Modern Virtue Ethics

G.E.M. Anscombe and Virtue Ethics


  • Anscombe published a paper asking whether there can be any moral laws if there is no God, & what right & wrong mean without a lawgiver
  • She suggests the idea of eudaimonia, human flourishing, which does not depend on any God
  • Both utilitarianism and Kantian ethics do not depend on God, but both are act based, and ignore the person who acts
  • Anscombe also felt that such theories press to hard on the point of autonomy, ignoring the community aspect of morality 
  • Anscombe focuses on the motive of one’s act, stating that this is important in how they become virtuous
  • She assumes that humans want a moral life & this is the basis behind many acts
  • She uses the analogy of the shopping list to point out that the origin of ethics are relatively unimportant:
    • A man in a supermarket has the ingredients for a meal. Suppose he acts impulsively, grabbing whatever he wants & ignoring his list. He buys what he wants but when he gets home he cannot make the meal. It doesn’t matter who drew up the list as he ignored it, what mattered was the choices he made
  • Virtue ethics is concerned with whether or not people will use their rationality to make the right moral decisions

    + Addresses the problems of normative ethical theories; they either focus too much on the origin of ethics & not the ethical decision maker, or they are act based not agent based
    + Focus on motive & agent is strong, it is important to consider a person’s motives for acting & the results are due to their own decisions & use of rationality
    Alasdair MacIntyre argued that her assumption that people want to act morally is wrong. While virtues may be desirable, almost all people need a reason to be moral.
    – Following this, an aspect of consequentialism needs to be considered; outcome cannot be ignored, as it rarely is by the agent when making moral decisions

Alasdair MacIntyre and Virtue Ethics 


  • MacIntyre argues that normative ethical theories have only led to ethical conflicts, people regard there being no moral truths & one option is just as good as the next
  • Most people’s attitudes are based on emotivism, moral statements are neither true nor false but simply represent the feelings & attitudes of the speaker
  • People often speak and act as if emotivism were true, “boo to racism” becomes racism is wrong
  • MacIntyre wanted to restore ethics to the idea that true morality is working towards a person’s telos; in this case human flourishing
  • MacIntyre did not feel it would be possible to restore Aristotle’s idea on human function (that every human had a function & purpose in society to fill) & focused instead on the importance of community
  • It is the shared practises of a community which help to cultivate virtues
  • These virtues improve over time, from Aristotelian virtues to Christian ones
  • For MacIntyre, the most important virtues are “any virtues which sustain the households and communities in which men and women seek for good together
  • He argued against putting too much emphasis on reason and more on people, their characters & contexts of their lives
  • He also argued that an element of consequentialism is needed in virtue ethics in order to fully understand people’s motives in the first place, as many people act with the outcome of their action in mind

    + Rejects the individualism which can often damage communities
    + Focus on virtues which can benefit communities, acceptance of changing & developing virtues as a good thing
    + Balance of motive and outcome – it is important to consider both

Philippa Foot and Virtue Ethics 


  • Philippa Foot attempted to modernise Aristotle’s virtue ethics but while keeping his view of character & virtue
  • She recognised the importance of reasoning & practise of virtue & agreed that virtues benefit the individual by leading to flourishing
  • Foot argued that a virtue ceases to be a virtue when it is used to a bad end, for example, being courageous & murdering someone
    • This relates to the subjectivity of the virtues and the golden mean, while also linking in aspects of consequentialism
  • Virtues are only virtues if used effectively (using reason)
  • Developing on Foot’s ideas, one could therefore argue (again linking with Aristotle) that simply copying a virtuous person’s actions or learning a code – as many normative ethical theories advocate one does – one has to actually engage with the virtue
    • Part of being virtuous is fully understanding & evaluating what this means and applying it to real life situations
  • This highlights a strength of virtue ethics; unlike normative ethics it involves a real engagement with moral decisions rather than simply following a code

    + Clarifies what could be considered a weakness in Aristotle’s virtues & golden mean approach which is to only use virtues to good ends
    + Through this highlights the importance of consequentialism
    + Developed into the idea that to be virtuous requires one to use ones rationality & engage with morality fully
    – Lacking in terms of motive/act itself
    – More individualistic approach



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