Virtue ethics, at its heart, is an ethical system based upon the nature of what it means to be human and what it takes for human beings to be happy and fully functioning beings.
Many people, in their pursuit of happiness, buy into more recent notions of happiness that are not based upon actual knowledge of human nature but upon knowledge of one’s personality and preferences.
Charles Taylor observed that modern ethics was purely about self-actualization without reference to human nature:
“There is a certain way of being human that is my way. I am called upon to live my life in this way, and not in imitation of anyone else’s. But this gives a new importance to being true to myself. If I am not, I miss the point of my life, I miss what being human is for me.”1
Now, this ideal has probably helped people seek happiness in the sense of paying special attention to one’s own unique circumstances, preferences, and desires. In that sense, it has served some use. But in the other sense, it has left people with little knowledge of what happiness actually is, what it means to be happy in a community, and how to be content despite the fact that such knowledge has been universally available in the past. If there is no human nature, then no tradition has potential to train me in the ways of wisdom and happiness because I am unique and unlike those who came before me and those who exist about me.
The idea that doing philosophy, studying what it means to be human, immersing oneself in traditions (religious, martial, national, scholastic, etc), and putting the hard work of attaining virtue into one’s life could lead to happiness is typically not countenanced by those who have absorbed the view Taylor describes. My guess is that we’re so easily influenced by advertisements, our friends, and visible trends around us, that believing that we’re making our own unique path without influence makes us more susceptible to influences that we don’t even choose!
So, virtue ethics, a system of thinking about happiness and right and wrong in terms of human nature, dispositions, intentions, desires, habits, community and health as well as rules and in just makes more sense than a system that basis ethics solely on consequences or universally acceptable norms.
1Charles Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992), 29