Virtues in Philosophy

By Dr. James Fieser / 04.01.2011
Professor of Philosophy
University of Tennessee at Martin


A driver’s education instructor became enraged when his car was cut off by another vehicle. He was teaching a female student driver at the time, and he told her to chase down the vehicle. They caught up to it, the instructor got out and walked over to the other driver, then punched him. The other driver quickly took off, and the instructor ordered the student to chase him again. He was charged with assault, suspended from his school job and he later resigned.

Although this particular situation has an element of irony, many other stories of aggressive driving are nothing but tragic. On Virginia’s George Washington Parkway, two motorists confronted each other when changing lanes, and the dispute erupted in a high-speed battle. Both drivers lost control of their vehicles, crossed the centerline, and killed two innocent motorists. Studies by the American Automobile Association indicate that aggressive driving results in at least 1,500 deaths each year. Sometimes their cars get out of control, as in this situation, other times drivers intentionally use their vehicle as a weapon, and in still others they pull out a gun that they are carrying with them.

The circumstances that spark aggressive driving are mostly trivial. A motorist might brake abruptly, swerve into another lane, or honk the horn. This prompts shouting, tailgating, obscene gestures, high-speed chases, and direct physical confrontations. There are psychological explanations for the aggressive driving phenomenon. Traffic is continually becoming heavier and thereby causing sensory overload. Many assailants are in large sports utility vehicles, which perhaps gives them a false sense of invulnerability. The root of the problem, however, is that the assailant experiences a strong emotion of anger and seemingly loses the ability to control it. Many relatively minor events in our daily lives have the potential to make us angry. The cat might knock over a plant, the new computer might malfunction, a store clerk might be rude, or the neighbors might be too noisy. We learn to combat our angry urges, though, and react in a civilized manner.

Anger is just one strong feeling that we must keep in check. Others include lust, hunger, envy, malice, hatred, resentment, fear, pride, and desire. Imagine what life would be like if people never restrained any of these emotions. We would constantly clash with others, and society as we know it would collapse. Controlling strong emotions is a matter of training. Our parents and teachers begin training us when we are young. As we get older, we continue the training process on our own. Eventually, we develop habits that become fixed character traits of our personality. In short, we acquire what moral philosophers call virtues—positive character traits that regulate emotions and urges. Typical virtues include courage, temperance, justice, prudence, fortitude, liberality, and truthfulness. Vices, by contrast, are negative character traits that we develop in response to the same emotions and urges. Typical vices include cowardice, insensibility, injustice, and vanity. As a fully developed moral theory, virtue theory is the view that the foundation of morality is the development of good character traits, or virtues. A person is good if he or she has virtues and lacks vices.

Early Greek View of Virtues


Historically, virtue theory is one of the oldest moral theories in Western philosophy, having its roots in ancient Greek civilization. The Greek term for virtue is arete, which means “excellence.” Greek epic poets and playwrights, such as Homer and Sophocles, described the morality of their heroes and antiheroes in terms of their respective virtues and vices. Their characters’ successes and failures hinged on their virtuous or vicious character traits. For example, in Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus Rex, King Oedipus’s life crumbles after he unknowingly kills his father and sleeps with his mother. These tragic acts themselves, though, are a consequence of his character flaws, particularly pride and overconfidence.

Discussions of the virtues become more formalized in the writings of Plato, who stressed four particular virtues: temperance, courage, wisdom, and justice (Republic 4.435). Later philosophers dubbed these the cardinal virtues, that is, main virtues, because of the central role they play in making us good people. According to Plato, each of these four virtues performs a special task. The virtue of temperance enables you to control your basic desires and natural impulses towards food, lust, and any other pleasurable drive that you might have. Courage helps define the nobler and heroic parts of you personality. You do not want to thoughtlessly rush into danger when you try to save the day, or be arrogant in how you deal with people less courageous than you are. Wisdom gives the rational part of your personality the capacity to make subtle judgment calls regarding the right way to live. The world is a complex and often confusing place, and wisdom enables you to navigate through your various choices. Finally justice helps you integrate all three aspects of your personality—the desiring part, the noble part, the rational part—so that each part performs exactly as it should in the right situation. For Plato, these four virtues are a package deal since they are so intertwined: if you have one you also have the others, and if you lack one you also lack the others (Protagoras, 349b).

Even today Plato’s depiction of the four cardinal virtues is an inspiration for all who seek to better understand how virtuous character traits can morally transform their lives. But it is the virtue theory of his student Aristotle (384–322 BCE) that most influenced philosophy, and is the one that we will focus on in this chapter.


Aristotle’s account of virtue is found in his work The Nicomachean Ethics, which he named in honor of his son Nicomachus. The work is long, at around 200 pages, and only the highlights of his theory can be presented here.

Appetite-Regulating Habits

There are three main components in Aristotle’s discussion of virtues. The first involves establishing the fact that we all strive after an ultimate good that defines who we are. For Aristotle, the subject of ethics is an attempt to discover this goal, and he argues that our ultimate good is happiness (in Greek, eudaimonia). But human happiness is different from the contentment that dogs experience, for example, and our happiness is unique to our specific human construction and purpose.

The second component in Aristotle’s discussion involves discovering our uniquely human purpose by analyzing our uniquely human psyche. He offers this division of the human psyche:

                                                Calculative (logic, math, science)

                        Rational <

            Psyche                         Appetitive (emotions, desires)


                                                Nutritive (nutrition, growth)

According to Aristotle, the psyche has an irrational element that is similar to that found in animals and a rational element that is distinctly human. The highest aspect of the rational part is calculative in nature and is responsible for the uniquely human ability to contemplate, reason logically, and formulate scientific principles. At the other extreme is the nutritivefaculty, the most primitive and irrational element of our psyche, which is responsible for our physical nutrition and growth. This element is present in all life forms, and not just in humans and other animals. Between the two extremes is an additional faculty that is by nature irrational but is guided by reason. This is the appetitive faculty, which is responsible for our emotions and desires. The appetitive faculty is irrational since even lower animals experience desires. However, this faculty is rationally guided in humans since we have the distinct ability to control these desires with the help of reason. For example, animals have no capacity to control their anger while we do when we follow our reason. The human ability to properly control these desires is called “moral virtue” and is the focus of ethics.

