A comparison of approaches to virtue for nursing ethics

Matthew Ferkaney, Roger Newham

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As in many other fields of practical ethics, virtue ethics is increasingly of interest within nursing ethics. Nevertheless the virtue ethics literature in nursing ethics remains relatively small and under-developed. This essay aims to categorize which broad theoretical approaches to virtue have been taken, to undertake some initial comparative assessment of their relative merits given the peculiar ethical dilemmas facing nurse practitioners, and to highlight the problem areas for virtue ethics in the nursing context. We find the most common approaches fall into care approaches grounded in sentimentalist or feminist ethics, eudaimonist ones grounded in neoAristotelianism, and those grounded in MacIntyre’s practice theory. Our initial assessment is that the eudaimonist approach fares the best on the merits and relative to criticisms of virtue ethics. But an outstanding issue concerns the motivational psychology of virtuous nursing and whether virtue ethical accounts of right action are self-effacing, i.e. justify an act on grounds that cannot function as the agent’s reason for doing it if she is to act well. One of us, Newham, believes that a virtue consequentialist approach is the best response to these issues. Some form of pluralistic theory, such as Christine Swanton’s, may be needed to explain the many competing values and goods involved in ethical nursing.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)427-457
JournalEthical Perspectives
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 25 Jan 2020


  • Care ethics
  • Eudaimonism
  • Nursing ethics
  • Pluralism
  • Virtue ethics

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Philosophy


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