Virtue ethics is a moral theory primarily formulated by the Greek philosopher Aristotle, he explained virtue ethics in his book Nicomachean Ethics. This theory is often contrasted with the other two major moral theories, i.e., Dentology and Consequentialism; Dentology emphasizes following the moral rules and duties, and consequentialism focuses on judging anything as right or wrong on the basis of the outcomes. On contrary, to both these theories, virtue ethics does not provide any strict rules or laws that how a person should behave or act in a given situation, in fact, it focuses on the character of a person. It involves practising various virtuous qualities like courage, honesty, generosity, self-control, and compassion and developing into a virtuous person and living a moral life. Virtue ethics does not focus on What should I do? but rather it focuses on What sort of person should I be? According to Aristotle, if our answer to this question is that ‘I should be a virtuous person,’ we tend to behave in a virtuous manner, and eventually take the virtuous decisions and lead a moral life. The virtue ethics theory is majorly based on the idea that
If you are a good person, you will do good things, and to be good, you must do good things” (Pallock, 2007)
This basically means that one does not do good things by analysing the outcome of that thing, rather one does good things due to his/her character in his/her everyday life. The one who has demonstrated good character or behaviour throughout his life will automatically do the good act. This theory also emphasises that
An action is right if and only if a virtuous agent would perform in the circumstances.” (Oakley, 1996, p.129)
This means that the right thing to do in a given situation would be the one that a virtuous agent would do. Now, what is a virtuous agent? The virtuous agent is referred to the person who has the ‘virtues character traits’ and not ‘vices.’ Virtues character traits are the traits like kindness, compassion, honesty, and generosity, i.e., the positive traits, on the other hand, vices are the traits that are negatively valued in a person such as cruelty, dishonesty, and selfishness.
According to Simon Keller (2004),
We should not, according to virtue ethics, seek merely to act as the virtuous agents… we should seek to be virtuous agents”
According to Aristotle, a virtuous person tends to make the right decisions when he/she faces moral dilemma situations or ethical challenges. He proposed that virtue is not something that people both with like other qualities say good eyesight, hearing power; instead, it is obtained over time. The more the people attempt to practice the virtuous agents, the more virtuous they will become in life, i.e., people acquire virtue by practising virtuous qualities and they develop moral character. The following famous aphorism fits here,
Fake it until you make it”
Understanding Dentology, Consequentialism, and Virtue Ethics
The ethicists, William Irwin, Mark D, White and Robert Arp explained the three major moral philosophies, i.e., deontology, consequentialism, and virtue ethics through the example of the film ‘The Dark Knight,’ where the Batman had the chance to kill the Joker. In accordance with consequentialism (utilitarians), Batman should kill the Joker to save the lives of thousands of people, while in accordance with the deontology theory the batman should not kill the joker as it is morally wrong to kill. On contrary to both these theories, virtue ethics does not focus on what Batman should do. Instead, it focuses on the person’s character who kills the Joker. For example, in this case, this theory would highlight that Batman was not the kind of person who kill his enemies. Hence, the virtue ethics theory does not give a certain set of rules that one should follow to resolve the ethical dilemmas, rather it helps people understand the meaning of being virtuous.
Real-Life Examples of Virtue-Ethics
1. Virtue Ethics in Healthcare
The results of the various studies have shown the influence of virtue ethics in medical practice. Studies reveal that the improvement in the health of the patient is not only dependent on the medicines or drugs but it also largely depends upon the virtues of the person who gives the medical treatment. The moral virtues possessed by the medical professionals reveal a lot about their personality and their work ethics in the hospital. Nowadays, much more emphasis is given to inculcating the virtues in the medical professionals for the better and effective treatment of the patients. The patient finds it easy to build a sense of trust and faith in the caretaker or doctor, who possesses the virtues such as kindness, empathy, and fairness.
Let us discuss two cases to understand the role of virtue ethics in the medical profession. The following cases will make us understand that one can deal with the ethical problems that occur in the medical profession with the help of virtue ethics.
Case 1. The “standard” Jehovah’s Witness case
In this case, a competent patient refuses the doctor for the blood transfusion procedure, which is urgently needed to compensate for his massive amount of blood loss due to the blood vessel bleeding. The patent asks the doctors to do any treatment or surgery without any blood transfusion as this procedure is against the patient’s religious beliefs. The patient accepts the risk of death he has in the surgery without the blood transfusion technique, but he is not ready to change his decision.
