Virtue Ethics

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Virtue Ethics

We evaluate the morality of people’s character as well as their actions. Does one’s moral character exhibit virtue or vice? This view takes the virtues such as honesty, courage, temperance, integrity, compassion, self-control or benevolence, or the vices such as dishonesty, ruthlessness, greed, lack of integrity, cowardliness, as the basic starting point for ethical reasoning.

Although we start from the person instead of the action, the results are often very similar.

The Nature of Virtue

According to “virtue ethics”, there are certain ideals, such as excellence or dedication to the common good, toward which we should strive and which allow the full development of our humanity. These ideals are discovered through thoughtful reflection on what we as human beings have the potential to become.

“Virtues” are attitudes, dispositions, or character traits that enable us to be and to act in ways that develop this potential. They enable us to pursue the ideals we have adopted. Honesty, courage, compassion, generosity, fidelity, integrity, l fairness, self-control, and prudence are all examples of virtues.
How does a person develop virtues? Virtues are developed through learning and through practice. As the ancient philosopher Aristotle suggested, a person can improve his or her character by practicing self-discipline, while a good character can be corrupted by repeated self-indulgence. Just as the ability to run a marathon develops through much training and practice, so too does our capacity to be fair, to be courageous, or to be compassionate.
Take honesty, for example. A person possesses this virtue when they are disposed to habitually tell the truth and does so because he believes is it right, feels good when he tells the truth and uncomfortable when he lies, and always wants to tell the truth out of respect for the truth and its importance in human communication. One is not honest if one lies often, or only tells the truth because people will like him better, or out of fear.
The Moral Virtues
What are the traits that make a person a good human being?
If we try to define what makes a “good human being” I’m sure we could agree on a number of virtues such as honesty, justice, prudence, fidelity, etc. We would probably only disagree on the relative importance of the different virtues.
There will be some cultural and social differences in the appropriate virtues one should have, but we do share a good deal of agreement on the question of who is the right sort of person in general because people in all societies face similar issues of living together. Tradition is a major factor in deciding which virtues we value.
At the heart of the virtue approach to ethics is the idea of “community.” A person’s character traits are not developed in isolation, but within and by the communities to which he or she belongs, including family, church, school, and other private and public associations. As people grow and mature, their personalities are deeply affected by the values that their communities prize, by the personality traits that their communities encourage, and by the role models that their communities put forth for imitation through traditional stories, fiction, movies, television, and so on. The virtue approach urges us to pay attention to the contours of our communities and the habits of character they encourage and instill.
Aristotle is the originator of this approach. He wanted to justify his theory of virtues by investigating the human condition. For him, a moral virtue was a habit that enables a human being to act in accordance with the specific purpose of human beings – the ability to reason – to exercise reason in all their activities. Moral virtues are habits that enable a person to live according to reason, which allows us to know and choose the reasonable middle ground between going too far and not going far enough in our actions, emotions, and desires.

Aristotle’s Ethics of Virtue

(Note: I don’t expect you to know all of Aristotle’s philosophy that is presented here. You should know what virtues are, be able to give some examples, know his principle of the golden mean, and know basically how he justified his theory.)

Aristotle was the last of the great Greek philosophers. Two thousand years passed without a greater philosopher. His authority was considered final, and because of that prevented progress in science and philosophy.
Aristotle is not a “principle” theorist. In other words, he does not provide us with a principle or rule by which we should make moral decisions (for example, like “the greatest good for the greatest number,” or “how would you like everyone to act the way you do.” He said we have to develop the “virtuous character” and live a virtuous life. The life of virtue is itself rewarding for the virtuous, as well as beneficial for the community. Note that Aristotle did not believe there was a conflict between living in community and self-interest. Neither did he believe there was a criteria of the “good” which could guide moral decisions..
Aristotle’s ethical theory based on his ideas about human nature, which is a part of his theory of the universe.
An examination of human nature should reveal the distinctive quality of human beings, and from this we should be able to conclude what it is to be a good human being.
The Universe is viewed as a hierarchy in which everything has a function. the highest form of existence is the life of the rational being (humans) and the function of the lower forms of life is to serve human beings. Therefore he defended slavery, since he thought that barbarians are less rational than the Greeks.
The Place of Man: Physics, Biology, and Psychology
Physics - nature make things out of simple bodies, namely air, fire, water and earth. All things are analyzable down to these, but form novel substances when combined.
Biology - All bodies are a combination of primary elements, but some have life (self-nutrition and growth) and some do not. A body that is alive has its life from the source of its actuality, namely, form. The soul is the form of an organized body. Neither the body nor the soul can exist without the other, nor are they identical.
"that is why we can wholly dismiss as unnecessary the question whether the soul and body are one: it is as meaningless as to ask whether the wax and the shape given to it by the stamp are one." The soul exists when there is a particular kind of body, namely, "one having in itself the power of setting itself in movement and arresting itself. Soul and body are not two separate things but are rather the matter (body) and form (soul) of a single unity. Neither could exist separately. Therefore the soul does not exist after death.

