“Blessedness is not the reword of virtue, but is virtue itself.” – Baruch Spinoza
In the course of doing philosophy, invariably one comes to the tedious issue of defining terms and trying to parse out differences in meaning or connotation as a preface to a serious discussion, and now we take on this thorny task for ethics, virtue, and morality.
Ethics, according to Dagobert Runes, is the discipline concerning judgment of approval and disapproval, rightness or wrongness, good or bad, virtue or vice, desirability or wisdom of actions. It can be based on a psychological or sociological analysis of judgment or an attempt to establish courses of action (guidance).1 So Ethics refers to the general discipline and theories of judgments involved in human action – what I prefer to designate as the philosophy of human conduct.
According to Runes, virtue is a more limited term. Following Aristotle, he sees virtue or arete as the state of a thing which constitutes its particular excellence and enables it to perform its function well. For Aristotle, man’s function is reason and rationally ordered habits. But Runes notes that virtue can in theory vary by considerations of human function; for instance the Romans see virility and strength of character as that function while Machiavelli emphasizes prudence.2 In this section I will align with the ancient Greeks – that is, virtue will refer to excellence in human conduct as opposed to mere strength or intellectual prowess.
The word ‘morals’ is sometimes used as equivalent to ‘ethics,’ but among philosophers is more often more circumscribed. It refers to codes of conduct and customs of individuals or of a group. It is a more relative word and seems to involve traditional and legal expectations of human behavior. It is equal to the ancient Greek ethos and the Latin mores. 3 Therefore I will use the word morality selectively in our discussion to mean society-approved modes of conduct.
So to summarize: (1) Ethics is a general term referring to the theoretical discipline or philosophy of human conduct, (2) Virtue is specific as excellence in human conduct, and (3) Morality is subjective or relative as modes or rules of conduct approved by a group or society. As an example, with regard to truthfulness, ethics examines what honesty is and how decisions in its use are made in general, virtue is prudence in the appropriate speaking or withholding of truth, and morality is compliance with societal expectations which may permit “white lies” yet requiring truthfulness under oath in legal matters.
1Runes, Dagobert D., Dictionary of Philosophy. Philosophical Library, New York, 1960, p.98.
2Ibid, page 332.
3Ibid, page 202.