instinctual reactive disposition—they involve reasons, decisions and the intention to be cultivated. A relativist is silent concerning which virtues should be cultivated.

5)Challenges: What are the limitations and weaknesses of virtue ethics?

a)Concerning human nature:

i)Does it make sense to talk about human nature?

ii)Is human nature constant? Or can it be changed?

b)Concerning the virtues:

i)What if there are disagreements about the statuses of particular virtues between different cultures?

ii)Is what is considered a virtue a product of class structures or power relationships?

c)Concerning human flourishing:

i)Is the virtue ethicist having too narrow a picture of human flourishing?

ii)Can a person have a flourishing life without the virtues?


Annas, Julia (1981), An Introduction to Plato’s Republic, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Annas, Julia (2000), Ancient Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction, New York: OxfordUniversity Press.

Crisp, Roger and Slote, Michael (ed.) (1997), Virtue Ethics, New York: OxfordUniversity Press.

Hursthouse, Rosalind (1999), On Virtue Ethics, New York: OxfordUniversity Press.

Irwin, Terence (trans.) (1985), Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics, Indianapolis: Hackett.

Lee, Desmond (trans.) (1987), Plato: The Republic, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Statman, Daniel (ed.) (1997), Virtue Ethics: A Critical Reader, Edinburgh: EdinburghUniversity Press.

Trianosky, Gregory (1990), ‘What is Virtue Ethics all about?’, American Philosophical Quarterly, volume 27, number 4, October 1990, pp. 335-44.

Further reading

Rosenstand, Nina (2006), The Moral of the Story: An Introduction to Ethics, fifth edition, McGraw-Hill, esp. Part 3. [A ground-breaking introductory book which integrates ethics and narrative works such as stories and films.]

(Hektor K. T. Yan)