Virtue ethics

Virtue ethics is a contemporary approach in ethics which is unique in that it centers a person’s character in making moral judgements and eschews or minimizes the rules, consequences, or other agent-neutral acts. In this theory, the virtues of the person become the central point, and sound judgment is the consequence of following virtues.

Virtues are considered as excellences in character (Hursthouse, 2014), qualities in character (Woodruff, 2018), or character traits. A virtuous person (VP) possesses traits of courage, compassion, temperance, benevolence, truthfulness, among others.

It is humanly impossible for someone to be virtuous all the time – it is in our nature to lie, manipulate, and harm others; therefore a virtuous person is not necessarily a perfect person, but someone who aims not to intentionally hurt other people. A virtuous person will also distinguish themselves from the non-virtuous by taking action to correct any mistakes and/or redeem themselves in cases where they have acted in a way they perceive to be wrong.
Avoiding the perfectionistic notion
The concepts of virtue ethics could sound perfectionist in nature, and therefore unrealistic. To avoid any possible confusion, the notions of virtue ethics will be simplified to mean that a person who is virtuous is one who is disposed to virtuous behaviour, rather than one who (unrealistically) acts virtuous all the time.
Example of following a virtue
If a leader of a social network is disposed to honesty and kindness, they will, by the definition of these virtues, be disposed not to manipulate users or try to earn large amounts of money through unethical means such as privacy incursions or surreptitious profiling.

Right action and motive

Virtue ethics defines morality with reference to the character of the agent. What is right to do in a particular situation is what a virtuous character would do. Some of the popular premises of right action are as follows: 

“An action is right if and only if it is what a virtuous agent would characteristically do in the circumstances.”

“An action is right if and only if it is overall virtuous.”(Van Zyl, 2014, p. 118-119)

Instead of formulating rules, virtue ethics focuses on a person and defining right actions as those that would be performed by virtuous agents (Van Zyl, 2014). Therefore, an agent deciding in a situation would ask themselves: “Would a person with a virtue X perform this action if they would be in the situation I am in?” or “Can I say that this action is virtuous and it comes from an admirable inner state?” (Kawall, 2014)

If they do not find the answer to these (or similar) questions, they can reach out to a person they perceive as more virtuous than themselves and ask them what they would do.

It can sometimes happen that a person can appear to do the right act, but their intentions were self-serving. For example, a rich person can donate money to a charity, but they intend to improve their outer image (therefore, they let everyone know through social media they did that) and not actually support the charity. A person could appear as if they are doing a virtuous act, but that would be difficult to confirm because it seems they are manipulating others for their end, which is not in line with virtue. Contemporary virtue-ethicists therefore also include a person’s motivation as a driving force of an act. An agent has to perform a particular type of act for the right reasons, with the right attitude and emotions (Van Zyl, 2018). As Slote describes it: 

“An act is right (morally acceptable) if and only if it comes from good or virtuous motivation involving benevolence or caring (about the well-being of others) or at least doesn’t come from bad or inferior motivation involving malice or indifference to humanity.” (Slote, 2001, p. 38)

Hursthouse also illustrates the point: 

“What you do does not count as right unless it is what the virtuous agent would do, say, ‘tell the truth, after much painful thought, for the right reasons, feeling deep regret, having put in place all that can be done to support the person on the receiving end afterwards.’ Only if you get all of that right are you entitled to the satisfactory review of your own conduct, and we want the children, and the insensitive arrogant doctors, and ourselves to grant that simply making the right decision, and telling the truth just wasn’t good enough to merit approval.” 
(Hursthouse, 2006, p. 109)

Therefore, a well-motivated person does not act for ulterior motives, agendas or because someone told them to, but for the intrinsic good of the act, while their mistakes come from ignorance rather than malice (Aristotle et al., 2009).


In contemporary virtue ethics, virtues are described as dispositions to act in certain ways that are praised or admired. Modern virtue ethicists embrace honesty, courage, temperance, benevolence, kindness, generosity, and justice as their standard inventory for the promotion of virtue (Upton, 2014; Van Zyl, 2015).

Becoming virtuous is not simply a case of selecting certain virtues to follow, as if we were at a restaurant selecting dishes from a menu, but should be thought of as a disposition towards virtuous behavior (Woodruff, 2018). Virtue is thus a holistic expression and the different components that make it up connect organically to each other within people with virtuous dispositions. Once a person has a disposition to, e.g., honesty, they would inevitably have to face courage, kindness, and other virtues.