The third and final component in Aristotle’s discussion involves describing the moral virtues themselves. He makes three general observations about the nature of moral virtues. First, he argues that the ability to regulate our desires is not instinctive; rather, it is learned and is the outcome of both teaching and practice. Second, he suggests that desire-regulating virtues are character traits, or habitual dispositions, and should not be seen as either emotions or mental faculties. Third, he notes that moral virtues are desire-regulating character traits that fall at some mean between more extreme character traits. If we regulate our desires either too much or too little, then we create problems. For example, in response to our natural emotion of fear when facing danger, we should develop the virtuous character trait of courage. If we develop an excessive character trait by curbing fear too much, then we are said to be rash, which is a vice. If, on the other extreme, we develop a deficient character trait by curbing fear too little, then we are said to be cowardly, which is also a vice. The virtue of courage, then, lies at the mean between the excessive extreme of rashness and the deficient extreme of cowardice. Aristotle notes that this is similar to how “excess or deficiency of gymnastic exercise is harmful to strength.”

According to the doctrine of the mean, most moral virtues, and not just courage, fall at the mean between two accompanying vices. He describes twelve virtues in particular that follow this model. Each virtue and vice arises in reaction to some specific appetite or desire we have. His analysis is summarized in this table:

Desire                         || Vice of Deficiency | Virtuous Mean | Vice of Excess

  1. Fear of danger        ||Cowardice                Courage                       Rashness
  2. Pleasure                  ||Insensibility              Temperance                Over-indulgence
  3. Small giving           ||Stinginess                 Generosity                   Extravagance
  4. Great giving           ||Pettiness                   Magnanimity               Vulgarity
  5. Honors                   ||Timidity                    Self-confidence           Conceit
  6. Achievement          ||Under-ambition        Proper ambition          Over-ambition
  7. Anger                     ||Impassivity              Good temper               Ill temper
  8. Truth                      ||False modesty          Truthfulness                Boastfulness
  9. Amusement            ||Humorlessness          Wittiness                     Buffoonery
  10. Social life             ||Unfriendliness          Friendliness                 Flattery
  11. Fear of disgrace    ||Shamelessness          Proper shame              Excessive shame
  12. Resent injustice     || Malice                       Righteous indignation Envy

Of these twelve virtues, the pinnacle for Aristotle is self-confidence. It involves having a proper sense of importance about what we deserve and the honors that society makes available to us. For example, a self-confident person would not be cowardly when facing danger, or be insensible with pleasure, or be stingy about giving money.

In his analysis of the virtues, Aristotle continually notes that there were not enough terms in his language to adequately name all the virtues and corresponding vices, and he had to make some up. This is also the case with the English language, and it may be difficult at first to grasp the relation between the various virtues and vices on the preceding chart. He also notes that not all virtues fall at a mean between two more extreme dispositions. One such virtue is that of justice, which simply has injustice as its contrary. The virtue of justice involves being lawful and fair; the unjust person, by contrast, is unlawful and unfair, and greedily grasps at things.

Practical Wisdom

Although Aristotle’s analysis of the twelve virtues fits into a nicely organized scheme, in real-life situations it can be difficult to pinpoint the mean between two extreme dispositions. Suppose I am a soldier, and I know in theory that if my fear gets the best of me I will be a coward, and if I completely ignore my fear I will be rash. Somewhere in the middle lies courage. But how many bullets need to zip past my head before I can courageously crawl back into my foxhole for safety? Or suppose I am a college student, and I understand that temperance involves knowing how to regulate my desire for pleasure. Am I insensible if I completely avoid going to fraternity parties? And if I do go, how many beers can I have before I am intemperate? Or suppose that, in my drive to succeed at my job, I understand that lack of ambition will get me fired but that too much ambition will destroy my home life. How much devotion should I show at my job?

Aristotle confesses that it is indeed difficult to live the virtuous life primarily because of the challenges involved in finding the mean between the extremes. He argues that calculating the mean is not simply a matter of taking an average. For example, if drinking twenty beers at a party is too much and drinking no beers is too little, this does not imply that I should drink ten beers, which is the mathematical mean. Fortunately, there is a solution to this problem. Aristotle explains that an aspect of our calculative reasoning called practical wisdom (phronesis) helps us find the virtuous mean. There are two components to practical wisdom. First, it involves an intuitive knowledge of our ultimate purpose in life. In a nutshell, our ultimate purpose is to be community-oriented, rational creatures, and each properly formed virtue contributes to fulfilling this ultimate purpose. Second, practical wisdom involves deliberating about and planning the best way of attaining this ultimate purpose. As a soldier, cowering in my foxhole will not help me attain my community-oriented purpose; being too rash will not help me either. Practical wisdom will help me to assess the risks in different combat situations and to see when it would be most prudent for me to charge or to flee the enemy. Similarly, practical wisdom will help me figure out how many beers I should drink at a party and how much ambition I should have at my job. With each dilemma we face, then, our practical wisdom will help us home in on the appropriate conduct that will facilitate our ultimate purpose.

