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Lecture 3: Virtue Ethics & Introduction to Natural Law Theory

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Lecture 3: Virtue Ethics & Introduction to Natural Law Theory. Basic Framework of Virtue Ethics:. Premise 1: An action is right iff it is what a virtuous agent would do in the circumstances.

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basic framework of virtue ethics
Basic Framework of Virtue Ethics:

Premise 1: An action is right iff it is what a virtuous agent would do in the circumstances.

Premise 1a: A virtuous agent is one who acts virtuously, i.e., one who has and exercises the virtues.

Premise 2: A virtue is a character trait a human being needs to flourish or live well.

overview of ethical systems virtue ethics
Overview of Ethical Systems: Virtue Ethics:

Rather than focusing on what we ought to do, Virtue ethics offers a distinctive approach whereby we focus on human character asking the question, “What should I be?” Thus, ethical life involves envisioning ideals for human life and embodying those ideals in one’s life. Virtues are ways in which we embody those ideals.

Virtue is an excellence of some sort. Originally the word meant “strength” and referred to as “manliness.” In Aristotle’s ethics (arete) is used which is trans. as “excellences of various types.”

Aristotle says there are 2 types of virtue: intellectual virtues:

excellences of the mind (e.g., ability to understand, reason, & judge well);

moral virtues: learned by repetition (e.g., practicing honesty we become honest. To be virtuous requires knowledge, practice, & consistent effort at character building.

Plato (c.427-347c):

To be virtuous we must understand what contributes to our overall good & have our desire (appetitive; workers), spirit (warriors), & reason (ruler-guardians) educated properly so they will aggregate with the guidance provided by the rational part of the soul (Books 2 & 3 of Republic). When these 3 parts of the soul conflict with each other, it might move us to act in ways that go against the greater good (become incontinent).

Socrates: Virtue is Knowledge. No one intentionally pursues what is wrong;. Ignorance and forgetfulness are at fault when one does.

Plato (c. 427-347) is concerned with the quality of a person’s inner state & he prized beauty, health, harmony, & strength of a soul as the virtues we should emulate. We must have a well-ordered soul whereby our appetites (temperance), emotions (courage), and reason (wisdom) operate in their respective roles. When reason governs, justice manifests itself from out of the well-ordered person.

Aristotle (384-322): The function of man is reason (the good of the thing is when it performs its function well) which is peculiar to him. Thus, the function of man is reason and the life that is distinctive of humans is the life in accordance with reason. If the function of man is reason, then the good man is the man who reasons well This is the life of excellence (eudaimonia; human flourishing & well-being).

Aristotle: “Must have knowledge, second he must choose the acts and choose them for their own sakes, & finally his actions must proceed from a firm character” (1105a).

overview of ethical systems plato 427 347 b c
Overview of Ethical Systems: Plato (427-347 B.C.)

Plato believed our natural desires are greedy and depraved. Thus, they must

be held in tight check by the powers of reason. He compared the human soul to

a city-state made up of ruler-guardians, guardians, and the peasants/artisans.

Every reality is an archetype of a corresponding eternal form. The goal of life is to

actualize one’s true nature together with one’s many innate potentialities.

So long as the individual is governed by the power of reason, and reason is assisted by courage and will power (guardians), the unruly desires can be suppressed.

4 primary integrated virtues: Wisdom: corresponds to reason; courage: corresponds to the will: temperance, corresponds to desire: justice: links individual to society.

If reason for a moment lets down its guard, then the desires will exert their power, seize control, and lead the person to corruption and immorality.

The highest good is the well-ordered whole to which each part contributes according to its own capacity. A thing in reality is good insofar as it participates in & corresponds to the form of the good (which is the high point of the forms).

main points to know
Main Points to Know:
  • Plato writes dialogues rather than philosophical treatises. Hence, most of his philosophical positions are voiced through the character of Socrates. Even though Socrates was Plato\'s actual teacher, the positions and doctrines traditionally attributed to Socrates are actually Plato\'s account of his teacher. Socrates never wrote anything.
  • Plato advances a teleological conception of morality, "we live the good life insofar as we perform our distinctively human function well."
main points to know6
Main Points to Know:
  • The soul is divided into three parts: appetitive, spirit, and reason. Each part helps us to fulfill critical needs, but in Plato\'s view, only the rational part of the soul is fit to rule.
  • In order to live a virtuous life, it is necessary for the individual to cultivate balance in his/her soul. Thus, persons ruled by appetite or spirit (emotion) are "out of balance" and their actions are apt to provoke personal or social disharmony.
main points to know7
Main Points to Know:
  • Appetite: In cases where appetite rules (oligarchic and tyrannical characters fit here) individuals are at the mercy of the their biological or material whims. Alcohol addiction fits this profile. Individuals who are addicted to self-destructive patterns of behavior are apt to feed their appetites at the expense of other life pursuits. People can also be ruled by material greed in much the same way. The key here is that desire is determinative; these are cravings of the highest degree.
main points to know8
Main Points to Know:
  • Spirit: The emotional, passionate side of our character is centered on the idea of status on a social level. Ambition, desire for honor and glory, moral indignation, and cravings for admiration, all fit under the umbrella of spirit. Love relationships fit into this category as well. Our interactions with others provide core experiences that influence our emotional development.
main points to know9
Main Points to Know:
  • Reason: The intellectual, thinking part of the soul that must weigh options, decide between alternatives, and "suppress dangerous urges.“ Plato clearly puts reason in control of the soul because it acts as good counsel seeking understanding and insight before acting. Rational individuals possess a strong contemplative faculty. They think before they act and are unlikely to take rash action in any given situation.
know thyself
Know Thyself:
  • Plato contends that each one of us performs/does one thing best. We each have one best skill and it is the development of this skill that is of paramount importance in creating a harmonious existence. If we do not have insight into what we do best, the chances of achieving a balanced soul are likely reduced. Hence the Socratic imperative, "know thyself."
  • Just Society: First ask yourself: is it possible to have a just society? What would it look like? How would we direct education, the economy, leisure, and social resources? What is fair?
  • Plato wrestles with the idea of justice in his most famous work entitled, The Republic.

Plato views social justice exactly parallels his notion of individual justice. There are three parts of the soul and three corresponding divisions in the social order. The social order is constructed as follows:









overview of ethical systems aristotle 384 322 b c
Overview of Ethical Systems: Aristotle (384-322 B.C.):

Though we are naturally suited to moral goodness, we don’t automatically develop such inclinations

Your habits & inclinations develop with practice; what you sow is what you reap.

Carefully cultivate moral goodness by rigorous practice.

Ideal of virtue is doing the right thing because you want to do the right thing: you desire to act virtuously.

In order to desire to act virtuously you must carefully and consistently practice doing right until it becomes habitual & natural.

If you act selfishly then you will become a selfish person. Eventually what feels right to you may be very wrong.

With practice & diligence you can develop the habits & inclinations of a virtuous person.

Thus, choose to be virtuous. Desire + judgment must agree.

what is virtue ethics
What is Virtue Ethics?

Virtue Ethics emphasizes the development of character as its central theme rather than trying to define \'goodness\' or \'rightness\'. It is a eudaimonistic theory as it holds \'happiness\' to be our highest goal. According to Aristotle, we attain happiness by cultivating both intellectual and moral virtue. We become virtuous by habit: we deliberately and consistently choose the mean between excess and deficiency until it becomes second-nature.

what is virtue ethics14
What is Virtue Ethics?

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

~ Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

virtue excellence
Virtue = excellence:
  • Intellectual virtue can be taught.
  • A good person succeeds at rational activity.
  • Moral virtue is acquired through excellent habits.
  • We become good by doing good things.
  • We become virtuous by practicing virtuous acts.

On Becoming Agathos & EudaimonFrom Aristotle’s Point of View:Cited from Michael Boylan, Basic Ethics (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2000), 52.

Step 1: Master the functional requirements within a given type of task or behavior.

