Virtue ethics

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Virtue ethics (English virtue ethics ) refers to a class of ethical theories whose central concept that human virtue is.


In terms of its claim, virtue ethics is a third type of ethics in addition to deontological ethics (e.g. Kant) and teleological ethics in the narrower sense (e.g. utilitarianism , consequentialism ). The more precise delimitation needs to be specified. The starting point for this is virtue as the central concept of virtue ethics. Shorthand is "morally right thing is for virtue ethics virtuous , according to the deontological ethics of duty and after the teleological ethics with the best possible benefits act." But this is only an approximation.

It is doubtful whether there must be a strict contrast between the types of ethics mentioned. In some cases, an “integrative theory that combines the aspects of the other approaches” is required.

The virtue ethics (English virtue ethics ) is to be distinguished from the Tugendlehre ( virtue theory (English virtue theory )). The renaissance of virtue ethics has led to a greater interest in virtue among deontological or teleological ethicists. See, for example, the comments below on the doctrine of virtue, not: virtue ethics, Kant. (See also: virtue ).

Viewed historically, virtue ethics was the dominant type of ethics in Western philosophy until the early modern period. The Enlightenment ultimately led to an almost complete obscuration of virtue ethics in the 19th century. Attempts at resuscitation in Germany in the first half of the 20th century by Max Scheler and Nicolai Hartmann remained (due to the war?) Without any Anglo-Saxon response. In the history of Anglo-Saxon ethics, only the groundbreaking essay by Elizabeth Anscombe Modern Moral Philosophy from 1958 is mentioned as the beginning of the renaissance of virtue ethics.

As a classic elaboration of virtue ethics, the ethical writings of Aristotle are usually cited. Many modern exponents of virtue ethics such as Elizabeth Anscombe, Alasdair MacIntyre or Philippa Foot also refer to his concepts and arguments.

When asked how one should live or what constitutes a good or ultimately happy life, many ancient philosophers, including Socrates , answered: virtuous. This answer requires a theory about the nature of virtues - they are e.g. B. explained as character dispositions that can be acquired through habituation. It also requires information about what the relevant virtues are. For example B. Wisdom , justice , bravery and temperance . The history of ideas knows various catalogs of virtues. For example, the Christian tradition places the so-called “ theological virtues ” of faith , hope and love next to the four “ cardinal virtues ” mentioned at the beginning , so that a total of seven virtues result.

Aristotle's virtue ethics

The Aristotelian virtue ethics is based on the nature of man and on the circumstances relevant to the quality of actions. The goal is human happiness , which is why Immanuel Kant's Aristotelian ethic was cited as a prime example of a eudaemonistic ethic . Virtue ethics takes account of the fact that what is good depends on the circumstances and that there is therefore no uniform rule that can a priori determine each individual case. In principle, for Aristotle, ethics is a practical science that cannot do without examples and concrete studies. Because it depends on many concrete circumstances whether an action is good and leads to an increase in happiness.

According to Aristotle, virtue is an excellent and sustainable attitude ( hexis ), which is determined by reason and which one must acquire through practice or education . To determine the virtues, according to Aristotle, one looks for a point of view between two extremes ( Mesotes doctrine), e.g. B. self-control (moderation), which lies between lust and dullness, or generosity as a value between prodigality and avarice, or valor, which lies between recklessness and cowardice. These positions are not to be understood as mathematical mean values, but as the best that can be achieved in each case in the area of ​​a character trait. It is determined individually.

"Virtue is thus a behavior (an attitude) of decision, founded in the middle in relation to us, a middle that is determined by reason and according to how it would be determined by the understanding."

- Aristotle : Nicomachean Ethics 1106b36–1107a2, trans. Gigon

Since Aristotle was a realist, he knew about the difficulty and diversity of the concrete circumstances. That is why he also added to his definition of virtue as the right center with the addition that an intelligent or virtuous person can serve as an orientation. This addition also follows from other considerations of virtue ethics, which is the conviction that one can and must learn to act correctly and ethically in order to act progressively correctly and well and to develop one's judgment in relation to it.

