To what extent do modern virtue ethics address the weaknesses of Aristotle’s teaching on virtues? (35) Virtue Ethics looks at a person’s good traits, known as ‘virtues’ and negative traits, known as ‘vices’; a person is considered to be a good person if they are virtuous and a morally bad person if they have developed lots of vices. Deontological and teleological ethicists argue that good or bad behaviour is far more important than a person’s good or bad characteristics whereas Virtue Theory argues it is only by becoming a better person that we will engage in the ‘right’ behaviour; Virtue Theory looks at the agent in itself and rather than the action. The key concepts of Virtue Ethics were first penned by the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle and in more recent times have been adapted and added to by Alasdair MacIntyre. Aristotle’s theory is made up of many key features, including Moral Virtues, The Doctrine of the Mean, Eudaimonia, and Friendship and the Community.
According to Aristotle, everything has a purpose, for example, pens, their purpose is to write, if the pen fulfils its purpose and writes well, it is a good pen. In the same way, if we equate Eudaimonia to the pen, Eudaimonia is the supreme goal of human life, if a person reaches Eudaimonia, they are a considered a good person as the purpose was to be happy, therefore they have reached their purpose, just as the pen reaches its own. He also argued that every action comes down to this aim, every human being desires to be as happy as possible.
An example of this is to ask a Doctor or a Lawyer why they chose such professions, the majority would answer that they chose this profession because it pays well and they believed that being paid well would lead to an easier and happy life, or Eudaimonia. Aristotle’s theory also says that relationships and friendships play a very important role in how we behave as people and how our actions are determined; we should all aim to individually achieve Eudaimonia, which would therefore achieve the greatest good for society as a whole as everyone would be happier; Aristotle sees our communal friendships and relationships as a vital part of our moral code and flourishing as a virtuous being.
As previously mentioned, a good life involves developing a good character and these are known as moral virtues which are cultivated by habit; one must practice these good virtues in order to adopt them. Some of the key virtues Aristotle spoke of include modesty, generosity, patience, truthfulness and friendliness. Aristotle also spoke of Intellectual Virtues and Cardinal Virtues. Aristotle believed that we should aim to be virtuous people and avoid vices.
Aristotle’s theory is centered around the concept of The Doctrine of the Mean; this states that there are two different vices that accompany every virtue- the Vice of Deficiency and the Vice of Excess. The Vice of Deficiency refers to a distinct lack of virtues, whereas the Vice of Excess refers to too much of the virtue being present. For example, modesty, if there is a distinct lack of this virtue, it may result in shamelessness and if there is too much of this virtue, it may result in shyness. Aristotle argued that the ‘Golden (or Virtuous) Mean’ is the middle of these to extremes and that is what people should aim to have.
Aristotle’s theory is very logical and encourages people to adopt good characteristics which in an ideal world would result in every individual being as happy as possible; however there are many criticisms of this theory. For example, it is somewhat unclear of what is considered a virtue and what is considered a vice and it is also unclear of who is responsible for deciding these; as well as this, it could be argued that it is not possible to measure these virtues. It could also be argued that if every individual had exactly the same characteristics, everyone would be the same and the world be become mundane and monotonous. Virtue Ethics also does not provide clear guidelines or rules of how to act in specific circumstances and is vague and subjective.
Alasdair Macintyre is a Scottish philosopher, whose writing dates to the 20th Century CE. He made an attempt to alter Aristotle’s theory in order to make it more relative and contexualise the ideas. Macintyre felt that morality had become lax and felt that they had become far hypothetical. He felt that people focused more on how an ethical theory would hold up under uncommon and unrealistic circumstances rather than situations where morality counts. He believed that we should understand the context of ethics before attempting to fix modern moral dilemmas.
Macintyre’s belief in context as the central part to ethical decision making shows us that he is relative in his ideology. He believed that virtues would change over time naturally, for example, bravery for us is a person that confronts a gang of youths, throwing rocks at windows, or a police tackling a burglar, however 2000 years ago, bravery was considered as a man dying in battle, for his country. This is an attempt at addressing a weakness of Aristotelian Virtue Ethics, as it would encourage the person to look at the time and place before deciding whether the character traits are good or not. It has to be said that what may be considered good in the Congo may not necessarily be considered good in Brixton, London.
Finally Macintyre addresses the issue of External and Internal goods. Internal Goods are what he calls, the qualities of a person’s character. The External Goods are the things that a person relies on, for example,food or a decent living arrangement. He states that although these are valuable to the human nature, they can be considered good or bad. However the Internal Goods are the most important. This gives more relativism than Aristotelian Virtue Ethics which can be considered an improvement.
In conclusion I feel that Alasdair Macintyre has made a good attempt to improve and change Aristotle’s version of Virtue Ethics, however we can still see some weaknesses. For example, it is even more relative than Aristotle’s version and this can lead to ambiguity when facing a moral dilemma. This has not been addressed, in the modern version by Macintyre. It also does not eliminate the idea of universal virtues to achieve Eudaimonia. This is problematic. So, I feel that his attempt must be congratulated but I do not feel that it has been entirely successful as there are still elements which could be improved further.
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