I don't see what justifies naturalistic virtue ethics, or other forms of ethics that put forward virtues, for instance non-naturalistic command ethics.

To me, implementing an ethics that emphasizes virtues is inefficient and damaging:

  • When you are sick, you don't start from what does not exist (being in shape), but you start from what exists (being sick). Curing a patient consists in making them less sick (which finally results incrementally, consequentially, in making them in shape), not making them in shape (which I don't even know how it would look like concretelly).

  • If you implement the same logic of virtue ethics to sickness, it might result in people acting the targeted result, the state of being in shape (= having this or that virtue) (which does not exist, for it being targeted), which is inefficient and painful. An illustration of that is the episode of How I Met Your Mother where Barney does not want to accept he has a cold, and keep acting as if he were totally fine, while he is not.

  • If you implement virtue ethics, it might result in hypocrisy. Because it is inefficient for it being unrealistic, but because they are constrained to conform to it, people might play the role, without having really developed the targeted virtue. The person playing best the role of having this or that virtue will be the most rewarded.

  • For virtues in virtue ethics stemming not from a concrete reality, but from a general and abstract idea, it gives a lot of room to judge about whether an action or a person is characterized or not by this or that virtue. As a consequence, people might be confused before acting one way or another, while other people can freely argue that this or that past action, or their personality, is virtuous while it is not.

  • Implementing virtue ethics might restrain individual freedom, and the respect of individual integrity and dignity, and that resulting not in bringing greater welfare to the society, even going against it. Not all people are either brave, masculine (when being a man), feminine (when being a woman), generous, empathic, or this or that; but that doesn't mean this person should not be worth respecting, or allowed to develop and live their personality to their fullest. As Adam Smith, Bernard Mandeville and John Stuart Mill noticed, it is not only virtues, but often vices or peculiarity, that can bring the best human flourishing. An example is Steve Jobs who built one of the greatest company of all time, but who was by many testimonies, not really virtuous on many aspects.

To apply these different points on a concrete example. People criticizes the "dictarship of happiness", that makes people uncomfortable. I think we indeed find these drawbacks in our societies, precisely because happiness has been raised as a virtue, and not because it is seen as a positive outcome of a positive pursuit (that of happiness). Because happiness is seen as a virtue, and because virtue is intrinsically dependent on other people's judgement, there is a urgent social pressure to appear happy (most of the time, if not all), and not to be, or to become happy. Research has found repeatedly that intervening on the expression of emotions is maladaptive, detrimental, and inefficient. On the other hand, if happiness is seen from a consequentialist point of view, there will not be these drawbacks. People can freely find the ways that make them happy, and be unhappy when they need to. Human behavior is intrinsically related to physical health and mental health, therefore if one has to solve (behavioural) problems, same as when solving health issues, there is very little room for moral judgments. Instead, objective, detached methods, that work, should be applied.


What justifies "virtue ethics" or other forms of ethics emphasizing "virtues"?

NB: On the other hand, an ethics which is sober with regards to virtues (and deontology, the two often going hand in hand) (but holding one or two principles such as the harm principle and the principle of the absence of unnecessary pain as the goal of life*) might give rise to the appearance of many issues (since they are not forcefully being suppressed under the imposition of a limited code of conduct), but precisely these very concrete issues that individuals encounter during concrete situations and with their concrete personality or other traits can be tackled and solved, rather than forcefully hidden, resulting in an enhanced well-being and therefore enhanced morality. I think this is what we see in Western secular liberal democracies, with the debates and laws concerning LGBT rights, women's rights, abortion, euthanasia, animals rights, etc.

*the latter of which is somehow inscribed in the American 1776 Declaration ("that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness") and the French 1789 Declaration ("afin que les réclamations des citoyens, fondées désormais sur des principes simples et incontestables, tournent toujours au maintien de la Constitution et au bonheur de tous.").

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    there are problems (and appeals) to every meta-ethical theory. you should google virtue ethics for a while. but anyway, saying it is easier to teach morality that virtue ethics may have some truth to it
    – user65174
    Mar 18, 2023 at 11:16
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    if you want my two cents: in theory if not in practice i subscribe to virtue ethics because it avoids the panopticon and absurd conclusions of utilitarianism and deontology. maybe these are straw men of both: you tell me
    – user65174
    Mar 18, 2023 at 11:29
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    you need a critical theory, ime, to think about right and wrong in today's fetishistic world. hth :) specifically, ways of challenging ideological assumptions (homosexuality is wrong, it's good to steal each other's food) that, if we did not have, it would turn out we are happier human beings (in general ofc)
    – user65174
    Mar 18, 2023 at 12:06
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    @ScottRowe "as an entirely inward, personal, invisible project that no one is in a position to comment on, even (especially!) about themselves." This to me would be a good fit to consequentialism
    – Starckman
    Mar 18, 2023 at 13:12
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    The best thing is that virtues and ethics catalyse excellently the pace of human development in a long run by creating a good and happy environment and thus terminating conflicts among human beings unlike unfair means which may give some profit but for short term and to less amount of people. Mar 19, 2023 at 3:06

4 Answers 4


The justification of ethics is general is based on recognizing we have a moral sense, then trying to fit the best model we can to the data we get from that moral sense.