However, in addition to the many cases in which circumstances determine a good act, for Aristotle there are also acts that are inherently bad. There is no middle with these because there is no other extreme. Such are murder , adultery, and other acts that are fundamentally contrary to human nature.

Aristotle further differentiates on the one hand the virtues of reason (dianoetic virtues - prudence, artistry, reason, wisdom, scientific knowledge) and on the other hand the virtues of character (ethical virtues). With the superior virtues of the understanding, people orient themselves to practical reason in order to find the right means and ways for their actions and to choose the right one in the concrete situations in which their action is required. The practice of the ethical virtues helps to control the instincts and affects and makes the agent more independent of a behavior that is only aimed at satisfying pleasure and avoiding pain. In order to align ethical behavior with the good , education is required that increases our moral sensitivity and thus influences the quality of our actions. When virtues are internalized, people act for virtue's sake and do so with pleasure, i.e. with pleasure in the sense of enjoyment of the activity. For Aristotle, however, it is not the aim of the plot, but an accompanying phenomenon that follows. What a virtue is depends on circumstances, including historical and social. A universal, i.e. H. Nevertheless, they have a general core: perfecting human nature according to its disposition and for the purpose of harmony between man and himself.

Important virtues according to Aristotle are prudence (phronesis), justice (dikaiosyne), bravery (andreia), moderation (sophrosyne), generosity (eleutheriotes), helpfulness (megaloprepeia), greatness of soul (megalopsychia), gentleness (praotes), truthfulness, Courtesy (eutrapelia) and empathy (philia). According to Aristotle, the highest happiness is achieved through the virtue of wisdom (sophia). For wisdom, in the sense of contemplation or meditation on the first things and the meaning of life, is the highest activity of the highest faculty of the spirit. It is also the purest, most permanent and most uninterrupted activity possible for a person if he is practiced in it. It grants the greatest happiness and consequently the greatest pleasure.

Kant's doctrine of virtues

In contrast to this is Immanuel Kant's doctrine of virtue. By virtue he understands the duty to use one's ability to act reasonably, regardless of other motives and drives. Courage as a virtue can determine the actions of both the criminal and the police officer. Virtues are therefore useful, but only relative. They need to be accompanied by moral good with the categorical imperative as a benchmark, as the compliance of the categorical imperative an imperative of duty is.

This obligation makes Kant the representative of a deontological ethic, not a virtue ethic. Kant recognizes bliss as the highest good when we strive for it for others. For ourselves, morality alone is the standard.

Modern virtue ethics


Both in utilitarianism (a form of consequentialism ) and in deontological ethics , such as Kant's duty ethics , the focus is on the action itself and the resulting consequences, and with it the question: "What should I do?" Modern virtue ethicists criticize this focus for not providing any answers to the question of how a person must be in order to live happily. The motivation of actions - such as love and inclinations - is also not taken into account. Virtue ethics opposes that correct action is based on correct attitudes and character traits. If the person has practiced this, he is also able to react appropriately in decision-making situations.

In a virtue-ethical point of view, the standard for correct action is the ideal of a virtuous person or the actions of a virtuous person. What is actually virtuous results in particular from the respective social framework. However, there is no absolute justification for the ought. However, this assessment is controversial. There are also views that there are virtues that have a generally valid core across the various cultural groups, which at most is adapted to the respective social environment. Virtue ethics is experiencing increasing importance and reception in the field of business ethics . More recent publications on leadership ethics refer explicitly to Aristotle.


Critics of virtue ethics complain in particular that it does not offer any solutions to current practical issues such as abortion, the death penalty, etc., that the consequences of actions are not assessed, as well as that no solution concept can be found in specific individual cases. Furthermore, basic social rules (which are usually formulated in laws ) such as the prohibition of murder, robbery, rape, fraud etc. cannot be justified directly from a virtue ethic. The same applies to human rights .

