Virtue ethics has become increasingly popular in recent years, largely as a result of the 1958 essay Modern Moral Philosophy by Elizabeth Anscombe, and more recently the 1981 book After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre. However, variations on the 'virtues' theme have also been explored in the work of Plato (427-347 BCE), through the relationship between knowledge and the Form of the Good, and also Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 CE), with his concept of primary moral qualities. In terms of the history of western moral philosophy, the origins of virtue ethics are often traced back to Aristotle (384-322 BCE), and his concept of eudaimonia.
The word eudaimonia is sometimes mistakenly understood to mean simply "happiness", but it is, in fact, more to do with the idea of being content with life (leading one to become successful and happy). Aristotle believed eudaimonia could also be a means for working out what to do (or not). For instance, 'virtues' such as always telling the truth (or never lying) can be considered to be 'good' or not insofar as they lead one towards eudaimonia.
What virtue ethics is
Virtue ethics is often focused on how adopting certain attitudes and behaviour may lead to the fulfillment of x, rather than attempting to reason what it is ‘good’ to do (or not) using abstract rational arguments and principles. In this respect, one might consider the various forms of it to be teleological* and pragmatic.
Virtue Ethics is also more concerned with understanding what makes a person 'good', rather than whether specific actions are good or not (although the two are clearly linked). For instance, rather than saying we should never lie, we should instead consider whether people can attain eudaimonia if they live in a world where lying is treated as a virtue.
Right attitude; right actions
Students of moral philosophy might see some similarities between virtue ethics and Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative. Although Kant believed people should only act out of a sense of (reasoned) dispassionate 'duty', so that they do not confuse what is 'right' with what they want to do or what will simply make them happy, a vital part of this process is the need to set one's actions into a wider moral context (the 'universalisation principle' - 'Act as if the maxim of your action was become through your will a universal law of nature'). Although he never discusses it, Kant seems unable to avoid the suggestion that having the 'right' sort of character (or virtues) is vital, if someone is to be seen to act 'rightly' (or do 'good').
To illustrate this, consider the possibility that behaviour often considered to be non-virtuous is sometimes something we should do. For example, if person y wanted to kill person x, and we knew where person x was, we might lie to person y in order to prevent person x being killed. Legalistic approaches to this matter (such as Kant's), try to, but cannot comfortably accommodate these 'exceptions to the rule'. On the other hand, virtue ethics suggests that it is not so much about working out if lying is a 'good' or 'bad' thing to do in these situations, but that the virtuous person would know what to do when faced with such a situation. This is because in this situation and as a 'virtuous' person, they have the innate ability to perceive the 'middle (right) way' between the extremes of never lying, and always telling the truth. Therefore, it is not so much that we trust that their actions are 'good', but that we trust them because they are a 'good' person.
In the end a significant part of working out how we should live depends on understanding what constitutes the purpose of human life, and in light of this developing the ‘right’ kind of character (or attitude/virtues) in order to achieve it. This is something virtue theorists have been particularly critical of other 'ethical schools' for neglecting, as well as ignoring the influence a person's character has on their moral outlook and actions. However, a major challenge for virtue theorists is to set out exactly what the core virtues are (if indeed there are any), and what the purpose (or goal) of life is (towards which the virtues are directed). This is clearly not an easy thing to do, as people inevitably differ as to what they think the purpose of life is, and what the key virtues (or attitudes/qualities) 'good' people have.
* In Greek the word telos means end/purpose. 'Teleological' approaches in ethics judge the rightness of moral actions based on how much they lead one to achieve a particular end or fulfill a purpose.