Virtue ethics and care ethics

Virtue ethics and care ethics

Virtue and care ethics are two types of character ethics. Character ethics is a family of normative ethics. According to these theories, we should act the way someone with good moral character (e.g., kind and honest) would act. This can be contrasted with the consequentialist approach, that we should do what will make the world a better place, and the deontological approach, that following certain rules is the right thing to do. A deontologist might approach moral issues by asking: “What sort of rules apply?”, a consequentialist might ask: “What are the consequences of the actions available to me and which one will result in the best outcome?”, and a virtue ethicist would ask: “What would a kind/honest/benevolent/caring person do in these circumstances?”

Virtue ethics

Virtue ethics tells us to develop a sound, virtuous moral character. According to virtue ethicists, when we have a virtuous character, we will act correctly. This raises the questions: What is a virtue? And how can we know what a virtuous person would do in specific situations?

Virtue ethics is only one system of ethics, and some aspects of it are in conflict with other ethical views. In a traditional virtue ethics view, virtues are good qualities that are stable over time. These values include generosity, honesty, bravery, and kindness. The opposite of virtue is vice. If virtues are things that build our character, vices are those that worsen our character. Some of these vices are selfishness, cruelty, cowardice, dishonesty, and so on. According to Aristotle, who was the most influential virtue ethicist, virtues often appear at the midpoint between two opposing vices.1 Bravery, for example, is the midpoint between the vices of cowardice and recklessness. A cowardly person fails to face danger when required, and a reckless person ignores danger and takes foolish or pointless risks. A brave person faces up to danger for appropriate reasons and in appropriate circumstances.

Being virtuous requires a great deal of life experience and the practical wisdom to act reasonably in complicated situations. One cannot become virtuous simply by reading books on ethics; instead, one must develop virtue through lived experience and the skillful handling of morally complex situations.

Virtues must be deeply embedded in the agent’s character — one doesn’t become brave by performing a single brave action but by displaying a steady disposition to think, feel, and act bravely in situations that call for it. Virtues are developed over time, through habitual repetition, until they have become second nature.

Being virtuous requires not only doing the right things but doing them for the right reasons.2 So a person who is always honest solely because he fears being caught in a lie wouldn’t count as a virtuous person. Truly honest individuals are honest because they strongly believe that honesty is important, and those deep feelings will affect their behavior in multiple ways. They will be honest in their dealings with other people. They will also respect honesty in others, choose to associate with honest people, and stress the importance of honesty to others.3

It’s important to recognize that virtuous individuals don’t act mechanically or thoughtlessly; rather, they will be sensitive to all relevant aspects of a situation and will weigh them appropriately when deciding how to act. For example, a strict deontologist who follows the rule “don’t lie” will always tell the truth, even if it has bad consequences. A virtuous person will weigh the importance of honesty against other relevant features of the situation, such as the fact that a blunt statement might hurt someone’s feelings. Depending on the details of the situation, an honest person might tell the truth in a more tactful way to spare someone’s feelings or decline to express an opinion about the situation. If the consequences of telling the truth would be sufficiently bad, they might even lie.

Now that we have an understanding of what virtue ethics is, is it compatible with discrimination against nonhuman animals?4

Is virtue ethics compatible with discrimination against nonhuman animals?

Because of the way virtue ethics conceives of ethical thinking, it would be difficult to use it to justify discrimination against nonhuman animals. After all, any plausible virtue ethic will consider cruelty and indifference to the suffering of others to be vices. Likewise, it will consider compassion, kindness, and sensitivity to be important virtues. Virtue ethicists could argue that humans’ typical treatment of animals, such as animal exploitation, exhibits serious vices of character.5

We also appreciate people who exhibit virtues such as kindness and compassion in their treatment of animals, at least when it comes to companion animals. We generally think that people who rescue and care for sick or injured animals are good because they are kind. For example, we admire brave firefighters who risk injury or worse to save animals from burning buildings.

Nevertheless, some might think it’s possible to assume a virtue ethics approach that is compatible with discrimination against nonhuman animals. For example, if one takes the position that cows have a function to provide food, then killing them for food would not be wrong but killing them for fun would be. However, assigning the life of any sentient being a function that benefits us and not them is discriminatory. It can be seen as an abuse of the power imbalance between us and them. Such an attitude, which can be aptly described as abusive or insensitive, can hardly be considered virtuous.

When discussing ethics, one might argue that in a society where most people accept speciesism (discrimination against nonhuman animals), it is too difficult for someone to assume an antispeciesist viewpoint. However, virtue ethicists can reject this claim6 because we should act virtuously regardless of whether the context we are in is favorable or unfavorable to virtuous action.7 In fact, some virtue ethicists argue that behaving virtuously in situations where it is difficult is even more virtuous than doing so when the circumstances make it easier.