Virtue ethics -- where we try to make ourselves a better person by cultivating moral virtues, tends to fit our moral intuitions better than the primary theoretical alternatives.

Epicurean utilitarianism -- which seeks the best experiences for all -- tends to lack any VALUE. It treats the highest moral goal as being a consumer of experiences. If accomplished, this tends to lead to an empty life. PLUS -- the perfectionistic demands of utilitarianism can drive its serious holders into an inescapable sense of psychological inadequacy, as the moral demand of optimizing the world will be failed both internally (we will all give into self indulgences), and externally (the world is just not under our control).

Legalism -- the following and enforcement of rules for rules sake -- is emotionally satisfying for a few legalistically inclined personalities, but the rest of us note that some catastrophically bad consequences can come from legalism, plus it is devoid of empathy, and it sabotages the development of any "virtue" of empathy.

Rights ethic -- a more limited set of prohibitions than legalism, based on human or animal rights -- but allowing free agency (often to pursue either virtues, or epicureanism) outside of those prohibitions, can avoid the psychological problems of the infinite demands of utilitarianism, while allowing a more humane life than legalism. However rights ethics tend to get very tangled into the logic problems of multiple conflicting rights, which tends to devolve into legalism/dogmatism. Plus most rights thinkers use the limits of rights ethics to rationalize a lack of empathy and care for others, beyond just not violating their rights. And there is no basis within rights ethic to morally criticize these moral imperfections.

Virtue ethic provides a way to value what one has done with one's character, and accomplishments. An artistic creator, the builder of a business empire, the developer of a new field of science, someone who has overcome their addictions, or embraced honesty as a central character trait -- these are all practicing and benefitting from a virtue ethics perspective. Virtue ethics identifies character as something malleable, and notes the importance of character in a personal life accomplishment/trajectory.

One of the problems with virtue ethics is the tremendous diversity of what virtues one may embrace as values -- the warrior ethos of the Samurai, the satisfaction over his or her own professional competence for a torturer -- are reasonably seen as IMMORAL virtue sets. Virtue ethic, to capture our moral sense, needs to prioritize Love/empathy as the highest virtue, then truth as the second highest.

Once one does this, virtue ethic best captures the data we gain about the world thru our moral sense. THAT is the justification of virtue ethics.

Your critiques, that virtue ethics can be misapplied, is true of every aspect of human thinking. That is not a valid critique of virtue ethics -- but is instead an example of an impossible standard fallacy.

  • @Starckman -- your extensive comments are because you want to debate virtue ethics, they are not corrections to my answer. That is to be done in chat, so I opened a site to do so here: chat.stackexchange.com/rooms/info/144709/… I will be happy to discuss your concerns with virtue ethics there.
    – Dcleve
    Mar 19, 2023 at 6:34
  • In the online book called, At The Feet of The Master, you can find this quote: "Of all the Qualifications, Love is the most important, for if it is strong enough in a man, it forces him to acquire all the rest, and all the rest without it would never be sufficient."
    – Scott Rowe
    Mar 19, 2023 at 23:20

The justification of virtue ethics can proceed from the perspective to its applications, with counterintuitive recommendations counting as evidence against the theory; on the other hand, if an agent believes they are virtuous, they will believe that their moral intuitions are supported by their ambient intellectual virtue, and so maybe nothing that they do will seem counterintuitive to them, after all. So if arrogance or close-mindedness or what-have-you is a likelier problem for a virtue ethicist than an aggregationist or deontologian, that would tell against virtue ethics to some extent. (Alternatively, arrogantly-held beliefs are a threat caused by generally more wrong epistemologies of ethics, but even if virtue ethics are on a par with their "competitors" on this score as such, it might be that there are more particular problems of arrogant belief, and maybe deontologians have to deal with one of these problems more than virtue ethicists do, and virtue ethicists have their own arrogance problem that is harder to solve using their epistemology, and then aggregationists in turn have yet another such problem that they face; and divine command theorists, too, are notoriously imperious and even dangerous for this kind of reason.)

Another evaluation proceeds from the theory back to the conceptual questions it involves. Anscombe lambasted talk of "moral laws without a lawgiver" or "giving the law to oneself," but her complaints hold no water in the light of the Kantian root of these phrases (the root of what she was referring to), since Kant painstakingly spells out what he means by laws, lawgiving, self-imposition, etc. so that his theory isn't really arguable on merely terminological grounds. But still, one can avoid contrived negativity about aggregationism and deontology by focusing on a positive, self-substantive characterization of virtue ethics as about moral states instead of objects (being aggregated) or actions (being judged). One can construct philosophically plausible, if not conclusive, arguments that moral states would precede moral objects and moral actions, and then virtue ethics as a prioritizing of states over objects/actions has some abstract justification. (John Rawls, who addresses the question, ranks aretaic statuses as derivative from principles of actions as well as both thin and thick theories of aggregatable good, so he orders the concept of right action over the concept of aretaic status, but now this goes to show that the question of such an ordering seems "real.")

