For all its advantages, there are some drawbacks to virtue theory. These are some of the problems that its advocates face:

The Relativity of Virtue

An initial difficulty for virtue theory is that of identifying the virtues. If there is an objective list of virtues, then it is difficult to overcome cultural prejudice in saying what goes on it. Indeed, it might plausibly be thought that virtues are culturally relative. At the risk of stereo-typing, compare the British taste for self-deprecation and humility with the American style of confidence and self-belief; which is the more virtuous approach?


There is also the question of how to apply virtue theory to moral dilemmas. Virtue theory tells us to exhibit virtues, to act as the virtuous person would act, but if we don’t already know that it is difficult to work out. What, for instance, is the virtuous stance to take on the issue of stem-cell research, or abortion?

When Virtues are Vices

Virtue theory appears to commend some behaviour that we would generally view as immoral. For instance, soldiers fighting unjust wars for oppressive regimes seem to exhibit courage. That does not, however, make them morally good.


There is also a difficulty in accounting for supererogation, acting with exceptional goodness. Consider a rich Westerner who sells their possessions and relocates to a country in the developing world, giving the money that they save to the poor. We would normally think that someone who does this is to be applauded, even if we do not feel duty bound to follow their example ourselves.

On virtue theory, however, such acts as these are judged to be indicative of vice. For each virtue, remember, there are corresponding vices of excess and deficiency. The virtue of generosity, then, will fall between the vices of meanness and extravagence. To be as generous as the rich Westerner, surely, is to be extravagant. Virtue theory, then, would say that the rich Westerner’s actions betray a flaw in their character, a vice.