Review of the Journal article: “Four solutions to the alleged incompleteness of virtue ethics”

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Review of the Journal article:

“Four solutions to the alleged incompleteness of virtue ethics”


1.        Background of the topic


A virtue is a deep quality of a person, closely identified with her selfhood, whereas natural faculties are only the raw materials for the self, in the Aristotelian perspective, virtues are potentialities, they are qualities that deserve praise for their presence while blame for their absence (Zagzebski 1996, p.104). According to Eric J. Silverman (2010, p.12) using a traditional Neo-Aristotelian way moral virtue is construed as human excellence that consists of excellent, desirable, ethically valuable human character dispositions to actualize the innate human potential for excellence. Because of the benefits of virtue, it is generally desirable by people. The opposite of virtue is vice which refers to a wrong relationship, an indisposition, a disorder which leads to irrational behaviour, violations of our nature and insubordination (Boyde 2000, p.150). Virtue Ethics is a classification within Normative Ethics that attempts to discover and classify what might be deemed of moral character, and to apply the moral character as a base for one’s choices and actions.” The general content behind Virtue Ethics is that it focuses on what the individual should select for his or her own personal inward behavior (character) rather than the individual relying solely on the external laws and customs of the person’s culture, and if a person’s character is good then so ought the person’s choices and actions will be good ( 2010). Some of the traits of character that are usually considered as virtues are listed below:

Benevolence Loyalty Moderation Dependability
Tolerance Courage Justice Self confidence
Honesty Reliability fairness Self control
Reasonableness Temperance Compassion Cooperativeness

Table 1 Partial list of the virtue traits

Source: Rachels 1996


Incompleteness of virtue ethics is a long disputable problem in the virtue theory which suggests that the virtue ethics as an approach of theory is not self complete and it could only act as part of n comprehensive theory of ethics. Based on the claims of Rachels (1996), a purely virtue-based morality theory would at all times be incomplete due to it can only by itself rationalize why particular characteristics and personalities are morally good. For example, when someone decides that the virtue of Justice refers the ideal status that everyone should have decent food, shelter and job but another considers that it is the requirement of the nature of justice that people would get what they have contributed to the society which means that benefits someone receives should vary based on individual contributions, provided that both two persons could be compassionate and just the virtue theory could not resolve this disagreement because it would not rely on the moral rules to decide what should be right while others are wrong. In this study, we will review the Journal article: “Four solutions to the alleged incompleteness of virtue ethics” written by Sean Mcaleer and try to increase our knowledge regarding the topic of the incompleteness of virtue ethics theory.


1.1    Objective of report


1.1.1            Perform a comprehensive review of the journal “Four solutions to the alleged incompleteness of virtue ethics”


1.1.2            To check to what extend and in which way the viewpoints expressed in the journal are in consistency or contradiction with the existing ethics theories


1.1.3            To learn new perspective and knowledge from the journal


1.1.4            To critically discuss the journal with reference to the practical working experience


2.        Summary of the literature

The article, “Four solutions to the alleged incompleteness of virtue ethics” written by Sean McAleer, begins with the introduction of the long existing arguments that are in the moral philosophy which is about whether the virtue ethics should be rejected or not, before referring to the charges on virtue ethics he mentioned a so call “standard mode of argument” which could help determinate whether an ethical theory should be rejected or not and it says like this: an ethical theory or any theory should be rejected when it counts as right what is intuitively wrong and vice versa. Then he referred to the view of point expressed by Robert Johnson (2003) in “Virtue and Right” that though many people may agree that a virtuous person would perform morally right actions, the claim that right actions are those of a virtuous person is so far from being an uninteresting truism as to be utterly false. Sean McAleer did not agree with this viewpoint and express his own point of view that he agreed with the view that virtue ethics is incomplete but there are solutions to perfect the virtue ethics rather than giving it up.


