As with all forms of ethics, whilst written about in a general sense the ethical thought appear a feasible process and an appropriate way to act and behave, however needs to stand up against certain moral issues to ‘test’ its fallibility. Business ethics would be one such example. Aristotle, the father of virtue ethics felt community care is the reason for the market system. A business would be a selfless economic structure and ethos. Aristotle’s word, “oikonomikos” is used to show this household trading and community-based economy Virtue ethics as described by Aristotle has a central thesis of improving oneself to be a better person. If everyone strives to do this then the world would become a more productive and moral environment to live in. He argues that the rational side of the soul which revolves around intellectual values is the side that should be cared for by the individual.
He argues that virtue ethics is ‘at variance with the central feature of the modern economic order.’ He feels ‘internal goods’ are the most important to produce, these are unique to a particular activity that uses ‘analytic skill, strategic imagination and competitive intensity.’ Fame, money and power would therefore not come into this so would be described as unvirtuous goals. He gives an example of two fishing communities; the first produces external goods and is a portrayal of current businesses. The fisherman catches as much fish as possible to meet the demand and to make a profit which is the overriding goal. As soon as the demand for fish starts to wane the crew will quit as there will be an insufficient profit for them to make. In the second example, he gives a more virtuous account; although a fisherman may originally join the crew for capital gain the crew show devotion for the excellence of fishing, the achievements of acquiring goods which will extend to the family of the crew members and of the society as a whole.
Macintyre would agree that the latter would fail if the two crews were in competition, he would, however, maintain that the sense of pride in work is more important than the pursuit of profits. Macintyre would argue that the current ethics of Western corporations are unethical, Milton Freedman’s article explaining firms the only aim is to maximise profits and has no social responsibility would be absolutely contested by Macintyre, who would argue that money is not the end rather a means to a further end of social responsibility. Kindness would be an important virtue to own, and with this character trait, you would expect the individual to shown compassion and lovingness in a situation. For example, is it acceptable to sack able workers purely because they are in excess of the needs of the company and by saving money on their wages you can earn more for yourself? The virtuous answer would be no it is far better to treat your staff with the utmost respect than to run a business for the maximisation of profits.
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Proponents of virtue ethics could argue that by treating your staff more virtuously you will reap finical rewards anyway. They may be more willing to meet deadlines, work as a team and not steal company stationery. Overseas labour is an important aspect of business ethics. A virtuous man would not want to exploit people, make children work long hours in poor conditions and for very little pay. The major problem is that you are prioritising the want for more money over the welfare of your workers this shows a deficiency in one’s character. To be virtuous the only way to show this is how you treat people. Virtue ethics give a better guide to making moral decisions than any other ethical theory or religious standpoints ever could?
The variety of ethical and religious standpoints gives a good contrast to virtue ethics. Due to the objective nature, we have different people who side with different forms of ethics. Some follow a priori arguments with absolute rules such as Kantian ethics and natural law, whilst other belief in a more flexible and personal morality such as utilitarianism, situation ethics and virtue ethics. Virtue ethics has some very strong points regarding morality, notably described in Macintyre’s landmark book ‘After Virtue.’ Here he points out that the human race is currently in a poor state, so he has attempted to use Aristotle as well as more recent proponents of virtue ethics to update the ethical framework for modern use. Virtue theories encourage us to develop character, a goal that is allegedly unique to the virtue theory.
There are, however, problems with virtue ethics. Although it avoids the arduous task of not having a formula to suggest what we ought to do (as with utilitarianism and Kantian ethics) it focuses on the type of people we ought to be. The problem lies with what virtues should we acquire, which are good and which or bad. Obviously telling a person to ‘be virtuous’ is a mere empty imperative. There are different responses to this, the first put forward by Aristotle is to find a good man and listen to what he feels what virtues are and which is so important. The problem with this is who is a good man? Some may argue that Nelson Mandela is worthy of this, having overturned a racist government and looked after his people in the highest office of the presidency. Others may say he is a bad man, a former terrorist who has led his country to be just as racist against white people and when in office sold arms to militant groups around the world leading to genocide and death. Clearly, this will not suffice; we must already know who is good for this to work.
