Teaching & Learning Guide for: Contemporary Virtue Ethics



This guide accompanies the following article: Karen Stohr. ‘Contemporary Virtue Ethics’, Philosophy Compass 1/1 (January 2006): 22–7, doi: 10.1111/j.1747-9991.2006.00004.x

Author’s Introduction

Virtue ethics is now well established as a substantive, independent normative theory. It was not always so. The revival of virtue ethics was initially spurred by influential criticisms of other normative theories, especially those made by Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, John McDowell, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Bernard Williams.1 Because of this heritage, virtue ethics is often associated with anti-theory movements in ethics and more recently, moral particularism. There are, however, quite a few different approaches to ethics that can reasonably claim to be versions of virtue ethics. The predominant strand of virtue ethics is broadly Aristotelian, although some accounts bear little resemblance to Aristotle’s. In its most general form, virtue ethics is compatible with a wide range of meta-ethical and normative commitments. This diversity makes it difficult to compare virtue ethics as such with other normative theories. It can also be a challenge to see just what the various versions of virtue ethics have in common with each other.

Three major types of virtue ethics are represented in the books by Rosalind Hursthouse, Michael Slote, and Christine Swanton, recommended in the following section. Each of these book sets forward a considerably self-standing form of virtue ethics. The authors differ on central issues such as the relationship between virtue and flourishing and the link between virtuous agents and right or virtuous actions. Unlike Swanton and Slote, Hursthouse defends a version of ethical naturalism that has affinities with theories recently defended by Philippa Foot and Alasdair MacIntyre.2 Slote’s theory is agent-based, meaning that his account derives judgments about the moral status of actions from moral features of agents. Hursthouse and Swanton defend theories according to which the moral status of an action depends on its broader relationship to human flourishing (Hursthouse) or whether it hits the target of a virtue (Swanton).

Although these three books presently form the core of contemporary virtue ethics, there are other approaches that might reasonably be described as versions of virtue ethics, such as those presented by Julia Driver, Linda Zagzebski, and Robert Adams.3 There are also, of course, a large number of articles in which authors defend or criticize tenets that are central to most versions of virtue ethics. Some recent articles on especially important topics are listed in the following section.

Current ‘hot topics’ in virtue ethics include whether its account of right action is adequate and whether virtue ethics is at odds with empirical psychology. Articles on these debates and others are listed in the following section.

Author Recommends:


These three books are foundational works in contemporary virtue ethics, and represent quite different approaches to virtue ethics. For each book, I have also listed an article by the same author in which he or she articulates some similar themes. Those pressed for time or space on a syllabus might start by examining those articles.

 1. Hursthouse, Rosalind. On Virtue Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Hursthouse defends a eudaimonistic version of virtue ethics with Aristotelian affinities.

 *See also Hursthouse, Rosalind. ‘Normative Virtue Ethics.’How Should One Live? Ed. Roger Crisp. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996. 19–36.

 2. Slote, Michael. Morals from Motives. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Slote defends a version of virtue ethics based on evaluations of motives, drawing on historical figures like Martineau, Hutcheson, and Hume. Note that this book represents a fairly significant departure from his first book in virtue ethics, From Morality to Virtue (New York: Oxford, 1992).

 *See also Slote, Michael. ‘Agent-Based Virtue Ethics.’Virtue Ethics. Ed. Roger Crisp and Michael Slote. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

 3. Swanton, Christine. Virtue Ethics: A Pluralistic View. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Swanton defends a pluralistic, non-eudaimonistic version of virtue ethics that draws on influences ranging from Aristotle to Nietzsche to contemporary psychoanalytic theory.

 *See also Swanton, Christine. ‘A Virtue Ethical Account of Right Action.’Ethics 112 (2001): 32–52.


The following is a selection of articles that address some of the central and controversial topics within virtue ethics.

 1. Annas, Julia. ‘Being Virtuous and Doing the Right Thing.’Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 78.2 (2004): 61–75. This article addresses the problem of action guidance and the role that an account of right action should play in virtue ethics.

 2. Conly, Sarah. ‘Flourishing and the Failure of the Ethics of Virtue.’Midwest Studies in Philosophy Vol. XIII, Ethical Theory: Character and Virtue. Eds. P. French et al. South

Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988. 83–96. This article articulates the central problems faced by versions of virtue ethics that rely on a conception of human flourishing.

 3. Das, Ramon. ‘Virtue Ethics and Right Action.’Australasian Journal of Philosophy 81 (2003): 324–39. This article raises objections about insularity and circularity to accounts of right action presented by Hursthouse, Slote, and Swanton.

