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Virtue Ethics Philosophy 4 (Summer 2012) Virtue Ethics Deontology focuses on the intention with which someone acts, on the goodness of the will. Consequentialism focuses on the consequences of one’s actions, on the amount of goodness they produced. Virtue ethics focuses on the character (or disposition) from which someone acts, on what kind of a person one is. Aristotle (384-322 B.C.E.) Student of Plato, who in turn was a student of Socrates Teacher of Alexander the Great Collection of his works is incomplete and most likely of his unpolished works. For a period, Aristotle was forgotten until a rediscovering and interpreting of his text in the Medieval period; St. Thomas Aquinas, for instance, was heavily influenced by Aristotle. His moral theory is found primarily in Nicomachean Ethics. Shift in Approach To comprehend virtue ethics, we need to shift our approach. In our discussions of deontology and consequentialism, we were focusing heavily on what makes an action right. But Aristotle is not primarily concerned with what makes an action right. Teleological Account According to Aristotle, “[e]very art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good.” E.g. the study of medicine and the activity of exercising are aimed at health, and health is good. Teleological Account Now, there are two ways in which something is good: ◦ A thing can be good for its own sake, or ◦ A thing can be good for the sake of something else (good insofar as it brings about another good). Teleological Account “[A]nd for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim….” Aristotle is drawing a conclusion that there is one thing at which everything aims from the fact that everything aims at some good. Fallacy But this line of reasoning is invalid. Look closely at what Aristotle is doing: Eudaimonia But let us set this worry aside. Aristotle believes that, apart from the argument, everyone already accepts that there is the highest good, and that this highest good is happiness (eudaimonia). Eudaimonia The assumption is that the highest good is the kind of thing that is: Eudaimonia So to resolve the disagreement over what eudaimonia is, Aristotle shifts his focus to the function of things. His thought is that if we can identify the function of a human, then we can determine what a good human is. What is a function? The function of some thing is its characteristic activity. The goodness of some thing (that has a function) depends on the function. Function “Argument” But what is the function of humans? In other words, what is the characteristic activity of humans? Virtues So eudaimonia consists in reasoning well. But what does that have to do with virtues? By “right way”, I mean with the right feeling toward the right object to the right degree. Virtues To help us understand what these virtues are, consider people who are virtuous. Notice that whoever you consider virtuous, you are saying that they tend to do the right thing for the right reason in the right way. Virtues Now, what is it about them that makes them virtuous? The focus is not on the action, but rather on the character from which the action stems. And one’s character is a stable disposition, not something that shifts from action to action. Example: Bravery In Book III, Chapter 6 of Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle gives a detailed account of the virtue of bravery. For one, bravery involves feeling fear towards the right kind of things: “Certainly we fear all bad things – for instance, bad reputation, poverty, sickness, friendlessness, death – but they do not all seem to concern the brave person…. [S]omeone is called fully brave if he is intrepid in facing a find death and the immediate dangers that bring death. And this is above all true of the dangers of war.” Example: Bravery Bravery also involves feeling the right amount of fear given the circumstance: “Among those who go to excess the excessively fearless person has no name…. He would be some sort of madman, or incapable of feeling distress, if he feared nothing, neither earthquake nor waves, as they say about the Celts. The person who is excessively confident about frightening things is rash. The rash person also seems to be a boaster, and a pretender to bravery. The person who is excessively afraid is the coward, since he fears the wrong things, and in the wrong way, and so on.” The Mark of a Virtuous Person It is important to realize that for the virtuous person, doing the right thing for the right reason with the right feeling is not a struggle. Kant vs. Aristotle According to Kant, the shopkeeper that did the action with any moral worth is the one that did the right action (i.e. the action that is in accordance with duty) for the right reason (i.e. from duty). The benevolent shopkeeper’s action did not have moral worth. Phronesis (Practical Wisdom) To have this understanding, you need, among other things, practical wisdom (phronesis). Phronesis (Practical Wisdom) Phronesis is what gives you understanding, knowledge, of: Two Kinds of Virtues Hence, we can divide up the virtues into two categories: 1) Virtues of thought 2) Virtues of character Unity of the Virtues Unity of the Virtues Why might this be? Unity of the Virtues Imagine if you were generous but intemperate. Then you are the kind of person that would be giving, but at the same time indulgent. And there would be times in which you were not able to do what was right to do because your intemperance stood in the way of doing what is generous. Unity of the Virtues As Bernard Mayo puts it: “But when we are asked ‘What shall I be?’ we can readily give a unity to our answers, though not a logical unity. It is the unity of character. A person’s character is not merely a list of dispositions; it has the organic unity of something that is more than the sum of its parts.” Cultivation of Virtues So how do we get these virtues? Analogy: Learning to be a mechanic Cultivation of Virtues But of course, we are speaking of virtues, so the picture will look a bit different: Account of Right Action In discussing deontology and utilitarianism, we have been asking ourselves what the right action is in some particular situation. Notice that virtue ethics really is not asking the same question; there is no theory of right action. Instead, it gives us an ideal to strive for. Account of Right Action Given those ideals, we might understand the right action as follows: In other words: But does this help us figure out the right action? Objections to Virtue Ethics Objection #1: Virtue ethics is not very helpful for making difficult moral decisions. Objections to Virtue Ethics Objection #1: Virtue ethics is not very helpful for making difficult moral decisions. Objections to Virtue Ethics Objection #2: Virtue ethics is too demanding. Objections to Virtue Ethics Objection #3: Is an action wrong because a virtuous person would not do it or does a virtuous person not do that action because it is wrong? Objections to Virtue Ethics Objection #3: Is an action wrong because a virtuous person would not do it or does a virtuous person not do that action because it is wrong?
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