Virtue-based ethics does not rely directly on ethical principles in its formulation.
In virtue ethics, the focus is on the role of character as the source of moral
action. Human character is shaped over time by a combination of natural
inclinations and the influence of such factors as family, culture, education, and
self-reflection. This means that some people will be more likely to choose
virtuous behavior than will others.
Virtue ethics traces its roots to the ancient Greeks whose original exploration of
morality did not focus on right and wrong, but rather the concepts of human
excellence and human thriving (Taylor, 2002). Generally, a moral act is one that
satisfies two requirements. First, the act must promote the good. Devettere
(2000) defines good in terms of seeking the good life, a life that allows us to
achieve a level of personal happiness and that also serves the communal best
interest. The second requirement for a moral act is that the action must be taken
with the intent to do good. In other words, it is not enough to do the right thing.
Virtuous behavior requires more than just meeting an obligation or performing a
duty. The person of virtuous character is one who displays the proper motive as
Virtues are character traits that predispose a person with good or virtuous
intentions to do the right thing when faced with a moral choice. Writers vary on
what they include on a list of moral virtues. Devettere (2000) emphasizes the
central virtues of temperance, courage, love, justice, and dignity. Other lists
might commonly include respect, honesty, sympathy, charity, kindness, loyalty,
and fairness. Munson (2004) also categorizes a set of practical virtues including
intelligence, patience, prudence, shrewdness, and proficiency. These virtues,
while not moral in and of themselves, can enhance virtuous behavior. For
example, intelligence and prudence can add depth and clarity to ethical
deliberation. Finally, Christian ethics proposes the theological virtues of faith,
hope and charity (Catholic Encyclopedia).
In the health care context, there is an expectation that caregivers and other
professionals act with integrity and virtue. As such, this theory appeals to our
intuitive belief that we can discern the difference between right and wrong action
based on our own moral character and good intentions as professionals. On the
other hand, a weakness of virtue ethics lies in the absence of guidance in
specific situations. Because virtuous character develops over time and in
response to both self-reflection and positive external influences, we may not
always be able to rely on our own incomplete base of experience and insight in
making a particular decision. To complicate matters further, not everyone may
agree on the basis of the good life to be sought through moral choices.
For more on virtue ethics see: