Most broadly, "virtue ethics" might refer to any ethical theory that invokes virtues including Kantian, consequentialist, Humean, or even Nietzschean virtue theories. More narrowly, a "virtue ethics" might refer to Aristotelian or neo-Aristotelian approaches to normative ethics that contrast with deontology (which emphasizes rules and rational duties) and consequentialism (which aims to produce the best consequences for the most people).
Virtue ethics is the oldest known form of ethics. In
Contemporary work in virtue ethics applies virtue concepts to bioethics, medicine, business, education, politics, sports, religion, and philosophy.
The western tradition's key concepts derive from ancient Greek philosophy. These concepts include arete (excellence or virtue), phronesis (practical or moral wisdom), and eudaimonia (flourishing).
A virtue is generally agreed to be a character trait, such as a habitual action or settled sentiment. Specifically, a virtue is positive trait that makes its possessor a good human being. A virtue is thus to be distinguished from single actions or feelings. Rosalind Hursthouse says:
Practical wisdom is an acquired trait that enables its possessor to identify the thing to do in any given situation. Unlike theoretical wisdom, practical reason results in action or decision. As John McDowell puts it, practical wisdom involves a "perceptual sensitivity" to what a situation requires.
Eudaimonia (εὐδαιμονία) is a state variously translated from Greek as 'well-being', 'happiness', 'blessedness', and in the context of virtue ethics, 'human flourishing'. Eudaimonia in this sense is not a subjective, but an objective, state. It characterizes the well-lived life. According to Aristotle, the most prominent exponent of eudaimonia in the Western philosophical tradition, eudaimonia is the proper goal of human life. It consists of exercising the characteristic human quality -- reason—as the soul's most proper and nourishing activity. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle, like Plato before him, argued that the pursuit of eudaimonia is an "activity of the soul in accordance with perfect virtue", which further could only properly be exercised in the characteristic human community—the polis or city-state.
Although eudaimonia was first popularized by Aristotle, it now belongs to the tradition of virtue theories generally. For the virtue theorist, eudaimonia describes that state achieved by the person who lives the proper human life, an outcome that can be reached by practicing the virtues. A virtue is a habit or quality that allows the bearer to succeed at his, her, or its purpose. The virtue of a knife, for example, is sharpness; among the virtues of a racehorse is speed. Thus to identify the virtues for human beings, one must have an account of what the human purpose is.