3.4.3 Virtue Ethics


By the end of this section you will discover:

  • How Virtue Ethics approaches morality differently from consequentialist or deontological approaches.
  • The meaning of “Virtue” and examples of some classical virtues.
  • Aristotle’s emphasis on virtue as the path to human flourishing or eudaimonia.
  • How he understood a virtue to be the “mean” between a deficiency in character and an excess.
  • Strengths and weaknesses of the virtue approach to ethics.

A form of virtue ethics can be found in almost every human society throughout history. It is the ethics of character, what makes one a strong moral person. In ancient Greece, its origins can be traced to the thought of Socrates in the dialogues of Plato, and it received its most systematic expression in the work of Aristotle, especially in his Nichomachean Ethics.

Aristotle & Virtue Theory: Crash Course Philosophy #38

Or watch the video here


How does virtue ethics operate?

Virtue ethicists think that the main question in ethical reasoning should be not “How should I now act?” but “What kind of person do I want to be?” Developing virtues that we admire in others and avoiding actions that we recognize as vicious hones our moral sensitivity: our awareness of how our actions affect others. Virtuous persons are able to empathize, imagine themselves in another person’s shoes, and look at an issue from other people’s perspectives.

Virtuous individuals are also thought to be able to draw upon willpower not possessed by those who compromise their moral principles in favor of fame, money, sex, or power.

What kinds of questions are asked by virtue ethics?

Virtue ethics focuses more on a person’s approach to living than on particular choices and actions and so has less to say about specific courses of action or public policies. Instead, this ethical approach posed broader questions such as these:

  • How should I live?
  • What is the good life?
  • Are ethical virtue and genuine happiness compatible?
  • What are proper family, civic, and cosmopolitan virtues?

Because of the broad nature of the questions posed by virtue ethics, ethicists sometimes disagree as to whether this theory actually offers an alternative to the utilitarian and deontological approaches to ethical reasoning. How does someone who follows virtue ethics determine what the virtues are without applying some yardstick such as those provided by utilitarian and deontological ethics?

Utilitarianism and deontology are hard-universalist theories, each claiming that one ethical principle is binding on all people regardless of time or place. Virtue ethics does not make this claim. Those who favor this theory may hold that certain virtues like compassion, honesty, and integrity transcend time and culture. But they do not aim to identify universal principles that can be applied in all moral situations. Instead, they accept that many things described as virtues and vices are cultural and that some of our primary ethical obligations are based on our emotional relationships and what we owe to people we care about. In the end, though, virtue ethicists will always ask themselves, “What would a good person do?”

Someone employing virtue ethics will consider what action will most help her become a better person. Virtue ethics arguments will discuss ideals as the motivation for acting. In December 2014, Senator John McCain delivered a floor statement to the US Senate, condemning CIA interrogation methods. He deplored the use of torture by our country:

Torture’s failure to serve its intended purpose isn’t the main reason to oppose its use. I have often said, and will always maintain, that this question isn’t about our enemies; it’s about us. It’s about who we were, who we are, and who we aspire to be. It’s about how we represent ourselves to the world (John McCain, 2014).

Seeking the Mean: Aristotle.

The greatest advocate of virtue ethics in the ancient world was the philosopher Aristotle. Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) studied at Plato’s Academy for twenty years. After a few years in Macedonia as a tutor to the future Alexander the Great, Aristotle returned to Athens and established his own school, the Lyceum. His presentation of courses was encyclopedic. Unlike Plato, Aristotle had an abiding interest in natural science and wrote extensively in physics, zoology, and psychology. Much as Socrates had been charged with impiety, so also Aristotle was charged—in large measure due to his former relationship with Alexander. Unlike Socrates, Aristotle fled Athens, “lest,” as he is quoted, “the Athenians sin twice against philosophy.” His work in logic was not significantly improved upon until the development of symbolic logic in the twentieth century. The central concepts of his poetics and ethics still remain influential. Charles Darwin once wrote, “Linnaeus and Cuvier have been my two gods…but they were mere schoolboys [compared to] Aristotle.” (Archie and Archie, Ch. 22)

Aristotle. Line engraving by P. Fidanza after Raphael Sanzio
Aristotle (384-322 B.C.)

