Virtue Ethics (UPSC Notes)

Last Updated: June 2023 (Virtue Ethics (UPSC Notes))

Virtue Ethics (UPSC Notes)

This article deals with the topic titled ‘Virtue Ethics (UPSC Notes).’ This is part of our series on ‘Ethics’. For more articles, you can click here.

What is Virtue Ethics?

  • Virtue Ethics focuses on a person’s virtues (qualities/values) rather than his conduct or actions.  
  • It focuses more on the person than the action, assuming that if a person has good values, he will do good deeds. 
  • For Civil Servants, Virtue Ethics are very important. Civil Servants must be a man of great virtues because 
    • If a civil servant is a virtuous man, he will command the respect of people, and people will accept him easily.
    • All decisions taken by him will be influenced by his values, and values don’t change overnight. 


Virtue Ethics (UPSC Notes)
  • Socrates (469/470 BCE – 399 BCE), considered one of the founders of Western philosophy, was a Classical Greek philosopher. 
  • Socrates is famous for his Socratic method of questioning, a technique which uses a series of questions to lead to a deeper understanding of the subject. 
  • It should be noted that Socrates hasn’t written any book, and his work and philosophy are known through the writings of Xenophon and Plato, who were his students. 
  • He believed in the pursuit of knowledge and the idea that wisdom comes from understanding one’s own ignorance. According to Socrates, seeking knowledge and living a virtuous life is the ultimate goal of life. 

Sophists vs Socrates

The Sophists were a group of travelling teachers and intellectuals in ancient Greece who offered their services as educators, tutors, and consultants. They were known for their clever and persuasive arguments. But sophists were controversial figures in their time, as they were often seen as mercenary and opportunistic, and their teachings were criticized for their relativistic approach to morality and truth.

The main issue between the Sophists and Socrates was a philosophical disagreement about the nature of truth and knowledge. The Sophists believed that truth was relative and could be shaped to suit one’s needs or beliefs. On the other hand, Socrates believed in the existence of objective truth and held that the pursuit of wisdom and knowledge was the most important aspect of human life. He also criticized the Sophists’ focus on rhetoric and argumentation over truth and wisdom, which led to a strained relationship between the two groups.

Murder of Socrates

Socrates and the Greek state were in conflict due to Socrates’ beliefs and teachings. Socrates was a philosopher who believed in objective truth and virtue, and he taught his students to question authority to seek knowledge. This challenged the beliefs and values of the Greek state, which relied on tradition, religion, and the rule of law to maintain order. The Greek state viewed Socrates as a threat to the established order and charged him with impiety and corrupting the youth. He was sentenced to death. But he refused to abandon his beliefs and was executed by drinking hemlock.

This conflict between Socrates and the Greek state reflects the larger tension between the individual and the state, between reason and tradition, and between free speech and censorship.  

Socratic Method of Questioning

The Socratic method of questioning is a method of teaching and learning through a dialogue between teacher and student. This method was developed by the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates and is based on the idea that the best way to learn is by questioning and examining one’s own beliefs and assumptions.

In the Socratic method, the teacher asks questions to help the student uncover the truth and arrive at a deeper understanding. The questions are designed to encourage critical thinking and to challenge the student’s assumptions and beliefs. The teacher does not provide answers but instead guides the students to find the answers themselves.

The Socratic method is often used in philosophy, law, and ethics classes, but it can be applied to any subject. It is a powerful tool for learning because it forces the student to think deeply about the subject matter and to understand the underlying principles and reasoning.

Virtue is Knowledge

  • Socrates believed that ignorance was the root cause of immorality or vice. In his view, if individuals possessed complete knowledge or understanding of what is morally right, they would naturally act accordingly. 
  • For Socrates, knowledge was not limited to factual information or expertise in a specific field. He focused on moral and ethical knowledge—the understanding of what is truly good and how to live a virtuous life.

Know Thyself

  • Socrates believed that self-knowledge was fundamental to leading a meaningful and virtuous life. 
  • Socrates encouraged individuals to engage in introspection and examine their own thoughts, beliefs, and actions to identify their strengths, weaknesses, biases, and limitations.
  • Socrates recognized that people often deceive themselves or remain ignorant about their own flaws and shortcomings. He said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

The Only Thing I know is that I know Nothing

Socrates advocated for intellectual humility, which involves recognizing the extent of our ignorance and being open to the possibility of being wrong. He saw intellectual arrogance and overconfidence as obstacles to genuine learning and understanding. By acknowledging that we know nothing, we adopt a mindset of humility that allows us to be receptive to new knowledge.