 4. Doris, John M. ‘Persons, Situations, and Virtue Ethics.’Nous 32 (1998): 504–30. This article argues that situationist psychology undermines the concept of a character trait on which virtue ethicists rely. An expanded version of this criticism can be found in Doris, Lack of Character, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

 5. Hursthouse, Rosalind. ‘Virtue Theory and Abortion.’Philosophy and Public Affairs 20.3 (1991): 223–46. This article argues that virtue ethics is capable of providing action guidance in the difficult problem of abortion.

 6. Johnson, Robert N. ‘Virtue and Right.’Ethics 113 (2003): 810–34. This article raises several objections against the accounts of right action in virtue ethics, one of which is that they cannot make sense of the rightness of self-improving actions. The criticism is directly primarily at Hursthouse’s theory, but Swanton and Slote are discussed as well.

 7. Kamtekar, Rachana. ‘Situationism and Virtue Ethics on the Content of Our Character.’Ethics 114 (2004): 458–91. This article argues that situationist critiques of virtue ethics rely on a mistaken understanding of virtuous character.

 8. Kawall, Jason. ‘Virtue Theory and Ideal Observers.’Philosophical Studies 109 (2002): 197– 222. This article argues for an ideal observer-style account of right action in virtue ethics.

 9. Nussbaum, Martha. ‘Non-Relative Virtues: An Aristotelian Approach.’Midwest Studies in Philosophy, Vol. XIII, Ethical Theory: Character and Virtue. Ed. P. French et al. South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988. 32–53. This article presents a view of the virtues on which the virtues are excellences in spheres of activity. Although the spheres are common to all humans, the manifestation of excellence in a given sphere is subject to cultural variation.

10. Sreenivasan, Gopal. ‘Errors about Errors: Virtue Theory and Trait Attribution.’Mind 111 (2002): 47–68. This article addresses the situationist critique of character traits by arguing that virtue ethics does not depend on the concept of a character trait as Doris and others understand it.

11. Stangl, Rebecca. ‘A Dilemma for Particularist Virtue Ethics.’Philosophical Quarterly 58 (2008): 665–78. This article addresses the relationship between virtue ethics and radical moral particularism, arguing that the latter may have undesirable consequences for virtue ethicists unless they accept the unity of the virtues.

12. Stohr, Karen. ‘Contemporary Virtue Ethics.’Philosophy Compass 1.1 (January 2006): 22–7. This article provides an overview and analysis of contemporary virtue ethics. It includes discussion of main problems and challenges for the future.

13. Stohr, Karen. ‘Moral Cacophony: When Continence is a Virtue.’Journal of Ethics 7 (2003): 339–63. This article raises problems for the commonly accepted distinction between virtue and continence, arguing that the mixed emotions normally associated with continence are sometimes characteristic of virtue instead.

14. van Zyl, Liezl. ‘Agent-Based Virtue Ethics and the Problem of Action Guidance.’Journal of Moral Philosophy 6 (2009): 50–69. This article defends agent-based virtue ethics against objections that it cannot distinguish agent-appraisal from act-appraisal and that it cannot provide adequate action guidance.


1. Crisp, Roger, ed. How Should One Live? Essays on the Virtues. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996. This is one of the first virtue ethics anthologies published, and so reflects a correspondingly earlier picture of the field. The essays, however, are important and interesting in their own right, and cover a broad array of topics.

2. Crisp, Roger and Michael Slote, eds. Virtue Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. This anthology was published over a decade ago and does not capture recent developments in the field. It is, however, an admirably thorough collection of the most influential essays from the early days of virtue ethics, both promoting and criticizing it.

3. Darwall, Stephen, ed. Virtue Ethics. Oxford: Blackwell, 2003. This anthology is distinctive in that it includes material from Aristotle, Hutcheson, and Hume, along with some central contemporary sources.

4. Walker, Rebecca L. and Philip J. Ivanhoe, eds. Working Virtue. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. This recent anthology focuses on applied virtue ethics and has an excellent selection of essays by influential thinkers on topics including the environment, business, medicine, war, and poverty.

Online Sources

‘Virtue Ethics’, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.


Entry written by Rosalind Hursthouse and updated in 2007.

‘Bibliography on Virtue Ethics’, maintained by Jörg Schroth.


Extensive list of work published in virtue ethics. Updated regularly, listed in both alphabetical and chronological order, and contains abstracts of papers.

‘Janusblog’, maintained by Guy Axtell.


Blog devoted to current work in virtue ethics and virtue epistemology, although with an emphasis on the latter. It contains spirited discussion among the many contributors, as well as a library of papers.