So what does it mean to be virtuous and what is its relation to our actions towards nonhuman animals? In virtue ethics, to be virtuous is to fulfill our potential to become full moral agents, and we can only fulfill that potential by letting others satisfy their own interests as well.8 This includes nonhuman animals. Moreover, because insensitivity is not considered virtuous, we could argue that the most virtuous action is not only to avoid doing harm, but actually doing good, and trying to help animals whenever possible. Therefore, we should avoid getting involved in animal exploitation and also help by supporting animal advocacy and helping animals in need.

Care ethics

Care ethics is the view that we should have a caring character, which includes helping others when they are in need and avoiding harming them. According to care ethicists, the basis for our ethical concerns should be our emotional responses to others with whom we have personal relationships, especially when they are vulnerable or highly dependent on us. In line with this, a special relationship with someone creates a greater responsibility to consider how an action affects that person.

Care ethics was originally developed by arguing that the dominant ethical theories in the western tradition (rights-based and utilitarian theories) are based on moral responses more typical of men and boys than those of women and girls.9 These dominant theories are universalist approaches in which a system of ethics should be impartial; according to rights-based and utilitarian approaches we should not favor the interests or needs of any individuals over any others. For example, if a dog we don’t know is in pain, we should value alleviating their pain just as much as we would value alleviating the pain of a dog we love. In the view of some care ethicists, such a response would not give enough importance to our emotional responses to those with whom we have relationships. In contrast to universalist ethics, care ethics emphasizes the moral importance of our relationships with others, our emotional responses to them, our mutual dependency, and our natural motivation to care for those who are particularly vulnerable and dependent.10
Because care ethics prescribes attentiveness to others’ needs, it is particularly well suited to support helping animals in need. So while a care ethicist might prioritize the needs of a dog they love more than the needs of a dog they don’t know, they would not disregard the needs of the other dog, or of anyone they don’t have a relationship with.

Can excluding nonhuman animals be a part of care ethics?

Nevertheless, some might argue that care ethics could provide a basis for an anthropocentric (human-centered) viewpoint that excludes all nonhuman animals or gives less importance to all their interests. The alleged reason for this would be that, because we usually have stronger relationships with humans in general, even those we do not know, than we do with other animals, we should prioritize the interests of all humans and pay less attention to the interests of all nonhuman animals.11 However, there are care ethicists who argue that we cannot be considered caring agents if we don’t care about the interests of beings who we know are suffering. Being a caring agent would entail having a caring response to that suffering. Therefore, we should be concerned about the interests of all who can feel suffering and wellbeing. Accordingly, some care ethicists have addressed not only duties towards nonhuman animals we are related to but also towards others we are not related to, including exploited animals and animals living in the wild.12 This means care ethics can provide the basis for both veganism and helping wild animals to prevent their suffering due to natural causes.

If we cared only about the people with whom we have strong relationships, we would care about very few individuals. We would not care about the overwhelming majority of humans since we have no relationships with them. Many people have a close relationship with some nonhuman animals. Suppose that one has a life-long bond with a dog and is completely indifferent to the suffering of starving children across the globe. If we were to make relationships the only basis of caring, then we would have to accept the neglecting most humans as ethical and accept that some nonhuman animals deserve more consideration than many humans. An alternative is to reject the relevance of relationships to moral consideration, even if this means rejecting part of what care ethicists defend.

To solve this problem, it’s also possible to combine some aspects of care ethics with a more universalizing ethic that recognizes the equal moral consideration of all sentient beings, regardless of whether we have a particularly close relationship with them. For example, one proponent of this approach13 describes four central ethical qualities of care:

1. Attentiveness to the needs of others. This is crucial because we cannot adequately care for others unless we make an effort to become aware of their needs. Attentiveness is especially important with animals who, unlike most humans, cannot communicate their needs to us verbally.

2. Responsibility. We cannot care for others unless we take it upon ourselves to be responsible for their wellbeing. Note that “responsibility” isn’t the same as “obligation” as understood by universalist ethics. Obligation refers to situations where certain treatment is owed to someone, as in a legal contract. Responsibility is a more fluid notion. One can take the responsibility to care for someone even with no moral or legal duty to do so. Even if one believes that humans have no duties to help wild animals, nothing prevents us from taking responsibility for their suffering and entering into a caring relationship with them.

