Virtue Ethics

Lori Carter, Rebecca DeYoung


Student Materials


Ethics background required: None

Subject matter referred to in this lab: Assignments in courses

Placement in overall ethics curriculum:

Time required: Out of class: None; In class: 20-30 minutes

Learning objectives:

Ethical issue to be considered: Several scenarios related to a course.


Preparation required: Read the entire lab several times. Print a copy of the student handout for each student in the class. Have a copy of the “professor answers” available in case you need them.

Guide for Instructors

Lesson plan

Introduction (to be read or summarized to class) (3 minutes)

Virtues can be defined as character traits – qualities that impact how we feel, think, and act –that we can cultivate through intentional practice, and that in turn shape our practice and action. Virtues are good character traits. We might usefully distinguish virtues – moral qualities of a person – from personality traits that are not specifically moral. For example, being an optimistic person or an extrovert, or having leadership qualities or aptitude for higher math might often be beneficial or good traits to have, but they are not necessarily moral traits (i.e., they can be used to do bad actions, accomplish bad ends, or lead to personal corruption). Virtues are traits like kindness, wisdom, justice, and faithfulness – qualities of character that, as the Greek philosopher Aristotle put it, make people good and make their actions good too (Nichomachean Ethics ii.6).

Since the virtue ethics framework asks the question “what would a virtuous person do?” to determine what is right, if we want to use this framework it is important to look at these positive character traits and understand how they might inform the decisions of a virtuous person.

You will be considering several scenarios and trying to determine how a virtuous person would respond. You will have the opportunity to list which virtues you think would most influence the response.

Discussion Guidelines

In this lab, students are asked to openly discuss virtues. To encourage authentic engagement with the material and each other, you may need to state some guidelines on expectations of peer-to-peer interaction. Here are two suggestions from “Guidelines For Classroom Interactions”, the Center for Research on Learning & Teaching, University of Michigan,

  1. Understand that your words have effects on others. Speak with care. If you learn that something you have said was experienced as disrespectful or marginalizing, listen carefully and try to understand that perspective. Learn how you can do better in the future.

  2. Understand that others will come to these discussions with different experiences from yours. Be careful about assumptions and generalizations you make based only on your experience. Be open to hearing and learning from other perspectives.

Ask students to keep these guidelines (or other similar guidelines) in mind as they discuss the scenarios in this lab.

Activity (7-10 minutes)

Pass out papers with scenarios or point them to the scenarios you have posted online. Allow students to consider the four scenarios either as individuals or in small groups (3-4 students). Groups are probably best if it is possible and they can be kept small.

Changing it up

You could easily modify this activty by

Reflection (to be completed in class after the activity is finished) (10 minutes)

Suggestions for guiding student reflection

  1. As time allows, consider each scenario as a class and have groups share their thoughts. (here are some ideas to help you prepare to lead the discussion)

    • Professor made very hard assignment

      • Professor could be honest about what she heard and ask for suggestions from students on how to handle the situation (virtues: hospitality, humility, transparency)
    • Friend asks for help at last minute

      • Student helps as much as possible during the hour left, but makes sure that the work is that of the friend. Encourages friend to turn in what they have, and offers to meet several days beforehand next time to help friend understand the assignment (virtues: integrity, compassion, patience, kindness)
    • Last minute question for Lab Assistant

      • Lab assistant looks at the error and suggests several concrete ways that the student could find it for themselves (print statements, debugger, check spelling etc.) (virtues: integrity, compassion, professionalism, respect)
    • Heavy workload with grumbling students

      • Virtuous students could figure out how much actual time is spent and iron out which complaints are valid and which are not. They could come up with ideas on how to learn the material in a way that is less cumbersome. They could suggest approaching the professor with evidence of the valid complaints (average number of hours spent on work, evidence that the book is not helpful). Virtues: patience, integrity, respect, initiative, honesty
  2. It is quite possible that students will reach different conclusions about what a virtuous person would do, and will have different virtues that support their conclusions. Consider with the class what to make of this.

    • Are some virtues to be ranked more highly?

    • This discovery also should lead to mentioning that a single ethical framework might not be enough. That is why we will be looking at other frameworks.

  3. Ask the class if they think they would naturally respond in a virtuous way or if it would be hard. If some believe it would be hard, ask why.

    • Possible answers: I’m not that good of a person, I wouldn’t want someone to be mad at me, my peer group would laugh at me.
  4. Ask the class what the benefits might be for a virtuous response for each of the scenarios.

    • A virtuous response from the professor would build trust between the professor and students

    • A virtuous response to the friend (assuming they chose to no just give the code to their friend) would help the friend actually learn the material which would help on exams and future employment

    • A virtuous response from the TA would help the student fix their own mistakes in the future, making the process less stressful

Wrap Up (To be read or summarized)

We are not born with virtues, we develop them over a lifetime through practice, imitating role models, and reflecting on how the world around us forms our character.

Virtue ethicists suggest a number of ways to cultivate virtue and good character. Before I share some of them, what ideas do you have? (Give students time to suggest some.)


These can be included later on a quiz, paper, or exam to determine if learning objectives were reached.

  1. Ask students to define “virtue.”

    • Morally positive character traits
  2. Ask students to describe how the virtue ethics framework could be applied to an ethical dilemma. You could provide a particular dilemma, or ask the students to provide an example.

  3. Ask students to reflect on two different virtues and indicate which (if either) they think is more important and why.

    • Honesty and compassion, for example – not looking for a “correct” answer, but just their reasoning and articulation effort
  4. What are some of the challenges of using the virtue ethics framework alone?

    • Relative importance of virtues differ between people

    • Sometimes hard to find the ‘better of 2 difficult choices’

  5. Give an example of acting virtuously along with the benefits it could produce