What is Virtue Ethics?
Virtue ethics goes back to Aristotle and Plato. It focuses on how to be a good person, not what the right or wrong action is. It also looks at what makes a good person and the qualities or virtues that make them good. It is agent-centred rather than act centred, (it asks ‘What sort of person ought I to be?’ rather than ‘How ought I act?’). A virtuous person is one who does things excellently all of the time. It is the opposite of a vice. Each situation is different so a virtue in no two situations is the same. Presupposes we have freewill.
How do you work out what a virtuous act is?
- Virtue ethics can be seen as the ethics of the average
- It decides which is the correct moral virtue by deciding the middle point between two extremes
- Aristotle said there were 12 moral virtues
- Moral lies between 2 extremes
- There are no two situations that are the same
- Have to find the middle point between the two extremes
- Have to use your reason
- Plato’s moral theory is not one of judging particular actions.
- It centres around the achievement of man’s highest good, which involves the right cultivation of his soul (inner well-being) and the harmonious well-being of his life (eudaimonia or happiness).
- Happiness must be attained through the pursuit of virtue and actions are good when they help to achieve this.
- Cardinal virtues (temperance, courage, prudence and justice).
- When these virtues are in balance a person’s life will be good.
- Anthenian virtues
- The point of engaging in ethics is to become 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.
- He distinguishes between things which are good as means (for the sake of something else) and things which are good as ends (for their own sake only).
- He sees one final and overriding end of human activity, one final good- eudaimonia or happiness, human flourishing.
- Virtues shape human character and ultimately human behaviour.
- Humans are rational and social beings.
- The well-being of a group is more important than that of a single member.
What are the 4 types of people according to Aristo
1. Virtuous: Face no moral dilemma (they are good)
2. Continent: Do moral things most of the time (have to overcome dilemmas)
3. Incontinent: Face moral conflict, usually chose the vice
4. Vicious: don’t attempt to be virtuous
Virtuous people do not need any help however others need training and practice. Anyone can become virtuous by practicing and receiving the correct education.
What are the two types of vitues and how do we get
Aristotle saw two types of virtues:
1. Intellectual virtues developed by training and education
2. Moral virtues developed by habit
We acquire virtues by first doing virtuous acts. We acquire a skill by practising the activities involved in the skill. We are all capable of being virtuous and need to get into the habit of acting virtuously from childhood so that we enjoy being virtuous. While all people have the potential to develop moral and intellectual virtues, only a few will actually achieve this. A person who achieves eudaimonia is someone who used their reason well. Reason is a supreme human virtue, by this he meant moral sense, not necessarily ability to think. Reason is practical and involves both understanding and responding.
The golden mean (Doctrine of the mean)
This involves finding the balance between the two means- this is the best way to live in society, as extremes of character are unhelpful. Aristotle said that virtues are to be found between two vices, each of which involves either an excess or a deficiency of the true virtue.
- Vice of deficiency: cowardice
- Virtuous mean: courage
- Vice of excess: rashness
Is the mean the same for everyone? (Aristotle)
Aristotle said that the difference between virtue and vice in both emotions and action was a matter of balance and extremes. However, the mean is not the same for everyone and depends on circumstance- you need to apply phronesis (practical wisdom) to decide on the right course of action in each situation. Phronesis is acquired as we grow up and move away from rules and the demands of authority figures to a more autonomous, person-centred and virtue-centred morality.
What did Aristotle say about 'Habit'?
- Virtues develop naturally in a minority of people
- The doctrine of the mean helps people to work out what is the correct action they should take
- People need to be educated about the doctrine of the mean
- Then they need to practice using the doctrine of the mean to help them work out the right thing to do
Anscombe and virtue ethics
- 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 law giver?
- She suggests an idea of eudaimonia which does not depend on any God
- Act based ethics ignores the person who acts
- Act-based ethics does not make sense because it ignores a belief people no longer hold, and in stressing the principle of autonomy it neglects the community aspect of morality.
Foot and virtue ethics
- Attempted to modernise Aristotle’s virtue ethics
- She recognises the importance of a person’s own reasoning in the practise 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
- Virtues are good for us and also help us to correct harmful human passions and temptations
MacIntyre and virtue ethics
- Most people’s attitudes today are based on emotivism- moral statements are neither true nor false but simply express the feelings and attitudes of the speaker
- Theories have lost sight of the idea of morality being people achieving their true telos
- Morality should be seen in terms of human purpose, but he thought that it would not be possible to restore Aristotle’s theory of function and so he attempts to make human function, and so human virtue, depend on community
- It is the shared practices of a community which help to cultivate virtues
- There is a difference between Homeric virtues (strength, courage and honour) and Aristolein virtues (courage, justice and temperance) 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’.
Strengths of virtue ethics
- Avoids having to use a formula to work out what we ought to do and focuses on the kind of person we ought to be
- It understands the need to distinguish good people from legalists
- Stresses the importance of motivating people to want to be good
- Tells us how we learn moral principles and involves our entire life, as every moment is an opportunity for developing a virtue
- Virtue ethics sees it as good to be biased in favour of friends and family
- It does not pretend to be able to tell us what a good person would do in every possible situation but encourages us to be more like such a person so that we will not need an ethical theory to make our decisions for us
Weaknesses of virtue ethics
- Are virtues culturally relative?
- How can virtue ethics be applied to moral dilemmas?
- Seems to praise some virtues that we might see as immoral (E.G. soldiers fighting unjust wars may be courageous but that does not make them morally good
- It is difficult to decide who is virtuous, as acts which appear virtuous on the outside may not necessarily have good motives and vice versa
- Does not seem to have room for basic concepts such as rights and obligations, so as a theory of ethics it seems incapable of dealing with big issues- does not always have a view about what makes an act right or wrong
- Virtue ethics depends on some final end which gives shape to our lives-there may not be one and being virtuous may not affect it anyway