Types of soul:

Vegetative - simply the act of living. The sensible and perishable. Plants and animals.

Appetitive - both living and desiring. The sensible but not perishable. The heavenly bodies, which do not change but undergo motion.

Rational - living sensing, and thinking. Neither sensible nor perishable. The soul in man and God.
Rational soul - has the power of scientific thought. Reason is capable of distinguishing different kinds of things (power of analysis) and the relationship of different kinds of things with each other.

Also has the power of deliberation. The mind can discover the truth in the nature of things and the guides for human behavior.

All living beings have a potentiality and it is their nature to develop that potential to the full. The potential of human beings is what makes us distinct from other animals - rationality. When we develop our rationality, we are realizing our potential and will live the most satisfying of lives.
Aristotle agrees with Plato that the life of the intellect is the highest form of life, but must also have material comfort and friendships. However, while for Plato this is because it gives us true knowledge, for Aristotle it is because we are developing our potentiality.

The Good

In contrast to Plato, the “Good” was not some abstract form of knowledge. It was the aim of all our activities. To call something good is to say that it is under certain conditions sought or aimed at. There are numerous activities and aims, and hence numerous goods. It is whatever we value.

However, what is “good” is not simply any old state of affairs, it is linked to what others would seek in general as good.


Happiness is the final end (goal). We owe this to Aristotle. We can find it by asking why we do the things we do:

"Why do we build a fire?" To keep warm.

"Why do we keep warm?" It is pleasant to be warm and unpleasant to be cold.

The answer to any such series of questions always points to "happiness", in the broadest sense to mean a fulfilling, satisfying life.
Happiness is not a single activity but the result of a great may activities. Personal development or self-realization is the goal.
Happiness is that which is wanted for its own sake, and not for the sake of anything else. For example, pleasure and success are not the good life, but are necessary for it. They lead to overall happiness.
Happiness includes a large number of advantages and virtues, including wealth, power, and community status as well as military courage, ability to drink wine without getting too obnoxious, a sense of justice, good friends, and a good sense of humor.
Happiness is therefore not just a sense of well-being as it is for us – happiness is the good life as a whole, an integrated life with all the virtues and good fortune and the philosophical wisdom to appreciate it. So happiness is not a sometime phenomenon, it is a life-time phenomenon.
The word Aristotle used was “eudaimonia”, or “doing well” or “well-being”. It is not as we think of happiness today, as “inner satisfaction and a sense of well-being.” To the Greeks a person who kept a sense of well-being in the midst of misfortune would be insane. The good life was a public, social, objective life of achievement and good fortune. – had little to do with inner feelings.
Aristotle tended to think that the good life was a privilege of the very powerful and very rich or very lucky
If the happy life is the life of virtuous action, what virtues should one cultivate? Ones that aim at the well-being of the entire community. The ultimate advantage of the individual would be identical to the well-being of the community. He lists the common ones of his day:

  • courage – especially in battle

  • temperance – enjoyment of pleasure as well as moderation

  • liberality – charity

  • magnificence – spending lavishly and entertaining well

  • pride

  • good temper – moderate, but important to get angry when appropriate.

  • friendliness

  • truthfulness

  • wittiness – being too serious is not moral

  • shame – being sensitive to one’s honor and feeling appropriately bad when it is besmirched. “Feeling guilty” is not worth talking about.

  • justice – the sense of fair treatment of others.

  • HONOR – presupposed by all the other virtues. The fusion of the individual and the community, since it is the community who bestows honor.