Aristotelian Goodness

On the basis of the previous argument, the good life for a human being is achieved when we act in accordance with our telos. However, rather than leaving the concept of goodness as general and abstract, we can say more specifically what the good for a human involves. Aristotle uses the Greek term eudaimonia to capture the state that we experience if we fully achieve a good life. According to Aristotle, eudaimonia is the state that all humans should aim for as it is the aim and end of human existence. To reach this state, we must ourselves act in accordance with reason. Properly understanding what Aristotle means by eudaimonia is crucial to understanding his Virtue Ethical moral position.

Eudaimonia has been variously translated and no perfect translation has yet been identified. While all translations have their own issues, eudaimonia understood as flourishing is perhaps the most helpful translation and improves upon a simple translation of happiness. The following example may make this clearer.

Naomi is an extremely talented pianist. Some days, she plays music that simply makes her happy, perhaps the tune from the television soap opera “Neighbors” or a rendition of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”. On other days, she plays complex music such as the supremely difficult Chopin-Godowsky Études. These performances may also make Naomi happy, but she seems to be flourishing as a pianist only with the latter performances rather than the former. If we use the language of function, both performances make Naomi happy, but she fulfills her function as a pianist (and is a good pianist) only when she flourishes with works of greater complexity.

Flourishing in life may make us happy but happiness itself is not necessarily well aligned with acting in accordance with our telos (our purpose). Perhaps, if we prefer the term happiness as a translation for eudaimonia we mean really or truly happy, but it may be easier to stay with the understanding of eudaimonia as flourishing when describing the state of acting in accordance with our true function.

Aristotle concludes that a life is eudaimon (adjective of eudaimonia) when it involves “…the active exercise of the mind in conformity with perfect goodness or virtue.”  Eudaimonia is secured not as the result exercising of our physical or animalistic qualities but as the result of the exercise of our distinctly human rational and cognitive aspects.

Eudaimonia and Virtue

The quotation provided at the end of section three was the first direct reference to virtue in the explanatory sections of this chapter. With Aristotle’s theoretical presuppositions now laid out, we can begin to properly explain and evaluate his conception of the virtues and their link to moral thinking.

According to Aristotle, virtues are character dispositions or personality traits. This focus on our dispositions and our character, rather than our actions in isolation, is what earns Aristotelian Virtue Ethics the label of being an agent-centered moral theory rather than an act-centered moral theory….

Agent-Centered Moral Theories

Aristotelian Virtue Ethics is an agent-centered theory in that it does not focus on the right action but has its primary focus on people and their character. For Aristotle, morality has more to do with the question “how should I be?” rather than “what should I do?” If we answer the first question, then the second question may begin to take care of itself. When explaining and evaluating Aristotelian Virtue Ethics you must keep in mind this focus on character rather than specific comments on the morality of actions.

Aristotle refers to virtues as character traits or psychological dispositions. Virtues are those particular dispositions that are appropriately related to the situation and, to link back to our function, encourage actions that are in accordance with reason. Again, a more concrete example will make clear how Aristotle identifies virtues in practice.

All of us, at one time or another, experience feelings of anger. For example, I may become angry when my stepson thoughtlessly eats through the remaining crisps without saving any for others, or he may feel anger when he has to wait an extra minute or two to be picked up at work because his step-father is juggling twenty-six different tasks and momentarily loses track of time (how totally unfair of him…). Anyway, as I was saying, back to Aristotle, “Anyone can become angry — that is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way — that is not easy”.

For Aristotle, virtue is not a feeling itself but an appropriate psychological disposition in response to that feeling, the proper response. The correct response to a feeling is described as acting on the basis of the Golden Mean, a response that is neither excessive nor deficient. The table below makes this more apparent.


Vice of Deficiency

Virtuous Disposition (Golden Mean)

Vice of Excess


Lack of spirit















Anger is a feeling and therefore is neither a virtue nor a vice. However, the correct response to anger — the Golden Mean between two extremes — is patience, rather than a lack of spirit or irascibility. Virtues are not feelings, but characteristic dispositional responses that, when viewed holistically, define our characters and who we are.

The Golden Mean ought not to be viewed as suggesting that a virtuous disposition is always one that gives rise to a “middling” action. If someone puts their life on the line, when unarmed, in an attempt to stop a would-be terrorist attack, then their action may be rash rather than courageous. However, if armed with a heavy, blunt instrument their life-risking action may be courageously virtuous rather than rash. The Golden Mean is not to be understood as suggesting that we always act somewhere between complete inaction and breathless exuberance, but as suggesting that we act between the vices of excess and deficiency; such action may well involve extreme courage or exceptional patience.

In addition to feelings, Aristotle also suggests that we may virtuously respond to situations. He suggests the following examples.


Vice of Deficiency

Virtuous Disposition
(Golden Mean)

Vice of Excess

Social conduct



Self-serving flattery





Giving money




We must keep in mind the agent-centered nature of Aristotelian Virtue Ethics when considering these examples. A person does not cease to have a witty disposition in virtue of a single joke that might err on the side of buffoonery or cease to be generous because they fail to donate to charity on one occasion. Our psychological dispositions, virtuous or not, are only to be assessed by the judgment of a person’s general character and observation over more than single-act situations. If we act in accordance with reason and fulfill our function as human beings, our behavior will generally reflect our virtuous personality traits and dispositions.

Developing the Virtues

In a quote widely attributed to Aristotle, Will Durant (1885–1981) sums up the Aristotelian view by saying that “…we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit”. It is fairly obvious that we cannot become excellent at something overnight. Making progress in any endeavor is always a journey that requires both effort and practice over time. Aristotle holds that the same is true for human beings attempting to develop their virtuous character traits in an attempt to live the good life. You may feel yourself coming to an Aristotelian Virtue Ethical view after reading this chapter and therefore be moved to become wittier, more courageous, and more generous but you cannot simply acquire these traits by making a decision; rather, you must live these traits in order to develop them.

Cultivating a virtuous character is something that happens through practice. Aristotle compares the development of the skill of virtue to the development of other skills. He says that “…men become builders by building” and “…we become just by doing just acts”. We might know that a certain brick must go into a particular place but we are good builders only when we know how to place that brick properly. Building requires practical skill and not merely intellectual knowledge and the same applies to developing virtuous character traits. Ethical characters are developed by practical learning and habitual action and not merely by intellectual teaching.

Ponder if you will….

Many critics of this theory say the definition of a virtue is too vague. Do you agree? Can a person ever be thought to be of excellent character if she practiced lying? Would your definition of such a person be “she is of good character,” or would your judgment be “you can’t trust her?”

Perhaps a person’s character is more objective than is evident at first glance and truly gives us a good gauge of that person’s moral prowess.

Can you give a critique of virtues? Is character an adequate way to judge if a person is moral?

In the end, the virtuous individual will become comfortable in responding to feelings/situations virtuously just as the good builder becomes comfortable responding to the sight of various tools and a set of plans. A skilled builder will not need abstract reflection when it comes to knowing how to build a wall properly, and nor will a skilled cyclist need abstract reflection on how to balance his speed correctly as he goes around a corner.

Analogously, a person skilled in the virtues will not need abstract reflection when faced with a situation in which friendliness and generosity are possibilities; they will simply know on a more intuitive level how to act. This is not to say that builders, cyclists, and virtuous people will not sometimes need to reflect specifically on what to do in abnormal or difficult situations (e.g. moral dilemmas, in the case of ethics) but in normal situations, appropriate responses will be natural for those who are properly skilled.

It is the need to become skilled when developing virtuous character traits that leads Aristotle to suggest that becoming virtuous will require a lifetime of work. Putting up a single bookshelf does not make you a skilled builder any more than a single act of courage makes you a courageous and virtuous person. It is the repetition of skill that determines your status, and the development of virtuous characters requires a lifetime of work rather than a single week at a Virtue Ethics Bootcamp.