After brief introduction, Sean McAleer started to review studies and findings regarding the incompleteness of virtue ethics. First of all, he revisited one of the most important concept in the virtue ethics which is the “virtuous agent”, who is the arbiter of rightness, namely he or she who has fine sensibilities, situational appreciation, practical wisdom (which involves fine emotions) and character in a traditional view of virtue ethics (Swanton 2003, p.251). He went on to explain that because a virtuous agent is an ideal concept while most of us are not comprehensively virtuous, instead we are sub virtuous rather fully virtuous, we are engaging in doing things that a virtuous agent would not do to improve ourselves in order to perform a better agent in virtue ethics (for example, a virtuous agent would not list out the lies that should not be told by ourselves which we could probably do to remind ourselves not to do so), this makes virtue ethics incomplete because we, as sub virtuous agents could not obtain requirements and guidelines of our duty from virtue ethics which is based on a virtuous agent concept. Second, he reviewed the charge of incompleteness in the historical virtue ethics with the example of Aristotle’s attitude in “shame”. The charge is like this: Aristotle’s view is that shame is conditionally good in term of if one were to do the disgraceful behaviors, he or she would feel disgrace, but because by definition a fully virtuous agent would not do any to be ashamed of, there is no way an Aristotelian virtue ethics accept the concept of “virtuous agent” based on the so called rightness of a sub virtuous person’s behaviors of feeling shame.
In the following part of the journal, Sean McAleer reviewed generally Valerie Tiberius’s solution to deal with Robert Johnson (2003)’s charge of incompleteness of virtue ethics. Valerie Tiberius’s solution was to replace Virtuous Agent with a criterion of right action based on the virtuous persons’ reasons for action instead of what they do in various situations. This means that the sub virtuous persons could share the reasons with the virtuous persons on certain topic (e.g. cheating) while their behaviors could vary. Sean McAleer gave an example that a virtuous agent would not lie with the reason to achieve good communication and treating with people with respect. The habitual liar who is a sub virtuous agent could still lie to people though he or she is trying to reduce the frequency of telling lies by sharing the same reason with the virtuous agent. Though Sean McAleer complimented that this solution provide a very good perspective to deal with the charge of incompleteness of virtue ethics, he can only partially agree with the solution because sharing the same reasons could not necessarily lead to desirable outcome in virtue ethics. He used the example of the TV program Dexter in which character and the sister have the same commitment to justice but one chases justice by keeping eliminating crime while the other resorts to killings. To explain this, Sean McAleer attributed this undesirable outcome to the negligence of how the reasons for action are specified which is in accordance with Kant’s view that the more coarsely grained a maxim is, the more likely the reason would cause falsehoods.

Based on the conclusion that Valerie Tiberius’s solution is not perfect enough, Sean McAleer provided four solutions to the alleged incompleteness of virtue ethics as the major content of the study. The first given solution is the “Vicious Agent” method. Instead of looking at how a virtuous person should be and should do (which is discussed a lot but still can not yield strong consensus view), the solution defines a vicious agent who is engaging in the wrong conducts. Sean McAleer review Aristotle’s claim of the “second best” mode of moral development which chooses the least of the evils as the base of his solution using the “Vicious Agent” concept. To make this solution more comprehensive, he stated a two step solution: in the first step people would choose the second best option to become less vicious and in the next step they would target at avoiding doing what the partly or less vicious agent would choose to do. Sean McAleer defended this solution as not incomplete because it encourages people to seek a progressive advancement which is in accordance with virtue ethics requirement to achieve human excellence.

The second solution is the countererogatory solution which according to Sean McAleer comes part from Julia Driver’s work on suberogatory actions (permissible but bad to do). One important concept in this solution is the so called countererogatory actions which are wrong actions but good to do.  Examples of countererogatory actions include a smoker’s reducing the number of cigarettes that smoked everyday and a person’s recommendation to ask his friend to replace the mobile phone with a toy to be destroyed at his friend’s wish. Sean McAleer commented that rightness and goodness could be separate and they are not necessarily bundled together. Still the rationalization of the countererogatory actions by Sean McAleer is to promote goodness though they are still behaviors that are bad to do. The countererogatory solution makes the virtue ethics more complete because it give people reasons to engage in bad behaviors to act good.

The third solution is the Mengzian solution which promote the righteousness (yi) which is defined by Sean McAleer as a disposition to identify what are required to be done in a particular situations with flexibility allowed. He promoted the righteousness as kind of virtue of situational appropriateness which recognizes the rationality of countererogatory actions and choosing the least of the evils by sub virtuous persons should be encouraged because of they are actually the demonstration of a kind of virtue of righteousness. And to better regulate the behaviors of appropriateness it is important not only to take into consideration of the external factors but also the the person’s moral nature or the way the individual is heading along which is the Chinese concept of “dao” (road, direction, destiny).  The “dao” is important because it helps avoid the happening of the situation that one cuts the number of cigarettes consumed every day from 100 to 10 but keep smoking 10 per day because it is the requirement of the “dao” to totally cut the smoking while the virtue righteousness allow the progressive improvement by gradually cutting the numbers. What is more the “dao” should not be changed in situations in which less moral persons are involved though improvements should also be encouraged. Mengzian solution is not incomplete virtue ethics due to it encourages the sub virtuous people to react appropriately and rightly as part of the self-improving efforts.

