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Virtue Ethics Another amusing and easy topic for A 2 ethics
Virtue Ethics begins with Aristotle, who was a student of Plato and, ultimately, rejected Plato’s teachings. This disagreement gave rise to a fundamental dispute in moral philosophy: what is good? Plato gave a ‘metaphysical’ account of goodness. He regarded the good as something real – the ultimate reality which is the source of our being. Thus, our job is to contemplate the good. That is the ultimate aim of philosophy. Aristotle, meanwhile, criticised what Plato had said about goodness. He instead gave a naturalistic and psychological account of good – it is a part of our natural dispositions as human beings. This led Aristotle to the idea of purpose. Ethical life means living in tune with our natural purpose of rational and virtuous behaviour. This makes Aristotle’s virtue ethics a ‘teleological’ system. Nice beard Plato, but you haven’t understood the nature of goodness. It is natural, not metaphysical.
Aristotle’s Ethics • Discussed in his book Nicomachean Ethics • Instead of offering ‘normative ethics’ (i. e. claims about what is right or wrong), Aristotle put forward a system which is ‘aretaic’ (arête is Greek for ‘excellence’), focused on the character of the individual. In other words, aretaic virtue ethics focuses upon the desire to be a person of a certain quality. • Aristotle thought that the purpose in our life is to become happy by practising the ‘skill’ of virtuous behaviour. This ultimate aim (telos – Greek) is called eudaimonia (‘well-spirited’ – so roughly, ‘flourishing’), referring to the idea that the person practising virtue feels fulfilled and content. “[Pleasure] is also thought to be most important for the forming of a virtuous character to like and dislike the right things. ”
Qualities of Happiness and the Human Valuing pleasure, however, can be unclear: what is happiness? Aristotle distinguished between three types of happy people: • • • Pleasure seekers are driven by basic desires (food, sex) Honour seekers are driven by their reputations (politicians) Lovers of contemplation are philosophers and thinkers Pleasure seekers follow the lowest form whereas contemplation lovers achieve what is best. The ‘servile’ masses prefer pleasure, but not philosophers. Humans have the distinctive power of reasoning, which makes them the ‘rational animals’ and so they should strive for what is better. The human soul itself is divided into the rational and irrational parts. The key aspect of the rational human soul is its division into the scientific and calculative, which holds a priori knowledge and makes decisions. Virtue Ethics involves a person making full and harmonious use of the soul.
The Virtues For Aristotle, the good life meant following the doctrine of the mean, the middle path between extremes. Being virtuous means being neither deficient nor excessive, but properly balanced. For instance, it is virtuous to have courage by avoiding a deficiency of courage (cowardice) and avoiding excessive courage (rashness). One learns to pick up the right balance of behaviour through practice and habit. Aristotle distinguished between intellectual and moral virtues, setting out what he saw as 12 key moral virtues with their corresponding deficiencies and excesses. Examples Modesty is a virtue. Those deficient in modesty are shameless, but those excessive in modesty are bashful. Wittiness is a virtue. Those deficient in wit are boorish, but those excessive in wit are guilty of buffoonery.
WARNING: Deficiency of Virtue in our useless modern world! After years of Virtue Ethics being unfashionable, in 1958 the philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe wrote in ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’ that all of our modern morality is misguided – just plain wrong. We have mistakenly supposed that ‘goodness’ is a property of actions rather than of people. To resolve this mess, Anscombe proposed that we turn back to Aristotle and rediscover the idea of personal virtue.
The Mac Attack: Virtue is Back • • • Having been inspired by ethicists like Anscombe, the philosopher Alasdair Mac. Intyre wrote a hugely influential book After Virtue. Essentially, he considers the history of Virtue Ethics and attempts to produce a version of the system which can work in the modern age. Mac. Intyre observes that ancient societies developed a series of virtues agreed by their inhabitants. The high point of this, claims Mac. Intyre, was the Athenian Virtues of Aristotle. However, since the Enlightenment, rational philosophers have sought to give a single account of the cause of ethics, ignoring the most important aspect: individual practice. Mac. Intyre argues that having a set of agreed virtues for our society could help to give life purpose and meaning. He suggests: courage, justice, temperance, wisdom, industriousness, hope, and patience. Mac. Intyre claimed that if we all willed to put such virtues into practice in our lives, it could give morality a fresh start.
Key strengths The Virtues of Virtue Ethics allows that we learn about ethics over time. Surely that’s realistic. Virtue Ethics is flexible, because it does not prescribe absolute duties. The theory allows that ideas of virtue will vary among cultures. Martha Nussbaum has argued that Virtue Ethics is compassionate and caring because it takes the whole person into account. It is interested in the wellbeing and fulfilment of the individual.
The Vices of Virtue Ethics The theory does not give clear moral rules and guidance, unlike Kantian ethics or Natural Moral Law. Robert Louden has claimed that Virtue Ethics cannot resolve moral dilemmas, because it does not tell us what to do. D’oh! Hugo Grotius argued that truth and justice are not middle ways, but ethical absolutes. Virtue Ethics does not deal with the problem of people doing wrong, thinking that they are acting virtuously. Some things are always wrong (Louis Pojman suggests torturing the innocent). We need moral systems which absolutely forbid these things, but Virtue Ethics doesn’t. Key