To be Happy, isn’t that what life is all about? Some call it eudaimonia. Aristotle, one of the many great philosophers of our time, defined eudaimonia as “that at which all things aim”. Meaning, your life has come together as a whole, thus leading you to be happy. However, Aristotle also says that aiming for happiness is not what should I do, rather what sort of person should I become? For example, if we look at the people around us, we should only see people doing the things they feel they will be successful at, which will ultimately lead to great happiness, like going to school and getting a good job, which leads to things like a house, car, vacations and family. Flourishing is another common term, which means to grow or develop in a healthy way. It is not the kind of happiness you would get from winning the lottery or being lucky, but rather from doing, and accomplishing. So why do we still see people failing and unhappy around us? If we look at their choices and perhaps their ethical beliefs, we start to understand where ethics belongs in the journey of life, which leads me to what I am going to discuss, virtue theory. I will explain and offer an evaluation of this theory’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as what it means to be virtuous.
Aristotle believed that there are two types of virtue: intellectual virtues and moral virtues. Intellectual virtues are taught and moral virtues are developed through habit. (Richard Kraut, 2012). He believed that you are not just born a virtuous person, rather it is a skill acquired throughout ones lifetime. It is a committed way of living excellent. A common example used in today’s description of virtue theory, is learning to play an instrument. To learn an instrument takes daily practice that sometimes takes years to master until it becomes second nature. To become virtuous takes the same dedication to become habit forming. Aristotle believed that all people have the possibility to learn moral education, i.e. the right way to act in different situations. However, Aristotle believed virtues cannot only be taught but that one must, most importantly connect with what it means to be virtuous. (SparkNotes Editors on Aristotle, 2005). Virtuous people are most commonly adults because they acquired these virtues though practice and by aspiring to be virtuous people at a young age.
Virtue ethics avoid using a formula to determine ones actions, unlike most ethical theories, which involve rules and actions. It is based on character and focuses on the kind of person we ought to be, rather then what we ought to do. In Immanuel Kant’s deontology theory, a person makes a decision based on certain rules or principles. (Christopher Panza, 2010). Even though humans are naturally inclined to do what nature tells them to do, they often do not. Kant defines this as “acting from motive of duty”. For example, deontology is the belief that killing someone is wrong, even if it was self-defense. John Mills Utilitarian theory, sometimes referred to as consequentialism, is defined as “the greatest good for the greatest number of people”. (Chrishopher Panza, 2010). For example, sacrificing one innocent person to save fifty innocent people or to choose the least bad of several bad options for the greatest amount of good.
The theory of Aristotle’s golden mean, states that virtue is a point of moderation between two vices. (Karen Murdarasi, 2008). Which simply means too little of a good thing is undesirable, and too much of a bad thing is undesirable. A person who shares too much of their wealth is wasteful rather than a person who doesn’t share any is stingy. Generosity would be the virtue between the two means. Another famous example is the virtue of courage. Courage lies between the vices of rashness and cowardice. The coward has too much fear or fear when he shouldn’t have any. The rash person has little fear and too much confidence.
The courageous person has the right amount. But how are we to know exactly how much of anything is right for anybody? Different degrees are needed for different situations for different people. Aristotle repeatedly reminds us that everyone is different and that virtues do not rely on religion, society, or culture. Instead it depends on the individuals themselves and the individual situation. We must understand that this doesn’t mean that cheating on your spouse occasionally is acceptable, nor is it tolerable to cheat frequently. We simply wouldn’t do it because virtuous people would take pride in being loyal and staying faithful to each other.
There are many virtues that Aristotle lists, but most famously there are four cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. Prudence is the virtue that allows us to correctly know what is right and wrong in any given situation; to choose between virtuous and vicious actions. When we think back to the popular example of courage, an act of prudence would be being able to distinguish the difference between the two vices. When acts are courageous rather than rash or cowardly.