Medical professionals are always taught to improve the condition of the patients. In addition to applying their own medical knowledge, they should also seek the preference of the patient, providing they are not breaking any medical moral ethics or codes. The doctors need to analyse the patient’s perspective of choosing any specific preference of operation. Medical professionals are bound by certain codes of medical practice and the oaths that emphasise saving the lives of people, these codes of conduct and oaths generally encouraged the medical professional to follow virtuous behaviour. Doctors are encouraged to understand the patient’s perspectives, and properly inform, and guide the patients to make the most appropriate decisions to deal with their injury or illness. The doctors may face challenges with patients that are not ready to listen to their advice, for example, refusing to take medication or treatment. This may adversely impact the health of the patient. The doctors have to deal with the patients by properly analysing the situation, and if their decisions may get wrong it may also lead to the death of the patient, which may cause a moral burden on the doctor.
The Patient’s Perspective
As mentioned above, the patient is considered competitive in making his life’s decisions, therefore he may also be competent in making the decisions of his spiritual beliefs. One should respect and understand the individual’s decisions that he/she has followed with his/her own free will without under any constraints. As in this case, the patient has to choose between his religious belief and his life, and he chooses to prioritize his religious beliefs. The patient is ready to take the risk of his life due to his religious beliefs, and he rejects the blood transfusion procedure.
The Doctor’s Perspective
The doctor needs to carefully analyse the situation and choose between his primary purpose of saving the patient’s life or understanding and respecting the patient’s religious belief. The doctor may feel that the patient has rejected her professional judgement, which may lead to frustration or anxiety that the patient may lose his life, and the patient’s family will have to experience the pain of a beloved relative’s death. The doctor needs to carefully assess the situation by utilizing virtuous ethics and asking the following questions.
- Is the doctor is motivated to use the blood transfusion procedure or is she really want to help the patient by using the blood transfusion to save the patient’s life?
- Is the patient himself beliefs in the particular religion and refusing the blood transfusion from his own free will or he is under the constraints from his family or religious groups of taking that decision?
After considering both these questions the doctor can then look at the following virtues that can help her make the best possible decision in the given situation.
In the medical profession, it is generally seen that the patients put their trust and faith in the person who is treating them, in fact, trust is something that builds the doctor-patient relationship. The patient tells his/her problems to the doctor in the hope of getting the best treatment and immediate recovery from their sufferings. The patient believes that the doctor will understand his/her views and treat them in an effective manner. As in this case, the patient disclosed his religious beliefs, he showed that his religious beliefs are so strong that he is ready to prioritize his beliefs even when his life is at the risk. It is usually advised to the medical professional to be trustworthy to the patients. In this case, it is very less likely that the patient will get ready to change his belief and agrees to the blood transfusion. If the doctor rejects to understand the patient’s belief and impose her medical treatment (blood transfusion) on the patient, this may break the trust that the patient has in the doctor, and chances are that the patient will never be able to trust any doctor in the future.
Compassion refers to the active concern for others by deeply understanding and feeling the pain and sufferings of others. This virtuous trait motivates the person to go even out of their way to guide or help the one that is suffering. If the doctor (in this case) possesses the compassion virtuous trait, she will look at the situation by placing herself in the patient’s place. She will understand that the patient is ready to put his life at risk due to his beliefs in his religion, this shows his courage. This may develop a sense of admiration in her towards the patient’s courage.
Discernment refers to the ability to judge right in any situation by considering the sensitivity of the situation. If the doctor possesses the discernment trait, she will look at the emotional aspect of the case, which enables her to understand that patient is emotionally connected with his religious belief as it is more important to the patient than his own life. Hence, a discerning doctor may conclude that even it might cost the patient’s life, she should respect what the patient wants, and should not impose the blood transfusion on the patient.
After considering all the virtuous traits such as compassion, trust, and discerning, the virtuous ethicist may conclude that the doctor should respect the patient’s decision in this case. However, as discussed earlier in this article, this is not a rule that must need to be followed because virtue ethics offers flexibility and encourage people to analyse each situation separately by considering every fact and ethical sensitivities involved in that situation, and then they should examine that what a virtuous person will do in the given situation. Virtue ethics allows people to find solutions to the complex ethical problems that might be difficult to find if the strict rule or regulations would have been followed. For example, if in this case it is found that the patient is rejecting the blood transfusion not because he strongly believes in his religion, rather under the influence of his family who is imposing those religious beliefs on him, then, the decisions as per the virtues ethics have been entirely different. The virtuous doctor may conclude that she should save the patient’s life through the blood transfusion procedure.
Case 2. Sale of Kidneys for Transplantation
People who are suffering from serious renal failure can be saved by kidney transplantation. Most of the kidneys are donated by relatives of the people who died, but their body organs can be used for transplantation. In some cases, kidneys are also donated by the living individuals generally the family or close relatives of the patient. The supply of the kidneys is very less, and most of the patients who are suffering from renal failure eventually die after waiting for the kidney donor for a long time. Due to this serious shortage of kidneys for transplantation, some people argue to permit the volunteer selling of the kidneys to meet the demand of kidney shortage, but these arguments raise the question that is it really ethical to permit the selling of kidneys? Let us try to understand this through the following points.
