Virtue ethics


Origins and 4 virtues

You are the moral agent, agent centred morality and morality is a judgement about a person rather than their actions. "Arete" is Greek for "excellence"

His moral theory focuses on the achievement of man's highest good, inner wellbeing and eudaimonia. Happiness must be attained through the pursuit of virtue and actions are good when they help to achieve this. Temperance, courage, prudence and justice became known as the cardinal virtues. Plato believed that when they are in balance, a persons actions will be good

"For we are enquiring not in order to know what virtue is but in order to become good since otherwise our enquiry would be of no use"
Humans strive to achieve eudaimonia. Aristotle saw two types of virtues: Intellectual- developed by training and education, characteristics of thought and reason. Moral- developed by habit, qualities of character.
"We become just by doing just acts" for Aristotle, we all have the potential to become virtuous, but we won't all achieve it

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The Golden Mean

Aristotle believed that virtue was to be found in the Golden Mean, the striking balance between excess and deficiency. It is a lack of extremity that achieves the best function of whatever is being examined and is there to ensure it works well and in harmony.

EXAMPLE- a water tap exists to provide water, function. It provides water to quench thirst, purpose. If a huge gush comes out and drenches your clothes, there is an excess of water and it is not virtuous. If no water comes out, it is being deficient and is therefore not virtuous. If the water flows out at a normal speed this is the Golden Meand and the tap is being virtuous

Aristotle believed all humans have certain virtues that are common to all since all are human and all exist in society. Each human has a specific role in society that means they have a particular virtue that conforms to this job or social position. The Golden Mean is different for everyone. EXAMPLE: for a slave it is to be hard working and for a soldier it is to be courageous. For a banker it is to be prudent and for a sportsperson it is to be dedicated.

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The Golden Mean leads to eudaimonia. When animate objects find their Golden Mean they achieve eudaimonia, which Aristotle believed was the contentment attained when something achieves its purpose or "telos". EXAMPLE: the sportsperson when they compete in their sport but are unhappy when they are injured

Human beings live in communities and eudaimonia is designed not only to achieve personal fulfilment, contentment or happiness; it is designed to fulfil the happiness of society which brings peace and harmony. Each sector or society has a particular role and each will reach eudaimonia by fulfilling this role. When all parts of society work as a group in harmony, eudaimonia is reached. Aristotle uses the image of the human organs as when they all work the human body will work as they are working together and if this is the case then the body will be healthy and each group/organ does this by fulfilling their Golden Mean

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The virtuous life

Virtue ethics is based on character traits. Robert Adams states that virtue cannot be self contained and a virtuous person has to do something to reveal their virtue which is morally good. Jesus "you will know them by their fruits" - Matthew 7:16. A moral agent needs examples of people who have been virtuous in order to search for theirs and they will then become more virtuous by admiring people who possessed virtue.

Humans are prone to moral weakness which Adams called "moral frailty". Moral agents are meant to be strong willed and dedicated to virtue. Adams points out that life is not like that as modern psychology shoes that the human character is complex. A person may be virtuous in one aspect of their life but not in another. Adams points out the Christian tradition that all humans are sinners "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23).

Many are keen on the strength of moral properties needed to become more virtuous John Doris however states that "virtues are supposed to be robust traits" which include kindness, courage, justice, fairness etc. However, Alasdair Macintyre argued that these traits are a wish list no human being can possess and no human being can possess all the virtues and he questioned whether a virtue shopping list has any value at all

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Modern virtue ethics

In the twentieth century there was a revival of interest in virtue ethics by philosophers who were unhappy with act-centred ethical theories. Modern versions of virtue ethics argue that the assessment of a person's character is an important aspect of our ethical thought and needs to be included in any ethical theory

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G.E.M. Anscombe

Anscombe published a paper called 'Modern Moral Philosophy' and put forward the idea that modern moral philosophy is misguided, asking if there can be any moral laws if there is no God - what do right and wrong mean without a lawgiver? She suggests an answer in the idea of eudaimonia which does not depend on God

She thought that act-based ethics do not make sense because it ignores a belief people no longer hold, and in stressing the principle of autonomy it neglects the community aspects of morality