Step 2: Possess the habitual mastery of the functional requirements to an appropriate degree.

Step 3: Steps 1 & 2: excellence in that task or behavior.

Step 4: Possess habitual excellence in a number of key tasks or behavior.

Step 5: Possess habitual excellence in those tasks or behavior that the common opinion judges to be the most worthy.

Step 6: Steps 4 & 5 leads to agathos.

Step 7: Possessing Agathos leads to eudaimon.

Thus, on balance, excellent traits in human character generally produce excellent actions.

virtue ethics what kind of person should i be
Virtue Ethics: What kind of person should I be?

What is a virtue?

A virtue is a habit of excellence, a beneficial tendency, a skilled disposition that enables a person to realize the crucial potentialities that constitute proper human flourishing (eudaimonia).

What is a habit? A disposition to think, feel, desire, and act in a certain way without having a tendency to consciously will to do so.

What is a character: The sum-total of one’s habits, tendencies, and well-being.

Four cardinal virtues: temperance, courage, prudence, and justice. Piety (reverence to the gods) is sometimes considered a fifth virtue.

closer look at virtue
Closer Look at Virtue:
  • “A virtue such as honesty or generosity is not just a tendency to do what is honest or generous, nor is it to be helpfully specified as a "desirable" or "morally valuable" character trait. It is, indeed a character trait — that is, a disposition which is well entrenched in its possessor, something that, as we say "goes all the way down", unlike a habit such as being a tea-drinker — but the disposition in question, far from being a single track disposition to do honest actions, or even honest actions for certain reasons, is multi-track. It is concerned with many other actions as well, with emotions and emotional reactions, choices, values, desires, perceptions, attitudes, interests, expectations and sensibilities. To possess a virtue is to be a certain sort of person with a certain complex mindset. (Hence the extreme recklessness of attributing a virtue on the basis of a single action)” ~ Stanford Encyclopedia
three central themes
Three Central Themes:
  • Three Central Themes:

A. Virtue (arete): A habit of excellence, a beneficial tendency, a skilled disposition that enables a person to realize the crucial potentialities that constitute proper human flourishing.

      • A habit is a disposition to think, feel, desire, and act in a certain way without having a tendency to will consciously to do so.
      • “Character” may be defined as the sum-total of one’s habits.

C. Eudaimonia (Human Flourishing; Successful Living):

C. Phronesis (practical wisdom): How?

      • Practice The Golden Mean: Be moderate in all things to an appropriate degree; avoid both deficiency and excessiveness; cultivate proper virtues that are deemed most worthy by your community;
      • Mimic, follow the virtuous person.
practical wisdom phronesis
Practical Wisdom (Phronesis):
  • A good person consistently does the right thing at the right time, in the right way, and for the right reason.
  • There is no rule for becoming good, or for distinguishing good from bad, right from wrong.
  • Practical wisdom: ability to draw the right distinctions and tell right from wrong.

A Character Trait is a Virtue IFF it is conducive to eudaimonia: The Golden Mean:

Virtue Excess Deficiency Sphere

Courage Rashness Cowardice Danger

Temperance Self-indulgence Insensibility Sensual pleasure

Liberality Wasteful Stinginess Money

Magnificence Vulgarity Penny pinching Great wealth

Pride Vanity Humility Honor & self-respect

Right Ambition Overly ambitious Lack of ambition Honor

Good temper No emotion Quick-temper Insult

Ready wit Buffoonishness Boorishness Humor

Truthfulness Boastfulness Modesty Self-description

Friendliness Flattery Quarrelsome Social association

Shame Bashfulness Pretense Wrongdoing

Righteous Spite Envy Fortune of others

Justice Greed ? Scarce goods


Virtue (courage)



Vice (cowardice)


Vice (Rashness)




virtue as a mean
Virtue as a Mean:
  • We must give in to desire in the right circumstances, in the right way, for the right reason, etc.
  • Practical wisdom allows us to find the mean.
  • There’s no rule for doing this.
  • You must learn to see what is right
virtue as a mean24
Virtue as a Mean
  • Virtues are means between extremes
  • Virtues constrain desires
  • But we may constrain too little or too much



In the virtuous person, desire and judgment agree whereby the choices and actions will be free of the conflict and pain that inevitably accompany those who are akratic and/or enkratic:

The enkratic:

The enkratic is the morally strong person who shares the akratic agent’s desire to do other than what he knows ought to be done, but acts in accordance with his better judgment.

