Virtues and vices

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L112-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 01, 2020, from

1. Virtues and theory

Ethical theories are standardly presented as falling into three basic types, centring respectively on consequences, rights and virtues (see Consequentialism; Deontological ethics; Rights; Virtue ethics). One way of understanding this division into three is in terms of what each theory sees, at the most basic level, as bearing ethical value. For the first type of theory, it is good states of affairs; for the second, it is right action; while virtue theory puts most emphasis on the idea of a good person, someone who could be described also as an ethically admirable person. The last is an important emphasis, and the notion of a virtue is important in ethics; but its importance cannot be caught in this way, as the focus of a theory which is supposedly parallel to these other types of theory. Consequentialist and rights theories aim to systematize our principles or rules of action in ways that will, supposedly, help us to see what to do or to recommend in particular cases. A theory of the virtues cannot claim to do this: the theory itself says that what one needs in order to do and recommend the right things are virtues, not a theory about virtues. Moreover, the thoughts of a virtuous person do not consist entirely, or even mainly, of thoughts about virtues or about paradigms of virtuous people. Indeed, they will sometimes be thoughts about rights or good consequences, and this makes it clear that thoughts about the good person cannot displace these other ethical concepts, since a good person will have to use some such concepts. ‘Virtue theory’ cannot be on the same level as the other types of theory.

An emphasis on virtues is important to moral philosophy for other reasons. Although it need not exclude cognitivism, it shifts attention from morality as a system of propositions or truths to its psychological (and hence, eventually, social) embodiment in individual dispositions of action, thought and emotional reaction. It draws attention to the variety of reasons for action and judgment that may play a part in ethical life, beyond the theorists’ favourites, duty and utility (see Moral motivation §§1–3; Morality and identity §4; Morality and emotions). Such reasons will not typically embody virtue concepts themselves, or, still less, involve reflection on the agent’s own virtues. But virtue theory can help to explain how considerations such as ‘she needs it’, for instance, or ‘he relied on what you said’, can function as an agent’s reasons. An approach through the virtues also leaves room for the important idea that ethically correct action may be only partly codifiable and may involve an essential appeal to judgment (see Moral judgment §4; Universalism in ethics §3).

Citing this article:
Williams, Bernard. Virtues and theory. Virtues and vices, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L112-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2020 Routledge.

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