Lecture 35: Virtue Ethics



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Lecture 35: Virtue Ethics
Lecture objectives:

  • To distinguish virtue ethics from utilitarianism and Kantian ethics

  • To examine the Hellenistic roots of modern virtue ethics (esp. Aristotle’s conception of virtue and teleological view of the good life)

  • To explore modern virtue ethics’ critique of utilitarianism and Kantian ethics


Eulogy exercise:
Eulogy = eu- + -logy = “good words”, “good speech”
When do we do eulogies? – funerals, and also weddings, birthday parties (“roasts”), retirements, i.e., events honouring the life of a person

-tributes, biographies, evaluations, summations

-retrospective (gives a sense of the life as a whole)
Exercise: Take five minutes and write your eulogy.


  • What would you like said of you as indicative that you’ve led a good life?

  • What gives us the fullest picture of your life? What tells us about your value as a human being?

  • What is important for us to know in order for us to be able to say that we know you as a person?

-character, acts, roles, biographical events

-biographical sketch (what you did? E.g., obituary) vs. character sketch (who you are?), cf. autobiography


What is character?


  • not captured in unique events alone, but in a view of a series of events, i.e., regularity, consistency, integrity (no dysjunction between desire/motive/disposition and action)

  • predictive, i.e., given knowledge of someone’s character, one can often predict what someone will do in a situation

e.g., She is “generous”. What we mean is that she will perform acts of generosity, but also that these acts will be generously meant. She is disposed to be, intends to be, desires to be, and is generous in this act.




  • character tells us something about a person’s motivational structure, i.e., the internal framework out of which actions arise, not just what actions do arise

When we take stock of our lives, e.g., when we write our own autobiographies or someone gives our eulogy or when we reflect on what we hope will be said of us at our eulogies or what we hope to be remembered for upon our deaths or known for in life, we are considering what constitutes a good life in general and for us in particular.


Meaning of life questions include the following:

How should we/I live?

What sort of life should we/I live?
And in the eulogies for our lives, isn’t it our hope that our lives provide satisfactory answers to these questions?
So, how should these questions be answered?
How should I live? – Well.

What sort of life should I live? – A good life.


If we have an understanding of that of which a good life consists, then we can orient our actions, motives and desires toward fulfilling this end.
What does constitute a good life?

What sort of characteristics should I have to live the good life and as evidence that I am living well?


Up until this point, we have been considering ethical theories that have emphasized the nature of right actions. A moral agent, it is argued, is she who acts in accordance with moral principles.
E.g., utilitarianism the most basic moral value is the consequence of action, valued in terms of its utility; so the end of moral action is considered to be a good state of affairs

Kantian theory the most basic moral value is action in accordance with the Categorical Imperative, i.e., duty; so the end of moral action is right action


Both of these accounts aim to systematize our principles or rules of action in ways that will help us to see what to do (and what to recommend) in particular situations. In other words, they are particularly interested in helping us to resolve moral dilemmas and to give us rational justifications for certain types of action that are moral.
Virtue ethics the most basic moral value is the character of the person; so the moral goal is to be a good person
To do the right thing, we need virtues, i.e., we need the right motivational structure, not just to do the right thing according to rational principles.

We’ll come back to modern virtue ethics at the end of the lecture to fill out some of its critical stance toward utilitarian and Kantian approaches, but what we need to examine now is the Hellenistic basis of modern virtue theory.


Hellenistic roots of modern virtue theory
Recall Plato: Meno, What is virtue? – is it answered?

Republic, What is virtue? – well-ordered personality, a just person (analogy made to the well-ordered society)

What is “virtue”?



Arete (Gk.) = virtue = goodness

= quality of being a good human being

= excellence
Greek virtues = temperance, courage, justice, and wisdom
Aristotle:
All human action has a purpose or goal, i.e., a telos, e.g., one works to earn money, one eats to sustain life – why? For its own sake?
These seem to be secondary ends, subordinate to an ultimate goal. For Aristotle, the ultimate end is eudaimonia.
Eudaimonia = well-being, welfare, “happiness”
NOT happiness in the sense of hedonism (i.e., pleasure), or comfort, or the emotion of happiness,

INSTEAD, happiness as the fulfillment of the best possible or most desirable sort of life.


We may disagree about what sort of life eudaimonia is, but not that eudaimonia or the best sort of life is what we want.

Happiness is the right starting point for any ethical theory because, in Aristotle’s view, rational agents necessarily choose and deliberate with a view to their ultimate good, which is happiness; it is the end for the sake of which we want other things, and it is the end we want for its own sake.


Central question for Aristotle is:

What is the best life for a person to lead?


