Philosophy Unit 3 - Virtue Ethics


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Where Do Virtue Ethics fit in?

Teleological Ethics;

Based upon the outcome of the act in question. For instance, an act is considered good, if it has good consequences.

Deontological Ethics;

Based upon what our duty is. For instance, we should do our duty, on the basis that it is the right thing to do - regardless of the outcome.

The problem is that one can follow either toute, but it says very little about our inner moral worth. What does it say about us? Very little. Virtue Ethics attempts to find a third way in which our duty (however we locate it) is replaced by the kind of character exhibited by the agent (Anscombe). 

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A father is watching his daughter drown in a river – naturally he loves her and jumps in to save her. Deontological ethics would not consider his leaping into the water morally good, since it was not done out duty, but love and concern for his daughter.
Or let’s imagine that at the same time, a heart surgeon falls into the water. The teleological ethicist would be forced to rescue the surgeon, since he would bring the greatest good to the greatest number of people. Most people would – perhaps rightly – consider the father a monster should he do that. Even if the utilitarian attempted to shift sides, and say that the daughter should be saved, since parental love will help make the community a better place over all, she is still making parental love a secondary feature to the benefits to the community.
Anscombe and others have been unsatisfied with these alternatives.
She says that we learn – not being told what to do (whether by the categorical imperative or by the principle of utility) but rather by learning to develop certain characteristics.
Thus virtue ethics is concerned about our educating ourselves to become better people, and so to act in a way that demonstrates the right kinds of feelings and emotions.
To understand this approach it is worth going back… way back…. To Aristotle… Tim Scanlon example…

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Who was Aristotle?

384-322 BC

Son of the Court Physician

Studied with Plato for 20 years.

Taught Alexander the Great.

Back in Athens, he founded a rival school to Plato's.

He wrote extensively on many subjects, including geography, biology, botany, astronomy, politics, philosophy and ethics.

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Three Key Concepts

Ergon - Function

Arete - Virtue

This is not understood in the prudish sense that we have today of the word, but rather it signifies excellence. To be considered virtuous, then, it would be necessary to demonstrate excellences, whether in terms of character, or in terms of ability.

Eudaimonia -Fulfilment

Not happiness in the usual hedonistic sense (a sense of satifaction or well-being), but rather flourishing or living well: not a feeling but at state. To achieve this, it is essential that we seek to exercise our full potential and capacities.

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A Question of Function

Telos, Teleology and Purpose.

To Aristotle, everything has a purpose and such, a goal. It is essential, then, to identify what a things purpose is - what is its goal, what is the purpose?

An exmaple would be an eye. its purpose is to see. If it failed in that purpose; that is, if it didn't see, then we would consider it a poor eye.

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The Human Purpose

The question here is what is unique to humans. Aristotle rejects facets of life that are shared amongst the animals, because, to Aristotle, we are not animals. There remains a key possibility - to reason, and to obey reason.

Here we can return to the other key concepts of arete and eudaimonia.

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What are the virtues, and how do we get them?

There are two broad categories of virtue:

Excellence of reasoning or intellect, which enables us to think about higher issues ('Sophia'):

  • Wisdom
  • Comprehension
  • Intelligence

Excellences of character, which enables us to control and shape our desires and emotions ('Phronesis'):

  • Temperance
  • Courage
  • Generosity

We learn these virtues in a similar way that we might learn anything (for instance, the guitar). We are not gifted with such virtues from birth, but they need to be practised and learnt until they become habitual.

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To sum up so far, what does being good in a functional sense have to do with living a good life, in the sense of striving for the good and eudaimonia? “Imagine you are a plant and you wish to flourish, according to Aristotle, you must determine what your function is – let’s say to grow, flower, reproduce, photosynthesis etc. Now that you know what your function, you seek to excel at your function. So you grow, flower, reproduce etc. and become the brightest, bushiest plant in the forest. You are good (in the functional sense) at being a plant. But clearly you are also living the life of a good plant, you are striving for and reaching the good: you are flourishing.”

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The Doctrine of the Mean

For both excessive and insufficient exercise destroy one’s strength, and both eating and drinking too much or too little destroy health, whereas the right quantity produces, increases and preserves it. So it is the same with the other virtues. The man who shuns and fears everything and stands up to nothing becomes a coward; the man who is afraid of nothing at all, but marches up to every danger, becomes foolhardy.” In identifying the virtues, it is important to find the right point between too much and too little – that intermediate point, that is just so: that is the mean For example, with humour

  • Too much humour, and you are a buffoon 

  • Not enough, and you are a boor 

  • Just right, shows wit

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Things to mention: 

  • The idea of the mean here is not the same as a mathematical mean (such as the mean of 1 and 5, being 3). The mean as such would shift for different people - for instance, the amount of food eaten by a school librarian and a wrestler. This does not mean that we fall into careless relativism - that we decide for ourselves what our particular mean is. Virtue, though relative to ourselves, is "determined by a rational principle and by that which a prudent man (phronimos) would use to determine it." Only someone who has the right amount of phronesis would be able to determine the correct rational principle
  • The mean doesn't necessarily mean moderation in all things (for instance, anger) - there may be occasions were an intense reaction is the appropraite one - i.e. is the reasonable response.
  • The doctrine of the mean only applies to those things that admit a scale od value. Some things can only denote depravity; such as malice, or amidst actions, adultery.
  • Virtue isn't determined by the outward observance of the mean, but by the inner disposition to act in such a way.
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Criticism 1 - What is our Function?

Aristotle's claim that our function is in the theoretical and practical application of our rational capacites is highly controversial, because:

  • The whole idea of having such a function has been thrown into question in a post-Darwinian age whereby life can be seen to have developed quite apart from any perceived function.
  • Just because the rational capacites are unique to humans, it doesn't mean that we can only be fulfilled through its utilisation - after all, building concentration camps is unique to humans too.
  • The ability to reason could quite easily hold-up our satisfaction with life since it may make us more fearful of the future or aware of our own shortcomings.
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Criticism 2 - The Doctrine of the Mean

The doctrine of the mean doesn't really help us to make moral decisions. When confronted with a specific moral dilemma, identifying the mean of courage or wittiness will hardly be helpful. Furthermore, Aristotle's man of virtue (the practical phronimos) will not be much use, since his identification of the mean, will be the balance for him - and not everyone shares the same virtues.

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Critcism 3 - Are the Virtues all that Virtuous?

Aristotle's list of virtues seems to include some things we might not consider virtues (magnificence), and to miss out others, which some would consider essential (humility - a clear virtues for Christianity, closer to a vice with Aristotle)

Aristotle's virtues are those of an Athenian nobleman (magnificance, for example, is knowing how to spend large sums of money). How applicable is this to ordinary people today?

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