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Virtue Ethics

Current Debates About Virtue Ethics

Notwithstanding this concession, the claim that virtue ethics, unlike the other two approaches, cannot provide adequate guidance on actions persists as the most common objection to it. This is reflected in what is increasingly becoming the new commonplace among moderate anti-virtue ethicists, namely that "what we need" (for a complete ethical theory) is "an ethics of virtue AND an ethics of rules."

In the earlier days of modern virtue ethics, this was a plausible objection. It was based on the premise that the only guidance virtue ethics could come up with was that you should do what the virtuous agent would do in the circumstances. It is true that the earlier virtue ethics literature offered little more. But then it was pointed out by Rosalind Hursthouse (1991) that every virtue generates a prescription (Do what is honest, Do what is charitable/benevolent) and every vice a prohibition (Do not do what is dishonest, uncharitable/malevolent). The existence of these "v-rules," expressed in the vocabulary of the virtues and vices and hence part of "an ethics of virtue," refutes (literally) the premise on which the objection was based; what plausibility, if any, is retained by the claim that an ethics of virtue needs to be supplemented by an ethics of rules or principles is now the central debate.

In some instances, the claim seems no more than a verbal flourish; the v-rules must be "supplemented" by a principle of benevolence, a principle of nonmalevolence, and so on. Why so, one might ask, but why not indeed if people think it sounds more authoritative? Many criticisms of the v-rules fall foul of an obvious tu quoque (this applies to you, too) response. Of course, the requirements of the different virtues may, at least apparently, conflict. Honesty points to telling the hurtful truth, kindness or compassion to remaining silent or even lying. But so too do the related deontologists' and rule-utilitarians' rules, rightly reflecting the fact (ignored by the old act-utilitarians) that life does present us with dilemmas whose resolution, even if correct, should leave us with a remainder of regret. Like the other two approaches, virtue ethics seeks resolutions of such conflicts in a more refined or nuanced understanding or application of the rules involved; and as with the other approaches, its proponents may disagree about the correct resolution.

Perhaps overimpressed by Alasdair MacIntyre's early work, critics of virtue ethics have commonly asserted that the v-rules are inherently culturally specific and conservative because they are developed within existing traditions and societies. Virtue ethicists are amused by the implicit assumption that what their rivals find "reasonable" or "rationally acceptable" is not shaped by modern Western culture and (predominantly) American society, and are more than willing to admit that they have no reason to suppose that their own lists of rules are complete.

However, they do point out that their lists of rules—particularly perhaps the list of vice-rules—is remarkably long in comparison with any that their rivals have produced, and grows naturally (albeit within our own culture) as people's experience of modern life contributes new terms. And they appeal to their list to rebut the charge that the guidance they offer is less specific than that provided by others. "Tell the truth," even if filled out to provide plausible answers to "All of it? Always? To anyone?" is still much less specific than what is yielded by "Do what is honest," "Do not do what is disingenuous, rude, insensitive, spiteful, hypocritical, untrustworthy, treacherous, manipulative, phony, sneaky," and so on. The issue is still hotly contested.


Annas, Julia. The Morality of Happiness. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Anscombe, G. E. M. "Modern Moral Philosophy." In Virtue Ethics, edited by Roger Crisp and Michael Slote. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Originally published in 1958.

Crisp, Roger, and Michael Slote, eds. Virtue Ethics. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Foot, Philippa. Virtues and Vices. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Gilligan, Carol. In a Different Voice. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982.

Hursthouse, Rosalind. Dependent Rational Animals. Chicago: Open Court, 1999.

——. On Virtue Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

——. "Virtue Theory and Abortion." In Virtue Ethics, edited by Daniel Statman. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997. Originally published in 1991.

MacIntyre, Alasdair. After Virtue. 2nd ed. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984.

Pence, Gregory E. "Recent Work on the Virtues." American Philosophical Quarterly 21 (1984): 281–297.

Stocker, Michael. "The Schizophrenia of Modern Ethical Theories." Journal of Philosophy 14 (1976): 453–466.

Swanton, Christine. Virtue Ethics: A Pluralistic View. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Rosalind Hursthouse

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