In the philosophy of law, virtue jurisprudence is the set of theories of law related to virtue ethics. By making the aretaic turn in legal theory, virtue jurisprudence focuses on the importance of character and human excellence or virtue to questions about the nature of law, the content of the law, and judging.
Among the topics encompassed by virtue jurisprudence are:
The most developed aspect of virtue jurisprudence is its distinctive theory of judging. A virtue-centered theory of judging offers an account of the characteristics or excellences that make for a good judge. These include: judicial temperance, judicial courage, judicial temperament, judicial intelligence, judicial wisdom, and justice. Although every theory of judging can incorporate some account of judicial virtue, a virtue-centered theory of judging makes the distinctive claim that the judicial virtues are central, i.e. that they have basic explanatory and normative significance.
Many of the criticisms of virtue jurisprudence are parallel to those offered in the context of debates over virtue ethics. Some of these include:
Aristotle argued that the inculcation of promotion of virtue was the proper end of law. Aquinas argued that true laws (which are rational) can teach virtue by being internalized by those who already possess sufficient virtue to grasp the purpose of the law. Even those who have not yet achieved this level of virtue can be coerced into obedience to the law, and this may enable them to become more virtuous.
A contemporary restatement of this view is found in the writings of Robert George. In his book, Making Men Moral, George argues for the promotion of virtue as the end of law and against the contrary view that the purpose of law is the protection of rights.
The phrase "virtue jurisprudence" is usually applied in the context of contemporary Western philosophical thinking about law. There are, however, important ideas about the relationship between law and virtue in other intellectual traditions. One example is provided by Confucian ideas about virtue. In the Analects, Confucius argues that a society in which people are virtuous would have no need of judges, rules, or jurisprudence because people would be able to resolve social conflicts by themselves. Thus, it is argued that the idea of virtue is opposed to the idea of law.
It can be argued that even virtuous citizens might disagree about the application of the law, especially where their own interests or ideological commitments are at stake. However, this argument is rather foreign to both traditional and modern Chinese political thought. Chinese political theory tends to assume that the truly virtuous are selfless to the point of martyrdom and would not consider their own personal interests and that the virtuous are able to transcend ideology. At the same time, traditional Chinese political thought regards those with absolute virtue to be historically extremely rare, and that most people, including the Emperor and his officials, are prone to both corruption and error. Consequently, there is a belief that law and indeed government is an unfortunate necessity in dealing with an imperfect world and with imperfect people.
The view that the inculcation of virtue is the proper end of legislation contrasts markedly with traditional Chinese thinking on the subject, which argues that laws exist because men are lacking in virtue. Confucianism places very little faith on the ability of law or external pressure to make men moral but rather believes that virtue must come from introspection and education. Throughout Chinese political and intellectual history, the Confucian view on law was frequently contrasted in discourse and practice with Chinese Legalist philosophy.