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Aristotle – Virtue Ethics Essay

How does one apply virtue ethics to business ethics? When considering Aristotelian ethics and then placing them in the context of modern business practices, it is important to note that the Greek paradigm was very different from our own in the modernist age. Homer’s Greek myths, imminent wars and conflicts and empires were all important issues in Greek times; society, however, does not place such emphasis on these in today’s society. The concept of strong bonds in a community where individuals must dutifully care for one another is not integral in today’s society, especially in a more capitalist society upon which the western world works and flourishes. Individuals in a community can live without the obligation of duty to others and pride if they so wish. In light of this, it is worth noting that business practice and transaction by Aristotelian ethics would not be widespread in the modern age.

Aristotelian ethics centred around the concept of improving one’s self – to quite literally make oneself more virtuous. To become more virtuous is to improve one’s soul – the soul for Aristotle is split into two halves – the irrational soul, which focuses on human desires, and the rational soul, which centres on intellectual virtues. Aristotle argues virtue is not a quality that human beings are born with, nor is it hereditary; however, Aristotle regards virtue as important as the care of the physical body. That said, however, Aristotelian ethics can well be applied to business ethics. For example, the war and empire worldview of the Ancient Greek civilization (because of constant threat from other empires such as the Turks and the Persians) could be compared with the ‘war-like’ attitude of certain corporations fuelled by the fierce competition offered by rival companies.

Moreover, Aristotle’s ethics could be applied to the issue of the exploitation of workers, which can be sometimes seen in less economically developed countries where locals are ‘exploited’ by multinational corporations and are paid minimal amounts relative to the equivalent job in the country where the company is based (usually a developed country). This would offend Aristotle’s ethics because of the exploitation of humans. Aristotle’s moral virtue is based upon the idea of a state of character that allows us to operate as effective and good human beings. Hence, exploitation is not choosing the good and is not choosing well and is not being virtuous. Aristotle would argue that appropriate business conduct would avoid excess, an excess of money being a good example. In the same way, a deficiency of money or trade, for example, would be equally negative.

He would believe in his Doctrine of the Mean – where through reason and trial and error, an appropriate amount of money could be brought about as not to have either a deficiency or an excess. Furthermore, those businessmen who are not ‘prudent’ should emulate those who are and try to emulate them. Finally, Aristotle would argue that when we speak of ‘flourishing,’ we should have the drive to do what will benefit ourselves and our character. Therefore, for Aristotle, giving to charity and not exploiting workers in a business by underpaying them or providing them with poor working conditions would benefit one’s character because the right choice has been made and is one more step closer to virtue.

When applied to business, Aristotle’s ethics would result in a largely socialist society where individuals look out for others and share what they have with the surrounding community. The economy would be run by the community, for the community. There would be little self-serving business, as it would be a largely selfless economic structure. Aristotle’s word, ‘oikonomikos,’ is used to show this household trading and community-based economy. Chrematisike is trading for profit, and Aristotle disapproved of this as it promoted individualism and turned people away from the community and their path of virtue. In the New York Times, modern economist Milton Friedman’s article, “The Social Responsibility of Business Is To Increase Its Profits’, exemplifies this chrematistic, and Aristotle regards this sort of business to be devoid of any virtue whatsoever.

QUESTION B: “Virtue ethics give a better guide to making moral decisions than any other ethical theory or religious standpoints ever could?” Many ethical theories have been put forward in times past to help individuals make moral decisions. Virtue ethics is just one of many others, including Kant’s ethical theory, Bentham and Mill’s utilitarianism, Aquinas’ Natural Law and Joseph Fletcher’s Situation Ethics. These theories each provide different paths to making the appropriate moral decision for the individual involved, and equally, each has its own strengths and weaknesses. Whilst some would consider virtue ethics to be a superior ethical theory – one which should be used as a guide for making moral decisions, others, however, would regard it as a dated and elitist ethical theory that is now antiquated and should not be the benchmark by which an individual should make a moral decision.

Kant’s ethical theory, many would argue, is very successful because, as a theory, it provides a strong moral framework centred on the obligation of human beings to do their duty. It is favourable in some ways to solving moral dilemmas because it is rational, consistent, and utterly impartial. Kant does not look favourably upon the role of emotion in making moral decisions. Kant provides a strong moral framework for the rights of human beings and each human’s intrinsic worth. In this sense, it is a superior theory to that of Aristotle’s virtue ethics because Aristotle saw human beings in terms of the philosophers, politicians and the masses. So not all humans in his theory did have equal rights and opportunities, nor were they treated with the same respect. Notwithstanding these qualities, however, Kant’s ethical theory has some inherent flaws, such as the consistency of the categorical imperative, because Kant believes lying is wrong in all circumstances; however, if we use someone else as a means to an end or allow others to use people solely as a means by not lying, this is surely morally objectionable.

Hume’s criticism was that reason does not motivate moral action. Is reason sufficient to motivate us to do our duty? In the same way regarding Aristotelian ethics, is the mean found merely through pure reason and through observing prudent people? Moreover, Kant’s ethical theory rules any emotion when making a moral decision. This is not human nature – few people would claim to act purely through duty and not through emotion. This is where virtue ethics is more realistic and accessible to the individual than Kantian ethics. With virtue ethics, emotion is very much involved because of the desire and want to improve oneself – emotion does not have to hinder making a moral decision – (it could potentially). Still, a moral decision will require some emotional stigma for many people, and to make it through reason alone is nonsensical.