Practical Wisdom (Phronesis)

Aristotle does offer some specifics regarding how exactly we might use a depressingly modern phrase, “upskill” in order to become more virtuous. Aristotle suggests that the aim of an action will be made clear by the relevant virtuous characteristic as revealed by the Golden Mean; for example, our aim in a situation may be to respond courageously or generously. It is by developing our skill of practical wisdom (translation of “phronesis”) that we become better at ascertaining what exactly courage or generosity amounts to in a specific situation and how exactly we might achieve it.

By developing the skill of practical wisdom, we can properly put our virtuous character traits into practice. For the Aristotelian, practical wisdom may actually be the most important virtuous disposition or character trait to develop as without the skill of practical wisdom it may be difficult to actually practice actions that are witty rather than boorish, or courageous rather than cowardly. Imagine trying to be a philosopher without an acute sense of logical reasoning; you would struggle because this seems to be a foundational good on which other philosophical skills rely. So too it may be with the virtues, practical wisdom supports our instinctive knowledge of how to respond virtuously to various feelings, emotions, and situations.

If this still seems to be somewhat opaque, then we may develop our sense of practical wisdom by looking at the actions of others who we do take to be virtuous. A child, for example, will most certainly need to learn how to be virtuous by following the examples of others. If we are unsure of our own ability to discern what a courageous response in a given situation is, then we may be guided by the behavior of Socrates, Jesus, Gandhi, Mandela, or King, as examples. If we learn from the wisdom and virtue of others, then just as a building apprentice learns from a master so too virtue apprentices can learn from those more skilled than they in practicing virtue. Hopefully, such virtue apprentices will eventually reach a point where they can stand on their own two feet, with their personally developed sense of practical wisdom….


Aristotelian Virtue Ethics is very different in nature from the other act-centered normative moral theories considered in this book. Whether this, in itself, is a virtue or a vice is an issue of your own judgment. The lack of a codified and fixed moral rule book is something many people view as a flaw, while others perceive it as the key strength of the theory. Some, meanwhile, will feel uncomfortable with Aristotle’s teleological claims, differing from those who are happy to accept that there is an objectively good life that is possible for human beings. Regardless, there is little doubt that Aristotelian Virtue Ethics offers a distinct normative moral picture and that it is a theory worthy of your reflections.

Excerpts from Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics

The Nicomachean Ethics is the name normally given to Aristotle’s best-known work on ethics. The work, which plays a pre-eminent role in defining classical ethics, consists of ten books, originally in separate scrolls, and is understood to be based on notes from his lectures at the Lyceum. The title is often assumed to refer to his son Nicomachus, to whom the work was dedicated or who may have edited it (although his young age makes this less likely). Alternatively, the work may have been dedicated to his father, who was also called Nicomachus.

In what follows, consider:

What does Aristotle mean by saying all activity has an “aim”?

Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason, the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim (telos). But a certain difference is found among ends; some are activities, and others are products apart from the activities that produce them. Where there are ends apart from the actions, it is the nature of the products to be better than the activities. Now, as there are many actions, arts, and sciences, their ends also are many; the end of the medical art is health, that of shipbuilding a vessel, that of strategy victory, that of economics wealth. But where such arts fall under a single capacity—as bridle—making and the other arts concerned with the equipment of horses fall under the art of riding, and this and every military action under strategy, and in the same way, other arts fall under yet others—in all of these the ends of the master arts are to be preferred to all the subordinate ends; for it is for the sake of the former that the latter are pursued. It makes no difference whether the activities themselves are the ends of the actions, or something else apart from the activities, as in the case of the sciences just mentioned. …

What does he see as the ultimate good for human beings?

If then, there is some end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake (everything else being desired for the sake of this), and if we do not choose everything for the sake of something else (for at that rate the process would go on to infinity so that our desire would be empty and vain), clearly this must be the good and the chief good. Will not the knowledge of it, then, have a great influence on life? Shall we not, like archers who have a mark to aim at, be more likely to hit upon what is right? If so, we must try, in outline at least to determine what it is. …

What were some popular notions of happiness in his day?