We will look in more detail at different virtues in the following section.
Honesty connects to ideas of truth and fidelity to promises as well as being forthright, i.e., not withholding information.  Acts like lying, cheating, deceiving, misleading, promise-breaking are not in line with this virtue (Miller, 2017). Honesty is also connected to humility, and the awareness of one’s own limits and self-acceptance (Comte-Sponville, 2013).
Having a sincere and transparent relationship with users and other agents.
An example from UXD
When users are consciously manipulated by UXD agents without their knowledge, then there is a lack of honesty.
Aristotle defined courage as a mean between rashness and cowardice (Aristotle et al., 2009). A person with an excess of bravado might do acts that harm themselves or others, while those who lack courage will be prone to passivity in life. Courage is also a process of overcoming fear (Putman, 1997); it is a disposition of a person to confront fear (as opposed to being fearless) with a tendency to master it and awareness of the incurred risk in relation to the desired outcomes (Comte-Sponville, 2013). Major fears that a person could have are fear of physical harm or death (physical harm connected not only to being harmed from outside but harming oneself - lifestyle behaviors like overeating), fear of losing ethical integrity or authenticity (if one does not act), fear of losing control, fear of going crazy or intense anxieties or fear of the low quality of life, among others (Putman, 1997).
Being prepared and willing to take a difficult path and avoiding temptations for personal gain that are not based on virtue.
An example from UXD
Clients who have a disposition towards courage (and also other virtues, like honesty) would stand behind the mistakes they made in the past (and were harming users, e.g., social networks selling private information), and apologize to their users.
Temperance is most often referred to the ability to have self-control over bodily and life pleasures, and the ability to manage or monitor one’s emotions, motivations, and behavior. Temperance refers to the ways we can be compassionate and forgiving of the mistakes of others and also the way we manage our own temptations and pleasures (such as drinking or sex) (Vainio, 2016).
Being willing and able to control and overcome various temptations, for example, easy money, social recognition, anxiety, fear, procrastination, quick judgement, superiority, exclusivity.
An example from UXD
The virtue of temperance could guide users to use them in moderation and avoid excessive usage of features that can be pleasurable but addictive (like scrolling through customized infinite content in the infinite scrolling function on a social media application).
Benevolence is described as the disposition to have a genuine, altruistic concern for others, i.e., to take pleasure in the well-being of others or having a general desire for the good of others (Blackburn, 2016; Hubbard et al., 2016). An agent with a benevolent disposition would have concern for others as an end in itself and not for their own benefit (Van Zyl, 2015).
Being well meaning and well intentioned in relationships with users and other agents.
An example from UXD
In UXD, benevolence could direct agents towards making artifacts that are beneficial for users, which would align with the general principle of UXD being a user-centred approach to design.
Kindness is an extension of benevolence and can be thought of as its expression (Wilson, 2016), with kind activity an expression of concern for others (Driver, 2001). Wilson also notes that kindness is closely related to modesty:

“To be modest is to be disposed to present your accomplishments/positive attributes in a way that is sensitive to the potential negative impact on the well-being of others, where this disposition stems from a concern for that well-being.” 
(Wilson, 2016, p. 78)

Willing to be compassionate (rather than judgemental) towards users, agents, and oneself.
An example from UXD
Adapting the pricing of an expensive artifact to different income classes (e.g., students, unemployed) could be an example of kindness manifested in UXD.
Generosity refers to our actions towards others that have value and are motivated by altruism. Generous acts may also be supererogatory when it comes to morals (Miller, 2018). Simply put, generosity comes from a desire to be considerate to others not a conscious realization of the act being generous (Driver, 2001).
Tendency for altruism, giving to others what one has in excess without using these acts for self-aggrandizement.
An example from UXD
An artifact originator could demonstrate the virtue of generosity by donating part of their earnings from a popular application for a good cause.
A person who has the disposition to be just is described as someone who develops and maintains justice between themselves and others (Woodruff, 2018), where justice usually refers to conformity to the law, equality or proportionality, or fairness (Comte-Sponville, 2013). Justice is not about learning rules and “blindly” following them (as, e.g., deontology prescribes), but about possessing the right desires and thus performing the right acts owing to one’s character (Aristotle et al., 2009). Acts that embody selfishness, tyranny,, overconfidence, bullying, and unequal distribution are expressions of failure of this virtue (Woodruff, 2018).
Having a tendency to be fair when collecting goods and distributing them and having a genuine respect for people.
An example from UXD
A sense of justice, alongside virtues such as courage, may prompt artifact creators to alter, adapt or even remove their product from the market if they realised it was causing harmful behaviour.
Other virtues - The virtues project
The above described virtues are the core virtues of contemporary virtue ethics, but the list of all possible virtues is very long. The virtue project is a website, where you can discover these virtues –over 600 of them, learn their meaning, and also download an app with virtues cards.
Check the Project

Why virtue ethics?

In contemporary normative ethics there are two other notable fields that were developed with the purpose to guide people; i.e. consequentialism and deontology. They rely either on calculating consequences or following rules, respectively. Consequentialism considers the good-of-the-outcome, i.e., the best outcome for most people (Shaw, 2014). Non-consequentialism (deontology) says that specific actions are wrong in themselves, not just because they have harmful consequences. Following this, rules that ought not to be broken emerge (Guyer, 2016). These are simplified notions of the fields, but you can read more detail about them in the section: Further Reading.