The akratic:

The akratic is the morally weak person who desires to do other than what he knows ought to be done and acts on this desire against his better judgment.

In neither kind of choice are desire and judgment in harmony. In the virtuous desire and judgment agree.

why does desire and judgment agree for the virtuous
Why does desire and judgment agree for the virtuous?
  • The reason why the choices and actions will be free of the conflict and pain that inevitably accompanies those of the akratic and enkratic agent is because the part of their soul that governs choice and action is so disposed that desire and judgment coincide. The disposition is concerned with choices as would be determined by the person of practical wisdom (phronesis); these will be actions lying between extreme alternatives. They will lie in a man-popularly called the “golden mean”-relative to the talents and stores of the agent.
why does desire and judgment agree for the virtuous27
Why does desire and judgment agree for the virtuous?
  • Choosing in this way is not easily done. It involves, for instance, feeling anger or extending generosity at the right time, toward the right people, in the right way, and for the right reasons. Intellectual virtues, such as excellence at mathematics, can be acquired by teaching, but moral virtues cannot. I may know what ought to be done and even perform virtuous act without being able to act virtuously. Nonetheless, because moral virtue is a disposition concerning choice, deliberate performance of virtuous acts can, ultimately, instill a disposition to choose them in harmony and with pleasure, and hence, to act virtuously.
what does it take to be fully virtuous
What does it take to be fully virtuous?

The fully virtuous do what they should without a struggle against contrary desire; possess practical wisdom (phronesis) which is the knowledge or understanding that enables its possessor to do just that in any given situation. Most contend that phronesis comes out of at least three sources:

1. Comes only with the experience of life. The virtuous are mindful of the consequences of possible actions. How could they fail to be reckless, thoughtless and short-sighted if they were not? Moreover, they have developed the capacity to recognize some features of a situation as more important than others, or indeed, in that situation, as the only relevant ones. The wise do not see things in the same way as the nice adolescents who, with their imperfect virtues, still tend to see the personally disadvantageous nature of a certain action as competing in importance with its honesty or benevolence or justice.

2. They mimic, follow the virtuous person.

* We might add that it also takes a certain set of external goods (e.g., right background, right education, right financial resources, right community, etc).

3 commonly ascribed advantages of virtue ethics
3 Commonly Ascribed “Advantages” of Virtue Ethics:
  • Focuses on the development of habits that promote human excellence.
  • Focuses on an account in which being virtuous means recognizing how rational behavior requires being sensitive to the social and personal dimensions of life.
  • Focuses on how “rational” actions are not based on abstract principles but on moderation.
common criticisms of virtue ethics ve
Common Criticisms of Virtue Ethics (VE):
  • Vast differences on what constitutes a virtue (e.g., different people, societies, opinions, etc).
  • VE lacks clarity in resolving moral conflicts.
  • VE is self-centered because its primary concern is the agent’s own character.
  • “Well-being” is a master value & all other things are valuable only to the extend that they can contribute to it.
  • VE is imprecise: It fails to give us any help with the practicalities of how we should behave.
  • VE leaves us “hostage to luck” for only some will attain moral maturity; others will not. Moreover, life is very fragile. One small misstep and it will cost you everything; it will forever be beyond your reach.
new material
New Material:
  • We will now turn to examine Theistic Deontological Ethics with Natural Law Theory:
  • Next Time we will explore Thomas Aquinas’ “four cardinal virtues” and Introduce Kant’s deontological model as a model that became secular.
deontological framework
Deontological Framework:
  • An action is right if and only if (iff) it is in accordance with a moral rule or principle.
    • This is a purely formal specification, forging a link between the concepts of right and action and moral rule, and gives one no guidance until one knows what a moral rule is.
deontological framework33
Deontological Framework:
  • So, the next thing the theory needs is a premise about that: A moral rule is one that would have been historically:

