Virtue Ethics vs Consequentialism

Virtue Ethics vs Consequentialism

In the field of comparative ethics, two prominent ethical theories often take the stage: virtue ethics and consequentialism. These theories provide distinct frameworks for addressing ethical dilemmas and guiding moral decision-making. Understanding the principles and differences between virtue ethics and consequentialism is essential for anyone interested in exploring ethical theories and moral philosophy.

Key Takeaways:

  • Virtue ethics and consequentialism are two major ethical theories.
  • Virtue ethics focuses on virtues and moral character, while consequentialism considers the consequences of actions.
  • Both theories offer different perspectives on ethical decision-making and moral philosophy.
  • Virtue ethics emphasizes the cultivation of virtues, while consequentialism emphasizes maximizing good outcomes.
  • Understanding the principles and distinctions between virtue ethics and consequentialism is crucial for ethical frameworks and moral reasoning.


Virtue ethics is one of the major approaches in normative ethics that emphasizes virtues and moral character. Unlike deontology and consequentialism, which focus on duties and consequences, virtue ethics places the virtues as foundational. While all three approaches consider virtues, consequences, and rules to some extent, virtue ethics gives centrality to virtue within ethical theories. It also emphasizes the importance of character and practical wisdom in ethical decision-making.

Forms of Virtue Ethics

Virtue ethics encompasses various forms that offer unique perspectives on moral philosophy and ethical decision-making. These different approaches highlight different aspects of virtues and their applications. Let’s explore some of the prominent forms of virtue ethics:

Eudaimonist Virtue Ethics

Eudaimonist virtue ethics, inspired by the teachings of Aristotle, places significant emphasis on human flourishing and the fulfillment of one’s distinctive function. It asserts that cultivating virtues is essential for leading a fulfilling and meaningful life. This form of virtue ethics views virtues as the means to achieve eudaimonia, or the highest human good.

Agent-Based Virtue Ethics

Agent-based virtue ethics focuses on the virtues through the lens of common-sense intuitions related to admirable traits in others. It recognizes the importance of personal judgment and character development. This approach values the development of an individual’s moral character based on their own unique experiences and reflections.

Target-Centered Virtue Ethics

Target-centered virtue ethics directs its attention towards the aims and goals of moral agents. It emphasizes the importance of setting appropriate moral targets for oneself and aligning actions with those targets. This approach centers around the cultivation of virtues that help individuals achieve their moral objectives.

Platonistic Virtue Ethics

Platonistic virtue ethics draws inspiration from Plato’s philosophy and explores the nature of virtues and their relationship to the Good. It seeks to understand the essence of virtues and how they contribute to the ultimate pursuit of the Good. This form of virtue ethics delves into profound philosophical inquiries and reflections.

These various forms of virtue ethics offer diverse perspectives on the nature and significance of virtues in ethical theories. Each approach brings its own distinct focus and insights, enriching our understanding of moral philosophy.


Objections to virtue ethics

Virtue ethics, like any philosophical theory, encounters objections and criticisms. Some of the main objections to virtue ethics include:

  1. Self-centeredness: Critics argue that virtue ethics is too focused on individual flourishing, neglecting the broader implications of moral decision-making for society as a whole.
  2. Lack of action-guiding principles: Unlike deontology and consequentialism, virtue ethics does not provide clear rules or guidelines for determining the moral course of action in specific situations.
  3. Moral luck: The concept of moral luck raises concerns about the role of luck in cultivating the right virtues and the moral worthiness of individuals who may possess virtuous character traits by chance.
  4. Virtue in deontology and consequentialism: Questions arise regarding how virtues can be incorporated into deontological and consequentialist frameworks, which primarily emphasize duties and consequences, respectively.

Despite these objections, virtue ethics offers valuable insights into character development and the cultivation of virtues as essential aspects of ethical living.

Virtue Ethics Criticisms

Let’s dive deeper into some of the key criticisms leveled against virtue ethics:

Criticism Explanation
Self-centeredness Virtue ethics emphasizes individual flourishing, raising concerns about neglecting the broader impact of moral decisions on society.
Lack of action-guiding principles Virtue ethics does not provide clear rules or guidelines for determining the moral course of action in specific situations, which some argue makes it less practical in ethical decision-making.
Moral luck The role of luck in cultivating virtues and attributing moral praise or blame raises questions about the reliability and fairness of virtue ethics.
Virtue in deontology and consequentialism Integrating virtues within deontological and consequentialist frameworks poses challenges, as these approaches primarily focus on duties and consequences.

Addressing the Objections

While these objections raise valid concerns, virtue ethics proponents offer responses to mitigate the criticisms:

  • Virtue ethics can still account for the collective good, as individual flourishing and communal welfare are interconnected.
  • The emphasis on virtues itself guides action, as virtuous character traits inform ethical decision-making.
  • Moral luck is acknowledged but does not negate the importance of cultivating virtuous character, which remains within our control.
  • Deontological and consequentialist frameworks can incorporate virtues as complements to fulfill moral duties and achieve good outcomes.

