Unlike most ethical theories, virtue ethics cannot simply be classified as either deontological or teleological. This is because they are not primarily interested in duty or results. Virtue ethics, however, deals with character. This ethical theory dates back to Aristotle, and there are even sources in ancient China.
When we think of virtuosity, we think of virtuous acts, such as generosity or honesty. However, it is a little more than that because it concerns other actions such as interest, reactions and wants. These feelings are all in the mind and therefore there must be a mindset to being virtuous. This mindset is part of what makes duty and consequence irrelevant. If we take the example of an honest person, they would not tell the truth because if they don’t someone could get hurt. They tell the truth because not telling the truth would be a lie.
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As Aristotle believed that character was the most important thing, he also understood this mindset, so he came up with virtue and vice. Virtues are not just good acts, but good qualities or a good mindset but vices are not. There are also two types of vice – vice of deficiency and vice of excess. If virtues are good acts, you can obviously have too much virtue or too little virtue and these are the vices. For Aristotle, there were twelve virtuous acts. For example, courage – Aristotle would say that you could be too courageous and then you would rash. You could also not be modest enough, and then you would be a coward; both of which are bad qualities. Doing the right or virtuous thing is known as the golden mean – the middle of two extremes.
Aristotle makes mention of a difference between a virtuous adult and a nice child. This is primarily because the adult is more morally mature. This is known as phronesis. Although the virtuous adult is not perfect, they understand moral dilemma’s through experiences. However, a child may intend to help someone, but may in fact hurt them because they have not been faced with such a dilemma. A child however can obtain arete, which virtue, by experience.
Virtue ethics also makes mention of a concept called eudemonia, which is translated as happiness. This is not the happiness that you get from going on a rollercoaster or from getting a new pair of trainers. This is more true happiness than is one worth looking for. All virtues point toward this sort of happiness. In fact, eudemonia is contingent on virtues and a life devoted to anything but this is a wasted one.
Aristotle also believed in different aims. Every action has some sort of aim or objective, for instance, the aim of taking an exam is to pass it and to show that you know everything in the topic. He developed this idea by saying that there are two types of aim, superior and subordinate. In the same analogy, the superior aim is passing the exam whereas making sure you know everything is subordinate. Aristotle is trying to show that everything is subordinate to the aim of being virtuous in order to achieve the supreme good.
A more modern philosopher named Macintyre backed these ethics because they are rational whereas the others are irrational and won’t accept that. He rejected other theories as they relied completely on teleological ethics that claim there is a proper end to human character and this can be gotten from much preparation. He also rejected deontological ethics because they all seemed to be made up by a man, and therefore have subjective rules and principles. He however liked virtue ethics because it looked at what really mattered. It looked at how we can all be better people.
“Virtue Ethics is a useful way of making moral decisions.” Discuss.
In order to assess how useful virtue ethics are, it is first necessary to see the strengths and weaknesses.
Virtue ethics are very inclusive, meaning they deal with all aspects of life. This is because every moment is an opportunity to become virtuous by doing virtuous things. This however is the rosier side of life. Unfortunately, virtue ethics is very vague concerning dilemmas and it is therefore very long to sort problems out. For Instance, what must one do about euthanasia or abortion?
Due to its character-based teachings, it goes beyond just following rules or looking at results. It encompasses both by saying that a good person naturally knows what to do. Focussing on what it is to be human is a strong point. On the other hand, because there are no strict guidelines, it is hard to decide what true virtues really are.
There is a catch-22 situation in the theory that is a big letdown. In order to know what virtues actually are there must be some sort of criteria or guideline, to test actions by. If that is the case, then virtues are no more than rules or moral objectives. How is it therefore any different from deontological theories?
I think that assessing the character is a very important part of moral life, but in many moral dilemmas, there is no strong position held in virtue ethics. Is it virtuous to kill a woman because she is in pain or to let her live because murder is wrong? Due to such reasoning, I do not think that virtue theory is a useful way of making moral decisions.
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