In spite of the assistance that we receive from practical wisdom, we should not see it as an inner voice that tells us for each action whether that action hits the mean or one of the extremes. First, when we are in the process of developing virtuous habits, practical wisdom does not pronounce judgment on each of our actions. Instead, through our life experiences, we gradually develop a sense of our ultimate purpose, and just as gradually we cultivate virtuous habits. Second, once our virtuous habits are developed, we act spontaneously without step-by-step rational prompting. For example, once I learn how to be a safe driver, my roadway manners become second nature, and I slow down before approaching a stop sign without consciously thinking about it.

If I successfully acquire virtues, then I attain the status of a good person. As a good person, each of my actions will reflect the virtuous character traits that I have developed. However, Aristotle argues, each of my actions must be freely chosen. That is, each action must have its causal origin within me; it cannot be imposed on me by other people. Further, for my choice to be truly free, I must know all of the important details pertaining to the action in question. He argues that freedom of the will is a factor with both virtuous choices and vicious choices.

Good Temper

In view of our opening discussion of aggressive driving, let’s look at Aristotle’s discussion of the virtue of good temper, the seventh virtue listed in our chart. Good temper properly restrains one’s appetite of anger. If I restrain my anger too much, I have the vice of impassivity; if I do not restrain it enough, I have the vice of ill temper. For Aristotle, there are five factors involved in our appropriate response to anger. We should become angry only (1) at the appropriate person, (2) for an appropriate offense, (3) to an appropriate degree, (4) with appropriate quickness, and (5) for an appropriate length of time. He warns that it is difficult to define precisely what counts as “appropriate” in these five circumstances. But he also maintains that good-tempered persons will not allow themselves to be ruled by their passions; instead, they will be guided by practical wisdom. Aristotle believes that it is appropriate to get angry when someone callously insults us. However, good-tempered individuals are not vengeful, and to a degree they accept their situation.

As for the vice of impassivity, there are several reasons it is bad for us to completely lack expressions of anger. If we never react in anger even when there is proper cause, then it will appear to others that we will tolerate injustice. We will not defend ourselves, and that we will put up with insult after insult against our loved ones and ourselves. In a word, people will see us as fools. In spite of how bad it is to be completely unaffected by anger, Aristotle believes that it is better to err on the side of impassivity than on the side of ill temper since impassive people are easier to live with.

At the other extreme, ill-tempered people express anger inappropriately with regard to at least one of the five factors given previously. In fact, Aristotle notes, we have different names for ill-tempered people based on the combination of factors in which they fail. “Hotheaded” people get angry too quickly, with the wrong people, for the wrong reason, and to the wrong degree (factors 1–4). However, they get over their anger quickly (factor 5), which is the best thing about hotheads. “Choleric” people get angry quickly at everything on every occasion (factors 1, 2, and 4). “Brooding” people fail mainly with the fifth factor, hanging on to their anger far too long. “Bad-tempered” people get angry at the wrong things for a long period of time (factors 2 and 5) and will not be satisfied until they inflict punishment on the offender. How would Aristotle view the person who exhibits aggressive driving? The enraged driver has perhaps picked out the appropriate person for an appropriate offense, and perhaps he is angry for an appropriate length of time. But the degree of his reaction is far too extreme, and he becomes angry far too quickly. His principal failure, then, is with factors 3 and 4.

To recap, these are the main points of Aristotle’s virtue theory:

  • Moral virtues are habits that regulate the desires of our appetitive nature.
  • Most virtues fall at a mean between two vicious habits.
  • Our practical wisdom guides us in developing moral virtues by gradually informing us of our ultimate purpose and showing us the best means of attaining it.
  • Our moral actions are freely chosen and are an extension of our virtuous habits.

Aristotle himself summarizes his notion of moral virtue in this way:

Virtues are means between extremes; they are states of character; by their own nature they tend to the doing of acts by which they are produced; they are in our power and voluntary; they act as prescribed by right reason. [Nicomachean Ethics, 3.5]

Virtue Theory after Aristotle

For 2000 years, Greek notions of virtue were central to Western conceptions of morality. The details were sometimes different, but moral philosophers consistently emphasized the need to acquire good character traits that guide our actions and thereby make us good people. We’ve already seen Plato’s account the four cardinal virtues of temperance, courage, wisdom, and justice. Immediately after Aristotle, the rival philosophical schools of Epicureanism and Stoicism offered competing views of morality and the virtues. Epicurus (341–270 BCE) identified the virtuous life with the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. By contrast, Zeno of Citium (334–262 BCE), the founder of Stoicism, emphasized the importance of resigning ourselves to fate and suppressing our desires for things beyond our control. For Zeno, virtue is intimately connected with our knowledge of the physical world, and to this end, the virtuous person develops four knowledge-oriented virtues. Through intelligence, she knows what is good and bad. Through bravery, she knows what to fear and what not to fear. Through justice, she knows how to give what is deserved. And through self-control, she knows what passions to ignore.

With the arrival of Christianity, the Apostle Paul endorsed the virtues of faith, hope, and charity, which were later dubbed the theological virtues—in contrast to Plato’s four cardinal virtues. Medieval philosophers sometimes referred to the “seven virtues,” combining the three theological virtues with the four cardinal virtues. Medieval philosophers, particularly Aquinas, held Aristotle in especially high regard and wrote commentaries on the Nicomachean Ethics, which helped perpetuate Aristotle’s analysis of the virtues. By the time of the Renaissance, philosophical discussions of virtue were mainly analyses of Aristotle’s theory.


In the seventeenth century, interest in Aristotle’s version of virtue ethics began to decline. His theory was not rejected outright; instead, leading moral philosophers argued that virtues were only of secondary importance in explaining moral obligation. Of primary importance was the need to follow rational moral rules and make sure that our actions abided by those rules. We will look at three historically important criticisms of his theory.

