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Actioncentred approaches to ethics (e.g., consequentialism, deontology) focus on the question
of what one should do. Agentcentred approaches, by contrast, focus on the question of what
sort of person one should be (e.g., Should I be brash or humble? Sensitive or toughminded?).
Virtue ethics (VEs) are agentcentred in this sense. In general, they claim that one ought to
develop certain character traits (virtues) while one ought not to develop certain others (vices).
Virtue ethicists typically (but not invariably see, e.g., Michael Slote's work) contend that
what makes a certain character trait a virtue is the contribution it makes to a person's
`flourishing' or `wellbeing', the role it plays in `the good life'. So, for instance, in maintaining
that honesty is a virtue, the virtue ethicist will typically be claiming that in order to flourish or
live well one must be honest, that the life of the dishonest man must be somehow lacking.
An example of a virtue ethic: Aristotle's ethics
Aristotle (384 322 BCE) scientist and philosopher, pupil of Plato, teacher of Alexander the
Great. Note the influence of his studies of biology on his philosophy.
Aristotle begins his Nicomachean Ethics, by stating that the proper subject of ethics is the
good of man (note the bias here) the job of ethics, he says, is to determine what it is for man
to flourish, what it is for him to `live well' or to lead the `good life'.
But what does it mean to live well? The `function' argument: all living things have an essential
`function' (ergon) (e.g., sunflowers, to grow tall and attract insects ducks, to swim). They
can be said to flourish when they exercise this function. The function of humans is to reason
therefore, the good life for human beings will involve the exercise of reason.
Like other ancient Greek authors, Aristotle uses a special term to refer to human wellbeing:
`eudaimonia'. This is often translated as `happiness' however, it's important to realise that
eudaimonia isn't a psychological state. Instead, it refers to the quality of one's life as a
whole. So the good life, the life of eudaimonia, is one that one could look back on with pride
on one's deathbed. It's a life well lived.
The connection with the virtues here is that Aristotle argues that the life of eudaimonia would
exemplify character traits such as courage, justice, temperance, and so on. So to get to grips
with what eudaimonia actually is one has to understand something about the virtues in terms
of which it is defined.
Moreover, in order to understand Aristotle's account of the virtues, it is necessary to get to
grips with his conception of practical wisdom (phronsis). For Aristotle claims that it is
through exercising his practical wisdom that the virtuous man sees what the virtuous thing is to
do in any particular situation.
More precisely, practical wisdom determines virtue as a `mean' between two kinds of vice:
e.g. vice (deficiency) virtue vice (excess)
recklessness courage cowardice
stinginess generosity extravagance, prodigality
asceticism, austerity temperance overindulgence
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Practical wisdom contrasted with theoretical wisdom. 1) Practical wisdom is like a kind of
perception: the practically wise man sees the right (i.e., virtuous) thing to do in any particular
situation. 2) Practical wisdom is bound up with your desires, in the sense that someone who
sees the right thing to do will also want to do it.…read more