Importance of Socrates Teachings in Times Day

While Socrates’ teachings may not have been directly emphasized in India’s intellectual history, their universal principles resonate across cultures and have the potential to contribute to the intellectual and ethical development of individuals in present-day India. 

  • Critical Thinking: Socratic principles can encourage individuals to challenge dogmas, traditions, and societal norms, leading to personal growth and intellectual advancement.
  • Pursuit of Knowledge: Socratic principles can inspire individuals to embrace intellectual humility and a never-ending quest for knowledge.
  • Socratic Method: The Socratic method, a dialectical approach to questioning and examining ideas, is well suited for India, a country known for its diverse opinions and perspectives. The Socratic method can facilitate meaningful conversations, foster empathy, and bridge ideological divides.


  • Plato (427-347 BC), a student of Socrates and the teacher of Aristotle, expressed his philosophical ideas through dialogues, in which he used conversations between characters to explore various philosophical concepts.
  • He wrote a book named ‘Republic.’  

Plato’s Cardinal Virtues

Plato's Cardinal Virtues

He gave four cardinal virtues of a “good man.”

  1. Wisdom: Wisdom refers to the pursuit of knowledge, understanding, and insight. It enables individuals to make sound judgments and decisions based on reason and a deep understanding of reality.
  2. Courage: Courage entails the ability to face fear, danger, or adversity with bravery and resolve. It is not mere recklessness or fearlessness but rather the strength of character to act according to one’s convictions and face challenges even when difficult or intimidating.  
  3. Temperance: Temperance refers to self-control and finding the right balance in one’s actions and desires. It involves restraining excessive behaviour and avoiding extremes, finding harmony and equilibrium in one’s thoughts, emotions, and actions.  
  4. Justice: Justice is the most central virtue in Plato’s philosophy. It involves fairness, righteousness, and the pursuit of what is just and equitable. Plato viewed justice as the fundamental virtue that governs the harmonious functioning of society and the individual. 

Four virtues are cardinal because they are fundamental virtues. Other virtues depend upon them and are, therefore, subordinate to cardinal virtues.

Division of Society into Three Classes

Plato proposed a division of society into three classes in his influential work, “The Republic.” According to Plato, this division was based on the principle of specialization and aimed to create a just and harmonious society.  

1. Guardians

  • Guardians constitute the class of Rulers.     
  • Wisdom is their principal virtue.
  • They are responsible for governing and making decisions for the entire community. They are philosophers and possess wisdom, knowledge, and a deep understanding of the forms and the nature of the good. Plato believed that only those who have undergone rigorous philosophical education and training can become competent rulers.

2. Auxiliaries

  • They support the guardians, execute the laws made by the enlightened rulers or philosopher kings and protect the society from internal disorder and external attack. 
  • Courage is their principal virtue.

3. Civilians

  • Civilians consist of producers, such as farmers, blacksmiths, fishermen, traders, carpenters, etc.  
  • Temperance is their main virtue. 
  • Plato considered them as the productive class, providing the necessary goods and services for society’s functioning. The producers were expected to be hardworking, obedient, and focused on their respective tasks.


  • Central to Plato’s ethical philosophy is the concept of Justice. In “Republic,” he presents his ideal city-state, where Justice is the harmony and balance between three distinct classes: the rulers, the guardians, and the producers. Each class has its own function, and Justice is achieved when each class fulfils its role harmoniously without encroaching upon the responsibilities of others.
  • Additionally, Justice is the highest virtue because it helps maintain societal stability. 
  • Hence, Plato’s Theory of Justice is similar to the Swadharma of Gita. It states that every man should do the job according to his natural inclination. Interference in others’ affairs is not only against the requirement of Justice but also causes chaos.  

