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VIRTUE ETHICS

From Aristotle to the 21st century


Why Should I Be Moral?
Because of My Character!
Aretology
 Arete - Excellence, Strength,Virtue
 Aretaic Ethics - Strength-Centred Ethics
 Emphasizes Virtues (Strengths) and Vices
(Weaknesses) of Character
 Not “What Should I Do?” but
“What Kind of Person Should I Be?”
Socrates
 Socrates was the founder of ethical
philosophy.
 He thought we could discover
ethical guidelines by personal
reflection.
 He tried to help his students to
develop their ideas through a
question/answer discussion.
 Socrates seemed to place way too
much faith in human ability to
formulate guidelines on their own,
given the world’s complexity.
Plato
 Plato said “the good” was independent of
culture or opinion.
 Virtue was the courage to uphold the
good despite public opinion.
 You would do something for “the greater
good,” despite punishment or ridicule.
 Many editors argue “the greater good” as
a rationale for their decisions.
Aristotle’s Golden Mean

 Aristotle, Plato’s student,


was more practical.
 Aristotle said the means
were important, and that
the ends don’t justify the
means.
Aristotle & the Golden Mean
 Correct behavior can be found between
extremes.
◦ For instance, courage is the middle ground
between cowardice and foolhardiness.
◦ Pride is a virtue, if between vanity and self-
desecration.
 The Golden Mean sounds a lot like the
journalism virtue of “fairness.”
Aristotle & the Golden Mean
 He emphasized developing quality of
character, so we could make the right
decisions.
 How? By habit. If you get used to making
moral decisions, you do so automatically.
 But that puts high expectations on the
individual.
Finding Virtue
Aristotle’s Ethics
 384-322 B.C.
 The Nicomachean Ethics
 Two Kinds of Persons
◦ Continent:
 Do what is right, but not necessarily because they
want to
◦ Temperate:
 Do what is right because they want to; the more
holistic person
The Goal of Human Existence

 Eudaimonia
 Flourishing, Happiness
 A Lifelong Pursuit,
accomplished
◦ Rationally, through theoretical
wisdom and contemplation
◦ Functionally, through practical
wisdom and politics
The Goal of Human Existence & Eudaimonia
 Aimed at the “perfect happiness”
which is the perfect activity
 An excellence in any activity in
accordance with the nature of
that activity
 Thus, “Human happiness is the
activity of the soul in accordance
with perfect virtue (excellence)”.
(I.8; Pojman, 394).
The Virtues

 Intellectual Virtues
◦ Wisdom, Understanding, Prudence
◦ Taught through instruction
 Moral Virtues
◦ Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, Temperance
◦ The result of habit
◦ Not natural or inborn but acquired through practice
◦ Habit or disposition of the soul (our fundamental
character) which involves both feeling and action
 “Those strengths of character that enable us to flourish”
(Hinman)
The Virtues
 Defined / understood in terms of
spheres of human experience
Fear of important Courage
damages
Bodily appetites and Moderation
their pleasures
Distribution of limited Justice
resources
Attitude to slights and Mildness of Temper
damages
Adapted from Martha C. Nussbaum, “Non-Relative Virtues”
The Doctrine of the Mean
 Proper position between two extremes
◦ Vice of excess
◦ Vice of deficiency
 Not an arithmetic median
◦ Relative to us and not the thing
◦ Not the same for all of us, or
◦ Any of us, at various occasions
◦ “In this way, then, every knowledgeable person avoids
excess and deficiency, but looks for the mean and chooses
it” (II.6)
Virtues and the Mean
 Defined through Reason
◦ Education, contemplation, reflection
 Balanced with Other Virtues and applied using
phronesis:
◦ To have any single strength of character in full measure,
a person must have the other ones as well.*
 Courage without good judgement is blind
 Courage without perseverance is short-lived
 Courage without a clear sense of your own abilities is
foolhardy
 “The virtuous person has practical wisdom, the ability
to know when and how best to apply these various
moral perspectives.” (*Hinman)
Virtues and Community
 Virtues are defined and lived in community
 Sharing a common identity and story
 Modelling the Virtues
◦ Importance of Moral Exemplars (Saints and Heroes)
 Practicing the Virtues – Habit is Crucial!
“In a word, then, like activities produce like dispositions.
Hence we must give our activities a certain quality,
because it is their characteristics that determine the
resulting dispositions. So it is a matter of no little
importance what sort of habits we form from the earliest
age ̶ it makes a vast difference, or rather all the difference
in the world.” (II.i.) (Pojman, 396)
 Reinforcing the Virtues
Other Virtue Ethicists
 G.E.M. (Elizabeth)
Anscombe

In 1958 she published an article


called Modern Moral Philosophy
arguing
that we should return to the
virtues,
as the idea of a law without a
lawgiver
was incoherent.
Other Virtue Ethicists
 Alasdair MacIntyre
 After Virtue (1981)
Modern moral philosophy is
bankrupt; it must recover the
tradition of virtue.
Importance of Narrative as a
“live tradition” – you need to
know where ethics has come from.
Virtues change over time.
Other Virtue Ethicists
 Philippa Foot
Tries to modernise Aristotle.

Ethics should not be about dry


theorising, but about making the
world a better place (she was one of the
founders of Oxfam)

Virtue contributes to the good life.


Other Virtue Ethicists
 Rosalind Hursthouse
A neo-Aristotelian – Aristotle was
wrong on women and slaves, and
there is no need to be limited to
his list of virtues.

We acquire virtues individually, and


so flourish, but we do so together
and not at each other’s expense.
Other Virtue Ethicists

 Carol Gilligan
 In a Different Voice (1982)
Developmental theories have been
built on observations and
assumptions about men’s lives and
thereby distort views of female
personality.
The kinds of virtues one honors
depend on the power brokers of
one’s society.
The Ethics of Care
Other Virtue Ethicists
 Michael Slote
Develops the feminist ‘ethics of care,’
and links it to a virtue ethics inspired
more by Hume and Hutcheson’s moral
sentimentalism than by Aristotle.
Slote’s version of virtue ethics is agent-based (as opposed
to more Aristotelian forms which are said to be agent
focused) i.e. the moral rightness of acts is based on the
virtuous motives or characters of the agent. The motives
are all important.
Other Virtue Ethicists
 Martha Nussbaum
She interprets Aristotle’s views as
absolutes… justice, temperance,
generosity etc. are essential to
human flourishing
in all societies and in all times.

Nussbaum sees a relativist


approach as being incompatible
with Aristotle’s virtue theory.
Examples of Virtue Ethics
 Bruderhof and
Amish
communities
◦ Anti-worldly
◦ Pacifist
◦ Family
◦ Story
Are the virtues the same for everyone?
 People are very different.
 But we face the same basic problems and
have the same basic needs.
 Everyone needs courage as danger can
always arise.
 Some people are less well off, so we will
need generosity.
 Everyone needs friends so we need
loyalty.
Strengths of Virtue Ethics
 Importance of the Person, Motive, Heart,
Conscience
 Connection to Community
 Realization that morality is not defined by
moments but by a long-term process
 Allowance for gray areas, varying
contexts, different levels of moral
maturity and life contexts
Weaknesses of Virtue Ethics
 Dependence on strong communities
 Not easily applied to ethical issues or to
give us practical solutions
 Demands time
 Can be turned into a really poor duty-
based ethics
 Might be taken as situational ethics