An Overview of Virtue Ethics According to Aristotle

Virtue ethics is a branch of normative ethics that differs from deontological and consequentialist approaches in that it focuses mainly on the character of a person, as oppose to merely actions or consequences. By drawing on central questions about who we are and who we need to become, virtue ethics focuses on what it truly means to be a good or virtuous person. Although Aristotle, an advocate of this branch of ethics, encouraged us to dwell on and develop our virtues, it can be questioned to what end, as perhaps this approach to ethics is of little use when dealing with practical and current issues.

Aristotle believed that virtues, like with all other things, can be attained and developed through consistent practice and are therefore cultivated through habit. Aristotle said that all humans have the ability to develop moral and intellectual virtues, with intellectual virtues being ranked the superior of the two. Aristotle believed that as mere mortals, it is easy to be excessive or deficient in character. True virtues lie within the “golden mean”, which is between the two vices of excess and deficiency. By finding the perfect balance between two means, we can lead fruitful lives and be assets to our society, since extremes of character contribute nothing to social groups.

It could also be argued that Doctrine of the Mean is of use to practical ethics, as it forces us to condition our behaviour to what is most helpful and fitting. By urging us to find the middle ground between excess and defect, Aristotle aids us in becoming balanced and practical individuals who are capable of personal autonomy.

However many would argue that this is highly impractical, as humans we are subject to certain wants and desires, and realistically we cannot strive to maintain balance of character all the time. As well as this, in some cases it may be useful to lay on either end of the scale of vices, instead of in the “golden mean”. For example, an overly-competitive and ambitious athlete is more useful to his team than one who is constantly balanced and unmotivated.

Sometimes it may be useful to have an extreme virtue, particularly in competitive or stressful circumstances. As well as this, perhaps Aristotle has given us too large an amount of autonomy, as it is a heavy demand to ask individuals to constantly regulate and re-align the amount of virtue we demonstrate in different circumstances. Put in this light, Virtue Ethics appears to be of little use in practical situations, and other branches, such as Christian Ethics, seem to hold more value.

Through following Christian ethics one is provided with clear guidance, most Christians would look to the Bible as a rulebook which gives direction to those in time of need. The Bible is full of very specific requests, and shows us how to virtuously live and respond to the actions of others. As well as this, the Bible includes numerous parables, such as “The Good Samaritan”, where the reader can perceive the true message, which is that we should put our societal differences aside and be kindly to one another, but understand such truths in simple terms. These basic principles and guidelines are useful to the 21st century follower when tackling modern and relevant issues such as euthanasia and abortion, whereas Virtue theory seems to present a follower with confusion where Christian Ethics provides clarity.

On the other hand, Aristotelian advocates may still hold firm in their view that Aristotle practically instructs us on virtue theory, and one way in which they may claim he does this is through his trilogy “The Ethics”. Within the third book, Aristotle outlines the two great virtues of courage and temperance, which he holds above most others. He goes onto to expand his list of virtues so that many can be of use in practical application, for example liberality, candour and cunning.

On the other hand, it could be argued that these attributes are nothing but archaic constructs, and represent the time in which he lived. In a modern society, assets of character would include wisdom, justice and confidence, as oppose to possessing the cunning to plot and scheme. This provides basis for the argument that Aristotle’s list of virtues is no longer applicable, and also that they cannot be universalised; they will not hold strong when passed within different social groups, which presents Virtue Ethics as irrelevant when dealing with modern and practical ethics.

Scottish philosopher Alasdair Macintyre adds weight to this argument against virtue ethics, reminding us that today’s modern successful citizen values profit over principles, and valued virtues differentiate between cultural groups. Macintyre states that virtues are ‘any virtues which sustain the households and communities in which men and women seek for good together’, thus expressing his view that virtues are vital for everyday living. He believed that society was in need of good leaders who embody what it means to be virtuous.

Macintyre disagrees with the view that we should develop our individuality and uniqueness, but instead believes hat we need to get into the habit of morality and hone in on the virtues. This practice of using the virtues to become successful parents, teachers and everyday leaders challenges the view that Virtue ethics are of no practical use, as in truth McIntyre suggests Virtue theories correct application can lead to the progression of society as a whole.

