As we noted, the current interest in virtue ethics amounts to a revival of something like Aristotle’s conception of ethics. Instead of concentrating on general rules of duty, obligation and right action, Aristotle thought of ethics as an attempt to identify the features of character that are essential for achieving the good life for humankind.
These excellencies of character he called virtues, and he set out to define them and show the manner in which they produce the good life.
Of particular importance to Aristotle were those virtues that relate to our activities as citizens. The good life can be found only within society, and developing the civic virtues is essential for full and rewarding participation in the social sphere. Aristotle was suspicious of absolute, hard-bound rules. Frequently they require actions that are inconsistent with a proper, virtuous response to our loved ones and fellow citizens.
In implementing the life of virtues we are not so much to follow rules as pay close attention to specific case. Frequently, becoming a good person is best achieved by emulating the example of a good person.
All these themes have found favour with some contemporary philosophers who are frustrated by the unresolved debates in metaethics and, more recently, dissatisfied with the current attention so often given to rules and their justification. The leader in the renewal of virtue ethics is Alasdair MacIntyre, whose books After Virtue is one of the most discussed works in ethics in recent times. MacIntyre believes that contemporary moral philosophy has not overcome the nihilism and scepticism of Nietzsche which he sees embodied in such contemporary views as emotivism. Unfortunately, however, those who eschew emotivism and talk about human rights and duties and obligations have no clear conceptual understanding to give significance to talk about moral rights and other moral characteristics. And in fact rights-talk often degenerates into the rhetoric of rampant individualism, conflicting egos (much as the emotivism construed moral talk). For MacIntyre, our only hope is to rethink and reinstate the Aristotelian conception of virtue.
Robert L. Arrington
(Ethics II (1945 to present) in Philosophy of Meaning, Knowledge and Value in the Twentieth Century (coord. J. V. Canfield), Routledge History of Philosophy, vol. 10, 1997, la pp. 192-3)