I don’t remember encountering virtue ethics much during my undergraduate philosophy degree. We hit on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, of course, the work that serves as the foundation of virtue ethics.

But I don’t believe virtue ethics was ever presented to me as a serious alternative to consequentialism and deontology. And this is too bad. Because only recently did I “discover” virtue ethics–and my initial explorations reveal it as something far more fitting both my views of morality, descriptive and normative, and my temperament than the two big schools of moral philosophy.

Put very simply, virtue ethics differs from consequentialism and deontology in the basic way it answers the “What action is right?” question. Rosalind Hursthouse, in her excellent On Virtue Ethics, summarizes the schools as follows:

  • Act Utilitarianism: “An action is right if and only if it promotes the best consequences. … The best consequences are those in which happiness is maximized…”
  • Deontology: “An action is right if and only if it is in accordance with a correct moral rule or principle. … A correct moral rule (principle) is one that…”

Virtue ethics, again quoting Hursthouse, holds that

An action is right if and only if it is what a virtuous agent would characteristically (i.e., acting in character) do in the circumstances. … A virtuous agent is one who has, and exercises, certain character traits, namely, the virtues. … A virtue is a character trait that …

Utilitarian has always troubled me for two reasons, both of which are common criticisms. First, it’s not at all easy to figure out what act will promote the best circumstances. How do we measure? Over what timeframe? Does measuring end up taking so long that, like Hamlet, we never quite get around to deciding? Second, many actions that do seem to increase overall happiness are still, well, wrong. A classic example is killing a homeless guy in the hospital–a guy with no family, no one who’d even know he died–in order to use his organs to save the lives of three people. One person dead is “happier” overall than three people dead, it seems.

Of course, utilitarians offer ways around this. But they’ve never convinced me–and they certainly haven’t convinced me about the first concern.

Deontology sounds better at first. But in order for it to work, we have to know what the rules are and how to apply them. And even simple rules–“Don’t kill.”–get complicated rather quickly. What about self-defense? War? Euthanasia? We can construct more rules and sub-rules to handle these situations, but it strains credulity to think we can have rules covering all situations.

Virtue ethics says simply, “Do what the best of us would do.” In fact, in the form of “What would Jesus do?” it’s probably the most common moral framework among those who don’t think much about moral frameworks.

What’s more, I believe this is the way we actually deal with moral conundrums. It’s not that I shouldn’t deceive because deceiving creates unhappiness or because it violates a rule I was taught. Rather, I don’t deceive because I don’t want to be a deceitful person.

So from the descriptive standpoint–i.e., how we in fact think about morality–virtue ethics sounds more plausible. It also, to my mind, works better normatively. When teaching children to be moral, we don’t tell them to measure utility and we don’t give them exhaustive lists of rules covering every imaginable situation. Instead, we teach them the value of honesty. Of kindness. Of courage and temperance and compassion. We instill in them character traits and then let them apply those traits to situations. What would a courageous person do? What would a kind person do?

Virtue ethics may turn out to be wrong, to be flawed beyond repair. I’m reading an essay now arguing that much of it is from the perspective of modern psychology, for instance.

But virtue ethics has clicked for me in a way no other moral theory to date has. Which makes me wish I’d been given a whole lot more of it back in school.