A Discussion on the Little Moral Guidance Provided by Virtue Ethics

Whether or not Virtue Ethics provides little moral guidance can be seen to depend upon the sense in which ‘guidance’ is meant – how to act or how to be, and also depends upon whether the guidance it provides is accurate or unreliable. If the theory itself is inaccurate, then the statement must be true.

It could be argued that Aristotle clearly shows that Virtue Ethics does provide moral guidance. When he formulated the theory he intended it to instruct people how to be moral by explaining that humans all aim at the intrinsically valuable ‘eudaimonia’: happiness, and we aim at this by being virtuous. We acquire virtues by practicing them and using our phronesis (practical wisdom) to determine the appropriate virtue to use in each situation. To guide our actions Aristotle also stated that we may observe virtuous people and use their actions to influence our own, because in doing so we are attempting to mimic their thought process which should be virtuous. Therefore we will develop a habitus of virtue. So in this way Virtue Ethics clearly does provide moral guidance as it lays out how one ought to go about being moral.

Yet there is dispute as to how far this actually does provide moral guidance. For instance one key moral issue is stealing; if Paul has the dilemma of whether to steal bread from a local bakery or let his child go without dinner of one evening, then Virtue Ethics has nothing to day. This is the view of Robert Louden, who criticises Virtue Ethics because it gives no clear guidance for specific situations and therefore it is indeed accurate to state that Virtue Ethics provides little moral guidance as in this example it provides none.

However, to respond, the term ‘moral guidance’ need not purely be considered in terms of actions, but also in terms of being. This is certainly how Aristotle saw it, and so would argue that it is irrelevant to discuss actions as moral value does not lie there. We cannot talk in terms of whether an action is moral, but whether a person is moral and in this way Virtue Ethics – as previously discussed – certainly does provide moral guidance.

It could of course be argued that to claim the moral value does not lie in actions, so it is irrelevant to discuss them, is wrong. any theory of ethics which is deontological, for example that of Kant, would argue this, because they claim that acts hold intrinsic moral value, and therefore the inability of Virtue Ethics to determine straight-forwardly whether an act is moral or immoral means that it does provide little moral guidance.

Furthermore it seems ridiculous to divorce the concept of a person being moral from the actions they perform. We naturally identify moral people by their actions and therefore we must all recognise some fundamental level of morality within an action. Even using Aristotle’s principle of following the examples of virtuous people, we can only identify them as virtuous by the actions they perform (as we certainly cannot look at them and automatically gauge whether they are virtuous or not), therefore there must be some truth to the idea that actions hold moral value, or else we would not respond to them in such a way.

Therefore, because of this it can be seen that Virtue Ethics does indeed provide little moral guidance not only because it does not provide solutions regarding how to act in ethical dilemmas, but because it removes and moral value from actions when they are where moral value lies.

However, to demonstrate its shortcomings further, let us assume for a moment that morality is about being and not about actions (agent-centred). Then it could be argued that the statement is wrong because Virtue Ethics succeeds in guiding people to become moral individuals. For instance it has the advantage of being accessible to both secular and religious people as it does not require or mention belief in God. In terms of role models for virtuous behaviour, religious people can use Jesus as an example, believing him to be a real individual, whereas secular people can also use him as an example but treat him as a virtuous fictional character. This is a positive feature of Virtue Ethics because it is of course its purpose, as with any ethical theory, to demonstrate what is moral and in this way it perhaps gives moral guidance.

Yet Virtue Ethics also fails on this very point; the concept of emulating virtuous individuals is flawed because we may believe that we have identified a virtuous person who has just donated £1,000,000 to charity, hence displaying the virtue of magnanimity, however, we are unaware of the fact that he did so in order to call media attention, and tipped off the crew himself therefore displaying the vice of boastfulness. This could lead to individuals being led into following non-virtuous people and so being non-virtuous and immoral themselves. If Virtue Ethics does this, which it clearly has the potential to do, then it does indeed provide little moral guidance.

However, even if we were to assume that Virtue Ethics does provide guidance on how to be, the more important issue concerns whether this guidance is accurate. If it is not accurate then it can hardly be called moral guidance as it does not point to the moral solution.

It is difficult to see how it could be proved that Virtue Ethics is accurate. For instance it relies on humans having a final aim which is eudaimonia – this has no solid evidence. It also relies upon accepting Aristotle’s list of virtues, and this begs the question of how they are justified. It could also be argued that his list is incomplete; he does no acknowledge compassion as a virtue nor is it clear whether or not the virtues are culturally relative. Therefore a theory based upon such unjustified bases can hardly be called accurate and so does indeed provide little moral guidance.

It could be argued that this is not a strong point, because while Aristotle may not have adequately justified his claims, there appears to be no evidence against them and so no grounds for claims of inaccuracy. However, whether it is accurate or not as a moral guide of course depends upon it providing moral guidance, which has already been shown not to be the case.

So, overall it can be seen that whilst it attempts to provide moral guidance, the guidance is – in the case of how to act, vague, and in the case of how to be, misleading. Therefore at best Virtue Ethics evidently does provide little moral guidance.

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