Sample Syllabus

This syllabus is for a graduate seminar or intense upper-level undergraduate course. Books for purchase for this course might include the Crisp and Slote anthology, the Walker and Ivanhoe anthology, and Hursthouse’s On Virtue Ethics.

Week 1: The Roots of Contemporary Virtue Ethics

Anscombe, Elizabeth. ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’ (Crisp and Slote)

Foot, Philippa. ‘Virtues and Vices’ (Crisp and Slote)

MacIntyre, Alasdair. ‘The Nature of the Virtues’ (Crisp and Slote)

Week 2: The Roots of Contemporary Virtue Ethics

Stocker, Michael. ‘The Schizophrenia of Modern Ethical Theories’ (Crisp and Slote)

Williams, Bernard. ‘Morality, the Peculiar Institution’ (Crisp and Slote)

McDowell, John. ‘Virtue and Reason’ (Crisp and Slote)

Week 3: Aristotelian Virtue Ethics

Hursthouse, Rosalind. On Virtue Ethics, Part I

Hursthouse, Rosalind. ‘Practical Wisdom: A Mundane Account.’Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 106.3 (2006): 283–307.

Stangl, Rebecca. ‘A Dilemma for Particularist Virtue Ethics’

Week 4: Aristotelian Virtue Ethics

Hursthouse, Rosalind. On Virtue Ethics, Part II

Stark, Susan. ‘Virtue and Emotion.’Nous 33.5 (2001): 440–55.

Stohr, Karen. ‘Moral Cacophony: When Continence is a Virtue’

Week 5: Aristotelian Virtue Ethics

Hursthouse, Rosalind. On Virtue Ethics, Part III

Conly, Sarah. ‘Flourishing and the Failure of an Ethics of Virtue’

Nussbaum, Martha. ‘Non-Relative Virtues: An Aristotelian Approach’

MacIntyre, Alasdair. Dependent Rational Animals, chapter 10

Week 6: Agent-Based Virtue Ethics

Slote, Michael ‘Agent-Based Virtue Ethics’ (Crisp and Slote)

Slote, Michael, Morals from Motives, chapters 1 and 3

Week 7: Pluralistic Virtue Ethics

Swanton, Christine. Virtue Ethics: A Pluralistic View, chapters 3, 4, and 11.

Week 8: The Situationist Critique of Virtue Ethics

Doris, John. ‘Persons, Situations, and Virtue Ethics’

Kamtekar, Rachana. ‘Situationism and Virtue Ethics on the Content of Our Character’

Sreenivasan, Gopal. ‘Errors about Errors: Virtue Theory and Trait Attribution’

Merritt, Maria. ‘Aristotelian Virtue and the Interpersonal Aspect of Ethical Character.’Journal of Moral Philosophy 6 (2009): 23–49.

Week 11: Right Action – Problems

Johnson, Robert. ‘Virtue and Right’

Das, Ramon. ‘Virtue Ethics and Right Action’

Week 12: Right Action – Virtue Ethics Solutions

Annas, Julia. ‘Being Virtuous and Doing the Right Thing’

van Zyl, Liezl. ‘Agent-Based Virtue Ethics and the Problem of Action Guidance’

Kawall, Jason. ‘Virtue Theory and Ideal Observers’

Week 13: Virtue Ethics and Professional Roles

Pelligrino, Edmund. ‘Professing Medicine, Virtue Based Ethics, and the Retrieval of Professionalism’ (Walker and Ivanhoe)

Swanton, Christine. ‘Virtue Ethics, Role Ethics, and Business Ethics’ (Walker and Ivanhoe)

Sherman, Nancy. ‘Virtue and a Warrier’s Anger’ (Walker and Ivanhoe)

Week 14: Virtue Ethics and the Non-Human World

Hursthouse, Rosalind. ‘Environmental Virtue Ethics’ (Walker and Ivanhoe)

Walker, Rebecca. ‘The Good Life for Non-Human Animals: What Virtue Requires of Humans’ (Walker and Ivanhoe)

Focus Questions

  • 1 What is the relationship between virtue and flourishing? Are the virtues necessary for flourishing? Sufficient?
  • 2 Can virtue ethics provide an adequate account of right action?
  • 3 On what concept of a character trait does virtue ethics rely, and does situationist psychology undermine it?
  • 4 Is the project of ethical naturalism a plausible one? To what extent does the success of Aristotelian virtue ethics depend on it?
  • 5 How does virtue ethics affect the way that applied ethics is done?