Nicholas F. Gier

published in Dialogue: A Journal of Religion and Philosophy (Spring, 2006)
linked with permission of the editor


For the ancient Greeks the word aretJ, which we translate as virtue, literally means “function” or more aptly “excellence.” So the virtue of steel is its strength—and an additional virtue of modern stainless steel is that it does not rust. The virtue of a knife is to cut well, and the virtue of a racehorse is to run well.  According to Aristotle, human excellence is found in rational and moral activity, and the specific virtues, such as courage, temperance, justice and wisdom, are cultivated so that we function well and attain happiness (eudaimonia) within society.

Nineteeth Century English philosopher Leslie Stephen described virtue ethics as follows: "Morality is internal.  The moral law. . . has to be expressed in the form, 'be this,' not in the form  'do this.' . . . The true moral law says 'hate not,' instead of 'kill not.' . . . The only mode of stating the moral law must be as a rule of character."[2]  In other words, people of good character and virtue require no reminder of what the rules are or what their duty is.  For John Stuart Mill the application of internal sanctions (ones by which people restrain themselves) have much more moral value than the imposition of external sanctions, those that most often used by parents and societies to control human behavior. Mill=s argument is persuasive: a society of mature virtues would require few police, judges, and prisons thereby maximizing Mill’s utility principle.  In the last section I will argue that virtue ethics in the form of character consequentialism is a distinctively different view than English utilitarianism.



Generally speaking, the sanctions for virtue ethics are internal and self-regulating, whereas the sanctions for rule ethics, especially in its popular religious form, are external.  (Kant and contemporary Christian ethicists join virtue ethics in favoring internal sanctions.)  For the Greeks, the Roman Stoics, Buddhists, and the Confucians, virtue is its own reward, but popular Christianity appears to have made the incentive for good deeds eternal life in heaven, with eternal damnation for those who do not follow the rules.

When one thinks of the question “Which came first--moral rules or virtues?” the obvious answer, I contend, is that virtues came first.  Moral imperatives are abstractions from thousands of years of observing loyal, honest, patient, just, and compassionate behavior, just as moral prohibitions have come from equally ancient experiences with the vices.  There is good evidence  that the expression of moral rules requires a spoken language, and one could argue just as persuasively that virtues manifested themselves in prelinguistic human beings.

Strong circumstantial evidence for compassion among the Neanderthals can be joined with the hypothesis that their very high larynx made it impossible for them to articulate the basic vowels. Michael Spangle and Kent Menzel state that Aspoken language transformed our species and was a major factor in forging the human world as we know it.@[3] They also argue for the existence of an Aacoustic trigger to conceptualization@ that gestural language obviously lacks.  While there is now a consensus that gestures are integral to all natural languages (remarkably, the blind gesture when they speak), it is generally agreed that they do not express abstractions very well.

It should be even more clear that divine virtues precede divine law, because they would remain as part of the divine nature even if God chose not to create a world.  The doctrine of the Trinity allows the possibility that the divine virtues are not exclusively self-regarding. The Pauline view that the Law was created only to manifest human sin further proves its contingency and confirms the idea of a ‘lawless’ God before creation. Unitarians need not worry about a totally self-occupied God if they choose a theology, such as the process theology, that conceives the deity as socially involved with the world.



One of the problems with rule ethics is applying the rules to specific cases.  The imperatives of virtue ethics--be patient, be kind, be generous, be compassionate, be courageous--better equip an individual to negotiate the obstacles of the moral life.  The virtue ethics approach is not to follow a set of abstract rules, but to develop an ensemble of behaviors, dispositions, and qualities that lead to human excellence and the good life.  Virtue ethics may not have pat answers to specific cases--no ethical theory could offer this--but it does prepare the moral agent for adaptation, innovation, and self-discovery. As Martha Nussbaum states: AThe good agent must therefore cultivate the ability to perceive and correctly describe his or her situation finely and truly, including in this perceptual grasp even those features of the situation that are not covered under the existing rule”.[4]

Annette Baier=s analysis of trust is a good example of the specific adaptability of the virtues.[5]  Rule based ethics and its contractarian social and political arrangements give the false impression that the essence of the moral life consists of conforming to general rules.  Obeying rules can be made specific in a legal contract, but it would of course be impossible to cover the exigencies of our lives with such formal arrangements.  It is the virtue of trust that is basic to human interactions and only a few of the myriad promises necessary for the smooth running of human life could ever be spelled out in contractual form.  It would be not only absurd but also a great insult to plumbers (Baier=s hilarious example) to ‘having it in writing’ that they promise not to plant explosives in the pipes of the houses they work in.  Again, it is the virtues that come first and they are the tools that do the work of the moral life. 