Spreading Awareness of Donating Kidneys
Most people are not aware of the fact that there is such a shortage of kidneys and they may not have considered the sufferings of the patient-facing renal failure. Hence, the people can be made aware of the need for cadaver donation by educating them through various awareness programmes. People will be willing to donate their kidneys after their death if they understand the suffering of the people suffering from the renal disorder. This is surely a better way of meeting the demand for kidneys for transplantation instead of enticing people to sell their kidneys for making a profit. It is a morally unethical way to meet the shortage of kidneys if people sell their kidneys to make a profit.
Some people argue that an individual has the right to choose that whether he wants to sell his/her kidneys or not, provided there would not be any bad consequences of that decision on the others. If we look at the situation from the perspective of virtue ethics by keeping side the rules, laws, and outcomes, it can be deduced that if the person is ready to sell the kidney on his/her own free will, then there is nothing wrong with it.
Understanding the Various Facts
One should look at the following question to analyse this case,
What is the situation of the person who wishes to sell his/her kidney?
To whom the person wants to sell the kidney?
Are proper tests are conducted to check the health of both the donor and the recipient before and after the transplantation?
How much the person is charging for selling the Kidney?
Why the donor is willing to sell the kidney?
Is the donor is psychologically stable and medically fit?
Is the donor is under any constraints for selling his/her kidney?
One must think that why would people risk their life by selling the irreplaceable part of their bodies. Life is precious for us and we all desire to live a long, healthy and happy life, hence one should take care of his/her body. However, there is a number of people available who choose an unhealthy lifestyle. They may wrongfully judge the situation and choose the short term benefit over the risk of poor health in long run. As in this case, the kidney donor, or we should say the kidney vendors, may think that the amount of money he/she is getting by selling his/her kidney is worth the risk of poor health in the longer run. Well, of course, it requires a lot of courage to make a decision like that, after all, health is important to every individual.
Why Do People Support Selling Kidneys?
There is a substantial risk on the life of the person after donating one of his/her kidneys. Let us try to understand the possible motivation of the individual behind selling his/her kidney.
- The person may have compassion for the recipient, but this is very less likely as there are very few chances that the donor and the recipient would ever meet each other if the selling process may be handled by a commercial enterprise, and it seems unrealistic that a person will be ready to sell his/her kidney just by helping a stranger facing the renal failure, and the financial benefits of the donor seem to be the more acceptable reason behind selling the kidney.
- The potential donor may be a compassionate person for his/her family, which forced him/her to risk his/her life for the benefit of his/her dependents through the money he/she earned by selling the kidney.
- The ones who get deeply affected by the pain of the people suffering from renal failure, or maybe have seen the death of a closed relative due to the unavailability of the body organ at the right time, may set up a commercial business that supplies the organs to help the people. Well, we should not assume that making a profit is the only motive here, as compassion or the helpful virtuous could also be the reason.
- One should however look at the other perspective also, for example, the one who is setting this type of business should analyse what type of donors the business will attract. Of course, the finally secure people will never come to offer their body organs and the only population this business will attract is the poor and organized people of the society. The major disadvantage of this type of proposal is that some companies that trade in the organs can take advantage of the people, who are in urgent need of the money. The people agree to risk their lives just for the sake of the money. In reality, the industries trading in the organs is the one’s that gets the most profit. These industries take advantage of the vulnerabilities of the people in the need of money. This situation arouses the feeling of pity towards the poor people and anger towards the industries who make profits from such kind of business. The vulnerabilities of the poor people make this type of business makes a profit.
Virtues that may guide to deal with this dilemma.
If a person is so poor that he can not afford the basic needs, and he has to sell his/her body part for money, this highly raises the concerns for justice. It is the right of every individual to achieve a minimal standard of living, this can only happen if society ensures that each individual is protected from injustice and exploitation.
A compassionate person would be deeply influenced by the pain of the patients suffering from the renal disorder, which makes him/her improve their condition. This makes the person approve the decision of selling the kidneys to meet the demand of shortage of kidneys for transplantation.
If we practice the discernment, it will make us understand the emotional aspects of both the groups, i.e., those who are suffering from renal disorder, and those who have to sell their kidneys to fulfil their basic needs.
