The main concern in virtue ethics becomes about a person's moral character. When people choose to develop their moral character, better virtues will be created, and thus there will be more people acting in virtuous ways in all aspects of their lives -- and this includes how they treat all animals.
One example to be considered when thinking about how a person with a strong sense of virtue might behave is to counter it with how a person with a strong sense of duty might behave. From a duty sense, if one were a livestock farmer, he or she might believe that his or her duty lies in what is best for the people because, after all, the job is about raising livestock for slaughter, which will then become food for people. Therefore, the first duty would be to humans and the second duty to animals (Panaman 20008) (which may entail being as good to the animals as possible while they are in his or her care on the farm -- i.e., not allowing torture, giving them adequate living space, feeding them food that is good for them, etc.). With virtue ethics, however, one will apply reason, experience and logic as well as emotional abilities like beliefs, faith, etc. In order to act how a virtuous person should act (Panaman 2008). A person who believes in virtue ethics would think that as a person one should be kind and compassionate to all living things. Therefore, one should not cause the suffering of animals. As a livestock farmer, the person could perhaps find that he or she is in the wrong profession as it goes against what he or she believes is virtuous and right. On the other hand, there are plenty of virtue ethicists who would say that a livestock farmer can be virtuous and display virtue ethics characteristics depending on where his motive is coming from.
Rosalind Hursthouse is a virtue ethicist who believes that virtue ethics precludes any practices that favors the harming of animals, no matter what. She discusses her recognition of alternative ways to see animals:
I began to see [my attitude] that related to my conception of flesh-foods as unnecessary, greedy, self-indulgent, childish, my attitude to shopping and cooking in order to produce lavish dinner parties as parochial, gross, even dissolute. I saw my interest and delight in nature programs about the lives of animals on television and my enjoyment of meat as side by side at odds with one another… Without thinking animals had rights, I began to see both the wild ones and the ones we usually eat as having lives of their own, which they should be left to enjoy. And so I changed. My perception of the moral landscape and where I and the other animals were situation in it shifted (Gruen 2011).
Virtue ethics could encourage the more ethical treatment of animals because it forces one to think in terms of kindness, compassion, and fairness. It doesn't bring up issues such as duty or what is better for the most people. Surely if one were to look at the issue of the ethical treatment of animals from a virtue ethics perspective, any sort of unfair or unethical treatment would be considered morally and ethically wrong. A virtue ethics perspective forces us to rethink our relationships with other animals and start to understand that our conceptions of our selves is inextricably linked to our thinking and actions toward them (Gruen 2011). In re-thinking the way that we look at animals, however, this doesn't necessarily mean that we must take an extremist approach.
Ethical relativism holds that there are not any moral truths; that is, all ethical viewpoints are equally valid and the individual is the only one who can determine what is true and relative for him or her. Moral relativism is not uncommon. People often say just because that's right for them doesn't make it right for me, but they may still hold that the viewpoint is valid. Ethical egoism holds that people are generally selfish; that it, each person has one ultimate aim: his or her own welfare. Ethical emotivism, on the other hand, more of a meta-ethical theory, argues that a moral claim (This is not moral or That is moral) isn't a statement about the action itself or about the person saying it. it's merely a raw expression of emotion -- just like an emotional reaction to pain (e.g., a scream, a cry, etc.).
When it comes to the ethical treatment of animals, ethical emotivism is the theory that is often used to prevent the unethical treatment of animals. C.L. Stevenson (1944) who wrote the book Ethics and Language argued that these moral statements aren't just expressions of emotion but they are attempts to get other people to share the same emotional reaction that a person is having. When animal activists use images of animals being tested on, slaughtered animals, or images of the consequences of dog fighting, they are trying to get others to react in horror at the images that elicited that horrific response in them.
In dealing with the issue of the ethical treatment of animals, there are some who take an ethical relativism approach; that is, there are some who choose to eat meat, wear leather shoes, and buy products that have knowingly been tested on animals. They may believe that these things are common in our society and if others don't like it, well, they don't have to do it. That is, I may not want to eat meat, but that doesn't mean that I think it is wrong for you to eat meat. I choose to wear leather shoes and carry a leather purse or wear furs, but that doesn't mean that I think if others don't want to it is silly. It is all relative. Some may take an ethical egoism approach and decide that their enjoyment of life is more important than the ethical treatment of animals.
Virtue ethics has been called a rather loose tradition of ethical thinking (Rowlands 2009). Virtues are thought to be things that stay in someone over time. If I am honest, I will always be honest and in every situation. I will admire honesty in others and make it a priority for myself. Virtue ethics has many different perspectives, depending on who is talking about it. There are some theorists who say that if you are virtuous, then you cannot eat animals, wear fur, or hunt for sport -- like Hursthouse. There are others, however, that say that these things are okay if you are a virtue ethicist. It all depends on the persons motives engaged in those things. If I don't believe in bull-fighting because I think it is cruel, I don't have to watch because I would feel my virtue of compassion coming out. However, is the bull-fighting exhibiting a vice? Is he exhibiting sadism? Probably not; so for the bull-fighter, he is also acting as he believes is virtuous. Still, one could argue that watching a bull-fight is to exhibit the vice of callousness because they are not the ones taking part in the actual sport, but actually just watching a bull being murdered.
Hursthouse is of the perspective that virtue will always win when there is any debate or conflict between virtue and vice. For example, if the matador insists that the rush of adrenaline and fun in the sport is a bigger feeling that callousness, then acting out of fun isn't as bad as acting out of callousness; however, Hursthouse would say that virtues will always trump things that are not virtues (Rowlands 2009). Still, others may find courage to be a virtue and this is definitely something that the matador needs -- so we come back to the conflict.
I argue that virtue ethics isn't black or white and it isn't about extremism. A livestock farmer can still be a virtuous person though he is responsible for slaughtering livestock. He would still not tolerate boys poking a frog for fun. My virtues are my virtues and I act accordingly and I feel according to them. Another will possess other virtues and act and feel according to them. However, in general, it is good and right to support the ethical treatment of all creatures -- human and non-human.
Garner, R. (2005). Animal ethics. Cambridge: Polity.
Gruen, L. (2011). Ethics and animals: An introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press;
Hursthouse, R. (2000). Ethics, humans and other animals: An introduction with readings. New York: Routledge.
McDowell, J. (1997) in Roger Crisp & Michael Slote eds. Virtue ethics.…