Like the other three virtues, prudence is a virtue that can be adapted by anyone. Prudence is an intellectual virtue more than a moral virtue because we can learn it, but it is very connected to the moral virtues. We couldn’t learn prudence without moral virtues and it is not possible to be prudent and not morally good. An example of prudent behavior would be choosing an appropriate time and place of acting in a given situation. We wouldn’t go on Facebook while we were at work, nor would an individual decide to drive after having too many drinks at a party because prudence requires us to judge correctly for a specific situation.
Justice is another cardinal virtue. It is ranked as the second of the cardinal virtues, behind prudence, but before fortitude and temperance. Justice means giving each person what he or she is rightfully due. For example if we lend money to a friend, it is right for us to get back what we’ve lent. We have the right to be given back what we are due and the friend has an obligation to pay back what he or she owes. We often say that “justice is blind” because it should not matter what we think of a particular person. If we owe him a debt, we must repay him back. Justice is also related to the idea of rights. We often use justice as a negative point; when we say things such as “he got what he deserves,” but used in its proper meaning it is positive. Injustice happens when individuals or the law deprives someone of something that he is owed.
Fortitude is the third cardinal virtue. This virtue is commonly referred to as courage. Using courage to do the right thing is fortitude. Using courage to do the wrong thing is called obstinacy. Fortitude is about strength of the mind; Mental and emotional strength needed while facing adversity, pain, difficulty or danger in achieving one’s goals. We can use this virtue to overcome our fears and strengthen our character. When practicing fortitude, the person is willing to put him or herself in danger if necessary, but does not look for danger for fun. It is when a person endures pain or misfortune and doesn’t complain about it. It is ‘fighting the good fight’ and never giving up no matter what.
Temperance is the ability to restrain yourself from good pleasure, such as eating or drinking, when doing so will benefit yourself or others. It is a form of self-discipline. Eating and drinking are all necessary for our survival, but if we over eat, we call that the vice of gluttony. Likewise, if we overindulge in alcoholic beverages we call that drunkenness. Temperance has nothing to specifically with how much we eat or drink; it’s about how much control you have over these things. Everyone wants to be in control of their own actions because that is one of the things we were designed for.
In my research of ethics, I often thought of the TV show The Walking Dead, which deals with how a society is forced to handle a zombie apocalypse. What is different about this show than other zombie shows, is that The Walking Dead focuses more on the characters and the human response to the apocalypse rather than focusing just on the zombies. The Walking Dead is focused around Rick, a small-town Sheriff’s deputy, his family and a number of other survivors who have came together as a group in order to survive in the world after it has been taking over by zombies or as the characters call them, Walkers. If bitten by one of the Walkers, the victim dies a horrible death only to resurrect a short time later. How do the 4 cardinal virtues apply when you are in the midst of a zombie apocalypse? What does Eudaimonia mean to those that are fighting to stay alive at every moment? What would Aristotle do?
Virtue ethics applies a great amount in The Walking Dead. Surviving amongst the zombies is without a doubt, the most challenging threat. As they learn more about the zombies, they find ways to avoid them and distract them, but most importantly they learn and master the most efficient and beneficial ways to kill them. It is surviving amongst the humans that, then becomes the most challenging threat.
Prudence is most definitely practiced while living through the zombie apocalypse. It’s about doing the best thing based on the circumstances. Prudence is always about doing the right thing or doing the good thing most effectively. Rick responds with prudence to most situations, but again it is based on the circumstances. Some of the decisions he makes in this situation he wouldn’t need to make if there was not a zombie apocalypse happening.
He makes the decision to give his 12-year-old son a gun and teaches him to use it for self-defense against the zombies and other humans that threaten him and his family. This proves to be very prudent because Carl saves many lives after knowing and learning how to use a gun. Another example of prudence in an extreme situation like this might have been when Rick and the gang run across a group of prisoners, some with better intentions than others. One of the prisoners, aggravated with Rick’s leadership, instantly tries to kill him during a zombie attack, not once but twice. Rick does not think twice and buries a machete into his skull. Maybe he was being prudent by eliminating the future threat to his family and group.
