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Virtue Ethics

 

Key Points

Aristotle

MacIntyre

Other Virtue Theorists

 

Theory in detail

Aristotle

Eudaimonia

Eudaimonia, or 'happiness', is the supreme goal of human life. Aristotle believed that everything has a purpose - the good for a knife is to cut, and a good knife is one that cuts well. In the same way, Eudaimonia is the 'good' for a person.

Aristotle draws a distinction between superior and subordinate aims. Why do I study ethics? Maybe to get a qualification. I get the qualification to get a good job, and I want a good job because... These are subordinate aims. At some point you stop and say 'because that would make me happy' - and this becomes the superior aim. 'Eudaimonia' is the end goal or purpose behind everything we do as people, and is desired for its own sake.

Moral Virtues

The good life involves developing a good character. Moral virtues are cultivated by habit. To become a generous person, I must get into the habit of being generous. Put another way, it is not enough to be told that I should be patient. To become patient, I need to practice patience.

It is very difficult to translate some of Aristotle's moral virtues. 'Liberality' and 'Magnificence' (popular in many translations) both seem to mean generosity. The following list is an attempted translation:

courage, temperance, big-heartedness, generosity, high-mindedness, right ambition, patience, truthfulness, wittiness, friendliness, modesty, righteous indignation

Intellectual Virtues

Intellectual virtues are qualities of mind developed through instruction. They are:

practical skill, knowledge, common sense, intuition, wisdom;  resourcefulness, understanding, judgement, cleverness

Cardinal Virtues

The cardinal virtues are temperance, courage, wisdom and justice. These virtues work together, and it would not be enough to have one of these alone. Temperance and courage are moral virtues - we get into the habit of acting bravely. We learn self-control by practicing restraint. Developing right judgement requires training - we are educated in the skill of weighing up a situation. In out courts, judges don't just learn on the job, they require years of training before they earn the title 'Justice'. Wisdom sits above all of the other virtues, the culmination of years of learning.

The Doctrine of the Mean

Aristotle said that it is good to be courageous, but that you can have too much courage. For example, defending your land against invaders is courageous, but if you're outnumbered fifty to one, that's just foolhardy. Each of the moral virtues is a midpoint between excess and deficiency, the 'golden mean'.

Aristotle did not say what the midpoint was, and it was clearly not a numerical middle. In other words, you don't need to have a specific amount of, say, generosity. It was more about being generous at the right time. For example, giving a few pounds to a beggar is not a good thing - it keeps them trapped in dependency. It's much better to give to a charity like Shelter.

Virtue ethics is criticised for not giving clear answers to ethical dilemmas, but it allows us each to make our own responses to situations life throws at us. You might respond to the beggar by stopping and giving some time, talking and listening to them and maybe even sharing lunch with them. This would be a virtuous response, but it doesn't require everyone to do the same thing.

Friendship and the community

Our relationships are an important part of the 'good life'. Aristotle is very different from, say, Kant here. Kant says we should work out moral rules rationally, ignoring our feelings or what the outcomes of our actions would be. Aristotle says that our friendships are a very important part of who we are and how we should behave.

We should each aim at acheiving eudaimonia in our own lives. Clearly it is therefore a much better thing to acheive the greatest good for a whole society. You can put this another way and say that the society we live in helps to form and shape us as individuals. Sociologists will tell you the difference between living in a close-knit community or a big city, but we can see it for ourselves. People in cities often get 'lost', not belonging to anything and turning to drugs, crime etc. There is far less crime and drug abuse in smaller, rural communities. Aristotle sees our communal relationships as an essential part of our moral growth and flourishing.

You may argue that there is still a sense of community in the city you live in - Aristotle's on your side here - he lived in Athens, one of the greatest cities of the world. Whether you live in a village or a city, the important thing is to develop good relationships with those around you.

MacIntyre

Ethics in context

Morality has lost it's way. "Imagine a terrorist has taken your children, the Prime Minister and an atomic bomb. He threatens to use the bomb unless..." These sorts of moral dilemmas force us to choose between keeping absolute rules that we want to live by (such as 'do not kill') and preventing serious harm to many. We end up not knowing what to do, either abandoning our principles or allowing terrible things to happen. Ethics has become a bizarre 'lose-lose' game that many of us have simply stopped playing.

