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Aristotle and Virtue Ethics
Aristotle lived in ancient Greece in the 4th century BC and was born into a wealthy family.
He was an empiricist philosopher who believed that the knowledge of the world and people could
only be gained through reasoning about your sense and experiences. Thus for any theory the world
of experience was the starting point. He recorded many of his ethical theories within a book named
Nichomachean ethics which includes his virtue theory. His idea of virtue ethics derived from
Socrates and then later by Plato as well.
Aristotle created this theory as he was dissatisfied with today's way of doing ethics. This is
an action based theory, one should ask "Who will I become (if I do this act)?" rather than "What
will bring the best consequences?" In more detail, this is divided up into three more questions, "Who
am I?" "Who ought I become?" and "How am I to get there?" All three of these questions mention
"I" emphasising the fact that it's a person orientated ethic. Virtue ethics is "expressed in the language
or virtues and vices" as appose to rules and principles. Another point of virtue ethics is that it's
known to be very practical, it addresses all those myriad minor ethical questions, not just the
dramatic few like "Is abortion right or wrong?" A virtue ethicist concentrates on growth and the type
of character that he or she is becoming, they will have a telos in life in terms of their character.
Aristotle believed said, "Every art and every investigation and similarly ever action and
pursuit is considered to aim at some good." This quote is saying that everything one does, there is a
purpose in doing it, even though sometimes the purpose may not be crystal clear immediately, it will
become evident in the long term. Virtue ethics believes that a human's purpose is to fulfil eudaimonia
(a greek word meaning complete happiness) which means to flourish and have the right spirit. Our
purpose is found embedded in our soul. If things are allowed to fulfil its purpose then it reaches
eudaimonia. It is therefore moral for a person who lives by purpose as seen in nature. Human
purpose is to live by virtues because we flourish in this way.
Aristotle believes that human reason is the thing which seperates us from both plants and
animals. Only humans have the capacity to think about the quality of their lives. We should therefore
use this reason to work out what a good life is and then live it. This will lead us to eudaimonia.
Eudaimonia can be divided into three categories "lovers of philosophy", "lovers of
honour/community", and "loves of basic pleasures in life".
Aristotle therefore created virtues for humans to live by. A virtue is defined as "a quality of
mind or character" and it comes from the Greek word "areté". Aristotle divided the soul into 2
sections the rational and the irrational. The rational is separated into "scientific" (the section where
there is no room for debate: Simply right or wrong answers) and "calculative" (part of the mind
where it chooses what to do). This half of the soul is made up of intellectual virtues cultivated
through instruction. The irrational side is divided into "Desiderative part" (made up of wants and
desires which can be channelled, controlled or made submissive) and "vegetative part" (the cause of
nutrition and growth, those basic instincts for survival). This half is made up of moral virtues which
are cultivated through habit.
There are 21 virtues over all, 12 moral and 9 intellectual. The moral virtues fall between 2
vices the vice of excess and the vice of deficiency. For example, rashness falls in the vice of excess,
cowardice in the vice of deficiency and courage falls in the virtue. We must try to ensure that we
veer away from either the excess or the deficiency, and so hit the "mean" or midward point.
(Aristoltle is quick to point out that the midway point is not simply a numerical value). It's about
reacting to our emotions correctly. For example, if my computer stops working I could get a
hammer and smash it. This is clearly the wrong way to go about handling my anger. What I should
do is take it to the repair shop and pay for someone to service it for me. This way I am controlling
my anger perfectly. My feelings, no matter how overwhelming they are, should not drown my
reason. Feelings are important, but our virtues our attitudes towards our feelings are more
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important. What matters is what we do with our feelings so that eventually they can conform
naturally to that which reason would advocate. The mean is relative to the agent and to the
circumstance of that specific act.
The intellectual virtues are qualities of the mind such as wisdom and understanding. There
are 5 primary virtues, "Art or Technical Skill", "Scientific Knowledge", "Prudence or Practical
Wisdom", "Intelligence or Intuition" and "Wisdom". The 4 secondary virtues are "Resourcefullness",
"Understanding", "Judgement" and "Cleverness".…read more