Interestingly enough, some virtuous behavior is not always required in cases that might call for it, while confirmation to rules demands no exceptions.  For example, generous people do not lose their virtue if they do not give to all charities as a rule to give might command, or what Peter Singer requires for maximum world-wide utility.  Let us imagine a burning house where a hedonic calculator is indicating that it is too dangerous to go in and save the children inside.  While all utilitarians would be bound by the calculus, and all Kantians would be bound by the rule that it is always irrational to go beyond one=s duty, virtue theory would allow people to act on their own personal mean between cowardice and foolhardiness. Turning to yet another virtue, it is clear that even the virtue of justice always amounts to more than simply conforming to the strict letter of the law.  The craft excellence of judicial review, as well as daily extralegal decisions, always lead to unique, distinctive, and noncompulsory results.

      Virtue ethics’ great flexibility can be seen in what might be called Aristotle’s ‘objective relativism.’ In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle states that “virtue is a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean, i.e. the mean relative to us, this being determined by a rational principle…”.[6] If the mean were an arithmetic one—such as six as a mean between two and ten—it would be the same for all people. Aristotle used the legend of Milo to show the absurd consequences of this view. Milo was a strong man who was said to have pressed a calf over his head every day as he was growing up. If I am going to avoid the vice of gluttony, for example, my mean for eating the right amount is going to be very different from Milo’s. We each have a mean relative to us, so Milo can eat much more than I can before becoming a glutton. The principal determinants in finding a workable mean for eating are objective not subjective.  If people ignore these objective factors--e.g., temperament, body size, metabolism, and other physiological factors--then their bodies, sooner or later, will tell them that they are out of their respective means.  For Aristotle all the moral virtues are found in a personal mean, so this virtue ethics can claim to be distinctively personal and normative at the same time.



Another way to demonstrate the superiority of virtues over rules is to think of the life of the consummate couch potato. He is a man who essentially lives and works on his couch.  His job is entering data via a modem attached to his computer.  It does not take much thinking to enter the data, so he is able to view his favorite TV shows all the time.  His refrigerator and microwave, of course, are handy for snacks, drinks, and frozen dinners.  Our sofa slug is also a very religious person.  He tunes into to his favorite TV preachers on Sunday morning and sends in his tithes by mail.  Finally, let us say that this man has never broken a law or committed a major sin in is life.

According to Aristotle, the couch potato=s life lacks virtually everything that counts as human excellence. Our couch potato obeys all moral laws, but he does not aspire to cultivate the virtues of the good life.  According to rule ethics of popular Christianity, however, this man is fully moral, and, assuming divine favor, saved as well.   Bernard Mayo clearly sees the implications of this example: "People might well have no moral qualities at all except the possession of principles and the will (and capacity) to act accordingly".[7]  This appears to be a severe indictment for much rule-based ethics.

As we have seen, the sanctions of a rule-based ethics, in its popular religious form, are primarily external: rewards for those who do good and punishment for those who do evil.  (Contemporary Christian ethical theory of course avoids this simple barter system of ethics, but one cannot deny that this is at the basis of popular religious belief.) This may lead to a mere moralism rather than a genuine morality based on internal sanctions and the view that virtue is its own reward.  Most people would agree that the latter is a more admirable form of ethical motivation, and we have seen that internal sanctions maximize utility.

Most traditional religious ethics teaches us the wrong reasons to be moral.  We should become moral so as to become a better person and be an example to others, rather than for the purely selfish reasons of avoiding punishment.  Moral action should flow naturally from our selves; we should not have to be bribed to be moral.  Justice will not be achieved by following rules, it will only be attained, as Plato, Confucius, and the Buddha envisioned, by people with balanced and harmonious souls and the particular virtuous acts that comes from such harmony.

Another concern about duty ethics is the problem of legalism.  True morality should be the foundation of law, and the virtues, as prior to law, would then serve as a guide and check to any law.   Humans acted courageously, justly, beneficently before they laid down rules regulating human behavior.  A rule-based ethics reverses this order.  It speaks of law, usually divine law, first, and moral rules that come directly from the mind and mouth of the lawgiver.  But true morality must always serve as a check for the possibility of unjust laws.  If law and morality are the same, then this crucial idea of morality as the guardian of just law is undermined.  For example, most of my students are able to condemn Zeus and other Greek gods as immoral deities because of the basic intuition, central to virtue ethics, that virtue precedes law.  The king, earthly or heavenly, is not always right, and we must always guard against the false identity of the legislator and the source of the Good.



