Virtue ethics sets aside questions as to what we ought to do and instead concentrates on the question as to what type of people we ought to be. Moral goodness, it suggests, is primarily a matter of character, rather than of action.

After a period of neglect, virtue ethics has recovered popularity in recent decades. GEM Anscombe and Alasdair MacIntyre have been particularly influential in this process. There are several appealing features of virtue ethics that account for this return to prominence.

One important factor in the revival of virtue ethics has been a growing dissatisfaction with rule-based systems of ethics. Elizabeth Anscombe argued that the concept of moral duty rests on theological background assumptions. The idea of moral duty presupposes the existence of a moral law. Classical theism holds that God instituted such a law, and so that we do have obligations of this kind.

With the decline of classical theism, though, there is no longer widespread belief in the theological assumptions that ground the concept of moral obligation. We should therefore, Anscombe suggested, jettison the concept of obligation from morality. Talk of moral duty no longer makes any sense.

This proposal, if it were accepted, would undermine those ethical traditions that rest on concepts of obligation. Virtue ethics, though, would survive the revolution untouched. The first strength of virtue theory is therefore that it has no need of outdated concepts of moral obligation.

The main strength of virtue theory, though, is that unlike other ethical traditions it affords a central role to character. Other ethical theories neglect this aspect of morality. Kantian ethics, for example, holds that it is important to act out of duty rather than inclination, that whether or not you want to do the right thing is irrelevant; all that matter is whether or not you do it.

Character, though, does seem to be important. One who helps the poor out of compassion does seem to be morally superior to one who helps the poor out of a grudging respect for duty. Virtue theory can account for this; other theories, arguably, cannot.