Grotius’s Criticism: Many Virtues Are Not at a Mean

Hugo Grotius – Portrait by Michiel Jansz. van Mierevelt, 1631 / Museum Prinsenhof Delft

In his work The Law of War and Peace (1625), Dutch philosopher Hugo Grotius (1583–1645) began the attack on Aristotle by arguing that his theory fails as a systematic account of morality. Grotius focuses specifically on Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean. For Aristotle, virtues regulate our desires when we form middle-ground habits between more extreme habits. According to Grotius, some virtues do indeed control our passions through a middle course, but not all virtues do this. In fact, some virtues are actually extreme dispositions. For example, Aristotle lists insensibility—or contempt for pleasure—as a vice, but Grotius sees this as a virtue. Aristotle lists under-ambition—or contempt for great honors and achievement— as a vice, but Grotius also sees this as a virtue. In religious matters, Grotius believes that it is impossible to worship God too much, or to seek heaven too much, or to fear hell too much:

We cannot, for example, worship God too much; for superstition errs not by worshipping God too much, but by worshipping in a perverse way. Neither can we too much seek after the blessings that shall abide forever, nor fear too much the everlasting evils, nor have too great hatred for sin. [Prolegomena, 43–45]

 Thus, with religious devotion, the extreme is the virtue.

The larger point, for Grotius, is that morality involves following the rational rules of natural law, and not hunting about for an elusive middle ground of behavior. Grotius believes that everyone has access to the moral rules of natural law, and our reason will quickly tell us when we should seek a middle ground and when we should do something in the extreme. At face value, his criticism seems plausible: we can understand how Aristotle might have forced a number of virtues into a mold that they did not quite fit. While some virtues, such as courage, do indeed lie at a mean between two extremes, that does not mean that all virtues do.

However, in defense of Aristotle, if we carefully examine the specific cases that Grotius cites, Aristotle’s account of middle-ground virtues seems on target. Are contempt for pleasure and great honors really virtues as Grotius claims? For average people in average social situations, these extreme behaviors do indeed look like vices. By having contempt for all pleasure, we cut ourselves off from many of life’s best things, such as romance, good food, and entertainment. By having contempt for all great honors and achievement, we feel incomplete in what we try to accomplish in life. Grotius also believes that it is virtuous to be extreme in our worship of God, fear of hell, or desire for heaven. Similarly, though, for average people in average social situations, if we focus too much on religious matters, then we might neglect our earthly responsibilities. Even monks, who commit their lives to austerity and religious devotion, must find some middle-ground of moderation. If the monk goes too far he might starve himself to death, or whip himself to death, or pray to the point of insanity.

So, contrary to Grotius, it seems correct for us to discover virtues through middle-ground dispositions—both for ordinary people and for monks. Many Eastern religions provide two separate lists of moral codes, one for monks and one for non-monks, and each of these codes is reasonable in its own context. The key issue, then, is identifying one’s social context and finding the appropriate middle-ground in that context.

Kant’s Criticism: Without Moral Principles, Misapplied Virtues Become Vices

Immanuel Kant / Wikimedia Commons

German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) recognized that virtues are important for developing our worth as people. However, he argues that virtues have no moral value unless they are directed by rational moral principles. In fact, for Kant, if our virtues are not guided by moral principles, then they actually become vices. For example, as Kant writes, “The coolness of a villain makes him not only much more dangerous but also immediately more abominable in our eyes than he would have been regarded by us without it” (Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals). That is, we typically think that it is a virtue to be cool-headed; but when a villain is cool-headed, this actually makes him seem more evil than he would have been otherwise. Although Kant does not reject virtues, he believes that they are secondary to our need to follow moral principles. Our primary moral task, then, is to discover the rules of morality and only after that try to shape our character based on these rules.

Philosophers before Kant also recognized that misapplied virtues become vices. One of the most dramatic illustrations of this is given by French statesman Maximilien de Bethune (1559–1641). He describes here an acquaintance of his who had an extraordinary number of virtues:

His genius was so lively that nothing could escape his penetration, his apprehension was so quick, that he understood everything in an instant, and his memory so prodigious, that he never forgot anything. He was master of all the branches of philosophy, the mathematics; particularly fortification and designing. Nay, he was so thoroughly acquainted with divinity, that he was an excellent preacher He applied this talent to imitate all sorts of persons, which he performed with wonderful dexterity; and was accordingly the best comedian in the world. He was a good poet, an excellent musician, and sung with equal art and sweetness. . . . His body was perfectly proportioned to his mind. He was well made, vigorous and agile, formed for all sorts of exercises. He rode a horse well, and was admired for dancing, leaping, and wrestling. He was acquainted with all kinds of sports and diversions, and could practice in most of the mechanical arts.

De Bethune then lists a series of horrible vices that this same acquaintance of his had:

Reverse the medal: He was a liar, false, treacherous, cruel, and cowardly, a sharper, drunkard and glutton. He was a gamester, an abandoned debauchee, a blasphemer and Atheist. In a word, he was possessed of every vice, contrary to nature, to honor, to religion, and society: he persisted in his vices to the last, and fell a sacrifice to his debaucheries, in the flower of his age; he died in a public stew, holding the glass in his hand, swearing, and denying God. [Quoted by James Balfour, Delineation (1753), Ch. 5]

De Bethune’s point is that his acquaintance’s virtues became tainted by all of his vices. In sum, both de Bethune and Kant expose a central problem for virtue theory: Virtuous character traits by themselves are not necessarily good.