Justice in the land of people-eating zombies will never be similar to justice in our normal world. If someone murders someone in our zombie-free world, we have laws that will bring justice to that situation. When someone murders in The Walking Dead, it is usually in self-defense, but there is still no government or laws that will bring justice to that situation. Many believe justice was brought when Shane, Rick’s best friend and partner on the police force, finally died.
When Shane left Otis for dead after shooting him in the leg to distract the zombies, or blatantly verbalized his feelings that he wanted to call off the search for Sophie or when he attempted to kill Rick on three different occasions, one can only hope justice will be done. A few episodes later, Rick kills Shane in self-defense, therefore justice was done. Another example of justice in The Walking Dead is when Michonne stabs the governor in the eye, trying to kill him. He has done nothing but lie to everyone, kill innocent people, and he also sent men after her to kill her. So she tried to kill him but instead popped his eye out. Again, justice would be different if the zombie apocalypse was not in full swing.
Mental strength or fortitude is shown in numerous situations in The Walking Dead. These characters put themselves in danger, almost always to try to
better the situation for the group. In one scene, Rick and Glenn need to get to a vehicle and they figure out that covering themselves with zombie guts and blood allows them to walk among the ‘Walkers’ unnoticed. That would take extreme mental strength and courage. Another example is when Lori, Rick’s wife, sacrifices her life for her unborn baby. In the same scene, she asks her 12-year-old son to shoot her in the head immediately after the baby is born to prevent her from turning into a Walker. Again, they both show fortitude for the situation they were put in.
Temperance or the restraint of a pleasurable act, might not be the same in a normal world than during a zombie apocalypse. Their world is in complete turmoil and there is a shortage of everything from food to bullets. When they find food in the prison they have to ration it to last a long time. If someone were to be gluttonous or to lose self-control during this situation it could be detrimental.
If eudaimonia is happiness or human fulfillment then how does that apply in a zombie apocalypse? Maybe staying alive is maximum happiness? Just getting through everyday is fulfillment enough. Staying virtuous in a zombie land is a virtue in itself. Without law or fear of punishment, no one is trustworthy. The living, are as dangerous, if not more threatening than the undead.
Living virtuously in a zombie-infected world is where one can find flaws in the virtue theory. Aristotle believed our obtainment of virtues could only take us so far. In order to become a virtuous person, one must demonstrate virtues in a certain type of world, not in a zombie infested post apocalyptic nightmare world.
In our normal world, virtue theory also has its flaws. After all, if ethical theories didn’t have flaws philosophers would be out of a job. One of the problems with virtue ethics is that there is no general agreement on what the virtues are. What may seem virtuous to one person may not be to the next. Everyone has their own idea of virtue in any situation, and even if they act with good intentions; it may not bring out the best in the situation. How do we decide what virtues are the best for everyone? The idea of what is a virtue may change and may differ from time to time or from place to place. If there is no universal or generally accepted standard of what the virtues are, is this really a solid basis for an ethical life? Individual and cultural virtues are never going to be the same.
Susan Wolf points out an additional disadvantage in the theory of virtue ethics. She claims that if everyone were virtuous there would be no incitement or diversity in the world. By this she meant that we need negative traits in the world to be able to recognize and distinguish the positive ones and learn how to develop our characters. (Mr. C Farrow, 2010)
Virtue ethics is also accused of not giving enough guidance for particular moral dilemmas. So unlike deontology or utilitarianism, it doesn’t give us a formula for our actions. It doesn’t give us an easy way to tell what the right thing is to do. It would say the right thing to do is what a virtuous person would do. However, if we lack that particular virtue it is not that easy know what that means.
To wrap things up, virtue ethics was originally developed as an opposing theory to deontology and utilitarianism. Though it is clear virtue ethics has its advantages and disadvantages, it seems to be the most logical and morally conscientious of the three ethics. The disadvantages listed above can be easily cleared up with Aristotle’s explanation that there are no permanent rules in ethics. Virtue ethics attempts to bring out the best in any individual and encourages us to be better people. By using the theory of virtue ethics, people are encouraged to develop their own character by aspiring to be virtuous like others. Repetition is the key to making actions a habit, and once these virtuous acts become second nature, then that person can become virtuous
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