A Discussion of the Theory of Virtue Ethics

Explain the theory of Virtue Ethics Virtue Ethics was originally introduced to society by Aristotle in ancient Greek times. Virtue Ethics tells us that we should look at the character of the person instead of the actions or duties a person performs. Instead of concentrating on what is the right thing to do, virtue ethics asks how you can be a better person. Aristotle claims that leading a virtuous life is easy, and those who do, do so to be happy. Happiness is the ultimate goal for everyone in life.

To become a better person, one must practice virtuous acts regularly. After a while, these acts will become habitual and so the virtuous acts will be nothing more than everyday life and the person a virtuous person. Aristotle said that although virtues should become a habit we must never forget that we behave in such a way because it is right. For example, if a singer practices singing everyday, they will become better at it and used to doing it. This is the same as people who practice their virtues and soon automatically act in the right way, by practicing our skills we improve them, becoming happier.

Virtues should not be an effort, but simply a part of everyone’s personality. Aristotle says that virtue is something that we acquire and are not just born with, people are not inherently good or bad, but become good or bad according to the habits they develop. Phillipa Foot discusses whether a person who is born virtuous is better then a person who struggles to become virtuous? According to Aristotle the person who struggles to become virtuous is better as they are happy and deserving of that happiness as they have worked hard for it.

Aristotle said that a virtue was a ‘Golden Mean’ in between to vices. These Vices are two extremes of a scale at opposite ends, one of excess and one of deficiency. For example the vices would be shamelessness and bashfulness, and the virtue modesty. Another example of this would be boorishness and buffoonery as the two vices and the virtue as wittiness. There are 12 such virtues that all fall between two vices. Such virtues must be cultivated, we must learn when to use certain virtues and to what extent, for example we must not ever use humour in excess to act like a buffoon, but at the same time we must also not pass into boorishness.

Two philosophers, Anscombe and MacIntyre say that there has been a mistake in how virtues have been portrayed. The majority of people look at the actions a person does to judge whether they are virtuous or not. The way in which we behave provides an opportunity for others to judge our virtues and vices. This however is not right. People should look at the character within and look at what the person believes is right and how they think they should help people instead of what they do to help. A famous example of a virtuous person is Mother Theresa. She helped millions of suffering people across the world and for this became well known as a virtuous person. There are hundreds of other virtuous people who would have liked to have helped but were unable to do so in such a huge way who are not considered as virtuous, but these people are just as virtuous but not recognised for it.

Aristotle tells us that we are most likely to learn virtuous behaviour from watching others. If we experience others being kind to us and see the happiness it creates we are more likely to practice it then if we were just told to do it. For example, if we were told to be courageous we may occasionally stand up for small things that we disagree with, but if we see someone telling others off for not doing the right thing then we are more likely to not allow bad behaviour towards ourselves. Aristotle said that the best way of becoming virtuous was to follow in the footsteps of a virtuous person, e.g. Mother Theresa and do what they do.

Virtue Ethics is relative; Aristotle recognised that virtues in one country may not be the same as virtues in another. He believed that there was no absolute platonic good beyond our world. As virtues have evolved through habits of society it is probable that different societies would deem different actions good or bad. However there is no difference between the virtues of a community and individuals within that community, the supreme happiness that Aristotle talks about is one for the community, and not just and individual. MacIntyre suggests that philosophy is too far removed from ordinary life and said that it is not good enough that philosophers spend their time debating the nature of ethical language or forming reasoned theories of morality in a way that is far removed from real people and real life.

All actions are done in order to reach an aim. A successive series of actions are also for an aim, for example getting up in to morning to go to work, is to make money, is to feed our families is to go on nice holidays is to but them nice things etc. all ultimate aims is to make people happy, everything is subordinate to the supreme good, which is happiness. Everyone has different ideas of what happiness is and different things all make different people happy, and Aristotle called this feeling of all round well being eudaimonia.

Virtue Ethics concentrates on what a person is then what a person does. Its aim is to achieve something which people genuinely want rather then being based on arguably incoherent ideas about the after-life. It is a system which can be easily applied and understood by all. It fits into a variety of philosophies, and religions which both do and don’t include God. However there a few problems with Virtue Ethics. Ones of these which has been pointed out by MacIntyre is that although a virtue is the ‘golden mean’ between two vices it cannot be applied to all virtues. Virtues such as promise keeping, loyalty, and compassion do not fall between any two vices and so Aristotle’s theory of this does not really work. Another problem with this theory is that it is of little help to people faced with a moral dilemma. It does not help them make a decision like other theories such a natural law or utilitarianism.

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