Virtue Ethics

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Virtue Ethics
Virtue Ethics

  • emphasizes the notion of a good person and the qualities that make someone a good person, rather than emphasizing the notion of right/wrong

  • the kind of ethics that was most prominent in ancient Greece, particularly the ethics of Plato and Aristotle

Virtues—qualities that constitute excellence of one kind or another
Two Types of Virtues

  1. moral virtues—e.g., honesty

  2. nonmoral virtues—e.g., intelligence

Two Kinds of Theories concerning Virtue

  1. Ethics of Virtue—concerned primarily with providing moral guidance; regards the understanding of virtue as essential for this purpose

  2. General Theory of Virtue—does not attempt to provide moral guidance; consists of views about the nature of virtue and of particular virtues

Plato’s Virtue Ethics
Main Theses

  • A human being is a combination of a material body and an immaterial soul.

  • Many things, including human souls, have specific functions.

  • The function of the human soul is to deliberate, make choices, and direct the whole person. This requires the use of reason.

  • Something’s virtue or excellence is that which enables it to perform its specific function well.

  • The human soul has 3 parts: reason, a “spirited” part, and the appetites (desires for food, drink, sex, etc.).

  • The virtue of reason is wisdom.

  • The virtue of the spirited part of the soul is courage.

  • A soul in which the appetites are properly controlled and subordinate to reason has the virtue of temperance.

  • Justice is the virtue of the soul in which each of the parts is performing its specific function well and is in harmony with the other parts.

Relationship between virtue and conduct

  • We acquire and maintain virtue through conduct.

  • Right conduct is any activity that promotes and sustains virtue—in oneself, in others, and in society as a whole.

  • Since, for Plato, virtue is good in itself and also brings happiness to the virtuous person, his theory of moral obligation is teleological.

Aristotle’s General Theory of Virtue
Main Theses

  • The soul is the form and principle of organization of the body—not a separate entity.

  • There are 3 basic functions of the soul—vegetative (nutrition, growth, reproduction), appetitive (seeing, hearing, feeling, etc.), and rational (thinking, reasoning)

  • Reason has 2 functions: theoretical (gaining knowledge) and practical (guiding conduct)

  • The virtue of the theoretical function of reason is theoretical wisdom; the virtue of the practical function of reason is practical wisdom. Collectively, they are the intellectual virtues.

  • Practical wisdom consists of directing the nonrational part of the soul well.

  • Moral virtues are virtues of the nonrational part of the soul.

Moral Virtue

  • Moral virtues represent habits, traits, or dispositions of character (in contrast to intellectual virtues, which represent capacities of reason).

  • Moral virtues are acquired by practice—i.e., by performing virtuous acts over and over until they become habitual behavior.

  • The moral virtues include pride, courage, temperance, justice, truthfulness, liberality, friendliness, and others.

Virtuous Action

  • A virtuous action is an action that occupies the mean between two extremes—one an excess and the other a deficiency.

  • For example, a courageous action is the mean between the extreme of recklessness (excess) and cowardice (deficiency).

  • The mean is often relative, depending on the capacities and the circumstances of the person taking the action.

  • To determine where the mean is in a particular situation, one must first consider all relevant facts about the situation. The virtuous person then simply “sees” where the mean is. (This is just one interpretation of Aristotle’s views.)

  • Although there are some general rules that apply to locating the mean, there are no rules that can tell us precisely where the mean is in every situation. (This is just one interpretation of Aristotle’s views)

Aristotle’s Views on Goodness

  • All things aim at their own good.

  • The good for human beings is happiness.

  • Happiness is an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.

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