IS ETHICS BASED ON VIRTUE?
How should we think about ethics or morality? Is it a code of rules that people
agree not to break or a practice that can be taught?
- Utilitarians (good actions give good results) and Kantians (good actions
respect other persons) focus on actions. For them the "correct ethical
condition" is possessing a theory allowing you to decide what to do.
- Virtue ethics focuses on character. The "correct ethical condition"
is being a certain sort of person-which allows you to be ethical with pleasure,
skill, and even grace.
Virtue as a moral reality
- does not focus on the morality of specific actions, but the moral character
of our lives as a whole. (A good question is: how many people actually ever
- allows us to integrate many aspects of life into ethical reflection: emotions,
commitments to other people, friends, social responsibilities into our analysis
of ethics (how might this differ from a purely action-focused analysis)
- has a more natural starting-point-most people ask themselves the questions
"who am I?" and "how is my life going?" when they are
- Ancient Greek ethicists were unanimous in looking at morality from the perspective
of what makes for a worthwhile life, rather than focusing on the morality
of specific moments in our lives.
- Virtue was thought of as excellence or capacity to act, kinds of "skills"-skills
- Like all skills, one acquires a virtue by practice.
- we learn the appropriate virtues by imitating others who are good at the
activity. Later, after having acquired the virtue, we come understand its
nature and its value-to see the point of why you act the way you do. (why
this skill/virtue is useful/important for this practice)
- Any definition of virtue implies a standard for how people ought to act.
For Aristotle, the standard was reason. People ought to follow their reason,
act according to reason
- Virtues are the opposite of vices. But instead of a good/bad dichotomy,
Aristotle thought of virtues as the mean between two extremes or vices. Achieving
virtue was a matter of finding the "middle ground" or mean-there
is not "right" enough, and too "right."
- Virtue ethics doesn't promise a decision procedure, which is what utilitarianism
and Kantians (action theorists) are trying to provide. The right ethical condition
is NOT having the correct theory, but the appropriate character
- Phronesis (or practical prudence/wisdom) was the virtue that one acquires
that helps one to know what the right thing to do is at any given moment.
Practical wisdom is more a technique, which works out of knowledge gained
by experience and reflection, as well as the sensitivity and imagination of
the person making the decision. It takes time to acquire it, and cannot be
simply taught to someone.
- Virtue allows us to include emotion into our analysis of ethics: emotion
is not a distraction in acting rightly, but a powerful ally. The person of
virtue has this ally.
- Virtue theory insists that we cannot isolate ethical decisions from our
identities, prior commitments, histories. All these operate in decision-making
for these create practical wisdom. Ethical choices are related to the bigger
picture, which includes time as well as space
- Virtue theory insist that acting ethically can (and should be) pleasurable-the
pleasure one gets out of mastering a set of skills and being able to use them
well, with grace and beauty. Just as someone good at a sports enjoys playing
it, so the virtuous person enjoys acting virtuously.
- One's character gives a person a sense of being a real person, having a
- Virtue theory and being virtuous fails to help people facing a crisis, because
it doesn't provide any clear rules for action. Should I have an abortion tomorrow?
Should I inform society about the corrupt practices of my company. Virtue
theory doesn't give us any concrete answers. [Virtue theory is not this kind
of theory-and this objection begs the question about what is the most pressing
problem in ethics-what to do or who to be. Virtue theory would say that the
answer is a matter of the occasion, and the person acting--something that
must be determined by practical wisdom by the person facing the choice.]
- Virtues vary from community to community. Virtues therefore are relativistic,
and possibly at odds.
- How many people really do develop (or are capable of developing) character
which causes them to act morally? This is described as the most devastating
criticism. The Millgram experiments seem to show that situations have more
power over people than character. 60% of the population has weak characters
if Milgram's conclusions are to be accepted.