Virtue and Vice: Various Perspectives

Virtue and Vice

Greek Philosophers believed virtue as excellence of any kind. A virtue is a character trait or quality that is valued as good, by the society. Virtues generally further the good of the society and the individual. It is a disposition of the character to act in an appropriate and beneficial way.

Virtues can be seen in the context of values. A value is a core yardstick of measuring the desirability and appropriateness of the things we observe around. Every individual abides by some values that guide his actions and beliefs. Likewise, every society upholds certain values that are valued as important for the establishment of a good life. However, it is not necessary that an individual’s values are in conformity to the social values.

Given the broad spectrum of human values, values can be broadly categorized into four groups-

  1. Ethical Values– those dealing with good-bad, moral-immoral, right-wrong, and virtue-vice;

  2. Aesthetics– those dealing with the idea of beauty and ugliness;

  3. Doctrinal Values– those dealing with political, ideological, religious and social beliefs; and,

  4. Innate Values– those that are inherent in every human being since birth. Example- urge to procreate and to survive.

Values that guide us on the right path are of the greatest significance. Our emotional and aspirational needs can make us to adopt an unethical path. However, the values that we abide to, have the role of guiding our choices and beliefs. Thus, a person’s character is often judged by the values he/she adheres to.

 Virtues in Islam

In the Muslim tradition, the Qur’an is seen as the repository of all virtue in earthly form. The Prophet is seen is the exemplar of virtues in human life. ‘Islam’ itself means ‘acceptance’, implying the virtue of submission to the will of God. Islam gives great emphasis on the virtues of mercy and compassion. Islam gives the message of a universal brotherhood. It makes no class-caste distinctions.

Muslim tradition provides for a number of means to help the poor and needy. For instance, Zakat is a toll tax on all Muslims to help the poor and needy; Similarly, the month of Ramadan is to empathize with the poor and needy, through fasting and charity.

Overall, the Islamic virtues are- prayer, repentence, compassion, honestly, patience, hope, dignity, courage, tolerance, wisdom, respect, courtesy, kindness, gratitude, generosity, contentment etc.


Vice is a practice or a habit considered immoral, depraved, and degrading to the society. Though what constitute a vice can vary in different societies, generally the practices like- fraud, depravity, sin, iniquity, wickedness and corruption are seen as Vice. Vice is the opposite of Virtue. Generally, anything that goes against the socially accepted belief or practice is seen as a vice.

In Christianity, vices are classified in two groups- those originating from the individual’s perverse instincts, in the temporal realm; and those originating from false idolatry in the spiritual realm. Christianity believes that the second kind of vices are worse that the other one.

Christianity also considers the practice of Blasphemy, apostasy, despair, hatred and indifference as sinful.

The Roman Catholic Church distinguishes between a Sin and a Vice. A Sin is morally wrong in itself; whereas, a Vice is something that provokes one to commit a sin. 7 Deadly sins, according to Christian ethics are-

1. Avarice (Greed); 2. Lust;

3. Anger; 4. Gluttony (Over-indulgence in pleasure);

5. Vanity; 6. Envy; and;

7. Laziness/Sloth.

Need of Ethics

Why do we need Ethics? Ethics are the general guidelines that direct our actions to help us attain the noble goals of life.

Ethics are needed for a harmonious functioning of the society. Human society would not survive for long, if there were no ethics to guide our actions. In the absence of an ethical framework, there would be a horrendous state of nature, marked by a war of each with all. Such a situation could only create misery.

Therefore, ethics provide us with a workable social framework, which ensures the peaceful progression of the human interest. Ethics are nothing but the result of our past experiences, which has got concretized into moral code of conducts.

The basic purpose of ethics is to create mutual cooperation and harmony in the society. They serve as the guiding lights, helping us to evaluate the course of action we choose to further our goals in life.

However, it should be noted that ethics are not the end of life in itself. Rather, ethics are the guiding principles for every individual. That is why, a virtue-ethic is better than the duty-ethics.

Any ethical framework should be based on the belief in the autonomy and capability of human beings. Each person has its own life goals. The purpose of ethics should be to help the person to choose the right path.

Duty-ethics, on the other hand, often compels a person to follow a path, that might not be desired by his free-will. Thus, ethical principles should not be treated as rigid mass of rules for every society and individual. Rather, the ethical framework should be flexible and accommodating, while being uncompromising on the foundational values of human good.

Ethics of Care

Ethics of care has largely been developed by the Feminists thinkers, like Carol Gilligan. This concept derives many of its ideas from the differences between the moral disposition of the men and women. For Gilligan, men make moral decisions on the basis of rights an justice while women make moral decisions on the basis of caring and feeling for others and their view-points. This approach views the male perspective as based on ‘ethics of justice’, and female perspective as based on ‘ethics of care’.

According to Gilligan, morality consist of two independent components- Justice and Care. These components represent the specific ways of seeing the moral problems. From the point of view of justice, moral problems are viewed as conflicts between claims of rights and duties of man. Such a view requires the moral agent to be detached. However, the Ethics of Care views the moral problems as tensions or ruptures in the relationships, which needs to be handled with care. Ethics of care view detachment as a sign of moral problem, as it breeds moral blindness and indifference.

Thus, the ethics of care emphasizes close personal relationships and moral virtues such as compassion and sympathy. It calls for a change in our perception of morality and of virtues, laying great emphasis on virtues exemplified by women, in their daily life, like- taking care of others, patience, the ability to nurture, self-sacrifice etc.

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