A. Theistic:

1. Given to us by God;

2. Is required by Natural Law (theistic connection);

B. Secular (though can still be connected to God):

1. Is laid on us by reason.

2. Is required by rationality;

3. Would command universal acceptance;

4. Would be the object of choice of all rational beings.

deontological ethics
Deontological Ethics:

In sum, we should choose actions based on their inherent, intrinsic worth; evangelical approaches to ethics are deontological because it presupposes Scripture as revelation.

“Deontological” comes from the Greek word “deon”, meaning that which is binding, in particular a binding duty. So, you are bound to your duty.

deontological ethics35
Deontological Ethics

For example, a deontologist might argue that a promise ought to be kept simply because it is right to keep a promise, regardless whether the doing so will have good or bad consequences.

In contrast, a utilitarian will argue that we should keep our promises only when keeping them results in better consequences than the alternatives.

deontological ethics36
Deontological Ethics

It holds that acts are right or wrong in and of themselves because of the kinds of acts they are and not simply because of their ends or consequences.

- The ends do not justify the means.

- A good end or purpose does not justify a bad actions.

- You are duty-bound; binding is not dependent on consequences, no matter if it is painful or pleasurable.

deontological ethics37
Deontological Ethics

For example:

1. You are duty-bound to keep your promise to be faithful to your spouse, even if a more attractive person comes along.

2. You are duty-bound to always telling the truth, even if it cost you a job.

Duty is not based on what is pleasant or beneficial, but rather upon the obligation itself.

natural law theory
Natural Law Theory:

“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.”

~ Galileo Galilei.

natural law theory39
Natural Law Theory:

1. It is moral law presumed to be grounded in nature itself. A natural law is a norm for ethical behavior that is deemed binding on all humans because it coheres with the human essence or with the structure of the universe (grounded in nature itself), perhaps because it was legislated by God.

2. Insofar as natural law can be known by reason alone, without special revelation, they provide guidance for all humans, and when followed they enhance the common good, but also render each person morally responsible to a divine judge.

natural law theory40
Natural Law Theory:

3. The idea initially arose among the Jews, Greeks, and Romans, esp. promoted by Judaism and Stoics. But it came to the foreground in the Christian tradition as thinkers drew from both philosophy and the Bible to devise a theory of morality and politics that could be understood to be universally applicable.

Natural Rights: Entitlements with which humans are endowed by nature or by virtue of their status as being human.

what is natural law theory
What is natural law theory?
  • There are foundational moral principle which are not only right for all, but at some level known to all.
  • In other words, there exists ethical standards which are the same for all, meaning they are right for everyone; at some level, everyone knows them.
  • It is natural law because it is “built into the design of human nature and woven into the fabric of the normal human mind; it is genuine knowledge “written on the heart.”
  • Therefore, there are no moral skeptics; supposed skeptics are playing make-believe.
clarifying natural law theory
Clarifying Natural Law Theory:
  • Natural law is not innate for we are not born knowing it. With the capability of understanding we come to understand what is meant by “murder” and by “wrong.”
  • Natural law is not merely biological instinct though it does take into account of certain biological realities.
  • Natural law is not mere custom-though customs of almost all times and places more or less acknowledge it.
  • Natural law is not a law of nature in the same sense that gravitation is a law of nature.
natural law theory43
Natural Law Theory:
  • The “conscience” is the pedagogue to the soul (teacher).
  • Judaism, Origen, and Aquinas say that all ten of the Commandments (the Decalogue) are in some sense self-evident. Modern Christian scholars such as J. Budziszewski defend this view.
  • We know that we are to pursue good and avoid evil because natural law is written on the heart (prescriptive, not descriptive).
  • We have the ability to tell right from wrong.
  • We can violate natural law, but when we do, we personally suffer (e.g., guilt).