In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Virtues and Character Strengths

  • Introduction
  • General Overview
  • Eudaimonia
  • Virtue and Psychology
  • Positive Psychology
  • Critiques of Positive Psychology
  • The Situationist Critique of Virtues
  • Survey Research on Virtues
  • Experience Sampling and Experimental Studies of Virtues
  • Practical Wisdom
  • Virtues Applied in Psychology
  • Neuroscience, Honesty, and Dishonesty
  • Neuroscience and Criminality
  • Neuroscience and the Virtues of Prosocial Behavior
  • Theory, Neuroscience, and Virtue

Psychology Virtues and Character Strengths
Blaine J. Fowers, Jason S. Carroll, Nathan D. Leonhardt
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 November 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0227


Scholars are now debating the question of whether positive ethical traits such as virtues contribute significantly to individual, relational, and community well-being. Researchers are testing these claims, and a research domain focusing on virtues has emerged. Although there are over one hundred extant studies of virtue, this research is scattered, and the topic of virtue has not been fully accepted by social scientists generally, partly due to unresolved theoretical and methods challenges, and partly to a general suspicion about studying morally positive features of humans. In addition, some scholars have lodged principled objections to the scientific study of virtue. There is evidence that virtues are empirically tractable and related to other variables and outcomes that are theoretically relevant. This entry surveys a sampling of extant theory and research which suggests that a science of virtue is possible. Studies have focused on many different virtues and used a wide variety of research paradigms, including survey, intensive longitudinal, informant-based, experimental, and neuroscientific methods.

General Overview

There are many virtue traditions throughout the world, including warrior societies like the Lakota (Sioux) and Homeric Greeks, Eastern traditions such as the Buddhist and Confucian views, and more recent Christian, Jewish, and Victorian versions. Each of these traditions offers a valued and interesting perspective on virtue. The most widely cited sources of virtue theory among contemporary Western scholars are classical Greek philosophers, such as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, and the Epicureans, with Aristotle as the most prominent source in contemporary scholarship. Among Aristotle’s many works (see Aristotle 1984), the central book on ethics is the Nicomachean Ethics. Since Aristotle’s time, the Nicomachean Ethics has been in and out of favor, but its influence has persisted for over 2,300 years. It was famously synthesized into Catholic thought by Aquinas 2012. A renaissance of interest in virtue in moral philosophy took place in the latter half of the 20th century, led by Anscombe 1958 and MacIntyre 1981. Virtue ethics became an alternative to the dominant moral philosophies of utilitarianism and Kantian ethics. Philosophers from these three groups and moral skeptics continue to debate the merits of virtue ethics. The term virtue derives from the Latin virtu, which means, roughly, “good manly qualities.” The Greek word was arête, which can also be translated either as “virtue” or as “excellence.” Broadie 1991 clarifies that “an excellence or virtue . . . is nothing but a characteristic which makes the difference between functioning and functioning well” (p. 37, italics in original). Ostwald 1999 comments similarly that “the somewhat straight-laced and prudish connotations which ‘virtue’ often has in English are totally absent from the Greek. The word denotes a functional excellence . . . which will make a man [sic] fulfill his function as a man properly and well” (p. xxii). Most scholars treat virtue and character as synonymous, referring to an individual’s overall degree of moral excellence, as in “Janet is a virtuous person” or “Bill has good character.” One can also refer to specific virtues, such as courage, justice, and generosity. In this usage, a virtue is typically synonymous with a character strength. This synonymous usage will appear throughout this bibliography. Pakaluk 2005 offers a very accessible and well-articulated introduction to Aristotle’s ethics, and Rorty 1980 is a set of excellent essays by experts that delve into specific topics regarding virtues.

  • Anscombe, G. E. M. 1958. Modern moral philosophy. Philosophy 33:1–19.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0031819100037943

    In this groundbreaking article, the author argues that modern moral philosophy has gone astray and should be reformulated along Aristotelian lines. The primary obstacles to this reformulation are an insistence on moral imperatives as definitional for ethics and the lack of an adequate moral psychology in philosophy at that time.

  • Aquinas, T. 2012. Summa theologiae. 8 vols. Lander, WY: Aquinas Institute for the Study of Sacred Doctrine.

    An extremely influential and classic text meant as an instructional guide to theology students in which Aquinas integrated Aristotle’s ethics and the Catholic faith. He argues for three theological virtues (faith, hope, and charity) and four cardinal virtues (prudence, courage, temperance, and justice).

  • Aristotle. 1984. The complete works of Aristotle. Vol. 2. Edited by J. Barnes. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    The second volume of Aristotle’s complete works, containing the Metaphysics, Nicomachean Ethics, Magna Moralia, Eudemian Ethics, Politics, Rhetoric, and other works.

  • Aristotle. 1999. Nicomachean ethics. Translated by Martin Ostwald. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

    Virtue ethics in Western culture began with Aristotle, and the Nicomachean Ethics is his definitive, but not sole, work on ethics. This is a less widely used translation of the Ethics that does not have the Kantian gloss characteristic of the more widely used translation by Ross.

  • Broadie, S. 1991. Ethics with Aristotle. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Broadie provides a thorough, thoughtful, and insightful commentary on the Nicomachean Ethics. She is sympathetic to Aristotle, but tries to maintain a generally neutral stance in explicating his thought and its difficulties. Her book offers an excellent companion to an in-depth study of the Ethics.

  • MacIntyre, A. C. 1981. After virtue: A study in moral theory. Notre Dame, IN: Univ. of Notre Dame Press.

    In this landmark book, MacIntyre argues that modern ethics is a fragmented remainder from Christian moral law following the Enlightenment. He claims that the “Enlightenment Project” was to reformulate morality without reference to divinity, and that this project has failed. His remedy is a revival of virtue ethics situated within moral traditions.

  • Ostwald, M. 1999. Translators note. In Nicomachean ethics. By Aristotle. Translated by Martin Ostwald, xi–xxiv. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

    An excellent brief introduction to the Nicomachean Ethics.

  • Pakaluk, M. 2005. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics: An introduction. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511802041

    A very readable introduction to the Nicomachean Ethics.

  • Rorty, A. O. ed. 1980. Essays on Aristotle’s ethics. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    This collection of essays is first rate, although the quality of the chapters is uneven (as with all edited books). Each chapter focuses on a particular aspect of virtue and pursues that topic exclusively rather than providing a general overview to virtue. The chapters by Nagel, Ackrill, Burnyeat, Kosman, Wiggins, and Cooper are particularly useful.

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