Philosophy professor explores virtue ethics in new book

In The Healing Virtues: Character Ethics in Psychotherapy, philosophy Professor Duff Waring studies the connections between insight-oriented psychotherapy and virtue ethics, in cases where patients with personality disorders learn to assume responsibility for their own healing.

Duff Waring
Duff Waring

“While other books have stressed the virtues of therapists, this book stresses the virtues that some patients should cultivate in order to heal through strengthening their moral character,” Waring says.

Virtue ethics, in normative theory and practice, is the approach that “focuses on the question ‘What sort of person should I be?’ and stresses the cultivation of stable virtues to act, reason, and feel in certain ways,” he says. “Instead of a paramount focus on evaluating the rightness or wrongness of actions in terms of consequences, rules and duties, virtues ethics focuses mainly on evaluating the goodness or badness of persons in terms of their character and the virtues that define it.”

The interaction of virtue ethics with psychotherapy plays out in scenarios where patients with borderline or narcissistic personality disorders are challenged by therapeutic goals that involve replacing character faults with morally desirable virtues, such as greater self-love and respect for others.

“These goals are reached by developing healing virtues – for example, hope, honesty and perseverance – that enable patients to work through their problems,” Waring says. “I explore how the ethics of some therapeutic dialogues revolve around the sort of virtuous person the patient should strive to be. I think there is much common ground between working through personality disorders in psychotherapy and the cultivation of virtuous character in pursuit of a good life.

“My central idea is that the patient’s cultivation of certain virtues will lead to, and in some respects constitute, psychotherapeutic benefit. The patient’s work in psychotherapy can thus challenge nascent character strengths and result in their further development.”

The Healing Virtues was written for philosophers, psychiatrists, psychologists and other practitioners of insight-oriented psychotherapy.

“I want readers to walk away with the idea that issues pertaining to strengthening the patient’s character in the course of moral growth and self-improvement are deeply imbedded in the methods and therapeutic goals of some psychotherapies,” he says.