The last solution proposed by Sean McAleer is the “Virute Promotion” which is derived from Christine Swanton’s understanding of the virtues as ways of responding to value. The concept of profiles of virtues which includes four types of primary responses (respect, promotion, expression and appreciation) was introduced to help better understand the different responds (in different degrees) between different values. Then he continued to differentiate the four responds by explaining the different implications that these responds have indicating one’s different possible responds to some moral issues. When one respects a certain value, he or she tends not to act against the value; when one promote such value he or she behaviors in such a way that the value could be expanded and increased; When one acts from the value and make it as the motive rather than the target of the behaviors, the value is expressed externally. By stating these three out of the four responds to value, the study proposes the fourth solution which is “Virute Promotion”. The virtue promotion method expand the coverage of virtue ethics by covering the not only those who express the virtue but those behaviors that promote virtue. And because virtue promotion also performs initiative of self-advancement and human excellence oriented, it would not be incomplete.


3.        Analysis


3.1    Compared with the existing theories

The second solution provided by Sean McAleer is the encouragement of countererogatory actions which are wrong actions but good to do. One of the example talked about is the a person’s recommendation to ask his friend to replace the mobile phone with a toy to be destroyed at his friend’s wish, this countererogatory action is actually take into account some of the utilitarianism considerations with contradictions to the nature of virtue ethics. The nature of virtue states that a moral virtue which is defined by Velasquez (1998) as a (moral) virtue is an acquired disposition that is valued as part of the character of a morally good human being exhibited in the person’s habitual behaviour, and one would always engage in the ethical behaviors with the virtues as the root driving forces irrespective of what are the rules there and how the outcome or impacts of the behaviors could be. In another word, get back to the example, according to the definition of moral virtue, assume that a morally good human would never destroy something that is useful (both the hand phone and the toy), then acquired character as a driving force would not allow the morally good person to destroy the hand phone or the toy in any case. Apart from being far away from the definition of moral virtue, the second solution provided by Sean McAleer is the encouragement of countererogatory actions is more close to a utilitarianism view which is a kind of consequentialism. Proponents of utilitarianism appraise an action based on an analysis of its consequences (Kirch 2008, p.1436). According to the principle of utilitarianism, Utilitarianism forces us to think in stakeholder terms: What would produce the greatest good in our decision, considering stakeholders such as owner, employees, customers and others (Carroll & Buchholtz 2009, p.228). Let’s return to the case of countererogatory action involving a person’s recommendation to ask his friend to replace the mobile phone with a toy to be destroyed at his friend’s wish, when Sean McAleer mentioned that such countererogatory actions is permissible because they are not necessarily good according to the dispositions of a morally good character but they generates better outcomes, the action to replace a mobile phone with a toy car generates utility because a mobile phone usually has more utility and value than a toy car. But the traditional virtue ethics requires that a person should never engage in such behaviors and still doing a less vicious one would not be rationalized.

As proposed by Allen W. Wood (2008 p.145) that Aristotle describes as an enduring, unchanging state acquired through practice and habituation which means that virtues are acquired through repetition which refers to acting anew each moment from out of the corresponding decision rather bringing into play of a stable ability. This way of cultivating virtues through repetition is agreed by Sean McAleer’s study, rather than focusing on what we must do ultimately to meet the requirements of the “virtuous agent” he is actually more emphasizing on how people action and deal with the ethical problems daily. For example, when one heavily smoker smoke 2 packs a day (this smoker example has been used widely by Sean McAleer in this journal), while we disregard the dispute about whether smoking is right or not and assume that it is an unethical behavior against virtue, such repetition is considered as how people repeat a very negative and wrong habit and what Sean McAleer’s four solutions to the virtue ethics incompleteness focus is to improve such habituation through an improving repetition circle. Let’s get back to the example of heavy smoker, Sean McAleer’s encourage the smoker to reduce from two packs a day to one pack a day because it involves a better repetition which he considers as a base for final elimination of the wrong behaviors.


3.2    New information and critical analysis of the article


3.2.1            Introduction of the utilitarianism considerations in virtue ethics

Totally speaking, I strongly agree with Sean McAleer’s view on the incompleteness of virtue ethics and his four solutions to the charge. First of all, the introduction of the considerations in virtue ethics using a utilitarianism view as proposed in the four solutions largely expands the coverage of theory and make the virtue ethics more applicable than it is in a traditional way. When we focus on demand everyone with the virtue ethics requirements which are highly demanding in term of ethical standard, we will find that many more mobile phones would be destroyed (rather than the toy cars) but still the majority people are acting in repetition the wrong behaviors. The high standard and absoluteness of the requirements make the theory less viable and applicable as a reference when people encounter ethical problems and challenges.