Answer: the life that fulfills one’s telos, that fulfills one’s function, one’s reason for being.
Function = goal toward which action is directed
Function of human life: the characteristic activity that is essential to a human being (as opposed to a plant, an animal, a rock, etc.)
Hierarchy of nature:

each created thing has a place within the hierarchy of nature defined by its particular function.

As you move up the hierarchy, you also observe increasing complexity.
E.g., Plants – characteristic activity is nutritive (nourishment, growth)

Animals – characteristic activity is sense perception, instinct, and desire (appetitive)

Humans – characteristic activity is rationality
The good life for a human being must be a good for a being with the essential activity of a human being; hence it must be a good life guided by practical reason, and hence it must be a life in accordance with the virtue that is needed for achieving one’s good.
Practical reason reason oriented toward action (practice), e.g., ethical or political action
Cf. theoretical reason reason oriented toward thought
The human good, therefore, is an actualization of the soul in accordance with complete virtue in a complete life.
Aristotle’s conception of the soul:

Soul = primary principle of life



  • what distinguishes living from non-living; as alive, an organism is nourished, grows, and diminishes through itself (not from some external cause), thus we say that a living organism is teleologically ordered

  • all vital activities are oriented toward fulfilling the primary principle, i.e., life, so a good life is one that fulfills the primary principle well from the point of view of the sort of organism we are considering

nutritive (plants)


soul appetitive (animals)
rational (gods)
types of life for rational animals:

vulgar life of pleasure, pure appetite

political life of honour and virtue

(moral for the sake of virtue itself )*

contemplative life for the sake of pure rationality
N.B. Aristotle saw our highest good fulfilled in political life, in the fora where virtue could be expressed.
Recall Plato’s conception of the well-ordered soul, the rightly ordered personality which constituted the just person:

rational element wisdom

spirited element courage

appetitive element temperance


The human soul consists of all of these things but what makes this a human organism is that it has the rational principle. And a human being is most fulfilled as an organism of this species when his/her reason is applied to the activities of human life, i.e., practical wisdom.
Virtuous life:

If virtue is excellence, a life lived well, then one’s soul is in a virtuous condition when the non-rational elements cooperate with reason. In this condition human beings are said to fulfill their function well, i.e., to be good exemplars of the human species, to have achieved eudaimonia.


The best sort of life for human beings is the life lived in accordance with reason (since rationality is what distinguishes us as a species). Now, Aristotle’s particular concern is with practical rather than theoretical reason, because an ethical life is one that is about practice, i.e., about action and about interaction. Thus, the virtuous person is the one who has moral knowledge in order to live life well. (Theoretical knowledge will not be sufficient, whether theoretical in itself or theoretical about moral action hence a limitation of simply knowing the moral principles of right action).
Virtue is neither a feeling nor an innate capacity per se.

It is rather “a disposition bred from an innate capacity properly trained and exercised”.


Capacity must be cultivated through education and habitual action (practice) in order to become virtue. Thus, Aristotle is said to be a perfectionist – part of what life involves is the development of the human person, i.e., human soul, to most fully express what it is that makes him/her human, or in other words, to fully develop its end.
People acquire virtues much as they do skills such as carpentry, playing an instrument, or cooking one learns by instruction, proper upbringing, practice, and the development of understanding of the art or action.
Understanding is practical knowledge (knowing how) not theoretical knowledge alone (knowing that).
E.g., Justice One becomes just by performing just actions.

Temperance One becomes temperate by performing temperate actions.


Virtuous character is neither natural nor unnatural; it is cultivated and made a part of the individual, much like language or tradition.
Virtue as a means to eudaimonia?
It might seem that the virtues have only instrumental value as a means to achieving eudaimonia.

But, the relationship between the virtues and the telos of a person is internal not external: the telos of humans as a species determines which of the human qualities are virtues.


It is true that having virtue depends on understanding what is virtuous and since we do not know this innately, we must learn this though a proper upbringing, instruction, and the development of good habits. Habit is not in itself sufficient, just as an intellectual knowledge of the virtues is not sufficient. What Aristotle claims is that in acting justly or temperately, one comes to understand what justice and temperance require, and hence one comes to understand virtue.
Someone who does not have at least good habits of virtuous action cannot possibly begin to understand or act on the principles of virtuous action; rational arguments for virtuous action by themselves can never make a person good – that’s a matter of character, and character is developed over time.
What is virtue of character?
Virtue of character = mean

intermediate state, since it must achieve the appropriate cooperation between rational and non-rational desires

intermediate state between complete indulgence of non-rational desires and complete suppression of these

not strictly speaking moderation in all things, e.g., Aristotle is not talking about the ideal of moderate anger or moderate pleasure

