Virtue Ethics

  • Created by: Estheexd
  • Created on: 09-03-15 17:41

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.

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After virtue – Alasdair MacIntyre

Most moral theories try to work out what the right or good thing to do is. They tend to suggest a set of principles for working out the best choice.

·         According to utilitarian’s, the right thing to do is that which results in the greatest good for the greatest number.

·         For situationists, it’s the thing that causes the most loving consequence.

·         In Natural law the right thing is that is in accordance with the purpose of what it is to be human

Other moral theories have no moral rules as such – morality is whatever’s right for you.  Virtue Theory rejects these approaches instead of focusing on what the right thing to do is virtue theory ask how you can be a better person.

Most theories concentrate on defining good acts, but virtue theory is interested in defining good people and the qualities that make them good. The roots of virtue theory are in Greek literature, especially Aristotle, but new interested has generated by a number of modern writers.

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Virtue Ethics – Aristole

Aristotle was influence in his thinking by his idea that all things and all human beings have a purpose – a telos. For humans, Aristotle, maintained that the ultimate goal is human flourishing and developing characteristics that are best suited to the realisation of a virtuous human being. He emphasis on the fact that it’s not what people do but what kind of person they are  although being a kind person is essentially accomplished by practising acts of kindness until the habit of being kind is firmly established in a person’s character

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The nature of humanity

Aristotle thought that humans were like animals – they both need air and food – but more importantly they have a capacity for rational thought. The purpose of man, he claimed is rational thought and his highest good is to be found in intellect virtue. Some of the virtues Aristotle included are: courage, temperance, liberality and magnificence, greatness of soul, good temper, being agreeable in company, wittiness and modesty.  Aristotle believes these virtues are the qualities that lead to a good life, a quality of happiness he described as eudemonia, which involves being happy and living well. As it is an intrinsic value and is not a means to an end. A person who has developed the virtues will be able to act in an integrated way, deriving satisfaction from doing the right thing, deriving satisfaction from the doing the right thing because it’s the right thing and not for external goals. 

For Aristotle, the right way to act is the golden mean, it is discovered by the intellect and leads to genuine wisdom and moral virtue. The golden mean between cowardice and foolhardiness for example is courage, a virtue which man is not born with but which he should cultivate in the way he might cultivate health and wisdom.

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The two types of virtues and how we acquire them

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.

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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.

Example: Courage

  • Vice of deficiency: cowardice
  • Virtuous mean: courage
  • Vice of excess: rashness
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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.

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Eudaimonia, or 'happiness', is the supreme goal of human life. Aristotle believed that everything has a purpose - the good for a knife is to cut, and a good knife is one that cuts well. In the same way, Eudaimonia is the 'good' for a person.

Aristotle draws a distinction between superior and subordinate aims. Why do I study ethics? Maybe to get a qualification. I get the qualification to get a good job, and I want a good job because... These are subordinate aims. At some point you stop and say 'because that would make me happy' - and this becomes the superior aim. 'Eudaimonia' is the end goal or purpose behind everything we do as people, and is desired for its own sake.

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Moral, Intellectual and Cardinal Virtues

Moral Virtues: The good life involves developing a good character. Moral virtues are cultivated by habit. To become a generous person, I must get into the habit of being generous. Put another way, it is not enough to be told that I should be patient. To become patient, I need to practice patience. It is very difficult to translate some of Aristotle's moral virtues. 'Liberality' and 'Magnificence' (popular in many translations) both seem to mean generosity. The following list is an attempted translation: courage, temperance, big-heartedness, generosity, high-mindedness, right ambition, patience, truthfulness, wittiness, friendliness, modesty, righteous indignation

Intellectual Virtues: Intellectual virtues are qualities of mind developed through instruction. They are: practical skill, knowledge, common sense, intuition, wisdom;  resourcefulness, understanding, judgement, cleverness

Cardinal Virtues: The cardinal virtues are temperance, courage, wisdom and justice. These virtues work together, and it would not be enough to have one of these alone. Temperance and courage are moral virtues - we get into the habit of acting bravely. We learn self-control by practicing restraint. Developing right judgement requires training - we are educated in the skill of weighing up a situation. In out courts, judges don't just learn on the job, they require years of training before they earn the title 'Justice'. Wisdom sits above all of the other virtues, the culmination of years of learning.

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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
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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
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