Utilitarianism, like the other ethical theories, has its strengths and weaknesses as well. The strengths are undoubted that the best interests for the majority are accounted for. When making a moral decision, it could be argued that this is instrumental because as many people as possible benefit from the decision. However, the minority are blatantly discriminated against; Simultaneously, the majority benefit from the greatest good provided by the individual making the moral decision; the minority will suffer and thus not at all benefit. Moreover, Bentham’s hedonic calculus (which gives a quantitative measure of the happiness potentially generated by making a particular moral action) is not at all appropriate for making a moral decision. This consequentialist view is undermined by basing a decision upon mere happiness that may come about as a result. Happiness and pleasure (Bentham), as Mill stated, are only shallow pleasures and cannot satisfy the deeper human need. Mill’s assessment of qualitative pleasures (i.e., pleasures of the mind) is not dissimilar to improving one’s sense of self, as shown in virtue ethics.

Virtue ethics holds that the ‘higher pleasures’ of which Mill speaks can be experienced by improving oneself and becoming increasingly virtuous. Notwithstanding, however, the faults of utilitarianism, it is a timeless ethical theory and could be applied to any period of history and is equally valid in a modern society where actions are often measured extrinsically rather than seeing the intrinsic value of the action itself. Aristotelian virtue ethics are not timeless; it would be considered an individual making a moral choice in today’s society far too elitist. Modern scholar Bertrand Russell states that Aristotle’s ethics are “elitist and morally repugnant.” He says that while Aristotle emphasizes ‘flourishing’ in his ethical theory, most people (i.e. the masses) will not flourish at all and so is vastly elitist. There is almost an acceptance that there is a need to exploit slaves, women, and children for those to flourish.

This is an inherent downfall in Aristotle’s ethics because there is no sense of benevolence to the surrounding community and no responsibility to others, just to oneself. This is a very atomistic method of looking at society. Even those who would claim to be quite isolationist and ‘selfish’ and not interested in society as a whole still care about their immediate family and friends, and there is some element of benevolence. To Aristotle, however, as Russell indicates, inequality is seemingly acceptable. This offends the moral code of many individuals making moral choices, so they may not choose Aristotelian ethics because of this. Alistair McIntyre, a modern proponent of Aristotle’s virtue ethics, believes that we are in a crisis of moral philosophy. McIntyre feels that people do not take enough responsibility for their actions as a consequence of the enlightenment. In his famous work, “After Virtue,” he writes that society has become too individualistic and that there is little sense of collective responsibility. He tried in ‘After Virtue’ to re-create a model that contains some Aristotelian strands and place it in a modern context.

Macintyre places the blame of unethical on the obsession to use utterly logical ethical structures such as Utilitarianism. Macintyre claims that by moving away from the utilitarian approach, we could retreat from this ‘moral dark age’ in which he feels we humans are currently encompassed. The contrast between Utilitarianism and Macintyre’s virtue ethics can be seen – to become virtuous is a dynamic lengthy process that requires oneself to move forward, but once achieved, processes such as Utilitarianism will not be necessary. Macintyre criticizes Bentham by claiming that pseudo-scientific moral calculations cannot solve morality and that it is impossible to expect people to rationalize in this way in a pressurizing moral dilemma. Were a person to be virtuous, such a calculation would not be necessary because the individual would internally already know what particular course of action to take in that moral situation. This said. However, Macintyre’s own code of ethics is not without fault – William Frankena states that Macintyre’s use of history to illustrate a philosophical point can be subject to some scrutiny. Frankena says that “not distinguishing history from philosophy bothers me”.

However, Macintyre firmly argues his position by suggesting that Frankena is restricted by an academic principle that usually places a division between history and philosophy. Virtue ethics may have its failings, yet it would appear to be more applicable to an individual facing a moral dilemma than the Catholic religious, ethical theory of Natural Law. The theory of Natural Law was developed by St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), but this ethical standpoint is somewhat antiquated. Regardless of how religious they may be, most people in society do not act in terms of whether it will affect the path of existence that God has laid down for either themselves or the people or objects that they may be affecting. Natural Law may succeed as a theory, but it is not all practical, especially in the modern age. Virtue ethics is so much more accessible in the modern age and far more applicable to individuals. However, Natural Law is quite a specific ethical theory, and often there are fewer individual thought processes required when making a moral decision.

For instance, if a mother chose whether to abort her fetus and was following Natural Law as a religious, ethical benchmark, then it clearly states in the secondary precepts, do not abort the unborn. With virtue ethics, it would be far more ambiguous what course of action should be taken. The mother could become more virtuous by keeping the child because it would test her character and make her have to think always about someone else and herself. Yet, by aborting the fetus, the mother could focus her efforts fully on become more virtuous. Hence, when solving a moral situation, virtue ethics can be attractive because it appeals to oneself who wants to improve. However, it can be very ambiguous as to what course of action would actually develop this, whilst Natural Law would seem to be more specific and ‘helpful.’ Moreover, passages from religious texts such as the Bible would be more helpful to an individual. For example, the tale of the suffering of Job in the Old Testament is an inspiring tale for religious believers facing a moral dilemma about belief.

It can be seen. Therefore, virtue ethics could be beneficial when making a moral decision – its dynamic nature makes it more appealing. However, it provides a better ‘moral guide than any other ethical theory, or religious standpoint could’ is not the case. Virtue ethics is too elitist, and while the concept of flourishing is integral in theory, few will actually flourish. Moreover, it promotes a selfish desire to better oneself (which is not a bad idea in many cases), but it could be seen as elitist and exploitative. Bertrand Russell is too extreme when he states that Virtue Ethics is ‘morally repugnant, but the basis upon which he makes such a claim can be seen and understood because of dated inequality of the ethical theory.

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