The four pivotal virtues are courage, temperance, justice and prudence. Prudence is the virtue that enables one to know what is reasonable in a given situation.

He used the Golden Mean as a principle for distinguishing what is truly virtuous from false virtues. Similar to Buddha's middle path between self-indulgence and self-renunciation. Courage is the middle path between fool-hardiness (recklessness) and cowardice. Temperance in relation to food is either gluttony at one extreme or austerity at the other. Justice is giving people exactly what they deserve, and vice is giving either one less than they deserve. Friendliness is the middle path between throwing yourself on people and surliness.
To apply this rule we of course need to know what is meant by excessive and what is defective, which itself requires moral decisions. The virtue of prudence helps us in this decision.
Rationality is essential to the good life. It includes the understanding and contemplation of principles. These principles have authority (of reason and society). Here he ends up similar to Plato – the good life is the life of contemplation. .
Justice does not fundamentally involve equality and equal rights, but right proportion, which sometimes involves equality.
Distinguishes between justice in the distribution of wealth or other goods and justice in reparation (righting a wrong). Similar cases should be treated alike, which led to later philosophers trying to identify what the essential similarities of situations are.

The Politics of Aristotle (c. 335-322 B.C.) was written as part of a larger work on nature and society when he was teaching at the Lyceum in Athens. Analyzes society as if he were a doctor and prescribes remedies for its ills. Political philosophy regarded as a branch of biology and ethics. Admires balance and moderation and aims at a harmonious city under the rule of law.
Thinks in terms of the city-state, as the natural form of civilized life and the best in which men's capacities can be realized. Man is a "political animal", distinguished from other animals by gift of speech and power of moral judgment.
Man has to be controlled by law and justice.
The state, being the highest form of society, strives for the highest good - survival, security and the enhancement of the quality of life. In the city-state, this can only be achieved by a small number, so Aristotle like Plato believes in aristocracy.
The rule of law is better than even the best men. Rulers have to be subject to the rule of law too. This survived the Middle Ages and became the theoretical sanction of modern constitutional government.
Respect for custom justifies the obligation of members toward society, even at the price of sacrificing individuals for the common good.
Analyzes different constitutions and prefers a "mixed" one, which reflects the idea of justice and fair dealing, which gives every man his due in a conservative social order in which citizens of the middle condition preponderate. Attacks oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny. Dislikes democracy for similar reasons as Plato. Dislikes tyranny the most - arbitrary power of a single individual who is above the law.
People require education to make them good citizens - self-confident and style.

St. Thomas Aquinas – agreed with Aristotle on reason being important, and also that the four pivotal virtues are courage, temperance, justice and prudence. However, also believed that human purpose was not only to exercise reason, but to achieve union with God in the next life.
He added the Christian virtues of faith, hope and charity. He also modified some of Aristotle’s virtues, for example, by adding humility as a virtue and believing that pride is a vice. The opposite of Aristotle.

Virtues, Actions and Institutions

So how does a virtue approach help us decide what to do in any given situation? This is one of the major criticisms of the virtue approach.

“An action is morally right if in carrying out the action the agent exercises, exhibits, or develops a morally virtuous character, and it is morally wrong to the extent that by carrying out the action the agent exercises exhibits, or develops a morally vicious character.”
e.g. the morality of abortion or adultery may be evaluated by attending to the kind of character evidenced by people who engage in such actions. If the decision to engage in such actions tends to develop a person’s character by making them more responsible, caring, principled, honest, open, and self-sacrificing, then such actions are morally right. If an action tends to make people more self-centered, irresponsible, dishonest, careless, and selfish, they are morally wrong.
Abortion could be considered as morally right or wrong. The theory of virtues does not give us a way of deciding. It says that we should consider the issue honestly, fairly, in a just way, etc., and use our reason to come to a decision.
Actions are also evaluated according to the character they seem to come from. If cruel actions are shown by a person seems to us to be morally vicious, we condemn them.


Institutions can also be judged according to virtues. Some economic institutions seem to make people greedy, large bureaucratic organizations make people less responsible, and welfare makes people lazy.

Institutions are an integral part of our development. We should ask what kinds of people do our institutions foster.
Note that character and conduct are one. They are not separate. Our conduct does not arise from our character, it is our character. Likewise we tend to separate motives from deeds. Morals are not subjective and individualistic.

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