Some virtue theorists believe that the virtues can stand alone with intrinsic value independent of consequences and moral rules.  The argument that rules are abstractions from virtues is, I believe, quite persuasive, but the challenge of consequentialism is much stronger. In the burning house example discussed above, we saw that the virtue theorist is not bound to the hedonic calculus.  Each person will have a unique mean between foolhardiness and cowardice, so no person would lose his/her courage by not saving the children. Virtue theorists can also answer Peter Singer=s most provocative challenge. Tying generous acts to a world-wide maximizing of pleasure leads to unacceptable demands on more fortunate people. It is absurd to say that people who give generously to disaster and famine relief now lose their virtue if they do not conform to Singer=s strict requirements. Furthermore, utilitarians could never agree on the specific allocation that people would have to set aside for the poor and bereaved.

To conclude, however, that the virtues have no necessary connection to consequences is to miss the point of the challenge.  The examples above pertain only to utilitarianism (consequentialism wedded to ethical hedonism); they do not prove that virtues are in every instance independent of any consequence. An implication of our argument that virtues developed before moral rules is that they were chosen because of their good consequences. As P. J. Ivanhoe states: AIt seems strongly counter-intuitive to suggest there could be legitimate human goals which always or even usually led to bad consequences.”[8] For example, courage would not have the value that it does if it did not have some significant Apay off@ over the millennia.



Character consequentialism differs from utilitarianism in at least two significant ways. First, as opposed to most hedonic calculations, character consequentialism focuses on the long-term benefits that the virtues bring to individuals and society as a whole.  Ivanhoe illustrates this distinction between the short-term utility of quarterly results in American corporations and the lifetime commitment of Japanese companies to their employees.  What the Japanese lose in terms of quick and large profits, they gain in the form of corporate, civic, and personal virtues of loyalty, perseverance, and benevolence. Second, in utilitarianism the ends—the greatest pleasure for the greatest number—justifies the means (sometimes clearly immoral), but in virtue ethics means and ends are fused in remarkable fashion. Some might say that the virtues are the means to the good life, but it is more accurate to say that practicing the virtues is the good life.

One of the weaknesses of the hedonic calculus is the myriad contingencies and uncertainties that make prediction virtually impossible.  In stark contrast, the value of the virtues is well-attested and the person of character is eminently predictable and reliable.  Complex and variable contexts makes the application of rules difficult, but the virtue theorist, always working from concrete particulars, offers moral agents the freedom to adapt and to improvise.  Although critics claim that virtue theory is vulnerable to perfectionism, it appears that both rule ethics and utilitarianism have even a greater liability on this point. Their abstract and universal perspective may deceive them into thinking that there must be a solution to every moral dilemma.  The particularism and contextualist perspective of virtue theory should to save it from this danger.  Furthermore, Ivanhoe adds: “If one does not recognize that some moral problems simply have no satisfactory solution, one runs the risk of cultivating a seriously deformed character.”[9]

This conclusion leads Ivanhoe to one of his most powerful insights.  He is very concerned that both rule ethics and utilitarianism, primarily because both assume a disembodied moral agent, occasionally require actions that ignore the impact on personal integrity and character.  Ivanhoe grants that it is conceivable that a few people in isolated situations may be forced to perform gruesome deeds in order to maximize the social good. But there must be something fundamentally wrong with a theory that uses the language of moral necessity in hypothetical actions such as torturing a child to save the lives of ten adults.  There is also something terribly wrong with the Kantian rule that it is always wrong to lie, even when lying might save the life of your best friend.  The Kantian allows that it is prudent for you to do so, but insists that your action has no moral worth.  Kant=s reasoning has the absurd result that it moves many of our most trying decisions, ones that have the most moral force and difficulty, out of the realm of morality altogether.

The virtue theorist saves nearly all our intuitions by replying: AYes, practical reason requires that you lie, but this act does indeed have moral worth, and lying once does not in any way undermine your character.@  But why is it that our intuitions tell us that it is never acceptable to torture a child to save other lives?  Lying once does not undermine character, but torturing a child one time does? Is it because that noninjury in the flesh is more culpable than noninjury in speech?  This does not seem to work with Ivanhoe=s best example.  It seems right when he says that experimenters who torture animals to market eye shadow will most likely undermine their character, but the utilitarian position appears to have more support when the animal experiment involves a cure for AIDS. Does overwhelming utility sometimes excuse the possible destruction of the character of AIDS researchers? Virtue theory does not seem to support all of our intuitions on these issues. But perhaps we should remind ourselves that a perfect match with intuitions is a perfectionist goal of modern ethics that virtue ethics should reject. 