The main reason why I decided to avoid the other two approaches is because both of them do not necessarily tell the person why something is wrong, they only tell us that it is wrong. This may stimulate people to consider the reasons why certain actions are wrong, but not necessarily. On the other hand, virtue ethics is based on the character of a person and thus encourages reflection on actions.

Furthermore, virtue ethics might have a cumulative effect, as once people reflect on one action, they might learn to apply this to future situations. Thus character-based growth would not only improve the field of UXD ethics but perhaps many aspects of a person’s life. Once a person starts thinking more virtuously (e.g. gaining knowledge on how to improve oneself, aiming for compassion and humanity), this may encourage a benevolent tendency to others, in work and in life.

Virtue ethics does have many drawbacks, one of the main ones being that if we decide to use only this approach, and avoid rules and prohibitions, we would surely have people who will, without a bad conscience, treat others badly and, if there were no formal moral prohibitions, without consequences. Even so, I believe that if as a society we move from rule-based moral reasoning to character development, our general ability to be virtuous will grow. If a larger part of society would appreciate virtues over rules, we would be able to adapt the system we have and better address those people who deviate from virtues differently than we do now. I understand this is easier said than done and maybe also sounds utopian; however, I believe it to be a valuable approach.

Furthermore, solely relying on rules and judicial systems for the paradigm of ethics means that we may lose our ability to reason in matters of morality as well as be compassionate to each other.

I think it would be worth trying to direct moral reasoning to what makes us human, and perhaps during the journey, we will find solutions for things that we have up until now only seen as impossible.
An example from deontology
When one is presented with a rule, for example, ‘Do not lie’, this rule has to be followed no matter what. Following deontological principles, if lying is deemed to be immoral it can never be ok to lie, even if it would save a life.
An example from consequentialism
If someone decides that it’s okay to disrespect the privacy of one person for one benefit or even happiness of others, then consequentialist ethics would allow this, as the happiness of the majority would outweigh the privacy of the one.
Overview of reasons for not choosing consequentialism
Dismissing minorities
Following consequentialism, it is easy to dismiss minority opinion, which would not be favorable in the field of UXD (or, in my judgment, any other field). For example, in a case where a company is making a decision about whether to include potentially immoral content in their application, views that express discontent with the content may be ignored if they come from a minority of the group. This seems like an unreasonable way to make certain decisions.

Formulas vs. virtues
Overall, it’s my judgement that consequentialism can be helpful in certain situations, however examples such as the one above show that it is not always the best way to make decisions based on calculating consequences. Consequentialism, with its emphasis on procedure, can elide questions of why certain acts may or may not be virtuous.
Overview of reasons for not choosing deontology
Rigidness of the rules
Universal laws, in my opinion, create rigidness, as one rule is unlikely to apply to all situations in space and time. Ethics is a much more complex field and even statements such as do not kill may be challenged (for example in the case of euthanasia).

An ethics based on universal laws  or contracts necessitate a deeply layered field of rules, sub rules and clauses to attempt to deal with every possible ethical situation. Furthermore, rules on their own (such as a rule in the UXD field against violating a user’s privacy) do not necessarily tell us why the ethical proscription is right or wrong. Instead, I find it more valuable for ethics to focus on the way we think and the action that this generates. Those who have a generous or benevolent mindset will be more inclined to be generous or benevolent in the way they act in their daily and working lives.

I ought to act morally vs. I wish to act morally
Even though deontologists say that we have a duty to do good or are  constrained not to harm anyone (McNaughton & Rawling, 2014), these duties, in my mind, do not give us insight into the intention of the actor.  Kant describes the agent’s actions as moral if they are moved to act by the cognition: ‘I ought to act morally’ (Yost, 2017). Yet, in my view, to act because of a rule that you have internalised does not tell us anything about the reasons for acting morally. On the other hand, if a person chooses to act in a moral way because they want to, and for virtuous reasons then this is a much more sincere act and should be distinguished from acts that are done by compulsion to follow rules. The following quote from Confucius illustrates this idea of acting without truly thinking:.

“Imagine a person who can recite the several hundred Odes by heart but, when delegated a governmental task, is unable to carry it out, or when sent abroad as an envoy, is unable to engage in repartee. No matter how many Odes he might have memorized, of what use are they to him?”
(Confucius & Slingerland, 2003, p. 141).

Objectifying morals
Deontology, together with consequentialism, appear to objectify morals, making them disembodied and independent from our lived experiences and emotion. However, much research into  cognitive science has provided evidence against this old-fashioned view of a fully rational human following objectivistic rules (Slingerland, 2010).