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Virtue ethics

From Academic Kids

In philosophy, the phrase virtue ethics refers to ethical systems that focus primarily on what sort of person one should try to be. 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 aim to which all humans endeavour - to lead a good, happy and fulfilling life.

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Achieving eudaimonia

To achieve eudaimonia one must live by what can be considered virtues such as charity, stoicism, honesty, friendliness, fairness 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, only older people can be truly called a eudaimon 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 suffers from akrasia or 'weakness of the will' according to Aristotle.

Problems with virtue ethics

There are several problems that arise out of virtue ethics. A major problem with the theory is working out what the virtues actually are. It would appear that different people, cultures and societies can have vastly different ideas on what constitutes a virtue. For example, in the past many would have considered a virtuous woman to be quiet, servile, industriousness etc. Nowadays people have very different ideas. These kinds of problems would seem to undermine the idea that virtues are objective.

Virtue ethics contrasted with deontology and consequentialism

The methods of virtue ethics are in contrast to the dominant methods in ethical philosophy, which focus on actions. For example, both Kantian and utilitarian 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 Theologica 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 two intellectual virtues, 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 recklessness. Where cowardice is the disposition to act more fearfully than the situation deserves, and recklessness 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.

Virtues 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.

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