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Philippa Foot

Foot attempted to modernise Aristotle's virtue ethics while still keeping the Aristotelian understanding of character and virtue. She recognises the importance of the person's own reasoning in the practice of virtue, claims that the virtues benefit the individual by leading to flourishing and stresses that the virtuous person does far more than conform to the conventions of society. Foot argues that a virtue does not operate as a virtue when turned to a bad end (when someone needs daring to commit a murder). Virtues are good for us and also help us to correct harmful human passions and temptations

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Alasdair MacIntyre

In his book After Virtue, MacIntyre claims that ethical theories have simply resulted in ethical disagreements. He claims the result of this is that people do not think there are any moral truths and consider one opinion to be as good as any other opinion. He argues that most people's attitudes today are based one motives my - moral statements are neither true nor false but simply express the feelings and attitudes of the speaker. He says that people often speak and act as if emotivism was true.

MacIntyre looked at what has happened to ethics, thought through history and concluded that the Age of Enlightenment, which gave rise to many ethical theories, had lost sight of the idea of morality being people achieving their true telos. MacIntyre wants to restore the idea that morality should be seen in terms of human purpose, but he thought it would not be possible to restore Aristotle's theory of function and so he attempts to make human function, and so human human virtue, depend on community. It is the shared practices of a community which help cultivate virtues. These virtues improve and evolve over time; there is a difference between the Homeric virtues: strength, courage and honour, the Aristotelian virtues: courage, justice, temperance and prudence and the Christian virtues outlined by Aquinas. For MacIntyre virtues are "any virtues which sustain the households and communities in which men and women seek for good together" and he opposes much of the individualism of today.

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Rosalind Hursthouse

Hursthouse has a very Aristotelian framework for her virtue ethics, even though she does not agree with all of Aristotle's conclusions. She defends a version of virtue ethics which claims that virtues are virtues be chase they help a person achieve eudaimonia and so living a virtuous life is a good thing for a human being. Similarly to Julia Annas, she sees the virtues as shaping the virtuous person's practical reasoning in characteristic ways, and not simply as sharing that person's attitudes or actions. For Hursthouse being virtuous is the most reliable path to flourishing and she seems to think that no other path is as reliable. She also attempts to address the major criticism of virtue ethics that it provides no guidance in moral dilemmas - not by telling us how a virtuous person would act, but by showing how a virtuous would think about a moral dilemma

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Michael Slote

Slots describes virtue ethics as being mostly based on our common-sense ideas and intuitions about what counts as a virtue, and prefers to use the word 'admirable' to describe an action, rather than 'good' or 'excellent' which need qualifying and explaining. He sees the opposite as a 'deplorable' action, which can mean both foolish and careless and morally blameworthy actions. He describes virtue as "an inner trait or disposition of the individual", so a virtue is a kind of balanced caring between those who are close to us, namely family and friends, and people in general. He goes on to say that morally admirable caring could, in some way, copy the sort of love we have for those to whom we are close and will always express balanced caring. However, his view does not seem to allow a wide range of actions by the person facing a moral dilemma , as a wide range of actions could be fitted into a life that showed balanced caring and does not seem to help very much when having to choose between a family member and strangers

Agent focused theories understand the moral life in terms of what it is to be a virtuous person, where virtues are inner dispositions. On the other hand, agent-based theories evaluate actions according to the inner life and motive of the people who do such actions. He says there are many human traits we find admirable such as kindness and compassion, and we can identify these by looking at people we admire. Slots focuses on care and concern for others and empathy - he looks at the motives more than the community aspect of virtues

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Another modern version of virtue ethics was developed by feminist writers such as Annette Baier. They claim that men often think morally in terms of justice and autonomy, which could be seen as 'masculine' traits, whereas women think morally in terms of caring, nurturing and self-sacrifice. Baker advocates a views of ethics that takes account of our natural biases. Writers who discuss the ethics of caring do not always make explicit links with virtue ethics, but much in their discussion of specific virtues, their relation to social practices, moral education and so on, is central to virtues ethics.

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