Virtue Theory and Virtue Ethics:

Virtue theory is based around the investigation and understanding of the virtues. This theory being distinct from Virtue Ethics, a normative moral theory that sees the development of our virtues as our primary goal. Although virtue ethicists are also virtue theorists, many virtue theorists subscribe to other normative theories (such as consequentialism or deontology).

The virtue theories origins lie in Classical Greek Philosophy, namely Aristotle. The virtues themselves lost a great deal of prominence after the Enlightenment (Late 18th Century, changes in philosophy and science). It wasn’t until the late 20th Century that these virtues began to arise in discussions of ethics, resulting in most moral theories having something to say about the application of virtues, even if they are not their primary focus. Many of the more modern philosophers that focus upon the virtues, within ethics, can be found in this post.

What is a Virtue?

Aristotle described the virtues as ‘a purposive disposition’. This means a particular kind of character trait: a fixed tendency to act and feel a certain way. This disposition is required to be both stable and constant – someone who does a one-off donation to charity does not possess the generosity virtue. However it must be noted as to what kind of dispositions are being discussed. A disposition for stealing would not aid in improving & achieving virtues. Nor, would a habitual liking of cups of tea. To Aristotle a virtue is human excellence, it is ‘the disposition which makes one a good man and causes him to perform his function well’.

To fully understand this one must know what a good, functioning person may look like. This idea that humans have a particular function is crucial to Aristotle’s theory. Aristotle believed that everything has a function – something it is for. Through this understanding of what something is meant to do, we can understand what its good is. For example, the function of an knife is to effectively cut things. Knowing this means we can identify a good knife through its ability to cut things – a good knife is sharp, whereas a bad knife cannot cut things. So should we understand the function of humans is, we can identify a good person and understand what kind of dispositions the virtues are.

Aristotle argued that the function of humanity is rational operation. This being something that humans can do, which other things or creatures cannot. The virtues are those dispositions which lead us to perform our function well – to live rationally. For Aristotle to call someone a good person it does not mean that that are just doing what they ought to do, in the sense of moral obligation, but it does mean more than that. It also includes someone being good at being a person – by being virtuous – and having this function is what marks them out.

Aristotle bound the idea of what it is good to do, with what is good for us. One’s flourishing life does not just mean a life of morally correct behaviour, but also a fulfilled life, a state of well-being – in short, happiness. The term associated with this is Eudaimonia – the word being central to Aristotle’s theory. Although there is no direct translation for this word in English, it is loosely translated as ‘Happiness’, but is not to be confused with simple hedonistic pleasure. A life of Eudaimonia is the life that humans ought to have, the best form of life – it is a kind of flourishing and completeness. Contrasting pleasure, Eudaimonia is not subjective because of its relation with the purpose that all humans share. Virtue is not, however, the only thing needed for Eudaimonia, because – according to Aristotle – ‘it is difficult if not impossible to do fine deeds without any resources’.

However this understanding of virtues alone is not enough to form a moral theory. Aristotle needed to clarify which actions and behaviours were truly virtuous. It needs to be noted as to whether it is acceptable to lie – as Kant would reject – or whether self-sacrifice would always be a virtuous act.

Intellectual and moral virtues

In order to fully make this a moral theory, one must understand the distinction between moral and intellectual virtues. Many would see it as obvious that some rational dispositions – such as artistic talent – have no moral dimension even though they meet the criteria of a virtue. Aristotle said this about the different forms of virtue: ‘Now when we classified the virtues of the soul we said that some of them were virtues of the character and others of the intellect.’ The so called ‘virtues of character’ are commonly known as the moral virtues – such as justice, courage and generosity. Whilst the Virtues of Intellect are associated with the mind – scientific knowledge, artistic ability and wisdom. Ethical discussion, primarily, focuses upon the moral virtues. The major exception to this being the intellectual virtue, prudence. This is unique in Aristotle’s Virtue Theory as he defines a prudent person as having the ability ‘to deliberate rightly about what is good and advantageous for himself’ Only through prudence can someone with a disposition to be fair, kind and honest know how to do so. This making it essential for the function of the moral virtues and without it it is not possible to be at all virtuous.

The Doctrine of the Mean:

A further aspect of the moral life is the ability to calculate the ‘mean’. Aristotle believed that every virtue lies between 2 vices – bad character traits – one being the vice of excess and the other of deficiency. A vice of excess occurs when one has too much of a feeling/desire regarding a situation, whereas the vice of deficiency is when there is not enough. For the virtue of courage, for example, the excess of courage would be recklessness with the deficiency being timidity/cowardice. Courage involves the right amount of both confidence and fear.

However the Virtuous mean is not required to be exactly between the two vices. The location of the mean is based upon that specific circumstance. For example a soldier facing overwhelming odds might be right to feel fear and flee; whereas a soldier on the opposite side feeling the same amount of fear would be a coward.


Adam Willows – Aristotle’s Virtue Theory – Pages 7 – 9.