So the Deontologist thinks that the action is right which conforms to categorical norms. The Consequentialist thinks that the action is right which brings about the best outcome for the world. But what about Virtue Ethics? In this post, I’ll say a bit more about Virtue Ethics but keep in mind that we aren’t focusing on it for the purposes of the module.

Let’s begin with terms that we use to appraise the character of people. Not just a specific action at a specific time, but a person as an entity that displays a pattern of conduct over time, and from whom we can expect more of the same. Think appraisals like “he is a brave person“, “he is a kind fella“, “she is compassionate“, “she is a filial daughter“, “he is an honest broker“. (These are just examples.) The important point is that when we say such things, we often don’t just mean that the person has done one or two brave or kind or compassionate thing, but that the person has a brave or kind or compassionate disposition. For instance, a compassionate person can be expected to do certain sorts of things in a range of circumstances–when she sees a stranger in dire straits she steps forward to contribute some cash, when she sees a child lost in the mall she tries to calm her down and helps contact the parents, and so on.

The point, to re-emphasize, is that if we are serious about appraising a person’s character, rather than just one or two action, then we are talking about appraising her disposition or settled tendency towards various actions given the circumstances. These qualities identified by our terms of character appraisal–bravery, kindness, compassion, filial piety, honesty, etc.–are traditionally called virtues. Having them makes the person praiseworthy as a person. Not having them, or worse still, having the opposites–the vices, e.g., cowardice, cruelty, dishonesty, etc.–opens the person to censure as a person. And a person who possesses all the relevant qualities would be a virtuous person. (The Classical Chinese thinkers would call such a person a jūnzǐ, a gentleman, or morally exemplary person; the Ancient Greeks would call him kalos k’agathos, a noble and good person.)

But note that agreeing with all of the above does not make one a Virtue Ethicists; not yet. Everything said so far has been neutral with respect to the Three Theories. The question remains: What is the primary thing?

Consequentialism (at least in the basic form that we have been considering) is more different from Deontology and Virtue Ethics than the latter two are from each other in some ways. At least the latter are both focused on something about the agent; the difference is whether the main place to look at is the specific action and the intention behind it, or the character disposition that is displayed over a period of time in a variety of circumstances. Consequentialism, in contrast, wants us to turn our eyes away from the agent and her actions and look to the overall outcomes for the world. Right and wrong flows from the evaluation of those outcomes–whether they have more good than bad, and that is all. This means that if an action is right, it is only because because it would bring good consequences for the world.

But nonetheless, there is also a difference between Deontology and Virtue Ethics. Deontology wants us to look at the agent’s action (and the intention behind that action)–to see whether or not it conforms to moral norms governing action. If that’s the primary thing for the theory of right and wrong, then it follows that the virtues–if they exist at all–are themselves definable in terms of those action norms. So let’s say that there is a norm about kindness–you should always act kindly to those more unfortunate than you, let’s say. Then it will follow that someone who has a character disposition to act kindly way is kind. Or let’s say that there is a norm for honest dealing–you should never bear false witness against others. Then it will follow that someone who has a settled tendency to obey this action norm is honest. Notice what is going on: the various character dispositions and settled tendencies get their status as virtues from their connection with the norms. But nonetheless, from the Deontological perspective, the norms of action are more primary.

The situation is reversed with Virtue Ethics: the various character dispositions and settled tendencies are now the primary thing. A basic line of thinking may go like this: what is the right thing to do in a certain set of circumstances is often very contextual and not easily computed from norms. Wisdom and judgment (themselves virtues) matter. Conversely, the person who seeks merely to obey the rules, so to speak, often ends up doing what is, in fact, wrong. So, after observing people for a while, we discover who are the properly praiseworthy ones–not because of one or two things they did but because of the character they displayed over a period of time. These are exemplary and praiseworthy people. And that is the primary thing. If there are moral norms, they are at best summaries and generalizations over what such exemplary, i.e., virtuous people would tend to do (if we are still in the business of coming up with such norms). And if a particular action is considered morally praiseworthy, it would be because it’s the sort of action that a virtuous agent would have done in the circumstances.

Here’s a way to appreciate the difference between Deontology and Virtue Ethics. Let’s grant that looking after one’s parents in their dotage is a moral matter. The Deontologist will see it as a moral norm governing our actions, and so say that an action (vis-a-vis one’s aged parents) is right to the extent that it intentionally conforms to the norm. The Virtue Ethicists, on the other hand, will say that the filial daughter who, on account of her character disposition, cares for her parents in their old age is morally praiseworthy as a person.

Now imagine two agents, Mary and Mark. Mary is a filial daughter and Mark is a rather unfilial son. Mary always does the filial thing–she consistently cares for her aged parents. Mark, predictably, couldn’t care less. First consider Mary. The Deontologist says of her, “see, she does the right thing in intentionally conforming her actions to the moral norm” while the Virtue Ethicists says, “look at Mary–she is a praiseworthy person”. The two theories’ appraisal of Mary parallel each other. But now Mark, out of the blue, decides to do something nice to his parents. He has just won the lottery and, in that moment, intentionally decided to give a big chunk of it to his aged and poor parents. He was unfilial before that and pretty much still the same uncaring son after. The Deontologists will say that “see, he does the right thing in intentionally conforming her actions to the moral norm”, the same tune as before about Mary, at least for this once. But what would the Virtue Ethicists say? He would probably say, “ok, but really, you are still an unfilial son”. A swallow does not summer make. If Mark’s one off action was morally praiseworthy at all, it’s only because it was the sort of thing that someone like Mary would have done in the circumstance. Maybe Mark can get a bit of credit for that action, but it just won’t be the same, morally speaking, as being someone like Mary. Virtue, not right action, is the primary thing. So here’s an important way in which the two theories can part company.