Part I History of Ethics
Life of Socrates
Part II Concepts and Problems
Normative Ethics and Applied Ethics
Part III Applied Ethics
Field of Applied Ethics
(For the most recent description of Virtue Ethics in Beauchamp and Childress, see Chapter Two of Principles of Biomedical Ethics, 5th Ed)
There is a long tradition in ethics that places great importance on the "kind of person one is." We not only want those around us to "tell the truth" (for example, according to the Categorical Imperative), but also to be honest. Both Aristotle (arete) and Aquinas (virtu) emphasized this aspect of ethics by highlighting the role of what we would today call character in their discussions of ethics (and the classic virtues of courage, justice, and moderation). David Hume also gave virtue and personal merit a key role in his ethical theory. The recent revival of interest in virtue ethics can be traced back to Philippa Foot. She writes that a persons "virtue may be judged by his innermost desires as well as by his intentions; and this fits with our idea that a virtue such as generosity lies as much in someones attitudes as in his actions" (Virtue and Vices, 1977, 5).
The Moral Concept of Virtue
We should distinguish the virtues found in a particular society or culture (e.g., chastity) from those virtues that can be supported by moral reasoning (e.g., honesty). "A virtue is a trait of character that is socially valued, and a moral virtue is a trait that is morally valued Moral reasons must support a claim of moral virtue" (B&C, 27).
By emphasizing the priority of character in discussions of ethics, virtue theorists can say: " rather than using rules and government regulations to protect subjects in research, some claim that the most reliable protection is the presence of an informed, conscientious, compassionate, responsible researcher" (Beecher, quoted in B&C, 28-29). The underlying view here is that "character is more important than conformity to rules and that virtues should be inculcated and cultivated over time through educational interactions, role models," etc. (B&C, 29)
A practical consequence of this view is that the education of, for example medical doctors, should include the cultivation of virtues such as compassion, discernment, trustworthiness, integrity, conscientiousness as well as benevolence (desire to help) and nonmalevolence (desire to avoid harm).
Critical Evaluation of "Virtue Ethics"
Often times we encounter "morality between strangers" (as when one enters an Emergency Room after a car accident). At these times, its not the persons character, but his/her need to follow rules and procedures that seem to come to the forefront ("Virtue is not enough"). Furthermore, persons of good character can certainly formulate bad policy or make a poor choice -- and we need to evaluate those policies and choices according to moral principles.
Constructive Evaluation of "Virtue Ethics"
Yet " ethical theory is more complete if the virtues are included motives deserve to be at center stage in a way that some leading traditional theories have inadequately appreciated" "To look at acts without also looking at the moral appropriateness and desirability of feelings, attitudes, forms of sympathy, and the like is to miss a large area of the moral picture" (B&C, 4th Ed., 69)