After considering all the facts and the concerned motivations of the people that favour the sale of kidney, the virtue ethicist balances his/her compassion for both the groups and look for an alternative of selling the kidneys that serves justice to both the groups. It may be concluded that poor people should have basic living rights so that they should not have to sell their body organs, and the demand of the kidneys should be fulfilled by the rising awareness among the people about cadaverous donation rather than through the sale of kidneys.
2. Virtue Ethics at the Workplace
The way one deals with the various situations at the workplace tells a lot about the ethics of that person. The type of behaviour and ethics at the workplace can both make or break any company as moral values are very crucial for maintaining order and operating everything smoothly at the workplace. Different employees at the workplace consist of different types and levels of virtues. If a certain individual possesses a certain virtue, he/she will not only use it in his/her personal life but also at the workplace. Let us suppose a person named Jay is a philanthropist and he devotes most of his time and money to the one in need. This shows that Jay has the virtue character of compassion. When Jay is working at his workplace, he still has his virtue character of compassion. Due to this character, he helps his colleagues, and even never hesitate to go out of his way to make sure that particular project of the company gets done on time. This is what we called as virtue ethics. The one who holds certain traits of virtues will use them everywhere, whether it is personal life or professional life. Hence, the people who possess virtues that are needed at the workplace are always more reliable than those who don’t. Hiring managers should hire people who possess a high level of virtues as the employees are highly likely to display these virtues at the workplace. The person who possesses these traits can make them achieve much more at the workplace than those who don’t. Here, are some of the virtues that are important at the workplace.
If the employee possesses the virtuous traits of trustworthiness, the higher authorities and the co-workers can count on that person in case of any urgent tasks. The authorities can be assured that the person will give his/her best in accomplishing the given target. Possessing this trait makes one a highly valuable employee at the workplace.
The person who possesses this trait will always be ready to help his/her coworkers, and he/she respects and understands the opinions proposed by others without just opposing their point of view and gossiping all the time. These people who bear this virtuous trait makes the working environment a better place.
If you possess this trait, you consider yourself responsible for the mistake you made and don’t blame others for that. This assures your superiors that you can work efficiently as a team leader and can work impartially with the employees without falling for any biases. You will be provided with most of the responsible tasks of the company because of the responsible character that you have displayed at your workplace.
The virtue ethics at the workplace does not consider the work behaviour of an individual, in fact, it focuses on the character (virtues) of the individual. It emphasises the fact that a good person (the one who possess virtues) can be a good employee and a bad person (one who possess vices) can be a bad employee. But, this approach is not always favourable at the workplace. For example, virtues traits like compassion, honesty, trustworthiness possessed by the employees make the workplace a better place but like these virtues traits, some employees may also possess other virtue traits like ‘ambition.’ The employee with the high level of ambition virtue trait may tend to always look at the self benefits rather than helping the colleagues and looking at the betterment of the company. Moreover, employees with similar virtues may develop cliques that may create tension at the workplace.
3. Virtue Ethics in Dealing with the Social Dilemmas
The theory of virtue ethics can be used to deal with the moral dilemma questions. Suppose your best friend asked you to review a project she has been working on with full enthusiasm for the past few weeks. You find that the project has many shortcomings and is not well planned. Now, what would you do? Would you break your best friend’s heart by telling her that this project is bad and not gonna be successful, or Would make her happy by lying that this project is very good? Well, according to the ‘Golden Mean’ principle of virtue ethics, both these responses are extreme, i.e., vices. The first response is bitter and the second response is unfair and dishonest. You should follow the virtue, which lies in the middle of the vices (according to the golden mean principle). In this case, you can gently tell your best friend that the project is good but it has certain shortcomings that are needed to be removed before the execution.
4. Virtue Ethics in Business
The American philosophy professor, Rober C. Solomon, in his book named ‘A Better Way to Think about Business’ discussed the ways to handle the business and various conflicts that arise in the corporate sector by applying the approach and perspective of virtue ethics. He mentioned the various business virtues such as honesty, trust, fairness, toughness, and loyalty in his book.
According to Rober C. Solomon,
Honesty is the first virtue of business life”
Teamwork is one of the most important qualities that make the business accomplishes the targets or projects on time, hence effective (virtuous) team members are required in every business. According to LaFastro and Larson, the virtuous traits that an excellent team member should possess are supportive, open-minded, problem solver, and positive attitude. Business schools teach the learners to practice these traits to become effective or virtuous team members.
The goal of almost every business is to provide quality products and services to the customers that add value to their life. However, one should consider that the business idea should be ethical. Let us understand this with an example of an online dating app named ‘Ashley Madison’ this app promotes romantic affairs for married people or the people in a relationship. This app may be providing happiness to their clients, but it is unethical according to virtue ethics as the client is cheating his/her partner as he/she possesses the vices such as lust and dishonesty.