The virtue ethics approach in moral philosophy defends the view that when deciding how to live, we should consider not what would make the world a better place or what norms we should obey, but rather what kind of moral agents we want to be. Virtue ethics focuses on moral character. It defends the notion that ethics is about the kind of person we are, more than about what we do.
Due to this, virtue ethics, unlike other perspectives in ethics, doesn’t give us guidance regarding what to do. It doesn’t tell us that we should increase happiness in the world, or defend equality, or avoid murdering. Rather, it simply tells us to develop a sound, moral character. According to virtue ethicists, when we have a virtuous character, we will act correctly.
Because of the way virtue ethics conceives of ethical thinking, it is difficult to see how one could defend a speciesist viewpoint in line with it. Nevertheless, some may think that it would be possible to assume a virtue ethics approach that is in line with speciesism. In considering this, we must first note that in our relationship with nonhuman animals, we are already in an advantageous position. We have more power than they do. This power relation may drive us to benefit from a situation in which animals are harmed, or to simply be indifferent to the harm they suffer, whether caused by ourselves, by others, or as a consequence of natural occurrences. However, such attitudes, which can be aptly described as abusive or insensitive, can hardly be considered features that would identify someone as having a virtuous character.
When discussing ethics, it may be argued that because most people accept speciesism, it is very hard to assume an antispeciesist viewpoint. However, those who defend a virtue ethics approach can reject this claim, as Daniel Dombrowski1 and Nathan Nobis2 have done, because acting virtuously is something we should do regardless of whether the context we are in is favorable or disfavorable towards virtuous action.
Some virtue ethicists have claimed that to be virtuous is to fulfill our potential to become full moral agents. But we can only fulfill such potential by letting others satisfy their own interests as well, as theorists such as Stephen Clark,3 Bernard Rollin,4 Rosalind Hursthouse,5 and Martha Nussbaum6 have claimed. Since sentient beings are harmed when they cannot satisfy their own best interests, the virtue ethics approach would imply respecting the interests that others have. Moreover, because insensitivity is not considered virtuous, we could also claim that the most virtuous action would not be just to do no harm, but actually to do good, and to try to help animals whenever possible.
Care ethicists claim that the basis for our ethical concerns should be our emotional responses to them. In line with this, they defend that special relationships generate special moral duties, something that other theories (basically, those that defend impartial concerns in ethics) reject.
It may be thought that because of this, care ethics could provide a basis for an anthropocentric viewpoint that excluded nonhuman animals. The alleged reason for this would be that, because we usually have stronger relationships with humans, we should give priority to their interests and pay less attention to the interests of nonhuman animals.7 This argument has been rejected by those who have defended the consideration of nonhuman animals from a care ethics viewpoint, such as Josephine Donovan and Carol J. Adams.8 Donovan has argued that we cannot be considered caring agents if we fail to care for the interests of beings whom we know are suffering.9 Being a caring agent would entail having a caring response to that suffering. Therefore, we should be concerned with the interests of all those who can feel suffering and wellbeing. Accordingly, some care ethicists have actually addressed not only the duties we may have towards those nonhuman animals we are related to, but also towards others whom we are not related to, such as animals living in the wild.10
If we only had to care for the people with whom we have strong relationships, we would care for very few individuals. We would not care for the overwhelming majority of humanity since we have no relationships with them. In fact, many people have a close relationship with some nonhuman animals. If we were to make relationships the basis of caring, then we would have to accept the neglect of the majority of humanity as ethical, and that some nonhuman animals deserve more consideration than many humans. An alternative to this is, of course, to reject the relevance of relationships to the assignation of moral consideration, even though this means rejecting part of what care ethicists defend.
Adams, C. J. & Donovan, J. (eds.) (1999) Animals & women: Feminist theoretical explorations, Durham: Duke University Press.
Adams, R. M. (2006) A theory of virtue, New York: Oxford University Press.
Annas, J. (1993) The morality of happiness, New York: Oxford University Press.
Annas, J. (2011) Intelligent virtue, New York: Oxford University Press.
Anscombe, G. E. M. (1958) “Modern moral philosophy”, Philosophy, 33, pp. 1-19.
Crisp, R. (ed.) (1996) How should one live?, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Crisp, R. & Slote, M. (eds.) (1997) Virtue ethics, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Dent, N. J. H. (1984) The moral psychology of the virtues, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Donovan, J. & Adams, C. J. (eds.) (2000) Beyond animal rights: A feminist caring ethic for the treatment of animals, London: Continuum.
Gardiner, S. (ed.) (2005) Virtue ethics, old and new, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Gilligan, C. (1982) In a different voice: Psychological theory and women’s development, Cambridge Harvard University Press.
Held, V. (2006) The ethics of care: Personal, political, and global, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hudson, S. (1986) Human character and morality, Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Hursthouse, R. (2001) On virtue ethics, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kuhse, H. (1997) Caring: Nurses, women and ethics, Oxford: Blackwell.
MacIntyre, A. (1985) After virtue, 2nd ed., London: Duckworth.
MacIntyre, A. (1999) Dependent rational animals, Chicago: Open Court.
Panagiotarakou, E. (2016) “Who loves mosquitoes? Care ethics, theory of obligation and endangered species”, Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 29, pp. 1057-1070.
Pettigrove, G. (2011) “Is virtue ethics self-effacing?”, Journal of Ethics, 15, pp. 191-207.
Puka, B. (1991) “Interpretive experiments: Probing the care-justice debate in moral development”, Human Development, 34, pp. 61-80.
Sandler, R. (2007) Character and environment: A virtue-oriented approach to environmental ethics, New York: Columbia University Press.
Slote, M. (2001) Morals from motives, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Statman, D. (ed.) (1997) Virtue ethics: A critical reader, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Swanton, C. (2003) Virtue ethics: A pluralistic view, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Williams, B. (1985) Ethics and the limits of philosophy, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
1 Dombrowski, D. A. (1984) Vegetarianism: The philosophy behind the ethical diet, London: Thorsons.
2 Nobis, N. (2002) “Vegetarianism and virtue: Does consequentialism demand too little?”, Social Theory and Practice, 28, pp. 135-156.
3 Clark, S. R. L. (1984 ) The moral status of animals, 2nd ed., Oxford: Clarendon Press.
4 Rollin, B. (2006 ) Animal rights & human morality, 3rd ed., New York: Prometheus.
5 Hursthouse, R. (2000) Ethics, humans, and other animals: An introduction with readings, New York: Routledge.
6 Nussbaum, M. C. (2006) Frontiers of justice: Disability, nationality, species membership, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
7 Noddings, N. (1984) Caring: A feminine approach to ethics and moral education, Berkeley: University of California Press.
8 Adams, C. J. & Donovan, J. (eds.) (2007) The feminist care tradition in animal ethics: A reader, New York: Columbia University Press.
9 Donovan, J. (2006) “Feminism and the treatment of animals: From care to dialogue”, Signs, 31, pp. 305-329.