Virtue ethics is a custom which goes back to Plato and Aristotle; it is also known as aretaic ethics, from the Greek word arête meaning excellence or virtue. There are a number of key features to virtue ethics, one of the most significant being that it is an agent-centered theory rather than act-centered theory. Therefore it asks the questions ‘What sort of person ought I to be?’ rather than ‘How ought I to act’. The concept does not focus on actions being right or wrong, but on how to be a good/virtuous person. Virtue ethics was re-examined and redeveloped in the twentieth century by philosophers such as G.E.M. Anscombe.
Plato proposed that virtue ethics centers around the achievement of man’s highest good, which involves the right cultivation of his soul and the harmonious well-being of his life, otherwise known as eudaimonia. Additionally, Cardinal virtues are a vital feature to the proposal of virtue ethics, examples are: temperance, courage, prudence and justice. These Plato seemed to consider central virtues and that, when these virtues are in balance, a person’s actions will be good. However, there was not much agreement among the Greek philosophers about which virtues were central, and Aristotle gives a very different account of the virtues.
Aristotle highlighted a significant feature to the theory as he sought to give an account of the structure of morality and explained, in his book Nicomachean Ethics, that the point of engaging in ethics is to become ‘good’. Here, Aristotle differentiates between things which are good as means and things which are good as ends.
Additionally, Anscombe argues that eudaimonia is the highest good because we desire it for its own sake, and not just as a means to anything else at all. Other good things, such a justice, are desired because they lead to a good life, whereas good living itself is not wanted for anything which it might lead to; it is inherently worth having. Aristotle, highlighting another feature of the ethic, suggests that human well-being and human flourishing is a life characterized by the virtues. However, this good human life is one lived in harmony and co-operation with other people, since Aristotle saw people as not only rational beings but also as social beings. We live in groups and he saw the well-being of the group as more important than that of a single member.
Moreover, Aristotle believed that the best way to achieve eudaimonia was to develop and exercise qualities that are most productive for living in a society. Extremes of behavior, such as being too timid at one extreme or too assertive at the other, are unhelpful to society. This led Aristotle to create a crucial feature of virtue ethics, what he called the Golden Mean, which can be explained as: striking the right balance between extremes. Each extreme he called a ‘vice’, and the midway point where the right balance is struck he called a ‘virtue’. However, the mean is not the same of everything and depends on circumstance – you need to apply phronesis to decide on the right course of action on each situation.
Aristotle was convinced that virtue is something which we acquire and not something which we have when we are born; different people are not inherently good or bad, but become good or bad according to the habits they develop in themselves. Therefore, Aristotle highlighted a key feature in the ethic that it is not enough to have the know-how or even the habit of behaving as the virtuous person does, the actions are not as important as the character, and therefore the virtuous behavior must be done with the right motivation, as the virtuous person would do them.
In the twentieth century there was a revival of interest in virtue ethics by philosophers who were unhappy with act-centered ethical theories. Stressing key features to the theory, modern versions of virtue ethics argue that the assessment of a person’s character is an important aspect to our ethical thought and needs to be included in any ethical theory. In 1958 G.E.M. Anscombe published a paper called ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’ where she argued that the concept of moral rules and of moral obligations is flawed. She attacked the traditions of Utilitarianism and of Kant, which both set out principles for people to follow and which look at the morality of different actions, rather than at the character of the person.
Anscombe argued that the idea that we have obligations to keep rules makes no sense unless people believe in God. Without any absolute law-giver, there is no sense in following laws in ethics. She saw that ethical systems which try to establish rules even after the idea of God has been abandoned are incoherent, not recognizing that their basis depends on belief which many people no longer hold. For Anscombe, the way forward is to revive the concept of human ‘flourishing’, eudaimonia, which does not depend on any notion of God.
Philippa Foot attempted to modernise Aristotle’s virtue ethics while still keeping the Aristotelian understanding of character and virtue. She recognises the significant features to the ethic, such as the importance of the person’s own reasoning in the practice of virtue, claims that the virtues benefit the individual by leading to flourishing and stresses that the virtuous person does far more than conform to the conventions of society. Foot argues that a virtue does not operate as a virtue when turned to a bad end. Virtues are good for us and also help us to correct harmful human passions and temptations.
Additionally, in his book After Virtue, Alasdair Macintyre claims that ethical theories have simple resulted in ethical disagreements. The result if this, he suggests, is that people do not think there are any moral truths and consider one opinion to be as good as any other opinion. Macintyre argues that most people’s attitudes today are based on emotivism. Macintyre added a vital feature to the ethic, as he wanted to restore the idea that morality should be seen in terms of human purpose, but he thought it would not be possible to restore Aristotle’s theory of function and so he attempted to make human function, and so human virtue, depend on community.