But there is a solution to this problem. We need to start by distinguishing between two groups of character traits, the first being more important than the second:

  • Moral virtues: benevolence, fidelity, integrity, justice, humanity, generosity
  • Intellectual abilities: courage, coolness, industry, intelligence, wit, good manners, eloquence

According to virtue theorists, it is ethically more important for me to develop moral virtues, such as benevolence, than intellectual abilities, such as courage. In fact, my overall moral goodness depends on my developing moral virtues rather than intellectual abilities. So, if I first develop moral virtues, such as benevolence, then I will not be able to misapply intellectual abilities, such as courage. We can see this by returning to Kant’s example of the cool-headed villain. Kant’s villain lacks moral virtues but has the intellectual ability of coolness, which he misapplies. But suppose that the villain has a moral conversion and acquires moral virtues such as justice. As a morally virtuous person, he would not become a calm and calculating bank robber or hit man. Rather, as a just person, his coolness then becomes a moral asset rather than a moral liability, and it is difficult to imagine how a just person could ever misapply the intellectual virtue of coolness. The distinction between moral virtues and intellectual abilities also solves the puzzle raised by de Bethune’s example. The man’s “virtues” are really only intellectual qualities, and his “vices” are mostly genuine moral vices.

In short, to solve the problem of misapplied virtues, we need to just recognize and adopt a superior class of truly moral virtues, and this will prevent us from misapplying our intellectual abilities.

Mill’s Criticism: Morality Involves Judging Actions and Not Character Traits

John Stuart Mill / Wikimedia Commons

Like Kant, British philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) recognized the importance of virtues in forming our personal character. Good people, he says, are people who have virtues, such as charity. Mill also argues that virtues are important for influencing us to act properly. If I have the virtue of charity, then I will be more inclined to help others in need. Nevertheless, Mill argues, the job of morality is to assess people’s actions, and not their character:

No known ethical standard decides an action to be good or bad because it is done by a good or a bad man, still less because done by an amiable, a brave, or a benevolent man, or the contrary. These considerations are relevant, not to the estimation of actions, but of persons . . . [Utilitarianism, Ch. 2]

According to Mill, I am morally guilty only for what I actually do, and not for what I am inclined to do. Suppose, for example, that I dive into a river to rescue someone from drowning and that I’m motivated by the hope of getting a reward. Mill believes that I did the morally right thing. What matters is that I rescued that person; it does not matter what specifically inclined me to do it. So, since virtues are only inclinations, they are not relevant in our assessment of the actions themselves.

Although we should disregard virtuous inclinations when making moral judgments, Mill is quick to point out that we must recognize the immediate intention behind an action. The intention involves the action’s specific purpose. For example, when I dive into the river, my intention is to rescue you, not to drag you out of the river and torture you to death. My intention to rescue you will be the same regardless of whether I am predispositionally motivated by greed or benevolence. Thus, there three components to distinguish:

  • Action: dive into the river and retrieve you
  • Intention: rescue you from drowning
  • Predisposition: financial greed

The predisposition constitutes the virtue or vice, and this is what Mill believes is unimportant when making moral judgments about a person. Mill recognizes that he might be going too far by devaluing the importance of virtues, but he believes that it is best to err on the side of caution and rigidly judge individuals for each of their intended actions.

Mill is correct in pointing out that we often judge people’s intended actions, and not their predispositions. This is similar to how we legally judge criminals for the crimes that they actually commit, and not for their criminal predispositions. You may have a character flaw that predisposes you to steal, but the police cannot arrest you until you actually steal something. However, contrary to Mill, there are clear cases in which both moral and legal judgments go beyond the intended action and focus also on predispositions. There are repeat offenders who show a predisposition toward immoral or illegal actions, and we do hold that against them and punish them more harshly for that. Suppose that you are typically a mild-mannered person, but on one occasion you get into a bar fight and break a guy’s nose. This is certainly bad, but not as bad as if you were predisposed to violence—and especially if you displayed this predisposition by routinely getting into bar fights. Sometimes, we carry our moral track record around with us, and we expect that people will judge our actions based on the kind of person we’ve become.

The upshot of the situation is that moral judgments are more multifaceted than Mill allows, and we often look beyond the intended action to the actual virtue or vice.


Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret Anscombe / Wikimedia Commons

Continuing the trend set by Grotius, Kant, and Mill, moral philosophers during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries typically assigned virtues a secondary place within their theories. All of these philosophers shared the conviction that morality is first and foremost a matter of following moral rules, and virtues only serve a secondary purpose of reinforcing those rules within us. However, in recent decades several moral philosophers have argued that theories of virtue deserve better than this secondary status. It started when British philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe (1919–2001) published an influential article entitled “Modern Moral Philosophy” (1958) in which she harshly criticized the direction of moral philosophy since the days of Grotius. According to Anscombe, modern moral theories inconsistently advance moral rules without any notion of a rule giver. With moral philosophers like Kant, it’s as though moral rules magically appear without convincing explanation what created and authorized them. She recommends that we abandon the entire rule-based approach in favor of the virtue-based approach offered by Aristotle, which avoids the whole question of moral rules.

Anscombe and other critics after her suggest that there are essentially two approaches to morality: rule-based theories and virtue-based theories and. According to rule-based theories, (1) primary emphasis is placed on following moral rules, rather than developing good character traits; (2) good actions are those that comply with moral rules; and (3) moral judgments are based on the rightness of people’s actions, not on whether someone is a good person with virtuous character traits. By contrast, according to virtue-based theories, (1) greater importance is placed on developing good character traits than on acting in accordance with moral rules; (2) good actions are those that flow from our virtuous character traits; and (3) morality is a matter of being a good person, which involves having virtuous character traits. In this section we will look at the conflict between rule- based and virtue-based theories.

