Presented at the Inland Northwest Philosophy Conference, April, 2002


Ahimsa does not displace the practice of other virtues, but renders their practice imperatively necessary before it can be practised even in its rudiments.

                                                                                                –M. K. Gandhi[1]


                Whatever is useful to starving millions is beautiful in my mind.

                                                                                                –M. K. Gandhi[2] 


I feel that our progress towards the goal will be in exact proportion to the purity of our means.

                                                                                                –M. K. Gandhi[3]



                This paper has been extracted from a book manuscript that attempts to interpret Gandhi’s ethics of nonviolence (ahimsa) in terms of virtue theory. The first section addresses the issue of virtue theory’s relationship to consequentialism and concludes that there is no way to avoid the fact that the virtues developed because of their consequences.  Therefore, I will join Gandhi’s virtue ethics with P. J. Ivanhoe’s character consequentialism.  Particularly significant in distinguishing utilitarianism from virtue theory is the relationship of means to ends.  Character consequentialism will insist that moral ends are always internally related to the virtues as means. In the second section I will explicate the distinction between enabling and substantive virtues, discuss the enabling virtues of self-control, patience, and courage, and conclude that the virtue of nonviolence forms an alliance with these enabling virtues.



                A methodological ideal shared by many virtue theorists is the goal that the virtues should stand alone with intrinsic value independent of consequences and moral rules.  For example, Michael Slote commits himself to this goal by saying that virtue ethics must have exclusive aretaic grounds.[4]  The claim that virtues came before moral rules is, I believe, quite persuasive. 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.  The argument against consequentialism appears equally strong. 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.  (Interestingly enough, even if the mean were the same for each no person would lose his/her courage by not saving the children.)  Peter Singer’s famous moral imperative is yet another way to distinguish consequentialism from virtue theory. Tying generous acts to maximizing pleasure around the world leads to unacceptable demands on more fortunate people.  Furthermore, it is absurd to say that people who give generously to disaster and famine relief somehow lose their virtue if they do not conform to Singer’s strict requirements.  Finally, utilitarians could never agree on the specific allocation that we 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.  Historically it appears that virtues developed before moral rules (particularly in prelinguistic humans), but it seems indisputable that they were favored by Paleolithic peoples because of their good consequences.[5] As P. J. Ivanhoe states: “It seems strongly counter-intuitive to suggest there could be legitimate human goals which always or even usually led to bad consequences.”[6] For example, courage would not have the value that it does if it did not have some significant “pay off” over the millennia. Furthermore, it is clear that there are many values other than pleasure that conduce to human flourishing, a topic that we will not pursue in this paper.

                In many passages Gandhi sounds like a good consquentialist: "Whatever is useful to starving millions is beautiful in my mind."[7]  Although rejecting the philosophy of utilitarianism, Gandhi does acknowledge the ultimate value of the well-being of all people, a value he called sarvodaya.  This is not a hedonic calculation but a moral and spiritual assessment based on the needs of the lowest strata of society.  One might call this a "spiritual consequentialism," and Gandhi's ethical calculus is seen most clearly in his defense of mercy killing:  “After calm and clear judgment to kill or cause pain to a living being with a view to its spiritual or physical benefit from a pure, selfless intent may be the purest form of ahimsa."[8] The phrasing here is significantly different from either Bentham or even Mill.

                One might say that Gandhi’s lifetime focus was on purity of character, so Philip J. Ivanhoe’s “character” (rather than “spiritual”) consequentialism will now be offered as the theoretical home for the virtue of nonviolence.[9]  Ivanhoe argues that character consequentialism differs from utilitarianism in several significant ways. 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.

                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.  A thoroughly contingent future 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 particularist 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.”[10]

                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.  Kantian theory has the absurd result that it moves many of our most trying decisions, ones that have the much moral force and difficulty, out of the realm morality altogether.

                The virtue theorist saves nearly all our intuitions by replying: “Yes, 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 mitigate the dangers Ivanhoe sees to individual character? 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 methodological goal of modern ethics that a postmodern virtue ethics should reject.

