An introduction to thinking about the state within a framework of virtue ethics.

Aaron Ross Powell
Director and Editor

Aaron Ross Powell is Director and Editor of Lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org, a project of the Cato Institute. Lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org presents introductory material as well as new scholarship related to libertarian philosophy, theory, and history. He is also co‐​host of’s popular podcast, Free Thoughts. His writing has appeared in Liberty and The Cato Journal. He earned a JD from the University of Denver.

Virtue ethics–which I introduced in my last post–is an approach to moral philosophy that starts with good lives and good character instead of right action. Given the power of the state has over the environment in which we live and the rules we live by, virtue ethics has quite a lot to say about politics.

Let’s start by reviewing terms. (I went over all of these in much more detail in my first post on virtue ethics, so if you need more of a refresher, that’s the place to go.)

Virtue ethics is about how to be good people and how to lead good lives. A life is good when it fulfills its purpose, its “telos.” The telos of human life is eudaimonia, or flourishing.

In order to fulfill our telos, we need three things. First, we need virtues of character. Second, we need the practical wisdom to act well when motivated by those virtues. Third, we need enough goods (resources, health, education, etc.) to have the opportunity and capacity to develop virtues of character and practical wisdom.

So how do we apply those–telos, virtues of character, practical wisdom, and goods–to the state?

Without society, of course, there is no state. If we all lived as hermits, we wouldn’t need a state, nor would we really need one if our only contact with each other came in tiny groups. A state becomes necessary–so the argument goes–when enough of us interact regularly that we need (or would benefit from) some form of imposed order. (What order we want imposed may, of course, be limited to just protection of our rights.)

In other words, if we want a state, we want it because we think it will make society better. Thus the telos of the state is a well‐​functioning society: one that increases our ability to achieve eudaimonia. It’s a society that, by being a part of it, each of us has a better chance of living a good life than we would elsewhere.

There are two senses in which we might think about the telos of the state. First, if we create a state at all, we create it to fulfill some purpose–just like any other tool. The telos of a knife is to cut. The telos of a hammer is to pound nails. The telos of the state is what we made it to accomplish: a well‐​functioning society.

Yet “the state” doesn’t exist as a thing in itself. Instead it’s a collection of people authorized to behave in certain ways and with certain authority over the rest of us. So the second way to think about the state’s telos is to look at those people. A doctor is a human, and so has the telos of humans generally: achieving eudaimonia. But “doctor” is also a profession with a purpose of its own: promoting health. Thus the telos of a doctor, when he or she acts in her capacity as a doctor, is health. The profession of doctor brings its own set of situational virtues that don’t necessarily apply outside of doctoring.

Agents of the state, then, have the telos of their profession, which will be closely tied–if not identical–to the telos of the broader state‐​as‐​tool. These virtues govern what it means to be a good politician, a good bureaucrat, a good public servant, and so on.

This second sense of the state’s telos addresses a potential concern raised by methodological individualism. This is the claim that social phenomena are nothing but the aggregate actions of individuals, and it’s a position libertarians generally accept. Thus to talk about “the state” having virtues or a purpose or needs would seem to violate methodological individualism. But if we instead talk about the telos of those agents vested with the authority of the state, then we’re talking only about individuals, and so avoid the violation.

Still, I think it’s probably easier and clearer to just talk about the state’s virtues and the state’s goals, and just assume that what we really mean is the virtues and goals of those individual agents.

Okay, so now our state‐​as‐​virtue‐​ethical‐​entity has a telos. It exists to enable the well‐​functioning society. To fulfill that purpose, it needs to act in accord with the virtues, do so with practical wisdom, and have the goods needed for both.

The state’s “virtues” will be those traits crucial to the well‐​functioning society. Justice is an obvious one. A state that is not motivated by justice and does not seek to create justice in the world will not be a good state. But justice isn’t alone here. A good state will also be fair. It will respect its citizens. And so on.

But even if the “state” has a virtuous character (i.e., all the people who make decisions about what it’ll do are of right character), it will also need the practical wisdom to take right action (i.e., action that is actually in accord with the virtues). As I’ll discuss two posts from now, understanding practical wisdom as it applies to state action is one way to approach Hayek’s knowledge problem. Even if the state has the proper motivations, it lacks the knowledge–and thus the wisdom–to realize its goals. No matter how virtuous economic planners are, they lack sufficient information to adequately plan an economy. A socialist state can never possess practical wisdom.

Finally, a state needs whatever goods are required to act in accord with the virtues that apply to it and with the aim of achieving its telos. For example, if one of the state’s proper duties is the provision of police and courts, then it will need some way to pay for them. Otherwise, it won’t attain (that portion of) its telos.

All this leaves many questions on the table. What does it mean to say a society improves our chances of eudaimonia? What sorts of virtues should motivate the state? How far should the state go in guaranteeing the flourishing of its members? How many goods should it give us, and of what kind? How does a state act out of practical wisdom, and how is practical wisdom different for a state than it is for its members? And does seeing the state from this virtue ethical perspective support libertarianism?

I’ll take a look at those next time.