Virtue ethics goes back to the time of Aristotle and in contrast to other ethical theories is agent rather than act centred. This means that instead of focusing on whether an action is good it focuses on how we can better ourselves as people. It looks at how we become “excellent”; a fact which is not surprising considering it gets its name from the Greek word Arï¿½te meaning excellence. It can be applied to many ethical issues including that of sexual ethics which deals with issues arising from all aspects of sexuality and sexual behaviour. However, sometimes virtue ethics might not be the best approach and this essay aims to discuss the theory in relation to sexual ethics whilst also considering other theories such as Kantian ethics and utilitarianism which might be more appropriate.
Firstly, virtue ethics in response to sexual ethics does not give a choice of action from alternatives as it is only focuses on the person making the decision. Therefore it doesn’t seem to give us any guidance on how to respond to issues which might for us appear to go against a particular sexual norm. For some this might seem like a good approach to sexual ethics because it allows us free will and doesn’t force us to be tied to an ethical theory to make our decisions for us. However, for others it can be seen as a bad approach to sexual ethics because it doesn’t provide guidelines as to how we should act, which implies we can act in any way we want, even if it a bad way. In this respect it would be a weak approach to sexual ethics and one where Aquinas’ natural law might be better as it tells us exactly what is wrong such as “acts with a person of the same sex”. With regards to sexual ethics in his primary precepts “reproduction” is one and this promotes the fact that we shouldn’t do some things which are already considered negative such as prostitution. This is a better approach as unlike virtue ethics it gives us guidelines as to what we should do if we are to be considered as good people in relation to this topic.
Virtue ethics then seems to imply that an action is right if it is what a virtuous person who exercises the virtues would characteristically do in a situation. This links with Aristotle’s ideas where we learn how to become virtuous through practice in life. As we become better we learn how to balance out what we do evenly between the vices of deficiency and excess. Therefore in relation to sexual ethics it would say we learn through example as life goes on how to be more virtuous and do the right thing. For some this might seem like a good approach because it shows us how the whole of our lives can have an impact on our futures and also how learning is a slow process.
Both of these things fit in with our life experiences. On the other hand this might seem like a bad approach as it suggests that if we learn as we grow up what is most virtuous then our virtues are culturally relative. Therefore, as a consequence some things which some learn as wrong such as child molesting might be considered as acceptable by others. Therefore in this scenario Kantian Ethics might be a better approach, especially the categorical imperative. This says we shouldn’t commit an action unless we want it to be universalised so that everyone does it. It is clear that we don’t want such things like child molesting to be universalised as it would have dangerous consequences in the future. Therefore, it should be taught universally that child molesting isn’t right so people won’t grow up thinking someone virtuous does such a thing and follows their example.
Michael Slote, a virtue ethicist took a different approach and emphasised the importance of care in a relationship. He suggests there are three things we should balance: caring for those near us, caring for people in general, and caring for our own well-being. This can be good as it allows us to balance justice in treating others as we want to be treated with fidelity with regards to our relationship with others. However, in some ways this might be too restrictive and it can be difficult for people to balance these things whilst having a good quality of life. Therefore, utilitarianism might be better. In an ideal world utilitarianism wants the greatest number of people to be happy which in itself would promote the idea of justice in a relationship. However, they would say that if being just in a relationship just to save your partner is impeding you from enjoying your life it is fair to be honest with them as long as you have tried for as long as you can to keep things normal.
In conclusion after having considered the view point of virtue ethics and looked at other theories it is fair to say that virtue ethics is of little use when dealing with sexual ethics. This is because unlike other theories it doesn’t tell people what they should do. This is its main draw back as if it doesn’t advise people then we are still not any the wise after looking at the theory of how to act appropriately. Finally, people also say it is weak as they leave it at the choice of the person to decide what will make them more virtuous. This is unhelpful because some things which many consider wrong might for them be right if in their eyes it will help them become more virtuous. If everyone did what they wanted to in this respect there could be harmful consequences for society as a whole.