According to virtue ethics, morality is not found in actions or in duties, but in the person performing the actions, the ‘agent’. Thus morality should focus on the person, and not necessarily on the choices they make in their moral behavior. The theory concentrates on being, rather than doing, and this crucial feature results in the contrasts with other forms of ethics, which aim to show how to discover the right course of action. Although the system is based on ideals, it is no unrealistic, because it looks to actual examples of virtuous people, such as Martin Luther King or Jesus; it can therefore be seen to have attainable targets. It’s aim is to achieve something which people genuinely want, eudaimonia, rather than being based on arguably incoherent ideas about the after-life.
Evaluate the extent to which virtue ethics can withstand criticism.
Virtue ethics encompasses all aspects of life rather than particular actions. It sees every moment as the possibility for acquiring or developing virtue. Virtue ethics provides an alternative route for drawing on the tradition of moral philosophy in a way that’s a different from the natural law approach. It’s an alternative ethical model that fits Christian ethics and also reaches beyond religious ethics. However, some Christians may argue that, in modern society, the extent of the relevance of the ethic can be considered insignificant as it focuses on the fundamental issues of what it means to be human, rather than looking for rules.
Therefore, virtue ethics does not pretend to be able to tell us what a good person would do in every situation but encourages us to be more like such a person so that we will not need an ethical theory to make our decisions for us. This asset strengthens the theory, possibly increasing the extent to which it can withstand criticism as it stresses the importance of character, providing the example: someone who helps the poor out of compassion does seem to be morally superior to someone who does it out of duty.
Multiple criticisms have been voiced about the theory and many have reduced the degree to which the concept is valued in modern day society. For example, one criticism leveled against virtue theory is that it is far from replacing the arguments about moral duty and moral absolutes, it ultimately depends on them. Walter Schaller, in his works, argues that moral virtues have only ‘instrumental or derivative value’. Virtue ethics relies on the concept of duty and the idea that there are moral norms or absolutes. This point undermines the significance of virtue theory, as Macintyre was trying
to get away from the arguments about duty and moral actions.
On the other hand, Robert Louden criticises the theory by questioning how virtue ethics can be applied to moral dilemmas. He argued that virtue ethics does not help people facing a crisis because it does not give any clear rules for action, for example what is the virtuous response to abortion? Virtue ethics does not provide any concrete answers and only says it is a matter for the practical wisdom of the person facing the situation. However, some Christians may argue that this statement can be counteracted as a strength of the theory as a lack of concrete answers allows personal choice and freedom to decide what is morally virtuous, increasing it’s ability to withstand criticism.
Louden also points out that it is difficult to decide who is virtuous, as acts which appear virtuous on the outside may not necessarily have good motives and vice versa. Nevertheless, virtue ethics counteracts this criticism as it, as a theory, enables us to integrate many aspects of life, such as our social responsibilities, into our ethical reflection; it looks at what makes life valuable rather than looking at what is right or wrong. It does not reject our emotions but includes them, and so is more in-tune with how people naturally react to an ethical dilemma. It relates our ethical choices to the bigger picture.
Additionally, it has been argued that virtue ethics does not seem to have room for basic concepts such as rights and obligations. This therefore reduces the theory’s ability to withstand the criticisms proposed of it and thus reducing how relevant the theory is. As a theory of ethics is seems incapable of dealing with big issues – virtue ethics does not always have a view about what makes an act right or wrong. It is vague, therefore it is hard to make decisions.
Moreover, the theory counteracts the criticisms aimed at it through the use of examples of virtuous people. Virtue ethics stresses the importance of motivating people to want to be good. Shows how we acquire and learn virtues by intimidating others. Examples of these virtuous people are Martin Luther King and Jesus who both fought for supreme happiness for society.
Conversely, criticisms have been constantly weakening the theory through questions such as ‘What is happiness?’ and ‘Does Aristotle’s supreme happiness exist?’. It has been argued that virtue ethics depends on some final end which gives shape to our lives – there may not be one and being virtuous may not effect it anyway. These factors significantly weaken the extent to which the theory has survived criticism especially as the ethic seems to praise some virtues that Christians might see as immoral, such as soldiers fighting unjust wars may be courageous but that doesn’t make them morally good.
However, the theory has also been vitally strengthened for modern society through its acceptability of bias behavior in favor of friends and family, unlike utilitarianism or Kant, which see impartiality as important. The relevance of the concept is also supported through it’s avoidance of following a formula, such as utilitarianism: ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’, to work out what we ought to do and focuses instead on the kind of person we ought to be. Therefore it is a more practical way of making a decision easily. Overall, even though the criticisms of the theory are vital in reducing the extent to which it is valued in this present day, the strengths of the theory provide society with an ethical guideline as to how to be and what makes a virtuous person.