Virtue Theory

Chapter Summary

This chapter considers business ethics from the perspective of virtue. Although virtue theory derives from Ancient Greek thought, especially the teachings of Aristotle, it has become popular again during the last 40 years. The chapter draws on Aristotelian theory to ask what it is for businesses and businesspeople to flourish, and considers how the doctrine of the virtuous mean might apply to corporate behaviour. The emphasis that virtue theory places on purpose is explained, and this is offered as a basis for considering contrasting definitions of the purpose of business. The chapter ends by explaining some themes introduced by virtue theory’s most influential modern proponent, Alasdair MacIntyre, before considering how these might help us think about what it is to be a virtuous business and what virtuous business management might consist of. 

Self-test Questions

Human Flourishing and the Virtuous Mean

1.      Give an example of how, for a business, there might be an external relationship between being virtuous and flourishing.

2.      How, for a business, might virtue be internally related to flourishing?

3.      How, according to virtue theory, might the nature of a business’ relationships with its community of stakeholders impact on its capacity to flourish?

4.      What two pieces of advice would Aristotle give to somebody who wished to identify the virtuous mean in relation to a particular virtue?

Defining Virtue in Relation to Purpose

5.      How, according to Aristotle, is virtue linked to purpose?

6.      How might we identify business virtue by first identifying the purpose of business?

7.      What does Elaine Sternberg consider the purpose of business to be?

8.      What, according to Robert Solomon, is the difference between the purpose of business and the goal of business?

9.      How might the notion of community relate to Sternberg’s and Solomon’s notions of business purpose?

Virtue, Work Practices, and Human Flourishing

10.  Name some internal goods and some external goods that might be derived from participating in a work practice.

11.  Give an example of how the achievement of excellence in a work practice might deliver internal and external goods, and how these might help the practitioner to flourish.

12.  Describe three differences between internal goods and external goods.

13.  Why, according to Alasdair MacIntyre, is it important not to get too carried away with the quest for external goods?

14.  What role, according to MacIntyre, should institutions such as businesses play in keeping external goods in their proper place?

Describe three pieces of advice that you would give to business managers who wanted to encourage virtue and to ensure an appropriate balance between internal and external goods in their businesses

Web Links

This 70-minute video shows the Dalai Lama, along with a panel of corporate and economic leaders, discussing the relationship between free-market economic activity and various notions of a human flourishing.

In this 43-minute audio recording of his Reith Lecture about markets and morals, Michael Sandel reflects on ways in which the primacy accorded to economic markets in contemporary society might undermine the achievement of public goods. Sandel’s ideas are relevant to the notions of human flourishing and community that are so important to virtue ethics.

This Prospect magazine paper relates Alasdair MacIntyre’s ideas about virtue, practices, and human flourishing to the financial system that underpins contemporary economic activity.