Virtue Ethics, Caring, and Nursing

By Brody, Jane K. Rn, PhD | Scholarly Inquiry for Nursing Practice, January 1, 1988 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Virtue Ethics, Caring, and Nursing

Brody, Jane K. Rn, PhD, Scholarly Inquiry for Nursing Practice

Virtue ethics is proposed as an alternative method for evaluating nursing practice. Unlike deontological and utilitarian ethical theories, which center on the action and outcome of moral behavior, respectively, virtue ethics focuses on the nature of the agent as the determining factor in analyzing ethical conduct. A historical development of virtue ethics traces its religious roots, its fall from favor by moral philosophers, and the renewed interest in the field.

Caring is identified as the central virtue for nursing. Three perspectives on the virtue of caring are presented: virtue as an attribute; virtue as individual actions reflective of the agent's nature; and virtue as meeting the obligations of role. The implications of each for nursing practice are explored.

If nursing is to be considered virtuous, caring must be demonstrated through the care given by nurses. This is a professional commitment toward which nurses must work collectively.

Ethical theories provide the framework for choosing, justifying, and judging action. They develop guides for behavior and use the terminology of oughts and shoulds. In nursing, two types of ethical theories are used to evaluate practice. One emphasizes action itself as the critical element in choosing and evaluating moral conduct and is called deontological or principled ethics. The other focuses on outcome of the action and is called utilitarian or consequentialist.

For example, if a nurse wished to decide what to do in response to the request of a family to conceal a terminal diagnosis from a patient, the nurse could use a deontological approach and consider principles such as autonomy, beneficence (doing good), and nonmaleficence (do no harm) as guides for conduct. The nurse could also take a more utilitarian perspective and consider whether telling the truth or deceiving the patient would achieve the best outcome for the greatest number of people concerned. Although these two ethical perspectives are quite different, in practice most people use a combination of deontological and utilitarian reasons in determining and justifying a course of action.

This article discusses a third form of ethical theory that could be helpful in evaluating moral conduct in nursing - virtue ethics. Instead of focusing on either the action or the outcome as the determining factor in the moral scheme, virtue ethics examines the moral agent.

Moral conduct requires more than an action and an outcome; it requires an agent or actor. Virtue ethics focuses on this third aspect of ethical behavior, the nature or being of the agent: " . . . the sort of person who is doing the act has a significant impact on how we regard the act morally" (Becker, 1975, p. 119). It reflects one root of the word ethics, ethos, which in Greek means custom or character, and emphasizes the quality or virtue of the moral agent.

Three perspectives on virtue ethics are presented: virtue as a personal attribute, virtue as actions reflective of the agent's personal nature, and virtue as actions that meet the agent's role obligations. Caring is identified as a basic nursing virtue and used to exemplify how virtue ethics can be applied to nursing practice.


Inquiry into the character of the agent was once prevalent in philosophical and religious argumentation about ethical behavior. It lost respectibility, however, with the rise of egalitarianism and empiricism in the nineteenth century. This loss of regard for virtue ethics may have been based on the fact that the judging of human character was often prejudiced by, if not motivated to support, bigotry and class distinction. The educated upper class wished to believe themselves innately more virtuous and therefore deserving of their place in society. In addition, pseudoscientific efforts to quantify the differences in human character led to charges of quackery and the eventual abandonment of the study of virtue by the scientific establishment.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Virtue Ethics, Caring, and Nursing


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?