G.E.M Anscombe supports the practicality of Virtue Ethics in her paper “Modern Moral Philosophy”. Here she expressed her belief that most moral philosophy is misguided as all moral laws consider God, because at the time in which these theories were put forward the majority of society were involved in religious practice. Anscombe suggests the idea of eudaimonia, human flourishing resulting in supreme good, which all humans can work towards, without sharing in the same belief or dependence on any one God.

Anscombe opposed act based ethics, as not only do they urge humans to behave in a moral manner for the wrong reasons, but it upholds beliefs that most no longer have regard for, whilst neglecting the community aspect of morality. Virtue ethics ignores formulas such as the Hedonic Calculus, but simply urges us to better our character purely for the sake of ourselves and society. In this way, Virtue ethics can be considered a far better approach to dealing with practical ethics, as it encourages virtues not out of desire for Godly recognition or moral superiority, but merely out of duty and respect.

Rosalind Hursthouse is a contemporary philosopher who modernised Aristotle’s original virtue theory and built upon Alasdair McIntyre’s ideas. Although she is an advocate of the main principles of Aristotle’s “The Ethics”, she identifies the elitist and biased nature of his original work, and recognises the importance for “neo-Aristotelianism” which encompasses all groups of society. Hursthouse is comparable to McIntyre in her beliefs that society should be linked with virtuosity; she disregarded Aristotle views that women and slaves were not able to achieve eudaimonia, and should not strive to try. In her dismissal, she liberates certain groups in society, and thus advocates a theory where all can be the centre of moral action.

Despite her attempts to modernise Virtue Theory, it can still be viewed by many as elitist due to Aristotle’s ideas about eudaimonia. Aristotle stated that to achieve this state of being there are conditioning factors, such as good looks, health, and income. This affirms Hursthouse’s concerns for Virtue theories elitist tendencies, and since it isolates certain groups, it would be unfit and impractical in todays diverse and individualist society.

Michael Slote’s ideas concerning virtue ethics describe a virtuosity that is based on inner intuition, and common sense ideas. He prefers to sue the word “admirable” to describe actions or behaviour, as opposed to words which need explaining like “good”. Slote’s most vital contribution to Virtue theory is his differentiation between agent-focused and agent-based ethics. Where agent focused theories understand the practical definition of what it means to be good, agent theories consider the motive behind the actions. In this way he evolves virtue ethics by helping to develop its practicality and applicability. Through urging use to consider not just how our actions can be classed, but also the motivation behind them, Slote reveals a more through and considered approach to the theory.

Slote draws on ideas from Victorian philosopher Henry Sidgwick’s, specifically his example of a lawyer considering whether or not to prosecute a suspect. The details of the case were such that the lawyer had enough evidence against the suspect for circumstances to be incriminating, and yet the lawyer also happens to really dislike the suspect as a person also. From an act-based, or agent focused theory such as Utilitarianism, a persecution would be the virtuous thing to do because it is the right action. However, because Slote’s virtue ethics is true to the emphasis on character, and is also agent-based, a prosecution would be a malicious action, not one that has respect for the law. This brings to light how practical virtue ethics can be, as it encompasses all aspects of ethical decision making, and does not centre in only on the actions.

This is also widely applicable to modern day issues, for example abortion. If a woman decided to abort her baby because she does not have the financial stability to support the child and give it a good life, from an agent-focused perspective the she would be doing right by achieving a better end result fro the baby. However, if her true motive is that she does not want to be burdened with childcare, and her regard for her own life and interests overshadows that of the child, then we can view her choice as un-virtuous. Virtue ethics directs us to consider our behaviour and its consequences, but also our inner character – its reminder that both are necessary in order to make ethical decisions seems to deem it a practical and useful theory for modern application.

To conclude, virtue theory is useful and applicable to practical situations and real ethical decision making. Although its degree of flexibility and autonomy renders a potentially vague theory with failed guidance, ultimately this freedom of choice allows for personal development and improved decision making skills. Not only does virtue ethics help towards the progression of society, but its focus on character and inner motives develops us as people, thus enabling us to make better decisions. The specific list of virtues is useful in particular decisions, as well as Aristotle’s “Doctrine of the Mean”, which reminds us to be balanced in our virtues. Overall, Virtue Theory focuses on more than just right and wrong, making it a uniquely practical theory as it incorporates emotions, which stays true to real human oresponses, and helps us to apply the theory to practical dilemmas.

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