The assumption of an impersonal, disembodied self also allow rule ethics and utilitarianism to ignore the relationships that define a moral agent=s place in a historical, cultural world.  It is no accident that the Confucian social self goes hand in hand with a focus on family and societal relations.  Ivanhoe connects this insight with the Confucian idea of graded loveBnamely, that it is only natural that people care more for those closest to them. Michael Scriven=s rational “agapeism,” drawn strictly from the logic of game theory, requires that all people count as equals and that, under certain circumstances, people are required to give their lives in order to save the lives of at least two others.[10]  Ivanhoe can be cited as a response to Scriven:

But I am uncommonly concerned about my own concerns, in ways that are not only not immoral but necessarily part of what I regard as a good life.  I value, in fact cherish, having people who are not only special but unique for me.  I don=t want to treat my mother and father, my wife and dearest friends as Ajust other players@ in some ethical game theory.  Without these special relationships my life would be greatly diminished.[11]

It is precisely the value of these familial relationships and the virtues required to maintain them that define character consequentialism. The values of loving parents and a true friend cannot be properly measured in the simple mechanics of the hedonic calculus.  People simply cannot be required to count strangers as actual moral equals with those whom they love, nor can they be expected to trade hedons and dolors as if they were neutral moral currency. 



For Aristotle the virtues are dispositions that we freely choose to develop, and every day we have to fine tune the moral means that are relative to us and our situations.  It is true that after a some time the virtues become habits [ethik], but we are still fully responsible for actions that proceed from them.  Rule morality recognizes no middle way and no variation on an absolute right.  Virtue ethics always aims at a personal mean that is a creative choice for each individual.  Such an approach engages the imagination and personalizes and intensifies moral responsibility.  While there can be no process of self-discovery in rule ethics, virtue ethics requires us to confront a growing, dynamic self in ever changing conditions.



AretJ.  Greek for “function” or “excellence.” According to Aristotle, human excellence is achieved by developing the specific virtues.

Eudaimonia. Literally ‘good soul’ or more accurately ‘well being.’ The translation ‘happiness’ leads to confusion in contemporary society because for Aristotle the virtues are required for happiness.

Character Consequentalism. The view that the virtues—good character traits—produce the best long term consequences.

ConsequentialismThe view that moral value lies in consequences not intentions.

Hedonic Calculus.  Ethical calculation in utilitarianism that requires agents to add up units of pleasure (hedons) and units of pain (dolors).

Rule Ethics. The view that rules that are derived from reason (such as Kantianism) or divine legislation are the foundations of morality.

Utiliarianism. A view that combines ethical hedonism (one ought to maximize pleasure) with consequentialism.  The most popular view is Mill’s version that seeks to maximizes the greatest pleasure for the greatest number of sentient beings.

Virtue Ethics. A moral theory that holds that the virtues are prior and that moral rules are abstractions and can serve only as general, adaptable guidelines.



[1]With permission from the editors this article has been adapted from “Gandhi and the Virtue of Non-Violence,” Gandhi Marg 23:3 (October-December, 2001), pp. 261-284.  See also N. F. Gier, The Virtue of Non-Violence: from Gautama to Gandhi (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2004).

[2]Leslie Stephen, The Science of Ethics, quoted in Louis P. Pojman, Ethics: Discovering Right and Wrong (Belmont, California: Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1990), p. 114. I have borrowed both insights and examples from Pojman’s excellent chapter on virtue ethics.

[3]Michael L. Spangle and Kent E. Menzel, “Symbol, Metaphor, and Myth: the Origin and Impact of Spoken Language,” Seventh Annual Meeting of the Language Origins in DeKalb, Illinois, 1991; 24‑MENZEL.htm.

[4]Martha Nussbaum, ANon-Relative Virtues@ in  Midwest Studies in Philosophy (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 1988), vol. 13, p. 44.

[5]Annette Baier, “Trust and Anti-Trust,” Ethics 96 (January, 1986), pp. 231-260.


[6]Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1106b36 (W. D. Ross trans.).


[7]Bernard Mayo, Ethics and the Moral Life, excerpted in Christina and Fred Sommers, eds., Vice and Virtue in Everyday Life (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989), p. 199.

[8]Philip. J. Ivanhoe, ACharacter Consequentialism: An Early Confucian Contribution to Contemporary Ethical Theory,@ Journal of Religious Ethics 19:1 (Spring, 1991), p. 56.

[9]Ibid., p. 62.


[10]Michael Scriven, Primary Philosophy (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966), pp. 238-258.

[11]Ivanhoe, “Character Consequentialism. . . ,” p. 63-64.