Gender and Morality

Carol Gilligan / Wikimedia Commons

Virtue-based theories have received a boost recently from philosophers who argue that gender plays a large role in how we conceive of morality. Generally speaking, they maintain, rule-based morality is guided by male ways of thinking, whereas virtue theory is more akin to female ways of thinking. The main presumption here is that men and women psychologically differ from each other, and this impacts how each gender views moral obligations. On this view, men have a tendency to organize, pigeonhole, and make rules about things. Take, for example, the kinds of majors in college that are male dominated, such as mathematics, physics, engineering, and computer science. What they have in common is an emphasis on rigid rules. Women, by contrast, have traditionally played a nurturing role, raising children, tending to elderly parents, and overseeing domestic life. Think about college majors that are female dominated: education, nursing, psychology, social work. These tasks require less rule-following and more spontaneous and creative interaction.

Whether this psychological distinction between men and women is the result of natural instinct or social condition is not entirely clear, since the scientific evidence surrounding the whole question is sketchy. Some of it may be instinctive. An explanation offered by one psychologist is that male and female mental abilities are the same, whether it involves doing math or raising children. It is just the men typically prefer more analytic tasks, and women prefer the more nurturing ones. But some of the gender differences may also be socially imposed. For example, the male emphasis on rule following may also have resulted from practices that were traditionally male-dominated, such as acquiring property, engaging in business contracts, and governing societies. In male-dominated societies, women may have been assigned more subservient domestic roles.

Whether it is by instinct or social conditioning, though, defenders of this view have argued that the fundamental psychological difference between men and women has led to two different ways of looking at morality. The male emphasis on rule-following has set a pattern for creating rigid systems of moral rules, such as lists of moral rights and duties. The female emphasis on nurturing, by contrast, implies a moral need to care for people who are in situations of vulnerability and dependency. This position is often called care ethics, and Carol Gilligan (b. 1936), a leading proponent, depicts it this way:

The moral imperative that emerges repeatedly in interviews [on the subject of morality] with women is an injunction to care, a responsibility to discern and alleviate the “real and recognizable trouble” of this world. For men, the moral imperative appears rather as an injunction to respect the rights of others and thus to protect from interference the rights to life and self-fulfillment. [In a Different Voice, 1982, Ch. 3

According to Gilligan, it is the infusion of personal feeling into moral judgments that allows women to conceive of morality as compassion and care, rather than more abstract ethical principles.

Of all the traditional approaches to morality, virtue theory is the one that accommodates care ethics the best. Caring for others is not about following moral rules, but about the nurturing character traits that we acquire. It is about a predisposition to behave in a caring way when we encounter vulnerable and dependent people who need help. It is about our ability to quickly respond in a caring way to the specific needs of these people. While Gilligan herself did not explicitly connect care ethics with virtue theory, a flood of philosophers inspired by her have done just that. The concept of care ethics is now intertwined with contemporary virtue theory, and the popularity of care ethics in this context has helped revive traditional virtue theory.

How might the virtue of care fit into Aristotle’s theory of virtue? Much about his overall view of virtue would need serious updating. His list of specific virtues comes mainly from an elite social class of rulers, military leaders, landowners, and merchants. And these were social roles filled principally by wealthy men. Aristotle still believed that all people need to acquire moral virtues, whether they are men, women, or even slaves. However, the virtues of women and slaves, he argued, are different and reflect their more subservient roles in society. Women are to have the virtues of obedience, silence, and domestic upkeep. Aristotle insisted that women were not slaves, but he held that, in the natural order of things, women were subordinate to men, and women’s virtues reflect that social standing (Politics 1.12-13 and 3.4). He would probably even agree that care is an important moral virtue for women, but would argue that it is nonetheless a virtue of a subservient class.

Fortunately, we now live in a time that respects social equality, and each of Aristotle’s 12 virtues needs to be reinterpreted to apply to all social classes, including the wealthy, middleclass and the poor. Generosity is not just a virtue that wealthy people need to acquire. Even the poor should be generous, if not with their money, then at least with their time. When adding new virtues to his list, such as care, they also need to address the full spectrum of today’s social classes. The virtue of care could not simply be another of Aristotle’s subservient female virtues. It must be relevant to everyone, men and women alike. Even if women are naturally more interested in nurturing than men, that makes no difference. All moral virtues present challenges to our natural inclinations. We are naturally selfish people, but we need to rise above that when developing the virtue of charity. So too with anyone—male or female—who is not naturally nurturing. They need to overcome that limitation and meet the moral challenge of habitually caring for others.

Virtues With or Without Rules?

Thomas Aquinas / Wikimedia Commons

Anscombe and defenders of care ethics are good examples of the many contemporary philosophers who believe that virtues play a central role in morality. Often these writers appear to be saying that morality should be completely independent of moral rules and grounded only in virtues. That is, morality is founded entirely on virtuous character traits such as courage and care, and these virtues are independent of all abstract moral principles. This is a rather extreme position and, for clarity, we will call this strong virtue theory. A more moderate position, which we will call weak virtue theory, is that virtuous character traits are inseparably connected with either a single rule or a core set of rules. For example, there is a general moral rule that people should be courageous, and the virtue of courage is the character trait that enables people to consistently act morally. Which of these two views is the more plausible account of the role that virtues play in morality?

Some of the appeal of strong virtue theory undoubtedly stems from a frustration with the inadequacies of rule-based approaches to morality, such as those proposed by Kant and Mill. As Gilligan suggests, rigid rules seem so contrary to the nurturing dispositions needed for genuine morality that we should simply reject them. However, if we examine the views of traditional virtue theorists from Aristotle onwards, we will find that they hold to a position that is more like weak virtue theory, not the strong version. Within Aristotle himself there are three ways that virtues are connected with rules. First, Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean is itself a general principle, and many writers refer to it specifically as Aristotle’s “principle of the golden mean.” According to this principle, right or virtuous actions are those that fall between extreme responses. This rule is somewhat flexible and depends on our specific circumstances and the guidance of practical wisdom. Nevertheless, it is still the standard in determining virtuous conduct.

