Morality from character

While we’re on the subject of judging the actions of others, it is a good time to point out that while most of the moral theories we’ve talked about are concerned with determining whether actions are good or bad, we haven’t talked about how to judge when people are good or bad. You might agree that sometimes good people do bad things and bad people do good things. Whether a person is good or evil might not depend only on what they do. Maybe it’s the other way around, and their actions come from their personality, or character. The moral theory that bases moral permissibility and impermissibility on character is called Virtue Ethics. Virtue Ethics is the view that moral rightness and wrongness come from character, that people are virtuous (have a good character) or vicious (have a bad character), and that good actions come from being a good person, while evil actions come from being an evil person.

The idea of virtue as a source for morality goes all the way back to Aristotle, who said that every character trait has two extremes, and in the middle is virtue. For example, he said that confidence in the face of danger, in the one extreme, is brashness—the tendency to charge foolishly ahead, while at the other extreme is cowardice—the tendency to avoid danger altogether. And in the middle is courage—the confidence to recognize danger and face it bravely. So bravery is a virtue (indicative of a good character), while brashness and cowardice are vices (indicative of a bad character). Another example is the virtue of generosity. If someone is generous, they are willing to give their time and resources, but extreme generosity would be the vice of wastefulness, and the extreme lack of generosity would be the vice of miserliness or cheapness. 

Aristotle also said that no one starts out virtuous, and it takes practice to become virtuous, so he recommends that you choose a role model, someone who is virtuous already. You can choose any role model you want: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Buddha, or Superman. It doesn’t matter if they are even real, only that they are virtuous. When you want to know whether an action is morally good, you just ask yourself, “would my role model do it?” If the answer is yes, then the action is morally permissible. If the answer is no, then the action is impermissible. Since virtue ethicists think that morality comes from character, whatever the virtuous person would do is morally good, and whatever the virtuous person would not do (or whatever a vicious person would do) is morally bad. If you practice by considering how a virtuous role model would behave, eventually you will act virtuously out of habit, and then you will be a virtuous person yourself.

Virtue then is twofold, partly intellectual and partly moral, and intellectual virtue is originated and fostered mainly by teaching; it demands therefore experience and time. Moral virtue on the other hand is the outcome of habit, and accordingly its name, ethike, is derived by a slight variation from ethos, habit. From this fact it is clear that moral virtue is nor implanted in us by nature; for nothing that exists by nature can be transformed by habit.

Thus a stone, that naturally tends to fall downwards, cannot be habituated or trained to rise upwards, even if we tried to train it by throwing it up ten thousand times. Nor again can fire be trained to sink downwards, nor anything else that follows one natural law be habituated or trained to follow another. It is neither by nature then nor in defiance of nature that virtues grow in us. Nature gives us the capacity to receive them, and that capacity is perfected by habit. . . .

It may fairly be said that a just man becomes just by doing what is just, and a temperate man becomes temperate by doing what is temperate, and if a man did not so act, he would not have much chance of becoming good.[1]

Aristotle thinks that people have the special property of being able to change their behaviors by habituation. So if we deliberately practice virtue, we can become virtuous. Then once you become virtuous, you no longer have to worry about whether your actions are morally good, because you will do morally good acts automatically. As Aristotle says, your good actions will be part of your good character.

Acts in accordance with virtue are not justly or temperately performed simply because they are in themselves just or temperate. The doer at the time of performing them must satisfy certain conditions; in the first place, he must know what he is doing; secondly, he must deliberately choose to do it and do it for its own sake; and thirdly, he must do it as part of his own firm and immutable character.[2]

Virtue ethicists think that virtuous people do morally good things because it’s just part of their character. They could choose otherwise, but they don’t, because that’s not who they are.

Virtue ethics certainly solves some of the problems that other theories have, but it also has it’s own. Firstly, if you’re not virtuous, and you want to become virtuous, how would you know who would be a good role model? That is, how would you recognize virtue? If you say that it’s easy to recognize that people like those I listed above are virtuous, then you must have some way to judge that they are virtuous. How do you make this judgement? If you judge that they are virtuous based on the good things they accomplished, then you are just a utilitarian. If it’s that they did the right thing because they knew it was right, you’re a kantian. If you say they are virtuous because they followed their conscience, or cared about people, or upheld human rights, then you are appealing to one of the other theories. If you give any of these explanations, then virtue is reducible to some other principle, and can’t function as a moral theory on its own.

Also, the idea of following the example of a role model has its own complications. Suppose you chose Gandhi as your virtuous role model. You want to be virtuous, so you ask yourself, “what would Gandhi do?” That will work pretty well for some things, but not for others. Would Gandhi exceed the speed limit? Would Gandhi steal medicine for his dying wife? Would Gandhi correct someone’s grammar on facebook? There isn’t any way to know what Gandhi would have done in those situations. And there are lots more decisions that people have to make every day, about which we’d have no idea what to do in order to be more like Gandhi, or Superman, or whatever role model you choose.

Lastly, it’s a little strange to use character to judge actions, rather than using actions to judge character. Normally, you probably think of someone as good or bad because of the things they do. But for virtue ethicists, actions are good or bad because of the people who do them. 

[1] Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, trans. James Weldon, (New York: Macmillan, 1897), book 2.

[2] Ibid.