                While not a critique of utilitarianism, Gandhi’s rejection of passive nonresistance supports Ivanhoe’s points about the degradation of character very well.  Village fathers who follow the rule of nonretaliation by letting bandits rob them, rape their wives, and kidnap their children, do not embody ahimsa at all.  As we have seen, true nonviolence works together with other essential virtues such as love, compassion, and, above all, courage.  The passive village fathers are not only cowards but they are also lacking in integrity and self-respect; furthermore, their inaction will only encourage future failures of nerve and courage.  For this situation Gandhi’s contextual pragmatism requires courageous self-defense and most likely some form of violence as part of this defense.  Here the value of character and virtue trump the negative consequences of violence.

                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 love–namely, that it is only natural that people care more for those closest to them. Michael Scriven’s rational agapeism, drawn 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.[11]  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 “just other players” in some ethical game theory.  Without these special relationships my life would be greatly diminished.[12]

It is precisely the value of these familial relationships and the virtues required to maintain them that defines “character consequentialism.”  The values of the true village father, the loving parents, and the 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.  George Orwell puts the point even more succinctly than Ivanhoe: “To an ordinary human being, love means nothing if it does not mean loving some people more than others.”[13]

                One of the most important aspects of Ivanhoe’s character consequentialism has to do with the relationship of means to ends.  In utilitarianism means are independent from the ends. (Alternative terminology is “external” or “internal” to ends.)  Gandhi phrases the distinction succinctly: “One rupee can purchase for us poison or nectar, but knowledge and devotion cannot buy us either salvation or bondage.  These are not media of exchange.  They are themselves the things we want.”[14] As another example let us say that a person’s calender is finally open for a free weekend.  Let us say that the options are a two days at the new casino, two days hiking up the Selway River, or a two-day meditation retreat. Let us also say that the hedonic calculus gives exactly the same balance of hedons over dolors.  If the person is a utilitarian, there is obviously no preference and she might as well toss a coin for deciding her weekend’s pleasure.  If the person is a character consequentialist, however, the options are definitely not equal in value.  For character development and maintenance, gambling is definitely out and the meditation retreat would probably win over the hike.  (The fact that Mill would probably agree with this suggests that his qualitative hedonism could be profitably reinterpreted as a character consequentialism.) The point of this story is that for character consequentialism, means are not independent of ends; rather, they are internal to them. In fact, the virtues, as means to Aristotle’s eudaimonia, Gandhi’s sarvodaya, and the Buddha’s sukha, share inherent values with their ends.  To phrase the means-ends relation in this way does not allow the virtues to stand alone, as Damien Keown argues;[15] rather, the good life is still a consequence of the virtues and the virtues still have value because of their good consequences.

                It is quite possible that some utilitarians might agree that although their hedonic calculus determines that the virtues are the best means to the good life, this does not mean that there is now a necessary relationship of means to ends.  It is possible that other means might become available that would have more utility than the virtues.  The virtues, as Aristotle reminds us, are difficult, whereas utilitarianism requires the most efficient and painless means to maximize pleasure.  A student from my virtue ethics seminar makes the point beautifully: “Whereas the virtue ethicist values the virtues as virtues, the [utilitarian] would just as soon abandon them if they lost their utility in delivering the good life, or if a more efficient and less arduous method of attaining the good life were discovered.”[16] Since it is impossible to deny that virtues are connected with consequences, we can still declare their value to be supreme and affirm character consequentialism without any compromise to the superiority of virtue ethics.  Regarding the modal argument suggested by my student, it seems clear that the value of the virtues tests true for any number of possible or future worlds. For example, the premise of the movie ET was that ET was a person with an appealing ensemble of virtues that, instructively enough, only the children of the movie recognized.

                Gandhi firmly rejected the views of his fellow nationalists who separated means from ends: “The means may be likened to a seed, the end to a tree; and there is just the same inviolable connection between the means and ends as there is between seed and tree.”[17]  Maganbhai P. Desai describes Gandhi’s position aptly: “Ends and means must match, that means govern and define ends, therefore only good means can realize good ends.”[18]  It is significant for the thesis of my book that Desai specifies the Gandhian means to the good ends: they are the virtues of honesty, sincerity, love, charity, integrity, and rectitude.  Thinking of means as separate from ends, by contrast, the utilitarian can justify violent means to a peaceful end–for example, the atomic bombing of Japan to end World War II.  As Ivanhoe has admitted, it is possible that character consequentialists could make such a dramatic choice, but they are not required to pursue this violent course of action as the utilitarian is.  Rather, they are bound first and foremost to the preservation of their virtue.