EDIT: one might also argue against virtue ethics using claims about moral luck as premises. (Counterpart arguments might be aimed at aggregationism and deontology; divine command theorists, oddly, might have a slight advantage in this sector of the dialectic, if they can correlate moral luck with the dispensation of divine grace adequately; but I digress.) One might say that whether one has a sunny disposition is a matter of luck, not genuine aretaic effort; or the mind is epiphenomenal, and one's intellectual virtues never actually crystallize in moral virtues and attendant actions.

I appreciate that you asked about justifications for virtue ethics, but it does seem easier (for me) to come up with reasons why it isn't justified, though (or why its justification is trivial, or no better than what is available for other moral theories).

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    Arrogance is fatal to self-development. Yes.
    – Scott Rowe
    Mar 18, 2023 at 13:12
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    @zero if certainty is just defined as unwillingness to change one's beliefs, maybe then not much. Or one might say that one is not willing to change one's beliefs once those beliefs are sufficiently confirmed by evidence, and it might be that you seem to have a great enough amount of strong enough evidence to go on like that. It would be curious to have that amount of confidence in one's moral intuitions, though. Mar 18, 2023 at 15:27
  • @zero no, it would be, that was one of my lines of reasoning (someone who believes themselves to be very virtuous is then tempted to trust their moral intuitions too much, at least if their strongest virtues are epistemic/truth-functional, e.g. an extremely honest person might think, "I wouldn't even lie to myself!" and then conclude that they're not self-deceived about some moral question, even when they are, maybe). Mar 18, 2023 at 15:38
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    @zero I don't really trust or distrust my reasoning. I try to avoid using concepts like trust or certainty, and I've even toyed with not talking about "beliefs" at all (not "to believe that there are no beliefs" but just "to not believe that there are beliefs"). Mar 18, 2023 at 15:45
  • Let us continue this discussion in chat.
    – user65174
    Mar 18, 2023 at 15:49

You might argue that a moral theory without virtue is in some sense impoverished. Who cares what moral people (you, me, whoever) are actually like? Think of it as a response to the self effacement problems or a warning from the future.

On the other hand, an ethics which is sober with regards to virtues (and deontology, the two often going hand in hand) (but holding one or two principles such as the harm principle and the principle of the absence of unnecessary pain as the goal of life) might give rise to the appearance of many issues... traits can be tackled and solved, rather than forcefully hidden

Perhaps you can add the virtue of honesty and self reflection to get there. Or, can you see why virtue ethics isn't facile and wrong via the idea of living virtuously?

An Epicurean sage, accordingly, would have no motive to violate the rights of others. Whether the sage would be virtuous is perhaps moot; what Epicurus says is that he would live virtuously, that is prudently, honorably, and justly (the adverbial construction may be significant). He would do so not because of an acquired disposition or hexis, as Aristotle had it, but because he knows how to reason correctly about his needs.

I sense you won't find this answer satisfactory, perhaps because you want to build a system of self belief independent of counter evidence.

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    Anything without self-reflection is just being an ant. Personally, I don't really care what people think, want, believe or feel as long as they do the right thing. They can freely swing their arm however they want, short of the end of my nose. Ultimately, the most selfish thing we can possibly do is work to our uttermost to care for the people and world around us. Anything less is just stupid.
    – Scott Rowe
    Mar 18, 2023 at 16:55
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    i just mean the question seems pretty sure of consequentialism @ScottRowe especially a very limited libertarian one in which we are not permitted to deliberately harm others but anything else is just "stuff", the result would be a seriously impoverished idea of the good, imho
    – user65174
    Mar 19, 2023 at 4:21
  • most people agree that diminishing someone's quality of life out of cruelty is usually wrong. to say that's all there is to ethics is very licentious @ScottRowe and, while the question seems concerned with structural injustice, will just mean ethics = the status quo
    – user65174
    Mar 19, 2023 at 4:38

Justification depends on Source Ethics of any ilk is justified or dismissed depending upon its origin or source. Ethics of Virtue, to be valid for all peoples must have its origination from a Transcendent Source to be applicable for people allover the Earth.

Rules of Virtue emanating from "man" presupposes that "man" is virtuous in every detail. While there is goodness, there is also a lot of meanness in humanity. G.K. Chesterton [?] said that the easiest theological doctrine to prove is "The Fallen Nature of Man."

Research will result in showing that "Virtues" are the effulgent emanation of the character of the Transcendent God of holiness! This is One in Whom there is no variableness nor fickleness. His virtues are reliable, practicable, and importantly, knowable.

As such the pursuit of the virtuous life is most commendable. And mankind is not left to his own devices, strength, or will-power to obtain these virtues; he is aided by the Creator, who fashioned him, by reliance on His Holy Spirit. The Source of virtue shares His virtues freely.

  • "When you take 1 step towards God, God takes 50 steps towards you." Most people seem to be low on their daily steps counter.
    – Scott Rowe
    Mar 19, 2023 at 11:36

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