virtue theory

Many philosophers believe that morality consists of following precisely defined rules of conduct, such as "don't kill," or "don't steal." Presumably, I must learn these rules, and then make sure each of my actions live up to the rules. Virtue theorists, however, place less emphasis on learning rules, and instead stress the importance of developing good habits of character, such as benevolence. Once I've acquired benevolence, for example, I will then habitually act in a benevolent manner. Historically, virtue theory is the oldest normative tradition in Western philosophy, having its roots in ancient Greek civilization. Plato emphasized four virtues in particular, which were later called cardinal virtues: wisdom, courage, temperance and justice. Other important virtues are fortitude, generosity, self-respect, good temper, and sincerity. In addition to advocating good habits of character, virtue theorists hold that we should avoid acquiring bad character traits, or vices, such as cowardice, insensibility, injustice, and vanity. Virtue theory emphasizes moral education since virtuous character traits are developed in one's youth. Adults, therefore, are responsible for instilling virtues in the young.

Aristotle gave the first systematic expression to virtue theory in his 'Nichomachean Ethics'. Aristotle sees virtues as good habits that we acquire, which regulate our emotions. For example, in response to my natural feelings of fear, I should develop the virtue of courage which allows me to be firm when facing danger. Analyzing 11 specific virtues, Aristotle argues that most virtues fall at a mean between more extreme character traits. With courage, for example, if I do not have enough courage, I develop the disposition of cowardice, which is a vice. If I have too much courage I develop the disposition of rashness which is also a vice. According to Aristotle, it is not an easy task to find the perfect mean between extreme character traits. In fact, we need assistance from our reason to do this. After Aristotle, medieval theologians supplemented Greek theories of virtue with three Christian virtues, or theological virtues: faith, hope, and charity. Interest in virtue theory continued through the middle ages but declined in the 19th century with the rise of alternative moral theories.

Recently though, there has been renewed interest in this field, with philosophers such as Anscombe, Geach, Foot and MacIntyre redeveloping the old theories, working with them and refreshing them. MacIntyre is possibly the most renowned for his delvings into what it is to be virtuous, and why one should strive to be.