                Another way to formulate the relationship of means and ends is to say that for Gandhi ahimsa becomes active and engaged with the substantive virtues of love and truth such that means and ends are ultimately fused.  As Gandhi states: “Means and end are convertible terms in my philosophy of life.”[19] In this way one could say that the means constitute the ends.  A life of virtue is not the means to the good life; it is the good life. As Gandhi said above: “These are not media of exchange.  They are themselves the things we want.” The problem with the convertibility of means and ends is that it could be read as either the ends justifying the means or vice versa.  The latter could turn out as unwise as the former.  To pursue nonviolence regardless of the situation and the ends is something that Gandhi always warned against.  This means that truth, in terms of being true to oneself and being true to the situation, always trumps the application of a rule or virtue, even the virtue of nonviolence. Gandhi admits that there will be times when one must commit violence in order not to be a coward, but these occasions will be few and, if one is a virtue theorist, this option carries no moral necessity.  Gandhi’s policy was to discipline his satyagrahis to the point where they would have sufficient virtue to opt in most cases for self-suffering and active nonviolence.



                Virtue theorists have generally distinguished between two types of virtues: "enabling" virtues and the "substantive" virtues.  The enabling virtues include optimism, rationality, self-control, patience, sympathy, foresight, resoluteness, endurance, fortitude, and industry.  The substantive virtues are wisdom, courage, justice, truthfulness, temperance, benevolence, and compassion. The substantive virtues have moral content or "substance," i.e., the right desire to tell the truth or help the needy, whereas the enabling virtues simply require an effort to resist one temptation or another.  The substantive virtues require proper motivation toward the good, while the enabling virtues require sufficient willpower to counter evil.  Of the four cardinal virtues, only prudence and justice “do the good,” as Josef Pieper says, while courage and temperance “create the basis for this realization of the good.”[20]

                This distinction tests true when we think of a thief who is persistent, resolute, patient, and has fantastic self-control.  (Thieves without these virtues are usually the ones that get caught!)  The fact that we can think of a loyal and courageous villain has led some to argue that these two virtues really ought to be moved to the enabling category.  Another psychological test by which one can distinguish the two is to use Aristotle's requirement that one must take pleasure in the virtues.  This criterion must apply only to the substantive virtues, because it is clear that one is not required to enjoy a courageous act of persevering torture.  As Robert C. Roberts quips: "A person who enjoys enduring dangers is better called daredevilish than brave."[21]  On the other hand, it makes no sense that a person must dislike being truthful or compassionate.  This means that a person could have all the enabling virtues without having a single substantive virtue.

                Let us now itemize the criteria for identifying an enabling virtue: (1) it does not have moral content nor does it appeal to a norm; (2) it is not done for its own sake, but for the sake of a substantive virtue; and (3) one does not take pleasure in it as with the substantive virtues. Conceived as a virtue, nonviolence fulfills these criteria nicely.  We all need a nonviolent disposition if we are to overcome desires to injure, retaliate, and to verbally abuse.  We also need good self-control and patience.  In fact, Gandhi equates impatience with injury (himsa), provocatively implying that impatience is at the root of all violence.[22] Self-control, patience, and noninjury are obviously connected to the will to resist rather than the will to motivate. That means that a nonviolent thief is not only possible but also probably the most successful.  It is also clear that one does not control oneself for the sake of self-control, nor is one nonviolent simply for the sake of noninjury. Furthermore, resisting the temptation of retaliation while enduring the attacks of an aggressor would obviously not be a pleasant activity.  Finally, it appears reasonable to reinterpret Gandhi’s basic vows as enabling virtues with brahmacharya embracing them all as ultimate self-control.