By addressing these objections, virtue ethics can provide a valuable framework for understanding and navigating complex moral dilemmas.

Future Directions

The field of virtue ethics is constantly evolving and offers numerous opportunities for future research and development. Scholars and ethicists can explore various areas of study to further enhance our understanding of virtue ethics and its practical applications.

Areas of Further Study in Virtue Ethics
Research Area Description
Contextual Applications Examine the role of virtues in specific contexts such as business ethics, medical ethics, environmental ethics, or technology ethics. Investigate how virtues can guide ethical decision-making in these areas.
Virtue Ethical Frameworks Develop and refine virtue ethical frameworks that provide practical guidelines for individuals and organizations to cultivate and embody virtues in their daily lives. Explore how these frameworks can be integrated into different ethical theories.
Integration with Other Ethical Theories Explore the harmonization of virtue ethics with other ethical theories such as consequentialism, deontology, or feminist ethics. Investigate how these theories intersect, complement, or challenge each other, and identify potential areas of synergy.
Virtues in Contemporary Moral Issues Examine how virtues can guide responses to pressing moral issues of our time, such as social justice, artificial intelligence, climate change, or global healthcare. Investigate the role of virtues in addressing these complex challenges.

By pursuing these areas of research, scholars can contribute to the continued development and application of virtue ethics in various domains. These studies have the potential to deepen our understanding of virtues, enhance ethical decision-making processes, and foster a more virtuous society.

Changing Modern Moral Philosophy

Modern moral philosophy has undergone a significant transformation through a critical examination of the prevailing normative theories of deontology and consequentialism. Prominent philosophers like Elisabeth Anscombe, Bernard Williams, and Alasdair MacIntyre have advocated for a shift in focus towards virtue ethics, highlighting its distinct advantages and insights.

Elisabeth Anscombe, in her influential work “Modern Moral Philosophy,” presents a compelling critique of the deontological approach, which relies heavily on a law conception of ethics. Anscombe argues for the importance of virtues and the inherent difficulties in grounding moral duties solely on divine command or abstract principles. By emphasizing the role of virtues and character, she challenges the moral framework established by deontology.

Bernard Williams, a leading figure in modern moral philosophy, emphasizes the significance of ethics over traditional notions of morality. He argues against the supremacy of moral rules and principles and instead highlights the importance of ethical life. Williams emphasizes the inclusion of emotions and acknowledges the complex interplay between an individual’s emotions, powers of perception, and ethical decision-making.

Alasdair MacIntyre’s critique goes even further, calling for a radical reevaluation of moral philosophy. MacIntyre contends that moral concepts and virtues should be understood within the context of practices and traditions. He proposes that only within these communal frameworks can individuals develop virtuous character and achieve the good life.

These philosophers’ critiques of deontology and consequentialism have helped pave the way for the revitalization and resurgence of virtue ethics within modern moral philosophy. By emphasizing the importance of virtues, character, and ethics, virtue ethics offers a valuable alternative to the dominant normative theories.

A Comparison of Virtue Ethics, Deontology, and Consequentialism

Virtue Ethics Deontology Consequentialism
Focuses on virtues and moral character Emphasizes moral duties and rules Centers on the consequences of actions
Considers virtues as foundational Defines ethics based on duty Evaluates actions based on outcomes
Places importance on character and practical wisdom Relies on abstract principles and rules Focuses on promoting the greatest good

As shown in the table, virtue ethics, with its emphasis on character and virtues, offers a distinct approach to ethical theories compared to deontology and consequentialism. It provides a holistic view of ethics, taking into account the development of virtuous character and the cultivation of moral virtues within the context of practices and traditions.

In the next section, we will discuss how virtue ethics serves as a formidable rival to deontology and consequentialism, presenting an alternative perspective on ethical decision-making.

A Rival for Deontology and Utilitarianism

When it comes to ethical theories, virtue ethics offers a unique and compelling alternative to deontology and consequentialism. While deontology focuses on adhering to moral norms and duties, and consequentialism prioritizes the consequences and outcomes of actions, virtue ethics takes a different approach. It places emphasis on the development of virtuous character and the cultivation of virtues.

In contrast to the ethics of duty and the ethics of consequences, virtue ethics challenges the notion that duty or consequences should take precedence in ethical decision-making. Instead, it argues that ethical judgment should be grounded in the virtues one possesses and manifests in their actions.

By shifting the focus from external rules or outcomes to internal character and individual virtues, virtue ethics seeks to provide a more holistic approach to moral philosophy. It recognizes the importance of cultivating virtuous traits such as honesty, courage, compassion, and justice.

Through the development of virtuous character, individuals are encouraged to make ethical choices that are not solely based on duty or focused solely on achieving the best consequences. Instead, virtue ethics acknowledges the complexity of moral decision-making and promotes the integration of morally good character traits.

