2 Strikes Against Virtue

Character is not sufficient to be an ethical professional, but is it necessary?

Posted Feb 24, 2016

In my ethics course this semester we’ve been talking a lot about virtues—predispositions to choose ethical courses of action.  The notion of virtue comes all the way from Aristotle and informs modern discussions in professions like medicine (Pellegrino & Thomasma, 1993) and psychology (Flowers, 2005; Meara, Schmidt, &Day, 1996). 

Virtue ethics helps us make ethics personal and real by augmenting the question of “What should I do (according to ethics codes, standards of practice, laws, etc.)?” with the question of “Who should I be?”  My students and I talk about developing traits such as humility, prudence, respectfulness, diligence, and integrity.  When we discuss cases, we talk about what virtues psychologists may have lacked, what virtues they might have had too much of, and what combinations of virtues, and in what quantities, they might have needed to prevent misbehavior or achieve excellence.  I picture us around a caldron, creating a wonderful stew of ethics, including principles, codes, and virtues.  Instead of “eye of newt and toe of frog,” we stir in honesty and trustworthiness.

A few days ago I had two experiences that shook my faith in how virtues are valued and implemented these days.  The first experience was professional:  I read an article by DuBois and his colleagues (2013) in Academic Medicine.  The article began with a great description of virtues:  “These dispositions … define how we behave when no one else is watching; accordingly, they serve as a bedrock for professional self-regulation” (p. 1). The authors went on to cite social science research that proves that virtues alone do not guarantee ethical behavior.  Then they noted that organizations, including the Institute of Medicine and the Association of American Medical Colleges, have written reports about how to deal with conflicts of interest in medicine.  These reports recommend, among other things, that physicians report payments they receive from drug companies and others.  DuBois et al. noted, however, that “nowhere in the … reports does the word virtue appear, and the concept of integrity is never invoked as something physicians must possess…. Virtues are ignored as a safeguard even though they are still desperately needed” (p. 2).  They went on, but you get the idea. 

My second experience, later on the same day, was more personal:  I received a letter from my local blood donation center.  It started innocently enough—thanking me for my recent donation.  But then it went on to introduce their new “Star Rewards Program.”  Here’s the deal:  “Points are earned for each blood donation made and are then redeemed in our … virtual [the closest the letter came to “virtue”] store for items such as shopping bags, coolers, hats, tumblers and more.”

I felt a little bad as I read the letter.  I give blood to express my virtues, including compassion.  Do I really need an external motivation (other than the snacks they provide, of course …) to donate?  Will I refuse to participate in the points program to reinforce my virtues?  Or, will I wear the hat and rationalize to myself that it’s to help recruit new donors?  I wondered if the external motivation might tarnish how I thought of my behavior. 

More generally, I thought:  Are we losing our ability to self-reflect and generate motives from inside?  How might we help students develop their professional virtues the way we help children develop character (Tough, 2012).

My difficult virtue day helped me gain some perspective, and renewed my resolve to help students strive for ethical excellence (Handelsman, Knapp, & Gottlieb, 2009).  Lots of ethics policies are in the form of rules from the outside—from agencies, organizations, legislatures, etc.  Rules are great, but ethical training and practice need to pay attention to (a) the overarching principles that the rules are designed to uphold, and (b) the virtues necessary to help professionals embrace the rules and principles as their own.


DuBois, J. M., Kraus, E. M., Mikulec, A. A., Cruz-Flores, S., & Bakanas, E. A humble task: Restoring virtue in an age of conflicted interests.  Academic Medicine, 88(7), 1-5.

Flowers, B. J. (2005). Virtue and psychology: Pursuing excellence in ordinary practices. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Handelsman, M. M., Knapp, S., & Gottlieb, M. C. (2009). Positive ethics: Themes and variations. In C. R. Snyder & S. J. Lopez (Eds.). Oxford Handbook of positive psychology (2nd ed., pp. 105-113). New York: Oxford University Press.

Meara, N. M., Schmidt, L. D., & Day, J. D. (1996). Principles and virtues: A foundation for ethical decisions, policies, and character. The Counseling Psychologist, 24, 4-77.

Pellegrino, E. D., & Thomasma, D. C. (1993). The virtues in medical practice. New York: Oxford University Press.

Tough, P. (2012). How children succeed: Grit, curiosity, and the hidden power of character. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.


Mitch Handelsman is a professor of psychology at the University of Colorado Denver.  With Samuel Knapp and Michael Gottlieb, he is the co-author of Ethical Dilemmas in Psychotherapy: Positive Approaches to Decision Making (American Psychological Association, 2015). Mitch is also the co-author (with Sharon Anderson) of Ethics for Psychotherapists and Counselors: A Proactive Approach (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), and an associate editor of the two-volume APA Handbook of Ethics in Psychology (American Psychological Association, 2012).  But here’s what he’s most proud of:  He collaborated with pioneering musician Charlie Burrell on Burrell’s autobiography.

© 2016 by Mitchell M. Handelsman. All Rights Reserved