Virtue Ethics

Aristitilian virtue ethics and modern perspectives on virtue theory.

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In order to achive eudaimonia, he believed that you had to practice the skills or virtues that lead to happiness.

There are two types of virtues:

1. Intellectual virtues - developed by training yourself and becoming educated

2. Moral virtues - developed by practice and habit

There are also four cardinal virtues that he considered to be the way to live a life that flourishes: moderation, justice, courage and prudence (practical wisdom/phronesis).

For Debate: Do these cardinal virtues cover and encompass all other virtuous acts? Are they all we should ever develop?

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Aristotle taught that there are two different vices that accompany every virtue:

- The vice of deficiency is the distinct lack of virtues

- The vice of excess is entirely too much of the virtue

At some point between the two vices exists the virtue which he named the doctrine of the mean (the golden mean).


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

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

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Modern Perspectives

Elizabeth Anscombe:

  • Act and consequence based ethics do not have the foundation to provide moral guidelines because they rely too heavily on the idea of punishment and reward, either by a divine law-giver or by consequence
  • She argued that we should return to the ideals of aristotilian virtue ethics; a morality that is more agent-centered
  • She also believed that other ethical theories focused too much on autonomous actions, disregarding the social aspect of morality that unites a community
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Modern Perspectives

Philippa Foot:

  • She attempts to update virtue theory whilst still maintaining its aristotilian roots 
  • Virtues are a way for humans to flourish by correcting tendencies that we normally have towards vices
  • For example, she would say that humans have an inclination towards self-interest which can be corrected by practicing compassion
  • Foot cautions that virtues don't necessarily guarantee happiness, but they do move you in the right direction as long as you use them in the correct way (to bring about a good outcome)
  • For example, someone who practices courage to rob a bank cannot be seen as virtuous
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Modern Perspectives

Alasdair MacIntyre:

  • Everyone needs to focus their morality on Aristole's idea of developing your telos, otherwise we are in danger of losing our 'moral wisdom'
  • This is because, according to MacIntyre,modern ethical morality has lost its way
  • Words such as right and wrong are purely subjective which makes them meaningless
  • For MacIntyre, virtues are something that is judged in a society by other people
  • He argues that we should encourage society to assist in developing virtues that are relevant to these times
  • This implies that the virtues outlined by historical figures, such as Aristotle, are not necessarily the virtues that will help people in the 20th century to flourish
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Modern Perspectives

Richard Taylor:

  • Taylor was very outspocken about the bad influence religion has on morality
  • He argued that religious teachings undermine human flourishing and achieving eudaimonia
  • He referred to the Christian teaching of 'blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth'
  • If the meek inherit the earth, what encouragement is there then to be a good person and to strive for moral excellence if all you need to do is lie back and wait for the inheritence?    
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Modern Perspectives

Michael Slote:

  • Replace the words 'good' and 'bad' for 'admirable' and 'deplorable'
  • If something is either 'admirable' or 'deplorable', then we know by definition what the right action to persue is going to be
  • Virtue is an inner trait
  • We need a balance between actions for ourselves and actions for society
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Strengths of Virture Ethics


  • Places emphasis on examining the character of a person (Philippa Foot - worth in the individual)
  • Human relationships, emotions and responsibilities are viewed as important (Skinner would argue against - mould people's emotions and wants to create a perfect society)
  • It is a logical theory, as it focuses on our practical reasoning and the traits that will help society prosper
  • Morality is complex and can't be found in maxims such as 'the greatest good for the greatest number' (Any rule/maxim based ethic would oppose this)
  • Does not try to solve every problem - it just equips us with virtues to do good (Aquinas would argue against - should use absolute rules) 
  • 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 
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Weaknesses of Virtue Ethics


  • Concentrates too much on the individual (Use Utlitarianism instead - 'greatest good for the greatest number')
  • 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
  • It doesn't provide a method for knowing what to do in any given situation, except just to be virtuous. Some people may argue that virtue ethics provides no answers 
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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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