Give Virtue a Try

Rosalind Hursthouse argues for a different type of normative ethics: Virtue.  There are many today arguing for an ethics of virtue in the tradition of Aristotle.  In the Christian world of ethics, the most prominent voices for virtue are people like Stan Hauerwas and Gilbert Meilander.  More popularly, you might notice a public school approach to virtue ethics in the writings of Bill Bennett.  What I mean by that is many have taken the kind of virtue proposed by Bill Bennett (Book of Virtues) and sought to work it into public school curricula because it seems more character based without all the religious baggage of rules like the 10 Commandments.


From a secular stance, Rosalind Hursthouse argues for a place at the table of normativity for Virtue ethics.  She is compelled first to take on Rawls’ Theory of Justice, for in it she finds a false dichotomy between the “right” and the “good.”  The overly reductionistic framework of Rawls (according to Hursthouse) makes it impossible to even consider Virtue, for Rawls boils all of ethics down into a simple statement: The basic/most important concept in utilitarianism is that of the good, whereas in deontology it is that of the right. 


Hursthouse argues against Rawls’ easy dichotomy and stresses both the possibility and necessity of a third option, that of Virtue ethics.  Virtue ethics, in the stream headed by Aristotle, “is the concept of a complex character trait, that is, a disposition that is well entrenched in its possessor and, as we say, goes all the way down.”  In other words, we seek to encourage virtuous moral agents.  One of the bedrock tenets of Hursthouse’s ethics of virtue is the Aristotelian concept of phronesis—practical wisdom displayed in excellent practical reasoning.  This wisdom prevents the virtuous person from being subjected to the dreaded judgment of his peers, “He should have known better.”


The strength of virtue ethics, in my opinion, is its honest recognition of the complexity of moral conduct.  One cannot get away with a simple list of do’s and don’t’s.  Even the 10 Commandments, at times, cause angst if they are followed.  One might find difficulty honoring an abusive father, for instance.  The moral agent is the goal of virtue ethics, and this resonates, it seems to me, with much of the teaching of the New Testament, which is largely concerned with the kind of people we are to be: New creatures created in Christ Jesus for good works.


There are some difficulties, however, with an ethics of virtue, namely, whose virtue?  There are, of course, different counts of what character traits exemplify the virtuous agent.  The Virtues Project ( ) lists some 52 virtuous traits.  Others have complained that the virtuous person looks too much like a middle class American.  Many have pointed out that the virtuous person will always be a culturally relative person.  This criticism is somewhat encouraged by Hursthouse’s response to it, in which she says, “homosexuality, like heterosexuality, is not a character trait, and hence not the sort of thing that even gets into the running for being assessed as a virtue or a vice.”


Be that as it may, the further reality with virtue ethics is that it offers no compulsion.  Why be virtuous?  Especially, one might wonder what is the point of cultivating such a virtuous character in view of the many who seem to prosper in their vice.  Why try to overcome weaknesses or temptations?  For these and other problems of applying the ethics of virtue, we will turn to another virtue ethicist, Julia Driver.

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