                In his analysis of the virtue of nonviolence, Graham Haydon defines violence as a negative character trait, specifically the disposition to do injury on a regular basis.[23] Following Aristotle’s time-honored method, if we can identify the vice we should be able to identify the corresponding virtue.  Haydon, however, believes that given the indefinite nature of the virtues, a clear formation of the virtue of nonviolence is virtually impossible. Haydon sums up his objections to ahimsa as a virtue by claiming that (1) it is not a disposition that admits of a mean;  and (2) it does not have a sufficiently defined domain. Haydon finally returns to rules for his ethics of nonviolence, because he also finds motivational and normative problems with the virtue approach, issues that I will address as much as my limited time allows.

                 It appears that Haydon’s second objection is easily met: the domain of ahimsa can be specified as those acts dealing with causing and receiving injury in thought, word, or deed.  With regard to the first objection, the deficiency in this domain is the complete passivity that Gandhi condemned in the men who allowed their village to be ransacked by bandits.  Passive nonresistance is a deficiency and therefore a vice.  This deficiency is allied sometimes with the vice of cowardice. Passive nonresistance also becomes a vice when one allows dangerous animals to threaten human lives or when terminally ill animals or persons are suffering great pain at the cost of their personal dignity.  Therefore, the moral content and motivation of the true virtue of nonviolence will be determined by the “character consequentialism” defended in the first section.

                The excess in the domain of ahimsa would of course be the unnecessary use of force.  For example, one can remove an offending insect without killing it, and most people can switch to a vegetarian diet without damaging their health.  On our river trips in the Idaho wilderness we have found that we can easily remove rattlesnakes from our camps and, because they are such great swimmers, toss them into the river.  The far different environment of Gandhi’s ashrams and any urban setting may call for more violent solutions.  This example reiterates the truth that the virtues are distinctively personal means that depend on context–Aristotle’s right amount, right means, right goal, right time, right situation, right persons, etc., with “right” always meaning fitting or appropriate. Kathyrn P. George’s argument that children and lactating women must be exempted from the claims of moral vegetarianism demonstrates the truth of the contextual pragmatism Gandhi supports.[24]  In George’s argument it is objective conditions (for George it is nutritional requirements) that dominate not personal whim.  The Inuit of the Arctic may be excused from moral vegetarianism for obvious geographic reasons.

                One can in many cases specify the proper motivation for the virtue of ahimsa by inference from what is lacking in passive nonresistance, which does not require any virtue at all except the disposition to nonaction.  The passive resistor is motivated primarily by fear, but Gandhi’s courageous satyagrahis are motivated by love and compassion for the other. Thich Nhat Hanh believes that we should even think kindly of the pirates who raped Vietnamese girls in the South China Sea.  Hanh believes that it is far too easy to side with the girls and justify killing the pirates. Agreeing with the Jain method of anekan­tavada (a “many-sided” perspectival epistemology) and Gandhi’s maxim that we should learn tolerance from our enemies, Hanh’s proposes a different approach.  We should try as hard has we can to step into the shoes of the pirate and understand his background and why he might be motivated to do such heinous crimes.[25] Thinking of the context of motivation supports the virtue perspective as much as rule ethics.  In fact, the question that often occurs to us when we hear of such atrocities is “What sort of person would do such a thing?"  The rule that has been violated is not in dispute; rather, we should want to know as much as we can about the character and background of the perpetrator before we pass final judgment.  As Hanh states: “When you understand, you cannot help but love. You cannot get angry.”[26]

                When Haydon relates anger to nonviolence and determines a mean for anger, it is clear that he is conceding that ahimsa has a mean as well.  As he states: "While it is possible to be too angry, and hence too violent, it is also possible to be too little angry, and hence, in a sense, too peaceable."  Significantly, Haydon then refers directly to Gandhi and his condemnation of passive nonresistance.  Furthermore, he concedes that the mean for nonviolence will depend on “cultural and even subcultural differences as to where the mean should be.”[27]  Haydon has not supported the Buddhist call for the stilling of all anger, something that even Gandhi never achieved in practice.  A truly Buddhist Gandhi would probably have to agree with Hanh on the elimination of anger.