Let us resume our inquiry and state, in view of the fact that all knowledge and every pursuit aims at some good…what is the highest of all goods achievable by action. Verbally there is very general agreement; for both the general run of men and people of superior refinement say that it is happiness and identifying living well and doing well with being happy, but with regard to what happiness is they differ, and the many do not give the same account as the wise. For the former think it is some plain and obvious thing, like pleasure, wealth, or honor; they differ, however, from one another—and often even the same man identifies it with different things, with health when he is ill, with wealth when he is poor; but, conscious of their ignorance, they admire those who proclaim some great ideal that is above their comprehension. Now some thought that apart from these many goods there is another which is self-subsistent and causes the goodness of all these as well. …

How does Aristotle define happiness?

Let us again return to the good we are seeking and ask what it can be. It seems different in different actions and arts; it is different in medicine, in strategy, and in other arts likewise. What then is the good of each? Surely that for whose sake everything else is done. In medicine, this is health, in strategy victory, in architecture a house, in any other sphere something else, and in every action and pursuit, the end; for it is for the sake of this that all men do whatever else they do. Therefore, if there is an end (telos) for all that we do, this will be the good achievable by action, and if there is more than one end, these will be the goods achievable by action.

So the argument has by a different course reached the same point, but we must try to state this even more clearly. Since there is evidently more than one end, and we choose some of these (e.g., wealth, flutes, and in general instruments) for the sake of something else, clearly not all ends are final ends; but the chief good is evidently something final. Therefore, if there is only one final end, this will be what we are seeking, and if there is more than one, the most final of these will be what we are seeking. Now we call that which is in itself worthy of pursuit more final than that which is worthy of pursuit for the sake of something else, and that which is never desirable for the sake of something else more final than the things that are desirable both in themselves and for the sake of that other thing, and therefore we call final without qualification that which is always desirable in itself and never for the sake of something else.

Now such a thing happiness, above all else, is held to be; for this we choose always for itself and never for the sake of something else, but honor, pleasure, reason, and every virtue we choose indeed for themselves (for if nothing resulted from them we should still choose each of them), but we choose them also for the sake of happiness, judging that by means of them we shall be happy. Happiness, on the other hand, no one chooses for the sake of these, nor, in general, for anything other than itself.

From the point of view of self-sufficiency the same result seems to follow; for the final good is thought to be self-sufficient. Now by “self-sufficient” we do not mean that which is sufficient for a man by himself, for one who lives a solitary life, but also for parents, children, wife, and in general for his friends and fellow citizens, since man is born for citizenship. But some limit must be set to this; for if we extend our requirements to ancestors and descendants and friends’ friends we are in for an infinite series…the self-sufficient we now define as that which when isolated makes life desirable and lacking in nothing; and such we think happiness to be; and further we think it most desirable of all things, without being counted as one good thing among others—if it were so counted it would clearly be made desirable by the addition of even the least of goods; for that which is added becomes an excess of goods, and of goods the greater is always more desirable. Happiness, then, is something final and self-sufficient, and is the end of action. …[H]uman good turns out to be an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue, and if there is more than one virtue, in accordance with the best and most complete.

But we must add “in a complete life.” For one swallow does not make a summer, nor does one day; and so too one day, or a short time, does not make a man blessed and happy.

What does Aristotle see as the different kinds of virtue?

Since happiness is an activity of the soul in accordance with perfect virtue, we must consider the nature of virtue, for perhaps we shall thus see better the nature of happiness. …

Virtue too is distinguished into kinds in accordance with this difference; for we say that some of the virtues are intellectual and others moral, philosophic wisdom and understanding and practical wisdom being intellectual, liberality, and temperance moral. For in speaking about a man’s character we do not say that he is wise or has understanding but that he is good-tempered or temperate; yet we praise the wise man also with respect to his state of mind; and of states of mind we call those which merit praise virtues. …

How does he suggest Virtue is to be attained?

Virtue, then, being of two kinds, intellectual and moral, intellectual virtue in the main owes both its birth and its growth to teaching (for which reason it requires experience and time), while moral virtue comes about as a result of habit, whence also its name ethike is one that is formed by a slight variation from the word ethos (habit). From this it is also plain that none of the moral virtues arises in us by nature; for nothing that exists by nature can form a habit contrary to its nature. For instance, the stone which by nature moves downwards cannot be habituated to move upwards, not even if one tries to train it by throwing it up ten thousand times; nor can fire be habituated to move downwards, nor can anything else that by nature behaves in one way be trained to behave in another. Neither by nature, then, nor contrary to nature do the virtues arise in us; rather we are adapted by nature to receive them and are made perfect by habit.

