Virtue Ethics

Virtue Ethics

Virtue Ethics

Virtue Ethics


This volume brings together much of the most influential work undertaken in the field of virtue ethics over the last four decades. The ethics of virtue predominated in the ancient world, and recent moral philosophy has seen a revival of interest in virtue ethics as a rival to Kantian and utilitarian approaches to morality. Divided into four sections, the collection includes articles critical of other traditions; early attempts to offer a positive vision of virtue ethics; some later criticisms of the revival of virtue ethics; and, finally, some recent, more theoretically ambitious essays in virtue ethics.


This book amounts to a detailed map of some highly significant changes which have been taking place in the landscape of moral philosophy in the second half of the twentieth century.

Before these changes, discussion of practical or normative ethics had centred around two traditions. These were Kantianism, or 'deontology', which has its roots in the work of the eighteenth-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant, and utilitarianism, or 'consequentialism', which found its main expression in the writings from the eighteenth century onwards of the British philosophers Jeremy Bentham, J. S. Mill, and Henry Sidgwick.

According to the Kantian tradition, morality is based on a universal and impartial law of rationality, captured in Kant's famous Categorical Imperative. Why should I not make a false promise to get what I want from you? Because I cannot will that it be a law of nature that everyone who wants something from someone else lies. Why can I not will this? Because the very notion makes no sense: promising could not survive in such a world. Rationality consists in adherence to the laws of rationality, and making false promises cannot possibly be in accordance with such a law.

Utilitarianism, which represents a tendency in ethics to which Kant was implacably opposed, sees value only in the well-being of human beings. Action aims at the good, and if the only good is human well-being, then that is what rational action must aim at. Why should I not aim solely at my own well-being? Because there is no difference between a 'unit' of my own pleasure and that of someone else's. Morality is again seen as impartial, this time obliging me to produce as much overall well-being as possible.

In 1958 Elizabeth Anscombe launched a scathing attack on both of these traditions simultaneously. Both of them, she argued, sought a foundation for morality grounded in legalistic notions such as 'obligation', and these . . .

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