Second, for Aristotle, each specific virtue is a standard by which we assess the correctness of our own actions, as well as those of other people. The virtue itself functions as a rule. This is clear in his discussion of the virtue of good temper noted previously. We praise people who abide by the virtuous mean of good temper and condemn those who do not. He also advises us as individuals to “cling to the middle state” of good temper so that we become praiseworthy. Similarly, the virtues of courage, temperance, generosity, and self-respect all become standards by which we praise or condemn actions. Standards like these are essentially rules for making moral judgments. Third, Aristotle’s virtue theory involves an intimate connection between ethics and politics. Ethics involves the discovery of our ultimate human purpose as developed in virtuous character traits. Politics extends directly from this and involves legislating “what we are to do and what we are to abstain from” (Nicomachean Ethics, 1.2). This process involves establishing just actions and just punishments (Politics, 7.13). Thus, governments create laws, which are legally binding rules of conduct and are standards for how we should behave within society. Virtues, then, are only the starting point; the next step is to create governing bodies, social classes, and the obligations of both rulers and citizens, all of which is rule-oriented.

We also find a marriage between virtues and rules in medieval virtue theories. A case in point is the notion of the Seven Deadly Sins of lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride. Also known as the Capital Vices, these are especially bad character traits that give rise to condemnable actions. In the words of Thomas Aquinas, these vices result in “the commission of many sins all of which are said to originate in that vice as their chief source” (Summa Theologica, 2-2:153:4). The vices prompt sinful conduct, and the sinful conduct breaks divinely mandated moral rules. Standing in contrast to each of the Seven Deadly Sins are the Seven Holy Virtues of chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility. These are virtuous character traits that block the commission of sinful action. Thus, the virtues, their corresponding vices, the sinful actions, and the divinely mandated moral rules are all parts of the same package.

Of course, even if Aristotle and other philosophers from the past were weak virtue theorists, this does not prevent contemporary philosophers from adopting strong virtue theory. However, it does isolate the strong virtue theorist for proposing a radically new type of virtue theory that rejects both traditional rule-based morality and more moderate virtue-based morality. We would need a very compelling reason to depart so thoroughly from traditional notions of ethical rules and, so far, such an argument has not emerged. It is the weak theory of virtue that fits with tradition; at the same time, it accommodates important contemporary insights such as care ethics.

Criticisms of Strong Virtue Theory

In spite of the strong support for virtue-based morality, defenders of rule-based approaches often raise objections to virtue theory. However, most of these are attacks on strong virtue theory. Because of the popularity of such criticisms, it is important to see how defenders of weak virtue theory quickly respond to these charges. First, critics charge that there is a problem with determining precisely who is virtuous. It does not help to look for some external criterion, such as visible indications in the person’s action, since outward actions are no guarantee that the person’s inner self is virtuous. It also does not help to look for some internal criterion, such as the individual’s self-respect or integrity, since we do not have the ability to read people’s minds. In response, weak virtue theorists say that we look at people’s actions as indicators of their character traits—for example, whether a given action appears ill-tempered. We then praise or blame the action based on whether it approaches the virtuous mean.

Second, critics argue that some acts, such as murder, are so intolerable that we must devise a special list of prohibited offenses. Strong virtue theory does not provide such a list, but it is easy for the weak virtue theorist to construct a list of prohibited actions. When we assess how well a person’s actions conform to the virtuous mean, it becomes evident that some actions are more blameworthy than others are. We then make a list of these actions. Although Aristotle did not provide a definitive list, he does note that certain vices are worse than others. For example, in his discussion of good temper, he argues that the vice of ill temper is worse than the vice of impassivity. Also, other virtue theorists do provide short lists of prohibited actions that stem from serious vices, such as the Seven Deadly Sins.

Finally, critics argue that virtue theory permits us to occasionally act badly, as long as the virtue in question remains intact. For example, virtue theory emphasizes long-term character traits, such as honesty or generosity. Because of this long-term emphasis, we might overlook specific lies or acts of selfishness on the grounds that they are only temporary departures from our overall dispositions. The weak virtue theorist has two responses to this charge. First, once we set virtues up as standards of praise and blame, we are in a position to judge every action that departs from a given virtuous standard. The occasional lie, for example, will stand out and call for judgment. Second, it may be a mistake to think that occasional departures, such as white lies, do not compromise virtuous character traits. With many virtues, to be virtuous means to always display exemplary conduct. For example, even a single act of marital infidelity sufficiently signals a lack of virtue. A politician who publicly lies even once loses the trust of the people. It may sometimes seem as though we can still be virtuous while occasionally acting non-virtuously, but this may only mean that we have compromised our standards of morality.


Virtues play a role in most traditional moral theories, and even Grotius, Kant, and Mill do not suggest that we should completely abandon interest in them. The issue becomes, first, how prominent a role virtues should play in a theory, and, second, what specific virtues we should adopt.

Incorporating Virtue Theory into Other Moral Theories

Alasdair MacIntyre / Photo by Sean O’Connor, Wikimedia Commons

Regarding the first issue—how prominent a role virtues should play—our discussion so far suggests that they certainly deserve a central role, but not the only role. First, even the simple task of listing various virtues involves at least some rules. To determine whether a specific character trait is virtuous as opposed to vicious, we will likely fall back on some rule, such as the principle of the golden mean. We are also likely to see each specific virtue itself as a standard and rule that indicates proper conduct. So, at a minimum, we should prefer weak virtue theory to strong virtue theory. Second, moral judgments are quite varied, and even weak virtue theory cannot adequately explain this diversity without bringing in other theories. Suppose that, when driving down the highway, I accidentally cut off another driver, who then flies into a rage and runs me into a ditch. Aristotle would say that the other driver was immoral largely because he had the vice of ill temper. This, though, is only one kind of moral assessment, and it is not even the most natural assessment that we might make. Instead, I might say that the driver was immoral because he caused me emotional pain for no justifiable reason. I might also say that the driver violated my rights—specifically, my right not to be physically attacked. If I am religious, I might say that the man sinned by going against God’s will.

Contemporary virtue theorist Alasdair Maclntyre would say that I’m uttering nonsense with these other moral assessments—regardless of how commonly we speak about personal happiness, individual rights, or the will of God. Maclntyre believes that today we have only fragments of conflicting moral traditions:

We continue to use many of the key expressions [of morality]. But we have— very largely, if not entirely—lost our comprehension, both theoretical and practical, of morality. [After Virtue, 1984, Ch. 1]

To make sense of morality, says Maclntyre, we need to adopt Aristotle’s view of virtues. Contrary to Maclntyre, though, it is not reasonable to simply dismiss most of our moral vocabulary simply because it does not draw on virtue theory. More importantly, it is not even possible for us today to abandon these other moral notions in exclusive favor of virtue theory. Notions of moral rights are firmly imbedded into American moral consciousness, particularly the natural rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as endorsed by the Declaration of Independence. Religious believers who ground morality in God’s will are not likely to shift to Aristotle’s virtue theory anytime soon. To best understand and theorize about morality, we should begin by acknowledging the wide range of approaches that people actually do take to the subject. Virtue theory is only one of many approaches.

Regarding the second issue of specific virtues we should focus on, Aristotle’s short list of virtues is clearly incomplete. Whereas Aristotle stopped at a dozen virtues, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century virtue theorists expanded the list to include as many as 100 distinct virtues. Today, we should modify the list even more. Defenders of care ethics point out that Aristotle’s list reflects an aristocratic bias that we should reject, and they observe that we should include more feminine and nurturing qualities. As social trends shift and we become more receptive to racial, ethnic, and gender diversity, we should adopt virtues of social tolerance and acceptance. With growing interest in animal rights and environmental issues, we should cultivate virtues that display a sensitivity to these concerns. Part of the task of moral philosophers is to sift through social trends and update moral theories in this way.

The Best Teacher of Morality

Although we want to view virtue theory as only one of many approaches to morality, we should keep in mind virtue theory’s unique asset. Imagine that, as a parent, you want to teach your child that it is wrong to become inappropriately enraged. When your child is older, you do not want him to give in to aggressive driving, beat his wife, or perform any other action that is the consequence of inappropriate anger. Imagine further that you have two teaching methods available. The first method established meticulous rules for what counts as inappropriate anger in virtually every circumstance. It also included rules describing the kinds of punishments that are justified for each type of violation. According to this first teaching method, your child memorizes all these rules so that, for each situation that arises, your child immediately knows the right thing to do. The second method does not involve memorizing specific rules but instead focuses on instilling good habits. Using various techniques, such as behavior modification, you teach your child to avoid inappropriate expressions of anger and become habituated toward a more appropriate response. You also give him techniques so he can properly modify his angry behavior on his own, without your constant monitoring. All other factors being equal, which of these two methods would work best in preventing inappropriate anger? The habit-instilling method appears to be the winner.

Virtue theorists capitalize on the benefits of teaching morality through creating virtuous habits. They argue that the most important thing about studying ethics is its impact on conduct. Aristotle himself said that he wrote the Nicomachean Ethics “not in order to know what virtue is, but in order to become good.” Detailed lists of rules in and of themselves do not make us better people, but instilling good habits does. American philosopher William James stated that “All our life. . . . is but a mass of habits,—practical, emotional, and intellectual”. Our minds, he argues, adapt to repetitive behavior, “just as a sheet of paper or a coat, once creased or folded, tends to fall forever afterward into the same identical folds.” Habits do not become merely second nature to us, but “ten times nature” because of how firmly they become rooted in us. Focusing on habits is the best way to teach morality to the young, and it is through the continual practice of good habits that they become moral saints. James writes, “Could the young but realize how soon they will become mere walking bundles of habits, they would give more heed to their conduct while in the plastic state” (“The Laws of Habit”, 1899).

In our actual lives as we raise our children, we will likely adopt a hybrid approach moral instruction that involves both teaching rules and instilling good habits. The fact remains, though, that it is a mistake to completely ignore the benefits of virtue theory in moral instruction. Society needs all the help it can get in improving its moral climate. To that end, moral philosophers of all traditions should welcome the contributions of virtue theory.


Aristotle offered the view that morality consists of developing virtuous habits that regulate the desires of our appetitive nature. Most virtues are at a mean between two vicious habits and our practical wisdom guides us in developing moral virtues by gradually informing us of our ultimate function and showing us the best means of attaining it. Philosophers during the Middle Ages adopted Aristotle’s view, although virtues were reduced to a secondary status by seventeenth- and eighteenth-century moral philosophers. Grotius argued that Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean fails since some virtues, such as religious worship, actually require extreme behavior. Kant criticized that some virtues—such as cool-headedness— might become vices if they are not guided by higher moral principles. Mill argued that morality involves judging a person’s actions and not a person’s character.

Contemporary discussions of virtue assess the relative merits of virtue-based versus rule-based morality. Care ethics, which emphasizes the female capacity of nurturing, tells us that there is a moral need to care for people who are in situations of vulnerability and dependency. Many defenders reject the rule-based approach to ethics and that virtue theory is the best way of understanding the moral capacity to care. We can distinguish between strong virtue theory, which rejects all rules, and weak virtue theory, which involves some rules. Aristotle himself is a weak virtue theorist, and weak virtue theory sidesteps many common criticisms against virtue theory in general. In any case, virtue theory is only one of many approaches to moral philosophy, although virtue theory is uniquely suited for teaching morality.

Originally published by Dr. James Fieser from Great Issues in Philosophy, University of Tennessee at Martin.