Again, of all the things that come to us by nature we first acquire the potentiality and later exhibit the activity (this is plain in the case of the senses; for it was not by often seeing or often hearing that we got these senses, but on the contrary, we had them before we used them. and did not come to have them by using them); but the virtues we get by first exercising them, as also happens in the case of the arts as well. For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them, e.g., men become builders by building and lyre-players by playing the lyre; so too we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts. …

Again, it is from the same causes and by the same means that every virtue is both produced and destroyed, and similarly every art; for it is from playing the lyre that both good and bad lyre-players are produced. And the corresponding statement is true of builders and of all the rest; men will be good or bad builders as a result of building well or badly. For if this were not so, there would have been no need for a teacher, but all men would have been born good or bad at their craft. This, then, is the case with the virtues also; by doing the acts that we do in our transactions with other men we become just or unjust, and by doing the acts that we do in the presence of danger, and being habituated to feel fear or confidence, we become brave or cowardly. The same is true of appetites and feelings of anger; some men become temperate and good-tempered, others self-indulgent and irascible, by behaving in one way or the other in the appropriate circumstances. Thus, in one word, states of character arise out of like activities. This is why the activities we exhibit must be of a certain kind; it is because the states of character correspond to the differences between these. It makes no small difference, then, whether we form habits of one kind or of another from our very youth; it makes a very great difference, or rather all the difference. …

What does Aristotle see as the relationship between virtue and character?

Next, we must consider what virtue is. Since things that are found in the soul are of three kinds—passions, faculties, and states of character—virtue must be one of these. By passions I mean appetite, anger, fear, confidence, envy, joy, friendly feeling, hatred, longing, emulation, pity, and in general the feelings that are accompanied by pleasure or pain; by faculties the things in virtue of which we are said to be capable of feeling these, e.g., of becoming angry or being pained or feeling pity; by states of character the things in virtue of which we stand well or badly with reference to the passions, e.g., with reference to anger we stand badly if we feel it violently or too weakly, and well if we feel it moderately, and similarly with reference to the other passions.

Now neither the virtues nor the vices are passions, because we are not called good or bad on the ground of our passions, but are so-called on the ground of our virtues and our vices, and because we are neither praised nor blamed for our passions (for the man who feels fear or anger is not praised, nor is the man who simply feels anger blamed, but the man who feels it in a certain way), but for our virtues and our vices we are praised or blamed. Again, we feel anger and fear without choice, but the virtues are modes of choice or involve choice. Further, in respect of the passions, we are said to be moved, but in respect of the virtues and the vices, we are said not to be moved but to be disposed in a particular way.

For these reasons also they are not faculties; for we are neither called good nor bad, nor praised nor blamed, for the simple capacity of feeling the passions; again, we have the faculties of nature, but we are not made good or bad by nature; we have spoken of this before. If then, the virtues are neither passions nor faculties, all that remains is that they should be states of character.

Thus, we have stated what virtue is in respect of its genus.

What does Aristotle suggest when he argues that Virtue is a desire to choose “the Mean”?

We must, however, not only describe virtue as a state of character but also say what sort of state it is. We may remark, then, that every virtue or excellence both brings into good condition the thing of which it is the excellence and makes the work of that thing be done well; e.g., the excellence of the eye makes both the eye and its work good; for it is by the excellence of the eye that we see well. Similarly, the excellence of the horse makes a horse both good in itself and good at running and at carrying its rider, and at awaiting the attack of the enemy. Therefore, if this is true in every case, the virtue of man also will be the state of character which makes a man good and which makes him do his own work well.

