Examining “The Golden Rule” and Virtue Ethics Essay (Critical Writing)

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As described by Harless (2004), human behavior is often thought of as erratic, unpredictable and as a result prone to sudden inexplicable changes that at times defy conventional thought (Harless, 143-147). Despite such behavioral nuances people still continue to conform to societal rules and conventions in what can be described as “norms of behavior” dictated by an individual’s inherent ethical and moral standards which ascribe to a behavioral standpoint of harmonious interaction with other members of a community.

As noted by Leach and Oakland (2010), these ethical and moral standards dictate how individual members of society perceive what can be considered adverse or positive aspects of certain behaviors and methods of decision making and as such are utilized as a means of determining how they should proceed with a particular action (Leach and Oakland, 197 – 201).

The culmination of such methods of decision making are what are known as ethical theories which help individuals come to terms with all aspects of a problem and how best to proceed with what can be considered an ethical compromise to resolving them. It is based on this that this paper will explore the concepts of “The Golden Rule” and virtue ethics in order to resolve the ethical case study that was given for consideration.

Ethical Issue

The ethical issue in this particular case is whether or not Alice should report the apparent mistake in Mark’s nutritional report to the company or whether she should tell Mark that she looked through the report despite it being marked confidential and explain to him the mistake she saw.

As noted by Jing-Ping (2011) ethical decisions are often made based on either conformity to a generally preconceived societal notion (i.e. crimes are bad hence the fact you should report a crime in progress) or based on inherent ethical or moral code (i.e. treat people as you want to be treated) (Jing-Ping, 21 – 31). In this particular case it can be seen that Alice has to decide whether to report the case or admit to Mark that she looked through the files, in either instance such as decision will definitely impact her friendship with Mark in some way.

Case Study Facts

The following is a brief outline of the various facts in the case presented which should shed some light in what ethical course action should be followed. First and foremost it must be noted that Mark and Alice have been best friends for quite some time and they even graduated from the same university.

This establishes the fact that they have a close personal relationship which should be taken into account when Alice will make a decision regarding whether to inform the company or not. It was also noted that in the case study Mark has a family to take care of and was barely making enough to support them as is, a fact well known by Alice.

Furthermore, the scenario in the case example clearly states that Mark is a good worker and has actually performed exceptionally well during his 3 years at the company. If Mark were to be fired from his job due to the error in the report not only would this have marred his 3 exceptional years working for the company but NC would lose a great worker.

What must be understood is that NC actually little tolerance for mistakes and as such should the mistake be discovered it would more than likely result in Mark being fired. Underpinning all of this is the fact that Alice violated Mark’s trust by looking at the sealed files, yet if she didn’t the mistake wouldn’t have been found out until it was too late.

Analysis Utilizing the Golden Rule

As stated by James Want (1999), the Golden Rule can be summarized into two distinct principles: that a person should treat others in the way that they themselves would like to be treated and a person should not treat others in a way that they themselves would not like to be treated (James Wang, 415). Basically the Golden rule is a concept with reciprocal action as its basis wherein people treat others in a positive manner due to the assumption that they themselves will also be treated similarly.

When utilizing this particular theory as means of analyzing the ethicality of a particular set of actions it is always the case that an individual takes into account how they would like to be treated should they be placed in a similar situation where they will feel the ramifications of a particular decision. In this particular there are two viewpoints to take into consideration: the viewpoint of Alice putting herself in Mark’s situation or in her placing herself in the situation of the company.

Viewpoint where Alice Places Herself in the Situation of Mark

From this viewpoint if Alice were to report the mistake to the company it would most likely result in Mark getting fired. It must be pointed out though that the Golden Rule only leads an individual towards making the best decision only if they fulfill the requirement of being highly ethical. Furthermore, it also makes the assumption that those who are affected by decisions are also highly ethical individuals.

While it must also be taken into consideration that Mark has a family to support, has performed admirably over the past several years and that he is Alice’s best friend the fact remains that under the Gold Rule of decision a highly ethical person wouldn’t ask nor expect a friend to lie for them thus if Mark and Alice are highly ethical individuals Alice would report Mark and Mark would accept the consequences of his actions if he was a loyal employee of the company.

Viewpoint where Alice Places Herself in the Situation of the Company

It must be noted though that from the perspective of the company Alice has a responsibility in ensuring the best interests of the company are followed through. If through inaction Alice allowed the actions of Mark to continue then this would result in possibly adverse consequences for the company in the future.

Taking the Golden Rule into consideration, if the roles were reversed Alice herself would want her employees to ensure the continued survival of the company by making sure that problems are prevented from occurring rather than knowingly allowing them to happen. As such if Alice didn’t report Mark to the company she would be complicit in allowing the company to experience a moment of failure.

It is based on these two perspectives that is likely that under the “Golden Rule” Alice would report Mark to the company.

Analysis using Virtue Ethics

Under the concept of virtue ethics decisions are made based on an individual’s inherent character or virtues wherein personal integrity and moral character are taken into consideration before making a decision. What must be understood is that from the perspective of a virtue ethicist the decision to tell a lie or not actually depends on how that decision reflects upon an individual’s moral behavior or inherent character.

When looking at the situation of Alice and Mark what must be taken into consideration is how would telling the company reflect on Alice’s moral character when she could still tell Mark about the mistake and have him fix it? In the case provided it was not stated that the mistake could not be corrected, the only thing standing in between the mistake being corrected is Alice admitting to Mark that she looked through the report marked “confidential”.

In this situation there are two possible outcomes: Alice would tell Mark that she looked through the documents, which would call her moral integrity into question since she should not have looked at them, or Alice would not tell Mark and report him to the company despite there being the opportunity to still correct the mistake.

Based on the fact that the virtue ethics perspective considers primarily the actor’s character, motivations, and intentions it can be seen that the best course of action would be to tell Mark about the mistake and have him correct it.

When Alice looked through the documents she was not driven by any malicious intentions or self-serving motivations, she was just curious, if she were to report Mark to the company despite there being an alternative means of resolving the problem this would call into questions her own moral character. Thus, taking the virtue ethics perspective into consideration, Alice would tell Mark about the problem and have him fix it.


Based on my analysis of the “Golden Rule” Alice should report Mark to the company however based on virtue ethics Alice should give Mark a chance to correct the mistake in the report. If Alice were to merely report Mark without giving him a chance to fix the mistake this would violate the principles of virtue ethics since she would knowingly cause an action (Mark getting fired) despite there being an alternative (having Mark fix the mistake).

On the other hand, if Alice were to inform Mark about the mistake yet he still doesn’t fix it under the “Golden Rule” Alice has the ethical responsibility to the company to report Mark for his mistake.

Works Cited

Halwani, Raja. “Care Ethics and Virtue Ethics.” Hypatia 18.3 (2003): 161. Literary Reference Center. EBSCO. Web.

Harless, William. “Who’s Afraid of A Brave New World? An argument for the genetic manipulation of human behavior.” Boulevard 20.1 (2004): 143-150.

Literary Reference Center. EBSCO. Web.

James Wang, Qingjie. “The Golden Rule and Interpersonal Care–From A Confucian Perspective.” Philosophy East & West 49.4 (1999): 415.

Literary Reference Center. EBSCO. Web.

Jing-Ping, Sun. “Ethical decision-making and ethical responding: an analysis and critique of various approaches through case study.” International Journal of Leadership in Education 14.1 (2011): 21-45. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web.

Leach, Mark M., and Thomas Oakland. “Displaying Ethical Behaviors by Psychologists When Standards Are Unclear.” Ethics & Behavior 20.3/4 (2010): 197-206.

Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web.

The main characters from The Wizard of Oz. Each has a vice, but together they are seeking to become more virtuous.

1. Virtue and Happiness

Virtues are excellent traits of character.[1] They shape how we act, think, and feel. They make us who we are. Virtues are acquired through good habits, over a long period of time.

1.1. Eudaimonia

According to Aristotle (384-322 BCE) virtues are those, and only those, character traits we need to be happy.[2] Many virtue ethicists today agree.[3] These virtue ethicists are called eudaimonists, after the Greek word eudaimonia, usually translated as “happiness,” “flourishing,” or “well-being.[4]

For eudaimonists, happiness is more than a feeling: it involves living well with others and pursuing worthwhile goals. This includes cultivating strong relationships, and succeeding at such projects as raising a family, fighting for justice, and (moderate yet enthusiastic) enjoyment of pleasure.[5]

Eudaimonists believe our happiness is not easily separated from that of other people. Many would consider the happiness of their friends and family as part of their own. Eudaimonists may extend this to complete strangers, and non-human animals. Similarly for causes or ideals: eudaimonists believe complicity in injustice and deceit reduces a person’s happiness.,[6]

If eudaimonists are right about happiness, then it is plausible that we need virtues such as honesty, kindness, gratitude and justice to be happy. This is not to say that the virtues will guarantee happiness. But eudaimonists believe we cannot be truly happy without them.

One concern is that vicious people often seem happy. For example, dictators live in palaces, apparently rather pleasantly. Eudaimonists may not think this amounts to happiness, but many would disagree. And if dictators can be happy, then we certainly can be happy without the virtues. Answering this objection is an ongoing project for eudaimonists.[7]

1.2. Emotion, Intelligence, and Developing Virtue

Eudaimonists believe emotions are essential to happiness, and that our emotions are shaped by our habits. Good emotional habits are a question of balance.

For example, eudaimonists argue that honest people habitually want to and enjoy telling the truth, but not so much that they will ignore all other considerations–a habit of enjoying pointing out other people’s shortcomings will leave us friendless, and so is not part of honesty.[8]

Because virtue requires balancing competing considerations, such as telling the truth and considering other people’s feelings, virtue also requires experience in making moral decisions. Virtue ethicists call this intellectual ability practical intelligence, or wisdom.[9]

2. Virtue and Right Action

Virtue ethicists believe we can use virtue to understand how we should act, or what makes actions right.

According to some virtue ethicists, an action is right if, and only if, it is what a virtuous person would characteristically do under the circumstances.[10] On rare occasions, virtuous people do the wrong thing. But this is not acting characteristically.

2.1. Being Specific

“Do what virtuous people would do” is not very specific, and we may be left wondering what the theory is actually saying we should do.

One way to make it more specific is to generate rules for each of the virtues and vices, called “v-rules.” Two examples of v-rules are: be kind, don’t be cruel. The v-rules give specific guidance in many cases: writing an email just to hurt someone’s feelings is cruel, so don’t do it.[11]

Unfortunately, the virtues can conflict: if a friend asks whether we like their new partner, it may be more honest to say we do not, but kinder to say we do. In this case it is hard to say what the virtuous person would do.

Virtue ethicists might respond that other ethical theories will also struggle to give clear guidance in hard cases.[12]

Second, they might try to understand how a virtuous person would think about the situation. Remember that virtuous people have practical intelligence, and habitually care about other people’s happiness and telling the truth. So they may consider a lot of particular details, including how close the friendship is, how bad the partner is, how gently the friend may be told.[13]

This may not provide a specific answer, but virtue ethicists hope they can at least provide a helpful model for thinking about hard cases.[14]

2.2. Explaining Why

We have seen how virtue ethics tells us what to do. But we also want to know why we should do it.

Virtue ethicists point out that if we ask virtuous people, they will explain why they did what they did.[15] Their reasoning results from their excellent emotional habits and practical intelligence–that is, from their virtue. And if we want to be happy, we need to cultivate virtue. So these should be our reasons too.

But in explaining their decision, the virtuous person won’t necessarily mention virtue. They might, for example, say, “I wanted to avoid hurting their feelings, so I told the truth gently.”[16]

It might then seem that something other than virtue–in our example, the importance of other people’s feelings–explains why the action is rightBut then this other thing should be central to ethical theory, instead of virtue.

Virtue ethicists may respond that the moral weight of this other thing depends on which character traits are virtues. Accordingly, if kindness were not a virtue, there may be no moral reason to care about others’ feelings.[17]

3. Conclusion

Virtue ethicists recommend reflecting on the character traits we need to be happy. They hope this will help us make better moral decisions. Virtue ethics may not always yield clear answers, but perhaps acknowledging moral uncertainty is not a vice.


[1] Others may define virtue as admirable or merely good traits of character. For additional definitions of virtue and understandings of virtue ethics, see Hursthouse and Pettigrove’s “Virtue Ethics.”

[2] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book One, Chapter 9, Lines 1099b25-29. For this interpretation, see Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness, p. 6.

[3] Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics, pp. 165-169, “Virtue Theory and Abortion”, p. 226, Foot, Natural Goodness, pp. 99-116.

There are many other accounts of virtue worth considering. One major alternative is sentimentalist accounts, such as that of Hume and Zagbzebski, who define virtues as those character traits that attract love or admiration. Some scholars argue that Confucian ethics is a virtue ethic, though this is debated: see Wong, “Chinese Ethics.” Also see John Ramsey’s Mengzi’s Moral Psychology, Part 1: The Four Moral Sprouts. For an African understanding of virtue, see Thaddeus Metz’s The African Ethic of Ubuntu.

[4] Hursthouse has a detailed and accessible discussion of the merits of different translations of eudaimonia in On Virtue Ethics, pp. 9-10.

[5] Some people find this account of virtue surprising because they think virtue must involve sacrificing one’s own happiness for the sake of other people, and living like a saint, a monk, or just being a really boring and miserable person. In this case it may be more helpful to think in terms of ‘good character’ than ‘virtue’. David Hume amusingly argued that some alleged virtues, such as humility, celibacy, silence, and solitude, were vices. See his Enquiry 9.1.

[6] The idea that injustice erodes everybody’s happiness is not to deny that it especially harms people who are treated unjustly. However, eudaimonists consider being unjust, or deceiving others to be bad for us.

[7] For a compelling discussion of this objection to eudaimonism, see Blackburn, Being Good, pp. 112-118Eudaimonists have been trying to answer this objection for a long time. Indeed, arguing that it is more beneficial to be just than unjust is one of the major themes of Plato’s Republic. For more recent attempts to make the case, see Hursthouse’s On Virtue Ethics, Chapter 8, or Foot, Natural Goodness, especially Chapter 7. See also Kiki Berk’s Happiness.

[8] The idea that the virtues involve finding a balance is called ‘the doctrine of the mean.’ See Nicomachean Ethics, Book II, Chapter 6, lines 1106b30-1107a5. For one contemporary account of the emotional aspects of virtue, see Hursthouse’s On Virtue Ethics, pp.108-121.

[9] Aristotle discusses practical intelligence in Nicomachean Ethics Book 6. For a contemporary account see Hursthouse’s On Virtue Ethics, pp. 59-62.

[10] Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics, pp. 28-29. This is sometimes called a qualified-agent account. For some alternatives, see van Zyl’s “Virtue Ethics and Right Action”.

[11] Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics, pp. 28-29.

[12] For other moral theories, see Deontology: Kantian Ethics by Andrew Chapman and Introduction to Consequentialism by Shane Gronholz. When reading, you might consider whether these theories would give you clearer guidance about your friend’s partner.

[13] See Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book 2, chapter 9, lines 1109a25-30. Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics pp. 128-129.

[14] For two examples of how virtue ethics may be helpfully applied to tough moral decisions, see Hursthouse’s “Virtue Theory and Abortion”, and Foot’s “Euthanasia”.

[15] Hursthouse, “Virtue Ethics and Abortion”, especially p. 227, pp. 234-237. “Do what a virtuous person would do” is only supposed to tell us what we should do, not how we should think.

[16] This objection is discussed in Shafer-Landau’s The Fundamentals of Ethics, pp. 272-274.

[17] On this connection between facts about morality on facts about virtue and human happiness, see Hursthouse “Virtue Theory and Abortion”, pp. 236-238.


Aristotle. Nicomachean EthicsC. 355-322 BCE. Trans. Roger Crisp. Cambridge UP. 2014.

Blackburn, S. Being Good. Oxford UP. 2001.

Boxill, B. “How Injustice Pays.” Philosophy and Public Affairs, 9(4): 359-371. 1980.

Foot, P. Natural Goodness. Oxford UP. 2001.

Foot, P. “Euthanasia”. Philosophy and Public Affairs, 6(2): 85–112. 1977.

Foot, P. “Moral Beliefs.” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society. 59: 83-104. 1958.

Hume, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. 1777.

Hursthouse, R. “Virtue Theory and Abortion.” Philosophy & Public Affairs. 20(3): 223-246. 1991.

Hursthouse, R. On Virtue Ethics. Oxford UP. 1999.

Hursthouse, Rosalind and Glen Pettigrove, “Virtue Ethics”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2018 Edition), Zalta, E.N (ed.). 2018,

Nussbaum, M. The Fragility of Goodness. Cambridge UP. 2nd Edition, 2001.

van Zyl, L. “Virtue Ethics and Right Action”. In Russell, D. C (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Virtue Ethics. Cambridge UP. 2013.

Plato. Republic. C. 375 BCE. Trans. Paul Shorey. Harvard UP. 1969.

Shafer-Landau, R. The Fundamentals of Ethics. Fourth Edition. Oxford UP. 2017.

Wong, D. “Chinese Ethics”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2021 Edition). Zalta, E.N (ed). 2021.

Zagzebski, L.T. Exemplarist Moral Theory. Oxford UP. 2017.

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