3. Competence. It’s not enough to recognize that someone needs help and take on the responsibility of helping them – one must also be, or become, competent to do so. This is important in helping nonhuman animals because they are so different from us. This is especially true when we consider intervening in natural ecosystems to help animals – taking on this responsibility would be useless, or even dangerous, unless we make ourselves competent to intervene safely.

4. Responsiveness. The carer must be responsive to what the dependent, cared-for being is trying to communicate. This responsiveness must be ongoing throughout the whole of the caring relationship, or else one risks accidentally harming the being in one’s care. This is especially important when caring for nonhuman animals, whose means of communication are so different from ours.

Even if we don’t accept care ethics completely, we can still use some of its insights to help us do the best we can for other animals. The care ethics approach is at odds with any practice that disregards the suffering of other beings, including one that inflicts such suffering on others, as in animal exploitation, and one that remains indifferent toward it, as in lack of concern for wild animal suffering. Instead, care ethics should encourage us to join the defense of animals as an act of care.

Further readings

Aaltola, E. (2018) Varieties of empathy: Moral psychology and animal ethics, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Abbate, C. (2014) “Virtues and animals: A minimally decent ethic for practical living in a non-ideal world”, Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 27, pp. 909-929.

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.

Alvaro, C. (2017) “Ethical veganism, virtue, and greatness of the soul”, Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 30, pp. 765-781.

Animal Ethics (2020) Introduction to wild animal suffering: A guide to the issues, Oakland: Animal Ethics [accessed on 26 July 2021].

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.

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.

Knutsson, S. & Munthe, C. (2017) “A virtue of precaution regarding the moral status of animals with uncertain sentience”, Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 30, pp. 213-224.

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.

Raak, G. A. van (2020) The human, the cat, and the burning house: The moral status of animals in virtue ethics, master’s thesis, Utrecht: Utrecht University.

Rollin, B. E. (2017) A new basis for animal ethics: Telos and common sense, Columbia: University of Missouri Press.

Rowlands, M. (2009 [1998]) Animal rights: Moral theory and practice, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

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.

Sparrow, R. (2021) Virtue and vice in our relationships with robots: Is there an asymmetry and how might it be explained?. International Journal of Social Robotics, 13, pp. 23-29.

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.

Westerlaken, M. (2020) “What is the opposite of speciesism? On relational care ethics and illustrating multi-species-isms”, International Journal of Sociology & Social Policy, 41, pp. 522-540.

Williams, B. (1985) Ethics and the limits of philosophy, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.


1 Aristotle (2021 [ca. 330 BC]) Nicomachean ethics, New York: Standard Ebooks [accessed on 12 August 2021]

2 Hursthouse, R. (2001) On virtue ethics, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

3 Ibid.

4 Hursthouse, R. & Pettigrove, G. (2016 [2003]) “Virtue ethics”, in Zalta, E. N. (ed.) The Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy, Winter 2018 ed., Dec 8 [accessed on 26 January 2021]

5 Hursthouse, R. (2000) Ethics, humans, and other animals: An introduction with readings, New York: Routledge.

6 Hursthouse, R. (2011) “Virtue ethics and the treatment of animals”, in Beauchamp, T. L. & Frey, R. G. (eds.) The Oxford handbook of animal ethics, New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 119-143.

7 Dombrowski, D. A. (1984) The philosophy of vegetarianism, Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

8 Nobis, N. (2002) “Vegetarianism and virtue: Does consequentialism demand too little?”, Social Theory and Practice, 28, pp. 135-156.

9 Clark, S. R. L. (1984 [1977]) The moral status of animals, 2nd ed., Oxford: Clarendon Press. Rollin, B. (2006 [1981]) Animal rights & human morality, 3rd ed., New York: Prometheus. Hursthouse, R. (2000) Ethics, humans, and other animals: An introduction with readings, New York: Routledge. Gilligan, C. (1982) In a different voice: Psychological theory and women’s development, Cambridge Harvard University Press. See also Nussbaum, M. C. (2006) Frontiers of justice: Disability, nationality, species membership, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

10 Sander-Staudt, M. (2011) “Care ethics”, Internet encyclopedia of philosophy [accessed on 2 February 2021]. Noddings, N. (1984) Caring: A feminine approach to ethics and moral education, Berkeley: University of California Press.

11 Donovan, J. (2006) “Feminism and the treatment of animals: From care to dialogue”, Signs, 31, pp. 305-329.

12 Clement, G. (2003) “The ethic of care and the problem of wild animals”, Between the Species, 13 (3) [accessed on 6 January 2013].

13 Tronto, J. C. (2005) “An ethic of care”, in Cudd, A. E. & Andreasan, R. O. (eds.) Feminist theory: A philosophical anthology, Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 251-263.