As a solution to the questions raised by such criticism, there are approaches that call for a combination of action-oriented ethical principles with virtue ethics to form an overall concept. Elaborations refer in part to the arguments left out in the criticism by Aristotle himself and develop them further. Other ethicists supplement the basic model of virtue ethics with alternative approaches and models.


  • Crisp, Roger / Michael Slote (eds.): Virtue Ethics . Oxford University Press, Oxford 1997.
  • Darwall, Stephen (Ed.): Virtue Ethics . Blackwell, Oxford 2003.
  • Foot, Philippa : Virtues and Vices . Blackwell, Oxford 1978.
  • Foot, Philippa: The Reality of Good . Frankfurt 1997.
  • Geach, Peter : The Virtues . Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1977.
  • Hursthouse, Rosalind: "On Virtue Ethics". Oxford University Press, Oxford 1999.
  • MacIntyre, Alasdair : After Virtue . Duckworth, London 1985; German: The loss of virtue . Frankfurt 1995.
  • McInerny Ralph: "Aquinas on Human Action: A Theory of Practice". The Catholic University of America Press, Washington DC 1992.
  • Michael Quante: Introduction to General Ethics. 4th edition. Darmstadt, Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2011, ISBN 978-3-534-24595-6 , pp. 129 f., 138-141.
  • Friedo Ricken : General ethics. 5th edition. Stuttgart, Kohlhammer 2013, ISBN 978-3-17-022583-1 , pp. 245-258 (with detailed criticism pp. 255-258).
  • Rippe, Klaus Peter / Schabe, Peter (ed.): Virtue ethics . Stuttgart 1998.
  • Tugendhat, Ernst : Lectures on Ethics . Frankfurt 1993.
  • Halbig, Christoph: The concept of virtue and the limits of virtue ethics . Suhrkamp Verlag, Berlin 2013.
  • Afflerbach, Horst , Kaemper, Ralf and Kessler, Volker : Lust for the good life: 15 virtues rediscovered . Brunnen-Verlag, Giessen 2014.

See also

Web links

Wiktionary: Virtue ethics  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. Michael Quante: Introduction to General Ethics. 4th edition. Darmstadt, Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2011, ISBN 978-3-534-24595-6 , p. 138.
  2. Michael Quante: Introduction to General Ethics. 4th edition. Darmstadt, Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2011, ISBN 978-3-534-24595-6 , p. 126.
  3. Michael Quante: Introduction to General Ethics. 4th edition. Darmstadt, Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2011, ISBN 978-3-534-24595-6 , p. 141; see. also Roger Crisp: Art. Virtue ethics . In: Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy .
  4. Rosalind Hursthouse: Virtue Ethics , in: The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.) [1]
  5. Rosalind Hursthouse: Virtue Ethics , in: The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.) [2]
  6. According to Andreas Luckner: Klugheit. de Gruyter, Berlin [a. a.] 2005, p. 4 f .: until "middle of the 17th century"
  7. So Rosalind Hursthouse: Virtue Ethics , in: The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.) [3] : eclipse
  8. So at least Rosalind Hursthouse: Virtue Ethics , in: The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.) [4]
  9. Cf. Friedo Ricken : Aristoteles and the modern virtue ethics . In: Theologie und Philosophie 74, No. 3, 1999, pp. 391–404.
  10. Aristotle: The Nicomachean Ethics. Translated from the Greek, with an introduction and explanations by Olof Gigon. 5th edition. dtv, Munich 2002, p. 141.
  11. See Andrea Marlen Esser: An ethic for finite people. Kant's doctrine of virtues in the present . Frommann-Holzboog, Stuttgart-Bad Cannstatt 2004, ISBN 3-7728-2237-1 .
  12. ^ Larry Alexander / Michael Moore:  Deontological Ethics. In: Edward N. Zalta (Ed.): Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy .