Virtue Ethics notes summary

  • Created by: josie
  • Created on: 25-02-14 20:49


Virtue ethics- concerned with what sort of person you should become. Defines the good life and what constitutes a good person. Not concerned with what you ought to do.

Virtues+ Aristotle- End goal in life is Eudaimonia (flourishing). This involves living well and sibsequently being happy. Good life does not involve activley seeking happiness. It involves cultivating the moral virtues of a good character.

  • Moral virtues: courage, temperance, modestly, gentleness etc...
  • Virtues: not laws/rules/principles. They are dispositions to behave in certain ways.
  • Dispositions: to do it regularly and predictably. We must therefore distinguish between individual acts that ppear virtuous and actually possessing the virtue.
  • Example: A generous person would give regularly to charity and devote time to others.
  • A person's sipositions to behave in certain ways must be deeply entrenched and be linked to the essential nature and character of the person.
  • A genuinley virtous person is virtuous all the time and freely chooses to act in this way.
  • Example: if someone has the virtue of honesty, honesty will come naturally and easily. They mut want to be honest.
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Developing virtues and acting virtuously

  • Aristotle-list of vitues asociated with a feeling. To have any virtue invovles having the associated feeling to the right degree. Moral virtues fall between too vices- excess and deficiency. 
  • Example: Courage is a moral irtue associated with the feeling of fear. Not enough fear=foolhardy. Too much fear=cowardice. 
  • The right way to act is to fing the Golden Mean. The perfect balance. Being virtuous involves having the right feelings to the right degree all of them time towards the right people.
  • Acheived through intellect- process of practical wisdom (phronesis): the ability to successfully act virtuously and do the right thing in any given situation without recourse to a formal decision making procedure e.g. GHP/ categorical imperative. 
  • Being virtous is a matter of degree and not easily obtained.
  • You must train until being virtous is no longer a great effort. Then you are genuinley virtuous.
  • Gaining moral virtues involves learning by doing. 
  • Exampe: become a good pianist by practicing/ Good golfer by playing golf.
  • "We are what we repeatadly do... excellence then, is not an act but a habit".
  • We can learn from virtuous role models- they exhibit the attitudes and dispositions applied appropiately within the context of life. More useful than considering deontological rules.
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Support- emphasis on character

Example 1: John and Joan both give £100 to the 100,000 people starving in Ethiopia. John does so because he feels deep sorrow, Joan doe sit out of duty but feels nothing.

Example 2: Jack and Jill both have the opportunity to rob money form the bank where they work. Jill never has the urge but Jack wrestles with temptation.

In both cases we would want to say the person whose virtous character provided the basis for the moral action was more moral than the other.

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Against 1- No guidance

  • Strength of utilitarianism and Deontology is that they provide a set of principles that are explicitly action guiding and can be applied by all- even the non-virtuous person can perform moral actions using the guiding principles provided.
  • Virtue Ethics is unable to provide any guidance that amoutns to a decision procedure.
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Responses (they don't guide, ethics does)

Response- appear to guide action but failt to do so:

  • Fail to take into account the complexities of moral decision making and action in the real world
  • The fact that Virtue Ethics with it's unique focus, is unable to provide explicit principles for action that do not require careful deliberation/thought is a strength.]It accuratley reflects that morality cannot be turned on/off. It must be examined/considered/reflected.
  • Example: Being a good pianist cannot be reduced to following a set of rules/fixed formula.
  • Being morally good annot be reduced to a set of principles+rules- requires training and learning

Response: Does guide action

  • Once the virtues are identified, the application of these virtues will provide guidance. The application of the virtue and avoidance of the vice requires careful deliberartion (practical reason) and will not always have the same outcome but this is part of the complexity of life.
  • List of virtues may be short but there are many vices we can identify and agree upon- source of valuable guidance. E.g.- lying, rudeness, disloyalty, arrogance etc...
  • Provides a irm basis for action and as much guidance as is possible/useful/desireable.
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Against 2&3- epistemological problems

1) Knowing virtues:

  • How do we decide which the correct virtues/vices are? Without some moral principles that serve as criterion, making these decisions is not possible
  • Example- how do we decide kindness is a vrtue? is it because unkindness is bad/ has undesireable consequences?
  • Virtue ethics requires supplementing in one way or another with a set of moral criteria to underpin virtue. 

2) Cultural relativism:

  • What is considered virtous varies form time and place.
  • Example 1- Aristotle thought pride was a virtue. In Christianity this is a vice. Christianity thinks love, compassion and humility are virtues but Aristotle did not.
  • Example 2- Capitalist societies see acquisitiveness as a virtue, communists do not.
  • Such differences indicate virtue ethics is at best culturally relative.
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Response- not a problem

Several options:

1) Accept it is culturally relative.

2) Construct a list of 'best virtues' from across cultures an generations- but this leaves us with the problem of which to choose and on what basis.

3) Compose a core set of virtues common to all cultures in all societies.

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Against 4- moral conflicts

  • Conflicts between virtues arise and it is not clear virtue ethics can provide guidance for moral decision making in these cases.
  • Example: asked a question to which a truthful response would be hurtful- "do you think i'm ugly?"- should you be kind and lie/ should you tell the truth. 

Response- conflicts are only apparent

  • Those in possession of practical wisdom will perceive in any situation virtues do not make opposing demands/ one virtue may outrank another/one virtue has exceptions applicable to the situation.
  • Above example: kind thing to do is being honest/ virtue to be thruful overides virtue to be kind.
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Support- moral motivation and guidance

  • Being virtuous involves having the right character and this drives moral action.
  • The detatched rules/codes of other theories are impotent to explaining motivation.
  • Virtue ethics acknowledges human beings are not just rational- these non-rational elements are morally significant. It provides a realisitc account of moral motivation.
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