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Ethical Theory: Virtue Theory

Virtue Theory is an ethical framework that says that we ought to focus not on what rules to follow, but on what kinds of people (or organizations) we should be, and what kinds of ethical exemplars we ought to imitate. In asking about the ethics of a particular behaviour, a virtue theorist (or “virtue ethicist”) would ask whether someone engaging in that behaviour is manifesting the appropriate virtues or character traits. Is that, for example, the kind of thing a brave or generous or compassionate person would do?

Given the focus of virtue theory on character, it becomes important to figure out what kinds of people we ought to be. There are at least two routes to figuring out what kinds of people we ought to be. One is to ask what characteristics a person needs to have in order to flourish—that is, to thrive and live a good life as part of a healthy community. The other is to think of examples: when you picture a good person, what kind of person do you picture? This might involve thinking about a real person in your own life whom you admire (a favourite teacher or mentor perhaps), or thinking about what an imaginary ideal person would be like. Virtue theory suggests that once you can imagine what a good person is like, you should behave in any situation as you think such a person would behave.

The term “virtue” is not exclusively a technical term, but it is also not used much in everyday language. Virtues are basically positive character traits, such as honesty and generosity. (The opposite of a virtue is a vice. Vices are negative character traits like dishonesty and greed.) Virtue theory has its historical roots in the work of the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, who argued that each virtue is a mean or “middle-point” between two vices, one of defect and one of excess. So courage, for example, can be understood as a middle-point between cowardice (the defect or lack), on one hand, and rashness (the excess) on the other.

Virtue theorists tend also to be interested in the process by which individuals acquire various virtues. It is often pointed out that virtues (and vices) are habits, and that habits are acquired by repetition: each time you tell the truth in a difficult situation, it makes it slightly easier to do so the next time. Over time, through repetition, we acquire the habit of truth-telling. This gives special significance to individual actions. The problem with telling a lie is not (as a utilitarian would say) the damage that it does, nor (as a Kantian would say) the fact that lying amounts to disrespecting someone, but rather that in telling a lie we are likely acting in a way that we do not think is worthy of imitation, and we are contributing to the process building ourselves into liars.

Virtue theory is especially relevant to business in that modern businesses put significant emphasis on mentorship and on leadership. It is relatively easy for senior business leaders to see that the significance of setting a good example for their followers.

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The Concise Encyclopedia of Business Ethics Copyright © 2023 by Chris MacDonald and Alexei Marcoux is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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