                Other critics might accept ahimsa as a virtue but argue that it must be a substantive virtue, because the precept (“do not injure”) always guides its implementation.  But one can formulate a norm for several other enabling virtues.  For example, the rule for patience would be “always control your temptation to act hastily”; and the norm for fortitude would be “never give up on a task worth pursuing.”  Interestingly, the only way to formulate the implied rule in the enabling virtue of rationality is the tautology “always be rational.” Furthermore, the virtue of courage (and most likely others) does not lend itself to any easy formulation along these lines.  True to the concrete particularity of the moral virtues, the description would require endless qualification. (Even my specifications of patience and fortitude are rather wordy and open to limiting conditions.)  I obviously cannot answer the objection in the time allowed, but I am confident that application of the other criteria (especially “done for its own sake”) would secure these virtues as enabling rather than substantive.  Finally, with regard to Gandhi, it is clear that he meant ahimsa to be a means to higher ends.

                Gandhi discovered that rational calculation and persuasion did not work for him; rather, he and his disciples required a transformation of their character before they could succeed in their goals.  Josef Pieper’s Thomistic view of proper action is instructively similar:  “Since we nowadays think that all a man needs for acquisition of truth is to exert his brain more or less vigorously, and since we consider an ascetic approach to knowledge hardly sensible, we have lost the awareness of the close bond that links the knowing of truth to the condition of purity. . . .”[28]  Pieper also reminds us that Thomas, like Gandhi, believed that chastity produces “unselfishness, objectivity, and realism.”  Without preparing ourselves spiritually, our practical reason may give us false conclusions because we not able to see the world correctly.  Finally, Gilbert Meilaender, Pieper’s American advocate, supports our interpretation of practical reason as Gandhian experiments in truth: “moral truth . . . is determined by reality itself in all of its complexity, not produced by our decisions of principle.”[29]




[1]Selections from Gandhi, p. 161.

[2]Gandhi, Young India 6 (November 20, 1924), p. 386.


[3]Cited by K. Damodaran, Ends and Means” in Gandhi: Theory and Practice; Social Impact and Contemporary Relevance, ed. S. C. Biswas (Shimla: Indian Institute of Advanced Study, 1969), p. 90.

[4]Michael Slote, From Morality to Virtue (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).

[5]There is good evidence to argue 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. For example, strong circumstantial evidence for compassion among the Neanderthals can be joined with the hypothesis that their very high larynx made it impossible to articulate the basic vowels. Michael Spangle and Kent Menzel state that “spoken language transformed our species and was a major factor in forging the human world as we know it.” They also argue for the existence of an “acoustic 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 at all.  See 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. It is well known, for example, that deaf school children who read without speaking a language have difficulty in understanding abstractions (see Helmer R. Mykelbust, The Psychology of Deafness [New York: Northwestern University Press, 1966], p.   ).  I am indebted to Shane Sheffner, student in my seminar on virtue ethics, for these references.


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

[7]Gandhi, Young India 6 (November 20, 1924), p. 386.

[8]Gandhi, Collected Works, vol. 37, p. 313. 

[9]P. J. Ivanhoe, “Character Conseqentialism. . . ,” pp. 55-70.

[10]Ibid., p. 62.

[11]Michael Scriven, Primary Philosophy

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

[13]Orwell, op. cit., p. 480.

[14] Gandhi, Hindu Dharma, p. 161.

[15]Damien Keown, “Karma, Character, and Consequentialism,” Journal of Religious Ethics 24:2 (Fall, 1996), pp. 329-350.

[16]Jonathan MacIntosh, “Confucianism, Consequentialism, and Modal Thinking,” from Virtue Talk (March 1, 2001), a threaded discussion for Philosophy 490 still available at

[17]Selections from Gandhi, p. 36.

[18]Desai, “Ends and Means in Politics,” p.

[19]Gandhi, Young India (December 12, 1924), p. 424.

[20]Joseph Pieper, The Four Cardinal Virtues, p. 147; cited in Meilaender, p. 39.

[21]  Roberts, op. cit., p. 236.







[28]. Josef Pieper, The Silence of Saint Thomas (New York: Pantheon Books, 1957), pp. 19f.

[29].  Meilaender, op. cit., p. 26.