Virtue ethics goes back to the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. According to virtue theory, ethics is primarily about agents, not actions. Being good is thus seen as primarily a matter of character rather than of deeds.

The first task for the virtue theorist is that of providing an account of the virtues. In general terms, virtues are character traits, dispositions to act in certain ways, that it is good to possess. They are to be contrasted with vices, character traits that it is bad to possess.

On Aristotle’s account, virtues always fall between two extremes, vices of excess and deficiency. The virtue courage thus falls between foolhardiness (a vice of excess) and cowardice (a vice of deficiency).

There are several traditional lists of virtues, such as that of the cardinal virtues, telling us how it is good for us to be. According to Aristotle, the way to acquire these virtues is through habituation, practice.

Virtue theory has a number of strengths that give it an advantage over other approaches to ethics. In particular, it does not rely on any concept of a divine law, and does not reduce ethics to action.

It is also, however, subject to several objections.