Virtue Ethics

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From Aristotle to the 21st century
Why Should I Be Moral?
Because of My Character!
 Arete - Excellence, Strength,Virtue
 Aretaic Ethics - Strength-Centred Ethics
 Emphasizes Virtues (Strengths) and Vices
  (Weaknesses) of Character
 Not “What Should I Do?” (both
  Deontology and Teleology) but
   “What Kind of Person Should I Be?”
Aristotle‟s Ethics
 384-322 B.C.
 The Nicomachean Ethics
 Two Kinds of Persons
    ◦ Continent:
      Do what is right, but not necessarily because they
       want to
    ◦ Temperate:
      Do what is right because they want to; the more
       holistic person
The Goal of Human Existence

   Eudaimonia
   Flourishing, Happiness
   A Lifelong Pursuit,
    ◦ Rationally, through theoretical
      wisdom and contemplation
    ◦ Functionally, through practical
      wisdom and politics
The Goal of Human Existence & Eudaimonia
 Aimed at the “perfect happiness”
  which is the perfect activity
 An excellence in any activity in
  accordance with the nature of
  that activity
 Thus, “Human happiness is the
  activity of the soul in accordance
  with perfect virtue (excellence)”.
  (I.8; Pojman, 394).
The Virtues

   Intellectual Virtues
    ◦ Wisdom, Understanding, Prudence
    ◦ Taught through instruction
   Moral Virtues
    ◦   Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, Temperance
    ◦   The result of habit
    ◦   Not natural or inborn but acquired through practice
    ◦   Habit or disposition of the soul (our fundamental
        character) which involves both feeling and action
         “Those strengths of character that enable us to flourish”
The Virtues
   Defined / understood in terms of
    spheres of human experience
      Fear of important                       Courage
     Bodily appetites and                  Moderation
        their pleasures
    Distribution of limited                     Justice
Attitude to slights and             Mildness of Temper
                   Adapted from Martha C. Nussbaum, “Non-Relative Virtues”
The Doctrine of the Mean
   Proper position between two extremes
    ◦ Vice of excess
    ◦ Vice of deficiency
   Not an arithmetic median
    ◦   Relative to us and not the thing
    ◦   Not the same for all of us, or
    ◦   Any of us, at various occasions
    ◦   “In this way, then, every knowledgeable person avoids
        excess and deficiency, but looks for the mean and chooses
        it” (II.6)
The Mean

Vice of Deficiency Virtue       Vice of Excess

Cowardice         Courage       Foolhardiness

Stinginess        Generosity    Prodigality

Shamelessness     Modesty       Bashfulness

Maliciousness     Righteous     Enviousness
Virtues and the Mean
   Defined through Reason
    ◦ Education, contemplation, reflection
   Balanced with Other Virtues and applied using
    ◦ To have any single strength of character in full measure,
      a person must have the other ones as well.*
       Courage without good judgement is blind
       Courage without perseverance is short-lived
       Courage without a clear sense of your own abilities is
   “The virtuous person has practical wisdom, the ability
    to know when and how best to apply these various
    moral perspectives.” (*Hinman)
Virtues and Community
 Virtues are defined and lived in community
 Sharing a common identity and story
 Modelling the Virtues
    ◦ Importance of Moral Exemplars (Saints and Heroes)
   Practicing the Virtues – Habit is Crucial!
      “In a word, then, like activities produce like dispositions.
      Hence we must give our activities a certain quality,
      because it is their characteristics that determine the
      resulting dispositions. So it is a matter of no little
      importance what sort of habits we form from the earliest
      age ̶ it makes a vast difference, or rather all the difference
      in the world.” (II.i.) (Pojman, 396)
   Reinforcing the Virtues
Other Virtue Ethicists
   G.E.M. (Elizabeth)

In 1958 she published an article
called Modern Moral Philosophy
that we should return to the
as the idea of a law without a
was incoherent.
Other Virtue Ethicists
 Alasdair MacIntyre
 After Virtue (1981)
     Modern moral philosophy is
    bankrupt; it must recover the
    tradition of virtue.
     Importance of Narrative as a
    “live tradition” – you need to
    know where ethics has come
      Virtues change over time.
Other Virtue Ethicists
   Philippa Foot
    Tries to modernise Aristotle.

    Ethics should not be about dry
    theorising, but about making the
    world a better place (she was one of the
    founders of Oxfam)

    Virtue contributes to the good life.
Other Virtue Ethicists
   Rosalind Hursthouse
A neo-Aristotelian – Aristotle was
wrong on women and slaves, and
there is no need to be limited to his
list of virtues.

We acquire virtues individually, and
so flourish, but we do so together
and not at each other‟s expense.
Other Virtue Ethicists

   Carol Gilligan
   In a Different Voice (1982)
      Developmental theories have been
      built on observations and
      assumptions about men‟s lives and
      thereby distort views of female
      The kinds of virtues one honors
      depend on the power brokers of
      one‟s society.
      The Ethics of Care
Other Virtue Ethicists
   Michael Slote
Develops the feminist „ethics of care,‟
and links it to a virtue ethics inspired
more by Hume and Hutcheson‟s moral
sentimentalism than by Aristotle.
Slote‟s version of virtue ethics is agent-based (as opposed
to more Aristotelian forms which are said to be agent
focused) i.e. the moral rightness of acts is based on the
virtuous motives or characters of the agent. The motives
   are all important.
Other Virtue Ethicists
  Martha Nussbaum
She interprets Aristotle‟s views as
absolutes… justice, temperance,
generosity etc. are essential to
human flourishing
in all societies and in all times.

Nussbaum sees a relativist approach
as being incompatible with
Aristotle‟s virtue theory.
Examples of Virtue Ethics
   Bruderhof and
    ◦   Anti-worldly
    ◦   Pacifist
    ◦   Family
    ◦   Story
What makes one group virtuous and
not another?

                     Inner-City Gangs
                      ◦ Common values
                      ◦ Models
                      ◦ “Virtuous”
                      ◦ Codes of honour
   Ku Klux Klan?
    ◦ Focused
    ◦ Live tradition
    ◦ Stories and
    ◦ Common
    ◦ “The family is the
      strength of our
   The Christian Church?

   The Taliban?

   The Scouting Movement?

   Your school?

   Your friends?
Are the virtues the same for everyone?
 People are very different.
 But we face the same basic problems and
  have the same basic needs.
 Everyone needs courage as danger can
  always arise.
 Some people are less well off, so we will
  need generosity.
 Everyone needs friends so we need
Strengths of Virtue Ethics
 Importance of the Person, Motive, Heart,
 Connection to Community
 Realization that morality is not defined by
  moments but by a long-term process
 Allowance for gray areas, varying
  contexts, different levels of moral
  maturity and life contexts
Weaknesses of Virtue Ethics
 Dependence on strong communities
 Not easily applied to ethical issues or to
  give us practical solutions
 Demands time
 Can be turned into a really poor duty-
  based ethics
 Might be taken as situational ethics
 Utilitarianism and Deontology are helpful
 They demand some kind of larger criteria
  or grounding, a larger view
 Virtue ethics seems to provide this view
 It seems to reflect Christian ethics best,
 It is not dependent on any particular way
  of thinking (e.g. Enlightenment

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