How this is to happen…will be made plain…by the following consideration of the specific nature of virtue. In everything that is continuous and divisible it is possible to take more, less, or an equal amount, and that either in terms of the thing itself or relatively to us; and the equal is an intermediate between excess and deficiency. By the “intermediate in the object” I mean that which is equidistant from each of the extremes, which is one and the same for all men; by the intermediate relative to us that which is neither too much nor too little—and this is not one, nor the same for all. For instance, if ten is many and two is few, six is the intermediate, taken in terms of the object; for it exceeds and is exceeded by an equal amount; this is intermediate according to arithmetical proportion. But the intermediate relatively to us is not to be taken so; if ten pounds are too much for a particular person to eat and two too little, it does not follow that the trainer will order six pounds; for this also is perhaps too much for the person who is to take it, or too little.… Thus, a master of any art avoids excess and deficiency, but seeks the intermediate and chooses this—the intermediate not in the object but relative to us.

If it is thus, then, that every art does its work well—by looking to the intermediate and judging its works by this standard (so that we often say of good works of art that it is not possible either to take away or to add anything, implying that excess and deficiency destroy the goodness of works of art, while the mean preserves it; and good artists, as we say, look to this in their work), and if, further, virtue is more exact and better than any art, as nature also is, then virtue must have the quality of aiming at the intermediate. I mean moral virtue; for it is this that is concerned with passions and actions, and in these, there is excess, deficiency, and the intermediate. For instance, both fear and confidence and appetite and anger and pity and in general pleasure and pain may be felt both too much and too little, and in both cases not well; but to feel them at the right times, with reference to the right objects, towards the right people, with the right motive, and in the right way, is what is both intermediate and best, and this is characteristic of virtue. Similarly with regard to actions also there are excess, deficiency, and the intermediate. Now virtue is concerned with passions and actions, in which excess is a form of failure, and so is deficient, while the intermediate is praised and is a form of success; and being praised and being successful are both characteristics of virtue. Therefore, virtue is a kind of mean, since, as we have seen, it aims at what is intermediate.

Virtue, then, 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, and by that principle by which the man of practical wisdom would determine it. Now it is a mean between two vices, that which depends on excess and that which depends on deficiency; and again, it is a mean because the vices respectively fall short of or exceed what is right in both passions and actions, while virtue both finds and chooses that which is intermediate. Hence in respect of its substance and the definition which states its essence virtue is a mean, with regard to what is best and right and extreme.

But not every action nor every passion admits of a mean; for some have names that already imply badness, e.g., spite, shamelessness, envy, and in the case of actions adultery, theft, murder; for all of these and suchlike things imply by their names that they are themselves bad, and not the excesses or deficiencies of them. It is not possible, then, ever to be right with regard to them; one must always be wrong. Nor does goodness or badness with regard to such things depend on committing adultery with the right woman, at the right time, and in the right way, but simply to do any of them is to go wrong. It would be equally absurd, then, to expect that in unjust, cowardly, and voluptuous action there should be a mean, an excess, and a deficiency; for at that rate there would be a mean of excess and of deficiency, an excess of excess, and a deficiency of deficiency. But as there is no excess and deficiency of temperance and courage because what is intermediate is in a sense an extreme, so too of the actions we have mentioned there is no mean nor any excess and deficiency, but however they are done they are wrong; for in general there is neither a mean of excess and deficiency, nor excess and deficiency of a mean.

What examples does he offer of seeking the Mean?

We must, however, not only make this general statement, but also apply it to the individual facts. For among statements about conduct those which are general apply more widely, but those which are particular are more genuine, since conduct has to do with individual cases, and our statements must harmonize with the facts in these cases. We may take these cases from our table. With regard to feelings of fear and confidence courage is the mean, of the people who exceed, he who exceeds in fearlessness has no name (many of the states have no name), while the man who exceeds in confidence is rash, and he who exceeds in fear and falls short in confidence is a coward. With regard to pleasures and pains—not all of them, and not so much with regard to the pains—the mean is temperance, the excess self-indulgence. Persons deficient with regard to the pleasures are not often found; hence such persons also have received no name. But let us call them “insensible.”