Joseph Fletcher may argue here that Jesus can be seen as this role model and his virtues of peace, love and charity can be emulated by people. Whilst it is clear from the New Testament that Jesus is a virtuous person, can we really be sure that the accounts of him are accurate of his personality, it is more faith that a person of this description exists and so would be an unsuitable role model for us to follow as it may be unattainable. Other theorists have argued we can personally figure out what an excellent human life is, once we find out what it means to be the greatest human possible, we discover what virtues are needed. Again this is hard for someone to figure out what it is to be the greatest human. So the problem again hits back to the original point.
To counter this Tony Pfaff, introduced a new idea of virtues called ‘special virtues,’ he argues that there are certain character traits essential to achieve a task for example a teacher must be patient, just and honest when awarding grades, and have a love for their subject in order to motivate the children. He puts this point across to illustrate the idea that it is important to find out specific virtues for a moral situation rather than have a vague idea of figuring out a general “design for a virtuous life”.
A subject-specific virtue thought means that the scenario depends on what the issue is and what virtues would be needed to most succinctly achieve the aim. However, by changing the notion of ‘how do I live a good life’ to ‘How do I be good at X’ you could use this to find out what it takes to be a good serial killer and the traits needed, which the police force currently do. He has taken it away from the key matter; what’s more his virtues he decides are the only ones we already have. Someone who partakes in Virtue ethics could justifiably use a formula such as the categorical imperative, the utilitarian or hedonic calculus. On this theory, he might argue that if we want to know what character traits are the moral ones, we just ask which ones maximize happiness and minimize harm for the greatest number. But this answer only returns the virtue theorist to the very rule-based theories he tried to resist and pride themselves on not having.
On this account virtue ethics just collapses into the rule-based systems. The lack of a rule-based system of virtue ethics lacks can be seen as an important weakness. For example, if two men are facing a moral situation it is hard to actually know what to do. They will use their moral intuition, but as has been illustrated it is unclear what exactly this should be, for it cannot be tested with any formula. Without a formula, it becomes ‘moral mysticism’ where the good man instinctively knows what the right thing to do is That brings us to a final way in which the virtue theorist might try to determine what the virtues are. Pfaff hinted at this in his paper last year too, when he suggested that habituated rule-following does more than giving us good character.
It also develops within us a faculty for perceiving moral truths. In other words, the good man can tell what to do in a morally complicated situation, because his habits not only internalize the rules but also give him a special ability to know what is morally appropriate independent of any rational calculus like Kant’s or Mill’s. You might call this a form of moral intuitionism: a special faculty of moral intuition develops within a good man. This may seem plausible since you might notice in your own life that doing what is right not only makes doing what is right in the future easier, but it also seems to make it easier to figure out what is the right thing to do. The counterargument is that we learn from our experiences over time to find out for ourselves what is right and wrong. However, is this acceptable to allow for this self-growth? It may take years for someone to find the right path, they may never find it or they may think they have found it but it is incorrect.
It can be feasibly argued, however that formulas are not the answer for the approach to ethics which relies on universal principles, results in a rigid and inflexible moral code, which we are obliged to follow as moral agents. These rigid rules are counterproductive because they oblige people to follow a certain way. Proponents of virtue ethics would argue in our secular society people don’t want to have a lawgiver, rather make their own informed choice. Particularly in Kant’s ethics is a certain person does not use the formula correctly then they must be wrong so the blame is put upon the incumbent. So unless we act in a certain way we are reproached and told to stick to the common way. So whilst Kant tries to emphasize the importance of autonomy, it does not go far enough according to virtue ethics which far from having a right or wrong answer the individual has to find out what he feels is right.
Utilitarianism, along with Kantian and situation ethics all give you the supposed ‘choice’ of what to do that you must figure out. Virtue ethics goes farther than this and broadens your morals to family, friends, statesmen and respected persons, expanding your moral understandings by learning from others. When natural law clearly spells out that according to the theory, murder is wrong, virtue ethics aims to improve your character and soul. By living a virtuous life it would be a natural progression to realize murder is wrong. In conclusion, as with all moral codes, it has its downfalls and so is probably not the answer for mankind and although has the ‘upper hand’ over some issues, it seems woefully inadequate in others. The main point is that it puts too much emphasis on man which for many would be a hard task to achieve optimum morality. The code is elitist and although it appears that man can look inside himself and his experiences to know what is right and wrong often people need a code or guide to ensure they are on the right track.