Virtue ethics-1

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In philosophy, the phrase virtue ethics refers to ethical systems that focus primarily on proper social institituions and the development of individual character. The origins of this theory date at least back to Plato and especially to Aristotle in his landmark work "Nicomachean Ethics". The key component of this ethical theory is the development of moral character over time through right habits, and the term originates from the Greek word arete meaning 'excellence' or 'virtue'. Thus, one of the aims of virtue ethics is to offer an account of the sort of characteristics a virtuous person has. The ultimate aim of virtue ethics is eudaimonia, roughly meaning 'flourishing' or 'success'. According to virtue ethicists this is the end to which all humans ought to aspire - to lead a good, happy and fulfilling life. In contrast to deontological or teleological theories which focus respectively on duties or actions, the crux of virtue ethics is in the heart or character of the person.


Achieving eudaimonia

To achieve eudaimonia one must live by what can be considered virtues such as justice, wisdom, courage, prudence and so forth. A virtue ethicist would argue that this is what all humans would rationally choose to live by. To help us achieve eudaimonia we must practice to be virtuous. This is why, for many virtue ethicists, such as Aristotle, eudaimon should only refer to older people as only they have enough practical experience of life. A person who is aware of the right virtues to live by but chooses not to do so suffers from akrasia or 'weakness of the will' according to Aristotle.


Criticisms of virtue ethics

As with all other schools of ethical theory, there are objections to virtue ethics.

Some claim a problem with the theory is the difficulty of establishing the nature of the virtues. Different people, cultures and societies often have vastly different opinions on what constitutes a virtue. For example, many would have once considered a virtuous woman to be quiet, servile, and industrious. This conception of female virtue no longer holds true in many modern societies (see also cultural relativism). Proponents of virtue ethics sometimes respond to this objection by arguing that a central feature of a virtue is its universal applicability. In other words, any character trait defined as a virtue must reasonably be universally regarded as a virtue for all sentient beings. According to this view, it is inconsistent to claim for example servility as a female virtue, while at the same time not proposing it as a male one.

Another objection to virtue ethics is that the school does not focus on what sorts of actions are morally permitted and which ones are not, but rather on what sort of qualities someone ought to foster in order to become a good person. In other words, while some virtue ethicists may not condemn, for example, murder as an inherently immoral or impermissible sort of action, they may argue that someone who commits a murder is severely lacking in several important virtues, such as compassion and fairness. Still, antagonists of the theory often object that this particular feature of the theory makes virtue ethics useless as a universal norm of acceptable conduct suitable as a base for legislation. Some virtue theorists concede to this point, but respond by opposing the very notion of legitimate legislative authority instead, effectively advocating some form of anarchism as the political ideal. Others argue that it is possible to base a juridical system on the moral notion of virtues rather than rules. Some virtue ethicists, like Phillipa Foot, might respond to this overall objection with the notion of a "bad act" also being an act characteristic of vice. That is to say that those acts which do not aim at virtue, or stray from virtue, would constitute our conception of "bad behavior". Althougt not all virtue ethicists agree to this notion, this is one way the virtue ethicist can re-introduce the concept of the "morally impermissible".


Virtue ethics contrasted with other ethical systems

The methods of virtue ethics are in contrast to the dominant methods in ethical philosophy, which focus on actions. For example, both deontological ethics and consequentialist systems try to provide guiding principles for actions that allow a person to decide how to behave in any given situation.

Virtue ethics, by contrast, focuses on what makes a good person, rather than what makes a good action. As such it is often associated with a teleological ethical system - one that seeks to define the proper telos (goal or end) of the human person.


Historical origins

Like much of the Western tradition, virtue ethics seems to have originated in ancient Greek philosophy. Discussion of what were known as the Four Cardinal Virtues - prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance - can be found in Plato's Symposium. The virtues also figure prominently in Aristotle's moral theory (see below). The Greek idea of the virtues was later incorporated into Christian moral theology. During the scholastic period, the most comprehensive consideration of the virtues from a theological perspective was provided by St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologiae and his Commentaries on the Nicomachean Ethics. The idea of virtue also plays a prominent role in the moral philosophy of David Hume.


Aristotle's theory of the virtues

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle categorized the virtues as moral and intellectual. Aristotle identified nine intellectual virtues, the most important of which were sophia (theoretical wisdom) and phronesis (practical wisdom). The moral virtues included prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. Aristotle argued that each of the moral virtues was a mean (see Golden Mean) between two corresponding vices. For example, the virtue of courage is a mean between the two vices of cowardice and foolhardiness. Where cowardice is the disposition to act more fearfully than the situation deserves, and foolhardiness is the disposition to show too little fear for the situation, courage is the mean between the two: the disposition to show the amount of fear appropriate to the situation.


Virtue ethics outside the Western tradition

Non-Western moral and religious philosophies, such as Confucianism, also incorporate ideas that may appear similar to those developed by the ancient Greeks. Like ancient Greek ethics, Chinese ethical thought makes an explicit connection between virtue and statecraft. However, where the Greeks focused on the interior orientation of the soul, Confucianism's definition of virtue emphasizes interpersonal relations.


Contemporary virtue ethics

Although some Enlightenment philosophers (e.g. Hume) continued to emphasize the virtues, with the ascendancy of utilitarianism and deontology, virtue ethics moved to the margins of Western philosophy. The contemporary revival of virtue ethics is frequently traced to the philosopher G. E. M. Anscombe's 1958 essay, Modern Moral Philosophy and to Philippa Foot, who published a collection of essays in 1978 entitled Virtues and Vices. Since the 1980s, in works like After Virtue and Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry, philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has made an effort to reconstruct a virtue-based ethics in dialogue with the problems of modern and postmodern thought. Following MacIntyre, Stanley Hauerwas, American Methodist theologian, has also found the language of virtue quite helpful in his own project. More recently, Rosalind Hursthouse has published On Virtue Ethics and Roger Crisp and Michael Slote have edited a collection of important essays titled Virtue Ethics.


(See also Virtue Ethics-2 for a slightly longer discussion of Virtue Ethics)



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