3.2.2            View of progressing, staged and gradual improvements

Secondly, the view of progressing, staged and gradual improvements expressed by Sean McAleer is very helpful in explaining some theoretical and practical confusions and offer viable solutions to the practical issues. Before I have any working experiences, as a student I had always been very ideal and quite demanding on myself in term of being a very ethical person that would never engage in any well known unethical and wrong behaviors, but after I had been working for a period of time, I had found out some wrong assumptions and knowledge that I previously had on how to act as a person with high ethical standard. In the actual working environment, some unethical behaviors such as taking bribes could be very well established and could be a tradition, part of the culture and even routine job to be adhered and performed. What is more, the pressure from the group behavior of the existing people and organizational culture could be very powerful that if we act in contradiction with these standards and traditions from the very beginning without preparedness could force one into the selection between abiding (to the existing rules and traditions which could be wrong and unethical) or leaving (the environment). And the view of progressing, staged and gradual improvements expressed by Sean McAleer is very helpful because it takes into the practical viability of the theory and lowers the virtue ethics standards and requirements based on different situations.

3.2.3            Concept of virtue promotion

Third, the last solution proposed by Sean McAleer is the “Virute Promotion” actually rationalizes the appropriateness of all the four solutions to the virtue incompleteness. By differentiating the concept between virtue expression (one acts from the value and make it as the motive rather than the target of the behaviors, the value is expressed externally) and virtue promotion (value would be expanded and increased), Sean McAleer claimed that by promoting the values which could eventually help foster some virtues should be allowed and encouraged because it brings self-improvements to the people who could not immediately become a virtue agent.


3.2.4            Critical discussion of the journal

In term of the criticism of the journal, with the permission to a progressing and staged advancement, two problems could appear: the first problem is that can we say an improvement is always good despite how little it could be? The solutions provide by Sean McAleer did not provide enough of instructions on how to measure and evaluate an improvement; another problem is that because the progress of a particular person in issues such as trying to give up smoking is a gradual process, how long can we allow for such improvement to evolve into a final desired virtue? Though Sean McAleer did mention about that it is the willingness of the person that is important and drive the person in the right direction, he did not mention whether an average standard could be adopted. My recommendation is that we can use an average performance as a standard to demand the persons to a better job while at the same time encouraging them to improve.


4.        Conclusion

Based on my working and daily life experience I have found out that these solutions to deal with the virtue ethics incompleteness. And particularly the Mengzian solution of ethics is in consistence with the business practices and it is of great help by emphasizing the concept of situational righteousness and “dao” in dealing with ethical problems helps identify what options we could have, which one to be adopted and what is the future direction of the decision that we make. Such assistance and guidance could be in three ways in a practical business condition. Firstly, we should have high moral requirement which we aim to achieved, the setting of which should based on one’s nature of virtue; secondly, while we have moral targets to hit we still need to take into external or situational factors that restrict the viability of the best practice which we should understand, and improvement efforts in the right direction to act good should be encouraged though these behaviors could be wrong based on the traditional virtue ethics perspective; thirdly, though we sometimes tolerate second best actions and decisions, but our tolerance or encouragement is based on the request that the person will promote virtue and make self improvement.



  1. i.                    Appendices 1 (selected journal).  Four solutions to the alleged incompleteness of virtue ethics



  1. ii.                  Reference

    Boyde, P. 2000, Human Vices and Human Worth in Dante’s Comedy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p.150

    Carroll, A. B. & Buchholtz, A. K. 2009, Business and Society: Ethics and Stakeholder Management. Mason, OH: South-Western Cengage Learning. p.228 2010. Virtue Ethics. Updated April 19, 2010. [online]:

    Johnson, R. N. 2003. Virtue and rights, Ethics, 113, no. 4 (2003)

    Kirch, W. 2008, Encyclopedia of Public Health.  New York: Springer Science and Business Media, LLC. p.1436

    Mcaleer, S. 2010, Four solutions to the alleged incompleteness of virtue ethics. Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy. Vol. 4, No.3 August 2010.

Popkin, R. H. & Stroll, A. 1993, Philosophy Made Simple. Oxford: Elsevier
Rachels, J. 1996, Should we return to the ethics of virtue? Moral philasophy. August 1996

Silverman, E. J. 2010, The prudence of love: how possessing the virtue of love benefits the lover. Plymouth: Lexington Books, subsidiary of Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. p.12

Swanton, C. 2003, Virtue ethics: a pluralistic view. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p.251

Velasquez, M. G. 2006, Business ethics: Concepts and cases. 7th edition, Boston: Pearson. p.78
Velasquez, M. G. 1998, Business ethics. Concepts and Cases, fourth edition, Upper Saddle River NJ: Prentice Hall.

Wilkens, S. 2011, Beyond Bumper Sticker Ethics: An Introduction to Theories of Right and Wrong. Downers Grove: Green Press Initiative.
Wood, A. W. 2008 Kantian ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p.145
Zagzebski, L. T. 1996, Virtues of the mind: an inquiry into the nature of virtue and the ethical foundations of knowledge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p.104


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