MacIntyre urges us to remember where ethics came from. We need to understand the historical context of ethics. He wouldn't like this website, because it's summarise everything without explaining where the theories came from and how they developed. Students of ethics should immerse themselves in the past masters before looking at recent ethical theories - you need to appreciate the 'narrative context' (seeing the development of ethics as a story).

The context is also important for understanding issues. MacIntyre doesn't like 'quandry ethics' where theories are tested by looking at implausible dilemmas. However, he does want ethics to do its job and tell us how we ought to live our lives. To better understand what sort of people we should be, and which decisions to make, we need to look at our own context.

Put another way, if we are talking about an ethical issue, such as the Nicaraguan 9-year old who became pregnant and had an abortion, we have to find out about the context of the issue. In this particular case, the girl came from a Catholic country where abortion is illegal in all circumstances. The doctors who carried out the abortion were condemned by the Church, and excommunicated themselves (kicked themselves out of the church). Following this, tens of thousands of Nicaraguans excommunicated themselves from the church.

Finding out about the context of an issue helps us understand the decisions people make.

Relative Values

It follows from this that different societies have different values. For MacIntyre, virtues change over time. This can be seen by looking at different societies, and MacIntyre explains the reasons why virtues change. The Homeric virtues included physical strength, courage, cunning and friendship. In small tribal communities that could be attacked at any time, cunning, strength, even ruthlessness may be virtuous. As villages developed into large cities, these virtues changed. The Athenian virtues included Justice and Temperance, and physical strength was no longer so important. Whereas cunning used to be prized, more value would now be put on Wisdom, the sort of understanding of human behaviour that could navigate through complex conflicts that might arise with so many people living together.

Christianity adopted the cardinal virtues, but added faith, hope and love (charitable love) to these.

Internal and External Goods

MacIntyre calls the virtues or qualities of character 'internal goods'. He says we also place value on 'external goods'. Aristotle would have agreed here. The idea that we could be 'penniless but happy' did not come from Aristotle. He would have said that having good food, a decent place to live and clothes to wear is all part of the eudaimon life. Put another way, Aristotle would ask if the house, clothes and food would make a poor person happier. If they would, they must be part of eudaimonia, as eudaimonia is as good as it gets. Physical well-being, food, clothing, housing etc. are called 'external goods'.

MacIntyre also talks of 'practices'. He says that certain activities, such as painting, the opera etc., are good in and of themselves and not merely because of the pleasure (i.e. other goods) that they lead to.

To summarise MacIntyre in one sentence (which is exactly the sort of thing he hates), he says that we value different qualities of character, practices and physical things, and that by understanding historical and social context, we can understand ethical issues that arise.

Ben Franklin

Franklin was a utilitarian virtue theorist. He believed that we should try to bring about the greatest good for the greatest number (the principle of utility). However, he thought that the best way to bring about the greatest good was by developing the virtues.

Philippa Foot

Foot is a contemporary British philosopher who is trying to modernise Aristotle. She believes that goodness should be seen as the natural flourishing of humans as living beings. She believes that ethics should not be about dry theorising but about making the world a better place (she was one of the founders of Oxfam). The virtues are beneficial to the individual and the community - they contribute to the good life.

Elizabeth Anscome

Before MacIntyre wrote After Virtue (1981), GEM Anscome wrote a paper entitled "Modern Moral Philosophy". She was critical of a 'law conception of ethics' where the key focus was obligation and duty. Many trace the modern development of Virtue Ethics back to this paper. The reason why MacIntyre gets more attention is that he actually developed a theory of Virtue Ethics rather than merely criticising other forms of ethics.

Martha Nussbaum

Nussbaum interprets Aristotle's virtues as absolutes - she claims that Justice, Temperance, generosity etc. are essential elements of human flourishing across all societies and throughout time. This is a sharp contrast to the general attitude among modern virtue theorists. Although it may be too much to describe all of the above as moral relativists, Nussbaum is clear that she believes a relativist approach is incompatible with Aristotle's virtue theory.

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