Virtue Ethics

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What Is Virtue Ethics?

This focuses on how to be a good person, not right and wrong. It looks at what makes a good person and the qualities/virtues that make them good. 

Virtue ethics is agent-centered morality, meaning it asks 'what sort of person ought I to be?' rather than 'how ought I to act?'. 

The Greek word for virtue, arete, means excellence, meaning a virtuous person is one that does thing excellently all the time. This isn't only about people, e.g. a knife has excellence when it cuts sharply.

Plato And Virtue

Plato's moral theory centres around the achievement of man's highest good, which involves the right improvement/preparation of the soul and the well being of his life (eudaimonia). Happiness must be attained through pursuing virtues, a good action is one that helps to achieve this. 

Plato considered certain virtues as central, Cardinal Virtues, and said when these virtues are in balance a person's actions will be good. However, agreement amongst which virtues are central was different between the Greek philosophers. 

Aristotle And Virtue

Aristotle explained that the point of engaging in ethics is to become good:

"For we are enquiring to become good since otherwise our enquiry would be of no use"

He distinguishes between things which are good for means (for the sake of something else) and things which are good for ends (for their own sake only). He sees the one final good, over riding everything else, as eudaimonia

Aristotle's ethics is known as Virtue ethics because at the centre of his description of the good are the virtues which shape human character and ultimately human behaviour. He suggests human flourishing is a life chacterised by virtues. 

However, the good human life is one lived in harmony and co-operation with other people, as he saw us as rational and social beings. We live in groups and the well being of the group is more important than that of a single member. 

Acquiring virtues

Aristotle saw two types of virtues:

  • intellectual virtues developed by training and education
  • moral virtues developed by habit

He compares the virtues to skills acquired through practice and habit:

"We acquire virtues by first doing virtuous acts. We acquire a skill by practising the activities involved in the skill"

To become virtuous is like playing an instrument - it needs teaching and practice before it can be done well. We are all capable of being virtuous, we just need to get into the habit of doing so from childhood.

However, he believed that while all people have the potential to develop moral and intellectual virtues, only few will actually do so - for Aristotle these are gentleman philosophers - today this could be interpreted as it partly depending on social factors: where we're brought up and the environment in which we live. 

A person that achieved eudaimonia was someone who used their reason well. Aristotle saw reason as the supreme human virtue, but he didn't think


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