Virtue Ethics

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Key Words for Virtue Theory

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Key Words

Arete: Relates to the idea of excellence. However, it is not a moral excellence but rather the way in which a thing fulfils its job.

Eudaimonia: Greek for happiness, flourishing or a state of contentment

Agent-centered: Concerned with the moral agent, i.e. the person who makes the ethical decision or is primarily affected by one.

Telos: Greek for end, i.e. eudainonia is the telos of all things

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What is Virtue Theory?

  • also known as Aretaic Ethics
  • concerned with the idea of human character or the character of the moral agent
  • asks how you can become a better
  • interested in defining good people and the qualities which make them good
  • right character comes before right behaviour
  • concerned with the process of how to become a moral person - once you have become a moral person, you will do the right thing
  • a virtuous person is one who has a natural disposition to do what is good
  • virtue theory is naturalistic as it moves away from the idea of obeying rules (absolutism)
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Aristotle (384-322 BC)

  • wrote 'Nicomachean Ethics'
  • argued that whenever we do something we do it to gain an end
  • the ultimate end is the chief good / greatest good
  • described virtuous activity as 'naturally pleasing'
  • Eudaimonia is what makes a person truely happy and is the life goal which all should persue
  • we can only achieve Eudaimonia through practice, like an archer on his target
  • all people could achieve this put few will do so because self control is essential
  • there are superior and subordinate aims but everything is subordinate to the supreme good (happiness through contemplation)
  • Supreme Happiness / Eudaimonia is for the whole community not the individual
  • four of Aristotle's 12 virtues becames known as Cardinal Virtues in Christian writing:Prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance
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Aristotle 2

Virtuous People = those who enjoy doing good and face no moral dilemma

 Continent People = are virtuous most of the time but have to overcome moral dilemma

Incontinent People = face moral conflict but choose a vice

Vicious People = do not attempt to be virtuous

Two Types of Virtue

  • 12 moral virtues that are cultivated by habit (eg. Sincerity, courage, modesty)
  • for each of these moral virtues there is a Virtuous / Golden Mean which lies betweendeficiency and excess = we must behave in a proportionate way
  • 5 intellectual virtues developed through training and education: Prudence, intuitive intelligence, wisdom, scientific knowledge and craft

ExamplesCowardice (lack of) -> Courage (golden mean) -> Rashness (too much)

                 Boorishness (lack of) -> Wittiness (golden mean) -> Buffoonery (too much)

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  • wrote 'Modern Moral Philosophy'
  • widely regarded as having triggered modern interest in Virtue Theory
  • criticised moral theories which allowe any act if it brought about some good end (eg. Utilitarianism)
  • criticised deontological and teleological ethical theories for being preoccupied with law and taking no account of human emotion
  • She argued that we should return to the ideals of aristotilian virtue and human florishing; a morality that is more agent-centered
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  • wrote 'After Virtue'
  • morality should be focused on Aristotle's idea of developing your telos (end/purpose) or we may lose our moral wisdom
  • saw a 'moral society' as one in which people agree virtues and aspire to them - we should encourage society to assist in developing virtues that are relevant to these times
  • for example, he saw the stories of great heros, like Achilles, as visions of morality
  • a person's actions describe their morality - the way we behave provides oppertunities for others to judge our virtuous
  • 'right' and 'wrong' are subjective - for example, someone who practices courage to rob a bank cannot be seen as virtuous
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Keenan (1998) Summary of Virtue Theory

  • Who am I?
  • Who ought I to become?
  • How do I get there?
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  • wrote 'Virtues and Vices'
  • believes humans do not cope well without virtues (e.g. Siria/Zimbabwe, where virtues like justice and charity are lacking, are 'wretched places to live')
  • just as people need strength and health, so they need virutes = communities cannot be happy without virtues
  • like strength and health are excellences of the body, virtues are excellences of the will
  • people are judged by their moral intentions
  • virtues come from our intentions and out wish to act
  • understands that, in some situations, being virtuous may be mroe demanding than in other situations
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Strengths of Virtue Theory

  • Virtues appeal to both secular and religious morality as it is compatible with religious beliefs and no belief at all
  • Virtue ethics encourages us to become better people and improve ourselves by aspiring to the virtues of people such as Martin Luther King 
  • Does not try to solve every problem - it just equips us with virtues to do good (Aquinas would argue against - should use absolute rules) 
  • encompasses all aspects of life rather than just particular actions
  • positively sees every moment as an oppertunity for acquiring or developing a virtue through practice
  • more proactive and positive than dilemma-based ethics
  • avoids many of the pitfalls of ethical systems which use absolutes
  • teaches a person how to get there without imposing rules 
  • reaches beyond religious ethics and looks for the good of society through the betterment of each individual
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Weaknesses of Virtue Theory

  • Concentrates too much on the individual 
  • A golden mean is usually seen as virtuous but it could be foolish in some situations
  • Virtues will sometimes clash with each other. Which one is more important in each situation?
  • At what point does a virtue become a vice? Aristitle said that it would depend on the situation and is not a fixed point. Is this too subjective and lacking in precision?
  • Aristotle's teachings on virtue are aimed at more masculine attributes such as bravery and comradeship rather than more feminine virtues

Annas (1992) - there may be some value in the virtue approach but we must not romanticise and believe it is good just because it is old

Louden (1997) 'On some vices of Virtue Ethics'

  • Virtue theory does not provide answers to specific moral dilemmas and leavers the user to work out for themselves the best course of action
  • each person may have a different opinion on what is virtuous = too vague?

Foot - in matters of justice and charity, it may be that an individual has to sacrifice their own interests for those of others

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Practical Application of Virtue Theory

Happy Hens

  • based in Etwall
  • works with / employs young people at risk of offending or re-offending
  • works with the individual to rebuild virutes from within

Barwell Case

  • Leicestershire
  • Fiona Pilkington killed herself and her daughter following years of abuse
  • project aimed to rebuild the community and ensure nothing like this happened again
  • rebuild the virtues of the community
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