With regard to giving and taking of money the mean is liberality, the excess and the deficient, prodigality and meanness. In these actions people exceed and fall short in contrary ways; the prodigal exceeds in spending and falls short in taking, while the mean man exceeds in taking and falls short in spending.… With regard to money there are also other dispositions—a mean, magnificence (for the magnificent man differs from the liberal man; the former deals with large sums, the latter with small ones), and excess, tastelessness and vulgarity, and a deficiency…

(Aristotle. Nichomachean Ethics. Translated by W. D. Ross. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1925. Taken from Archie and Archie, Chapter 22. “What is the Life of Excellence?” by Aristotle)

Strengths and Weaknesses of Virtue Ethics

Here are some of the main strengths and weaknesses attributed to virtue ethics as an ethical approach:


  1. Virtue theory emphasizes the moral education of emotions, perception and character rather than just behaviors. Allows flexibility for learning.  By framing ethics in terms aspiring to be moral exemplars and human excellence, virtue theories compellingly reconnect ethics to broader humanistic vision of life. Don’t we naturally seek to emulate those role models in our lives who seem to be flourishing? Doesn’t it make sense to walk their walk and talk their talk in an effort to flourish as they do?
  2. It focuses on becoming good not just following universal rules, allowing responsiveness to individual and community needs.  Shouldn’t we put more value on emotions and on our personal relationships when it comes to making moral decisions? Virtue ethics emphasizes the whole person, not just our reason.
  3. Identifying someone’s character is as easy as observing their habitual actions. A moral person is a person who practices being good to the point that it is habitually what he/she does in every circumstance in the same way an excellent violinist find the proper position to play any particular note by repetitive practice.
  4. Virtue ethics may seem to avoid some of the apparent flaws of duty-based ethics and of utilitarianism. A person guided by virtue ethics would not be bound by strict rules or the duty to abide by a state’s legal code. Presumably, then, an individual who has cultivated a compassionate personality consistent with virtue ethics would not easily surrender a friend’s hiding place in order to avoid having to tell a lie, as would seem to be required by duty ethics. Nor would a person guided by virtue ethics be bound by the ‘tyranny of the (happy) majority’ that appears to be an aspect of utilitarianism.
  5. The concept of eudaimonia provides a substantive telos and a narrative context for pursuing virtue as a component of a good life.
  6. It builds ethical practices through habituation in accordance with human developmental psychology rather than ignoring it.


  1. Virtue ethics provides little specific action guidance, especially when virtues reasonably conflict in a situation.  Because of its emphasis on the imprecise and highly contextual nature of ethics, virtue ethics is often criticized as insufficient as a guide to taking specific action. Moreover, a practitioner of virtue ethics might pursue one course of action one day in a circumstance, and a very different course of action the next for the same circumstance depending upon the dictates of what she believes to be best in accordance with her character on that day.
  2. Virtue ethics can be viewed as selfish.  It asks us to consider all factors when making a decision but, in the end, the dominant factor is “what will make me a better person?” In this way, virtue ethics suffers from some of the same criticisms as a form of consequentialism called Ethical Egoism, the belief that I should always and only act in my own best interests.
  3. It requires extensive agreement by a community on what traits count as virtues versus vices.  Is it possible to define a set of “human” virtues? Many wonder whether Virtue ethics is a form of cultural relativism. Are virtues specific to human societies at different times, or are there such things as “universal virtues” that we can say are valued by all societies at all times? Is there any truly ideal definition of an excellent human being? If not, it may be that virtue ethics does not give an adequate handle on how to become “good” persons.
  4. Aristotle’s particular account incorporates outdated assumptions on gender, class, and the state that trouble many.
  5. Ultimately the theory appeals to intuitive notions of human fulfillment that remain vague and difficult to measure.
  6. Consensus on which character traits constitute virtues has likely shifted historically along with social values.


Works Cited

CrashCourse. Aristotle and Virtue Theory: Crash Course Philosophy #38. YouTube, YouTube, 5 Dec. 2016, https://youtu.be/PrvtOWEXDIQ. Accessed 17 May 2022.

Fidanza, P. “Aristotle. Line engraving by P. Fidanza after Raphael Sanzio.” Wikimedia Commons, Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Aristotle._Line_engraving_by_P._Fidanza_after_Raphael_Sanzio_Wellcome_V0000205.jpg. Accessed 16 May 2022.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

PPSC PHI 1011: The Philosopher's Quest by Daniel G. Shaw, Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book