rather he’s concerned with the appropriate between two extremes, e.g., too much fear = cowardice; too little fear = foolhardy, rash; mean = courage
The task of moral education is to harmonize non-rational desires with practical reason not a repudiation of pleasure, but rather a tempering of pleasure by the application of reason oriented toward the good (i.e., toward virtuous living); not a repudiation of fear or emotion, but rather a fear or emotion appropriate directed by reason
Successful harmonization of desires with reason is the mark of the virtuous person. Non-virtuous persons are those who are unable to harmonize their desires to the requirements of virtue, which is given to us by the rational principle of our human telos.
Determining what to do will require deliberation (with respect to the demands of the situation and with respect to the virtues), which is cultivated over time as a form of practical wisdom
Two conceptions of eudaimonia?

If we are rational beings, wouldn’t Aristotle need to hold that our highest good is in pure rational activity, i.e., contemplation? Is virtue then contemplation (like Socrates, knowledge)? Or are there two conceptions of eudaimonia here (one which is purely intellectual and one that is moral)?


Contemplation is indeed the highest fulfillment of our rational nature; it is the sort of rational activity that we share with the gods or angels, who are rational beings with no need to apply reason to practice. Aristotle does infer that contemplation is the happiest life available to us, in so far as we have the rational intellects we share with the gods.
Thus, it would seem that if Aristotle identifies contemplation with happiness, it is as the purely non-instrumental good that is part of happiness. And as such the moral virtues would then have to be valued as the means to contemplation, as our highest good.
But if this is so, it’s hard to see just how moral action in our dealings with others actually serves the end of contemplation at all. Even if some virtuous actions are instrumental means to contemplation, it is difficult to see how the motives demanded of the virtuous person are always useful, rather than distracting for those who aim at contemplation.
Contemplation should probably be considered to be the best component of happiness, and if it were the case that we were nothing but pure intellects, e.g., angels and the gods, without bodies or desires, then then contemplation would be not only our greatest good but the whole of our good. But as we are not merely intellects, the good that Aristotle recognizes is the good of the whole human being (recall the components of the human soul), of which contemplation is one part.
Modern virtue ethics
Utilitarianism maximizing human welfare/utility

  • one might act virtuously for reasons of utility

  • but this seems not to capture what we mean by virtue

Kantianism duty



  • one might act virtuously where virtue is recognized as the proper motive for action

Might hold plausibly that ethical theories are best understood in terms not of what acts they require, but of the reasons offered for acting in whatever way is in fact required


So we ask: which properties of actions, constitute our reason for doing them?
VE distinguishes virtuous action from acting virtuously. One’s doing a virtuous action may be seen as doing the action a virtuous person would do in those circumstances, though one may not oneself be a virtuous person.
VE concerns itself not only with isolated actions but with the character of the agent as well there are reasons for doing certain things and for being a certain type of person

e.g., to act dutifully, e.g., to tell the truth out of duty, is quite different from the agent being honest


rationality of virtue lies in its promotion of the agent’s eudaimonia
But some claim that the impersonality and impartiality of utilitarianism and Kantianism violate the integrity of moral agent; according to U and K, moral reasons (as universal) are independent of desires of agents.
Ideal of agency – what does moral agency really require?
VE challenge to traditional theories: modern moral theory must not only provide “plausible justifying reasons for action” , but it must also provide an account of the proper motivational structure in order to be a complete account of moral agency. “Moral agency consists at least partly in acting and feeling in ways prompted by bonds of partiality, requiring no further backing from impersonal ethical theory”
Even to undertake to maximize utility or to respect the moral law, we must be motivated to do so – we must have the proper motivational structure in the first place. If we are concerned about moral agency itself, then we must be concerned with how and why people apply the rational principles of moral action, outlined by Utilitarianism or Kantian theory.
This means in addition having moral sensitivity in order to correctly apply these moral principles to concrete situations. It will also likely require what might be called “moral emotions”, e.g, empathy, sympathy, and other interpersonal characteristics, e.g, loyalty, fidelity, trust, honesty
Thus, moral education consists in cultivating moral sensitivity as well as moral habits, not just the inculcation and legislation of moral principles or rules
VE tends to emphasize non-rational factors in moral motivation. The unvirtuous person is not necessarily being irrational and s/he does not lack generally the intellectual capacity for moral reflection; rather what they generally lack is moral sensitivity, an understanding of the importance of virtuous action to being a good person (i.e., a fulfilled human being)
So virtue is a kind of moral knowledge and practical wisdom which explains how it is that we can apply moral principles well and why it is that we applying moral principles may be good for us and may reflect our development as human beings relating with other human beings within the cooperative and communal environment of social life.


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