Virtue Ethics

This curious ethical subject is one of the most enduring solutions to the question “how might a person live a moral life?”
It has its origins in Ancient Greek philosophy. Yet it experienced a revival in the second half of the 20th century
Essentially it claims not to focus on actions or consequences or moral acts but rather on the individual person who is seeking to answer the question “How can I be a good person?”

Does consider how a person might achieve the highest good.plato4
He introduces 4 cardinal virtues – temperance, prudence, justice and courage.
He also spoke about eudaimonia – supreme happiness or sense of fulfilment.

Much more needs to be said about him in an essay on Virtue Ethics.
The seeds of his ideas may be found in his book Nichomachean Ethics.
For Aristotle Virtue Ethics was about human flourishing (eudaimonia)
In the case of Aristotle Natural Law and the Virtues were two sides of the same coin.
The complete, correctly functioning person, living in accordance with Natural Law will achieve a virtuous life.
Make sure you know the difference between – Moral Virtues – developed by habit
And – Intellectual Virtues developed by training and education.
Achievement of eudaimonia relied upon the correct use of reason
Golden Mean One distinctive teaching of Aristotle was the belief that virtue could be discovered in the Golden
Virtue did not lie in either the excess or deficiency of a quality – example the virtue of bravery. The brave person was not on the one hand “rashness” (excess of bravery) or “cowardice” (deficiency of bravery). The Golden Mean “bravery” lay between these two extremes.

There are problems with this idea. One of the areas you might discuss is whether or not all virtues have a deficiency and an excess. – for example “humility”

He is sometimes overlooked in studies of Virtue Ethics
What Hume says ishume
We cannot use reason to determine what we want.
Reason is the tool we use to achieve our aims
What we want is determined by our passions (likes or dislikes)
Our sense of morality therefore is based our own personal preferences and choices.
Morality expresses qualities that we find in people we approve of.
For Hume morality is based in people’s behaviour. Virtuous people are those who are recognised and approved of by society.
Sympathy with others is a strong factor in detecting virtuous behaviour.
Today we would say this is a much more psychological reflective approach to virtue.

This is very much a post second world war movement – a reaction in some ways to find meaning behind right behaviour in a world where
a) Religion had begun to lose its influence on people.
b) Where individuals became more autonomous and self-aware.

A) Agent Focused Theories eudaimonism – coming out of Aristotelian ideas.

GEM Anscombe (Modern Moral Philosophy 1958)think
She asks how can there be a moral law if there is no God?
She noted that Kant and some forms of Utilitarianism focus on actions rather than people.
She attempted to resurrect the concept of eudaimonia – human flourishing
Bernard Williams 1985 – reinforced these ideas.

Philippa Foot
She also relied heavily on Aristotelian principles and recognised the importance of individual reasoning which would lead to a virtuous life.

Alasdair MacIntyre 1985
He produced an interesting twist on the subject
1. People are unimpressed by moral theories – especially deontological based ideas.
2. He thought moral standards of the day were based on emotivism (things people liked)
3. He wanted to take up the Aristotelian idea that morality should be seen in terms of human purpose.
4. Virtues therefore would be reflected in community life.
5. It is in the community (towns and villages) that virtuous behaviour is cultivated.
6. In this respect he opposed individualism.

Rosalind Hursthouse
She also supports Aristotelian principles – although not his prejudices against women and slaves.
The virtues shape a person practical reasoning

A number of modern scholars – listed above find value in the idea of Virtue Ethics as proposed by Aristotle. They try to avoid some of the limitations and damaging conclusions of Aristotle, including his preoccupation that there is an overall purpose for the world.
IS THERE AN ALTERNATIVE to this Agent Focus approach?

B) Agent based theories – based on observations of behaviour as cultivated by the virtues.

Michael Slote

Michael Slote

Michael Slote
To a certain extent he picks up on Hume’s idea.
For Slote virtue is an inner trait or disposition that we possess.
The whole idea of virtue ethics is based in a sense of caring for people around you and people in general.

You need to be aware of these two approaches
Agent Focused (Eudaimonism) what is done in order to be a moral person
Agent Based what one feels in terms of people’s action and how we evaluate these.

The standard text book is quite good on this topic for basic knowledge, although I think it is a shame it leaves out David Hume.

Researching the topic
1. Students should be encouraged to know the difference between Plato and Aristotle on this topic.
It is well documented in “Moral Philosophy” by Jones, Cardinal and Hayward pp 89-100.
2. Hume – again see “Moral Philosophy” by Jones, Cardinal and Hayward pp105-110.
There is also a book – not worth buying but should be read if you can borrow a copy
“Ethics – the fundamentals” Julia Driver pp147-149. I think it is an undergraduate introduction.
3. Twentieth Century Thinkers
“Ethics Matters” by Peter and Charlotte Vardy pp73-78


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