Just Person and Tripartite Nature of the Human Soul

  • Plato discussed the tripartite nature of the human soul in his work. He identified three parts: reason (the rational part), spirit (the emotional and spirited part), and appetite (the desires and appetites). According to Plato, a just person is one in which reason rules over spirit and appetite, ensuring a harmonious and balanced soul.

Importance of Plato’s Teachings in Present Times

  • Philosopher-Kings and Good Governance: Plato’s concept of philosopher-kings, individuals who possess wisdom and virtue, has implications for governance in India. If PM and CM act like the Philosopher King of Plato, their actions can be more effective and moral.
  • Plato gave the 4 most important virtues, i.e. Wisdom, Courage, Temperance and Justice, which can help make officers who can serve the public well. 
  • His ideas about the human soul are almost similar to the philosophy of Bhagavad Gita, which speaks about Satguna, Rajsik guna and Tamsik guna. Dr Sarvapali Radhakrishnan has called it to be the merger of Western and Indian philosophy.
  • In India, where social justice remains a significant challenge, Plato’s teachings can inspire individuals to strive for a just society, addressing issues such as caste discrimination, gender inequality, and poverty.


The main work of Aristotle is the book named Nicomachean Ethics.

Virtue and Vice

  • According to Aristotle, virtues are character traits that enable individuals to act in ways that promote their own well-being and contribute to the flourishing of the community. Examples of virtues include courage, temperance, generosity, honesty, and justice.
  • Vices, on the other hand, are the opposite of virtues and hinder the attainment of well-being.

Golden Mean is a Virtue

Aristotle's Philosophy
  • He proposed that the “Golden Mean is a virtue.” 
  • The golden mean refers to the idea that virtues lie between extremes or vices. Each virtue represents a balance between two vices—one of excess and one of deficiency. Virtue is considered the desirable midpoint between these extremes.
  • E.g., 
    1. Courage as Virtue: The excess of courage would be recklessness, while the deficiency of courage would be cowardice. Courage, as a virtue, lies between these two extremes, striking a balance between them. 
    2. Excessive indulgence is as much a vice as the excessive repression of desires. Self-control, therefore, is a virtue
  • The Buddhist philosophy of “Madhyama-pratipad” proposes the same ‘middle way’.

Meaning of the Virtue of Justice

  • Aristotle extended the meaning of the virtue of justice. He considered justice as the supreme virtue. 
  • According to Aristotle, Justice has two forms. 
    • Distributive Justice consists of the equitable distribution of wealth and honours.  
    • Remedial justice consists of fair transactions among the members of the community.

Theory of Willed Action 

Aristotle discussed where the Ethicality of Human Action could be gauged to decide whether the action was good or bad. Right and wrong can be judged only when

  • Action should be done voluntarily, i.e. no compulsion: E.g., Bribing Civil Servants at gunpoint. 
  • There must be some human knowledge of the consequences of that action. 
  • There should be a presence of different choices. 

Importance of Aristotle’s Teachings in Present Times

  • He elaborated on the ideas of Plato and Socrates, making them more pragmatic.
  • Middle Path can help in containing materialism. Middle Class needs to follow this idea to live a happy life.
  • Judges still use his Willed Action Theory to decide whether the morality of particular action can be judged.
  • Aristotle’s understanding of justice, encompassing distributive and corrective justice, is relevant to the pursuit of social equity in India. India faces challenges such as income inequality, caste discrimination, and gender disparities.

Criticism of Virtue Ethics

  • Cultural Relativism: Different people, cultures, and societies often have vastly different opinions on what constitutes a virtue. 
  • Lack of Action Guidance: Unlike consequentialist or deontological theories, which offer specific rules or principles to follow, the lack of specific guidance in virtue ethics can make it challenging to determine the right course of action in complex moral dilemmas.
  • Lack of Moral Conflicts Resolution: Virtue ethics does not provide a clear framework for resolving conflicts between virtues. In situations where virtues come into tension with each other, it may be difficult to determine which virtue should take precedence. 
  • Individual Focus: Virtue ethics primarily focuses on the moral character of individuals rather than addressing broader societal issues or systemic injustices.  
  • Limited Applicability to Non-Human Entities: Virtue ethics is often criticized for its anthropocentric nature, primarily focusing on virtues and moral character within the human context. This raises concerns about its applicability to moral considerations involving non-human entities, such as animals or the environment. 

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