Virtue ethics--the moral position that the objective of our actions is to become virtuous by acting in a way that a virtuous person would act--faces the weighty criticism that it is fundamentally egoistic. It is this criticism of virtue ethics as egoistic that makes consequentialism, an ethic that emphasizes radical selflessness, seem more appealing.
This aforementioned criticism can be illustrated quite well by considering the harrowing scenario faced by a Polish Jew named Sophie in William Styron's Sophie's Choice (I haven't read the book, but I've seen the movie with Meryl Streep). Due to the singular (in)human situation that occurred at that period of time (which for this reason furnishes many examples for the consideration of ethicists), the scene takes place in Nazi Germany in the struggle that Jews faced at the hands of the Nazis. A Nazi officer meets Sophie and her two young children; a boy and a girl. As they shuffle through a line that leads into the camp the officer tells her that she needs to choose which one of her children is to be taken away with the officer--to be taken, surely, to be executed--and which one is to remain with her. The Nazi tells a panicking Sophie that if she doesn't choose, he will take both of her children away. It is also clear that she cannot in some way sacrifice herself in order to save the lives of her children. Sophie ends up surrendering her scared little girl to be lead away by the Nazi and to keep her son with her.
The question arises: if Sophie had the opportunity to think clearly enough to make a moral decision--if she had the presence of mind to make a rational choice--what should she have chosen to do?
A consequentialist would most likely argue that the correct moral choice would be to save at least one of her children. This would be so despite the psychological trauma it would cause for Sophie; having to live the rest of her life with the knowledge that she participated in the evil that brought about the death of her beloved child.
On the other hand, a virtue ethicist would take a different approach. I want to suggest that the correct moral judgment in that case (give the fact that any rational capacity could be mustered in that situation) would be to let both children be taken away by the Nazi! In order to figure out why, it is important to identify some relevant views held by an adherent to (at least an Aristotelian) virtue ethics:
(1) One ought always act virtuously because such actions are most noble and perfect.
(2) To act morally is to act for one's happiness.
If Sophie was acting in line with (1) (as well as the particular contingent features of the context of her moral choice), she would have concluded that it is neither noble nor perfect to participate in evil (when given the choice) and this would be exactly what she was doing if she chose which one of her children was to be executed, even if that meant that she lost both children as a consequence.
Of course, at this point, a critic would chime in and say something like, "This decision is entirely and myopically selfish. Only the most hardened of egoists would claim that one's own sense of virtue is more important than the life of one's own children!" And, what about principle (2)? Surely is not for the sake of a mother's happiness that they would let both of her children die when she could save one of them! What kind of strange notion of happiness is being employed here? "I suppose," a critic may say, "that the happiness that one would be acting for in this situation would be the happiness of a dogmatist knowing that they did not compromise their relatively petty sense of honor or dignity." It is for these reasons that the charge of egoism is volleyed at a virtue ethicist; one's own sense of virtue, personal nobility and a perverted sense of happiness keeps one blinded to basic altruistic acts (By the way, this theme of sacrificing one's sense of virtue for the sake of love for another person is expressed in Lars von Trier's 1996 film, Breaking the Waves).
However, it is precisely this interpretation of (2) that is false. It is not that whenever one acts it is specifically targeted at one's own individual-here-and-now happiness. This is illustrated by Aristotle when he describes practical wisdom as the ability “to deliberate nobly about what is good and beneficial for himself, not in particular respects, such as what conduces to health or strength, but about what conduces to living well as a whole" and to act according to the goal that is sought" (VI.5). To act for the sake of happiness (eudaimonia), or beatitude, is to act for the blessedness proper to the nature of human beings as such, which is expressed by what is highest and best of human beings. It is only when one has this happiness as one's target that one can be said to participate individually in happiness. Of course, in the moment, enjoying that happiness is far off; making such decisions is heart-wrenching and horrible. One is acting not for one's private happiness but a happiness that transcends this.
In this way, the charge of egoism is unfounded. Rather than acting for a private and closed-off happiness, one is acting for the sake of what is noble and good with respect to human beings as such. In this way, if Sophie was to reject participating in the evil of the Nazi she would be acting for the happiness and perfection of herself; but not herself only, but for the happiness of her children and even the Nazi because the happiness proportionate to what is most excellent in human nature is what makes possible individual happiness. In so doing, she would be rebuffing the evil of the Nazi with charges such as, "You are are the one perpetrating evil here. Do not bring me into this; it is your choice, not mine! You ought to act according to what is most noble and good, instead of asking me to come down to lowly level. Let YOUR will be done to the ruination of your own happiness!"
Although this is a hard position to take, I think that a virtue ethicist, in order to be consistent and to make his/her position effectual, needs to avoid any moral decision that relies primarily on a consequential calculus. Rather, a consistent virtue ethics needs to be targeted squarely (and unflinchingly) at the horizon of what is uncompromisingly valuable, noble and perfect. The challenge of ethical dilemmas represented in Sophie's choice (and others such as the Trolly-Track thought experiments), is to avoid falling prey to situations that trade on consequentialist intuitions.