Virtue ethics also recognizes that moral norms and duties are important aspects of ethical frameworks, but it places greater emphasis on the acquisition and cultivation of virtues as central to ethical living. By promoting virtuous character, it aims to foster ethical behavior that stems from a genuine desire to do what is morally right.

Table: Comparing Virtue Ethics, Deontology, and Consequentialism

Virtue Ethics Deontology Consequentialism
Focuses on the development of virtuous character and the cultivation of virtues Emphasizes adherence to moral norms and duties Prioritizes the consequences and outcomes of actions
Considers the virtues as foundational in ethical theories Places duty and moral norms at the forefront Maximizes good outcomes and overall well-being
Promotes a holistic approach to moral philosophy Provides clear action-guiding principles Focuses on achieving the best consequences

Virtue Ethics in Practice

Virtue ethics is not just a theoretical framework; it has practical implications for individuals and society as a whole. By cultivating virtuous character, individuals can contribute to the creation of an ethical and virtuous society. Virtue ethics encourages individuals to strive for excellence in their actions and to consider the impact of their choices on others.

Virtue ethics also allows for moral growth and development over time. It recognizes that individuals are not static beings but have the capacity to transform their character and develop virtues through conscious effort and practice.

Furthermore, virtue ethics provides individuals with a framework for navigating complex moral dilemmas. Instead of being confined to rigid rules or solely focusing on the consequences, individuals can draw on their virtues and practical wisdom to make ethical decisions that align with their values and the greater good.

The image above visually captures the essence of virtue ethics, showcasing the importance of character development and the cultivation of virtues in ethical decision-making.

In summary, virtue ethics presents a compelling rival to deontology and consequentialism by shifting the focus from duty and consequences to the development of virtuous character. It challenges the primacy of moral norms and outcomes, highlighting the significance of cultivating virtues for ethical living. By integrating virtues into ethical decision-making, virtue ethics offers a more holistic approach to moral philosophy.


In conclusion, the comparison between virtue ethics and consequentialism highlights the stark differences between these two ethical theories. Consequentialism places great emphasis on the outcomes or consequences of actions, striving to maximize overall well-being. On the other hand, virtue ethics focuses on the cultivation of moral virtues and the development of virtuous character.

Both approaches have their strengths and weaknesses. Consequentialism provides a clear framework for decision-making based on the evaluation of consequences, while virtue ethics offers a more holistic and character-centric approach. The choice between these two ethical theories ultimately depends on an individual’s beliefs, values, and understanding of ethics.

By engaging in comparative ethics and exploring different ethical theories, individuals can gain a deeper understanding of moral philosophy and ethical decision-making. Virtue ethics and consequentialism offer unique perspectives that enrich our understanding of how to navigate complex moral dilemmas. Whether one chooses to prioritize consequences or character, both approaches contribute to the ongoing dialogue and inquiry into ethical theories.


What is virtue ethics?

Virtue ethics is an approach in normative ethics that emphasizes virtues and moral character as foundational to ethical theories. It focuses on developing virtuous character and cultivating virtues in ethical decision-making.

What are the main approaches in normative ethics?

The main approaches in normative ethics are virtue ethics, deontology, and consequentialism. Virtue ethics emphasizes virtues and moral character, deontology focuses on duties and rules, and consequentialism emphasizes the consequences of actions.

How does virtue ethics differ from deontology and consequentialism?

Unlike deontology and consequentialism, which prioritize duties and consequences, virtue ethics places the virtues as foundational. It focuses on the development of virtuous character and the cultivation of virtues.

What are the different forms of virtue ethics?

There are various forms of virtue ethics, including eudaimonist virtue ethics, agent-based virtue ethics, target-centered virtue ethics, and Platonistic virtue ethics. Each form has a unique focus and perspective on virtues.

What are some objections to virtue ethics?

Some objections to virtue ethics include the perception of it being self-centered, the lack of clear action-guiding principles, concerns about moral luck, and questions about how virtues are understood within deontological and consequentialist frameworks.

What are potential future directions for virtue ethics?

Future research in virtue ethics may explore the role of virtues in specific contexts, develop virtue ethical frameworks, integrate virtue ethics with other ethical theories, and examine virtues in contemporary moral issues.

How has modern moral philosophy critiqued deontology and consequentialism?

Philosophers such as Elisabeth Anscombe, Bernard Williams, and Alasdair MacIntyre have criticized deontology and consequentialism and advocated for a shift towards virtue ethics. They highlighted limitations in traditional ethical theories and emphasized the importance of virtues, ethics, and emotions.

How does virtue ethics compare to deontology and consequentialism?

Virtue ethics offers a different perspective on ethical theories compared to deontology and consequentialism. While deontology focuses on duty and moral norms, and consequentialism emphasizes consequences, virtue ethics focuses on the development of virtuous character and the cultivation of virtues.

Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *