Virtue Ethics

Virtue ethics is the ethical paradigm that judges the morality of an action based on the character of the agent performing an action.

A virtuous agent is one who possesses virtues.

An action is right if and only if it is what a virtuous agent would characteristically (i.e., acting in character) do in the circumstances.

On Virtue Ethics by Rosalind Hursthouse


The paradigm of virtue ethics focuses on character traits that make up a good life, eudaimonia, and lead to appropriate, optimal behavior. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics explains the nature of virtue well. Christine Swanton’s target-centered virtue ethics is a modern approach that aims to specify the domains to which virtues are dispositions1Another word for a character trait. to act adequately.

Virtue ethics relies on the virtues2Some core virtues include: intelligence, practical wisdom, and compassion. of people to respond to tricky situations. For example, by deontology, one must follow the rule to “never lie” unless there is an exception, whereas an honest person will wish to tell the truth and generally do so, carefully weighing factors as to when and how to respond in exceptional circumstances. A utilitarian will calculate the benefits and harms of telling the truth in each case3Which is impractical, so the utilitarian will probably conclude that it’s likely best to develop the disposition toward honesty or to follow heuristic rules most of the time..

The virtues can be defined as trait attributes. For the time being, they’re a subclass of moral attributes, such as good and bad, which are normative attributes4The primary reason to do this is to avoid over-determining the high-level theory. Traits could generally suffice..

The definitional challenge is in defining what a virtuous person would do in similar circumstances. The notion of a situation is not defined in SUMO5The WordNet term is mapped to subjective assessment attribute, basically implying that the user must determine what the situation is.. The notion of similarity is also missing. There is some subjectivity to the choice of similarity measures6Including whether the similarity judgments are measures, mathematically speaking. and how to characterise what a generic agent with a virtue is likely to do. Philosophically, this isn’t a problem. Practically, this renders formalization more difficult.

In the case that an entity is virtuous, then it’s easy to say that what ey do is right. I opted to say that if an virtuous agent takes an action and the agent’s virtue is refers to this class of actions, then the action class is likely morally good, following the spirit of target-centered virtue ethics7This seems justified because if, e.g., a brave person acts in a domain where bravery is required, then they will probably act rightly. However, if the situation calls for honesty and they’re only brave, then it is irrelevant. Adding in likelihood is my own philosophical hunch to weaken the statement from one of certainty..

The other direction was difficult to figure out. My best attempt is to say that if an action is morally good, then if an agent is virtuous with virtues that refer to this class of actions, it is likely that the agent will take this action. What we should say is that, if an action is morally good in a given situation, then an agent with relevant virtuues will likely take such an action in similar situations8I chose to do this draft without using the situation definition as it is hacky..