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Ethics—The Basics by John Mizzoni. CHAPTER TWO: VIRTUE ETHICS. Ethics—The Basics VIRTUE ETHICS. Road rage— What causes it? Differences between feelings/emotions and behavior/actions. Virtue Ethics (sometimes called Character Ethics) relates our feelings to our behavior….

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ethics the basics by john mizzoni

Ethics—The Basicsby John Mizzoni



ethics the basics virtue ethics
Ethics—The BasicsVIRTUE ETHICS
  • Road rage—What causes it?
  • Differences between feelings/emotions and behavior/actions.
  • Virtue Ethics (sometimes called Character Ethics) relates our feelings to our behavior…
ethics the basics virtue ethics3
Ethics—The BasicsVIRTUE ETHICS

Virtue ethics is an ethical tradition that focuses on:

  • How emotions relate to actions
  • How human beings are able to control their emotions
  • How human beings are able to gain happiness for themselves
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Ethics—The Basics VIRTUE ETHICS

Before Socrates, the earliest known Greek moral philosopher, there was virtue ethics.

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Ethics—The Basics VIRTUE ETHICS
  • Important Pre-Socratics—Pythagoras, Democritus, Heraclitus, Anaxagoras
  • Important Sophists—Protagoras, Thrasymachus, Callicles, Hippias
  • The 3 most well-known Greek philosophers agreed that answers to questions about ethics depend on answers to questions about human nature:
    • Socrates—founder of ethical studies
    • Plato—author of many ethical dialogues
    • Aristotle—author of Nicomachean Ethics
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Ethics—The Basics VIRTUE ETHICS

Virtue ethics has continued from the ancient world to our own:

  • School and Community Programs
    • The Boy Scout Law
    • Character Counts!
    • The Virtues Project
  • Church-sponsored Programs
    • School of Virtue (Kids for Jesus)
  • Employment Programs
    • The Josephson Institute
  • Popular Culture
    • Adventures from the Book of Virtues
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Ethics—The Basics VIRTUE ETHICS

Virtue ethics addresses all four of the ethical problems we are considering. However:

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Ethics—The Basics VIRTUE ETHICS
  • A virtue is a trait of character of a person that is good for that person to have. (Aristotle, 337 BCE)
  • A moral virtue is a mean between two extremes. (Aristotle, 337 BCE)
  • This is Aristotle’s Principle of The Golden Mean
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Ethics—The Basics VIRTUE ETHICS

For example, courage is the mean between cowardice (deficiency) and rashness (excess).

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Ethics—The Basics VIRTUE ETHICS

Aristotle was not alone in this idea:

  • In ancient China, Confucius called one of his important teachings “The Doctrine of the Mean”
  • In ancient India, the Buddha called his philosophy of life “The Middle Way”
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Ethics—The Basics VIRTUE ETHICS
  • Moral excellence—a moral virtue—consists in a mean state.
  • “By virtue I mean virtue of character… it is concerned with feelings and actions….” (Aristotle, 337 BCE)
  • “Virtue, then, is a mean, in so far as it aims at what is intermediate.” (Aristotle, 337 BCE)
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Ethics—The Basics VIRTUE ETHICS

According to Aristotle, two things are important in achieving happiness (eudaemonia) in our lives:

  • how we handle our feelings
  • the rational judgment we use in developing our virtues
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Ethics—The Basics VIRTUE ETHICS

In Aristotle’s thinking, every human being has a rational soul:

  • The rational soul (reason) can help us to control our feelings.
  • If feelings are well-controlled, virtues develop; if they are not well-controlled, vices develop.
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Ethics—The Basics VIRTUE ETHICS

For example, temperance is a mean that focuses on our desires:

  • If we let our desires control us, we are intemperate
  • If we deny our desires entirely, we repress our humanity
  • Controlling our desires to the correct degree leads to excellence


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Ethics—The Basics VIRTUE ETHICS

The Golden Mean is Not Mathematical

    • It is like hitting the bulls-eye in archery

The Golden Mean is Not Precise

  • It is a mean that is relative to us, perhaps even to each of us
    • Like hitting the sweet spot on a baseball bat

For Aristotle, ethics is not a precise science, it is about living the good life.


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Ethics—The Basics VIRTUE ETHICS

The “Good Life” is a life that leads to eudaemonia:

  • happiness
  • flourishing
  • excellence
  • well-being
  • self-realization (Abraham Maslow)
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Ethics—The Basics VIRTUE ETHICS

“Human Nature” for Aristotle:

  • Humans are rational animals
    • Humans are unique animals because of their reason
  • Humans are social/political animals
    • Humans flourish in groups
    • Humans have social origins
    • Humans succeed in social pursuits
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Ethics—The Basics VIRTUE ETHICS

A “moral virtue”, for Aristotle, is a trait of character:

  • A trait that is not “natural” to us
  • A trait that develops through habit
    • A habit is a repeated action
    • “Practice makes perfect”

Potential → Repeated actions → Habit formation → Character

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Ethics—The Basics VIRTUE ETHICS

Thus, Aristotle’s model of human nature is a developmental model:

  • Humans are born with rational minds (potential)
    • Human develop awareness of self
    • Humans develop awareness of choice
  • There is a time in our lives to “train” ourselves (input phase)
  • There is a time in our lives when our character flows easily in action (output phase)

Potential → Repeated actions → Habit formation → Character

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Ethics—The Basics VIRTUE ETHICS

Old Testament Scripture supports this developmental model:

“Train up a child in the way he should go[input], and when he is old he will not depart from it[output]” (Proverbs 22:5).

Potential → Repeated actions → Habit formation → Character

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Ethics—The Basics VIRTUE ETHICS

In Aristotle’s development model, the idea of a role model is very important:

  • One of the natural ways we learn is by copying others
  • Some role models of virtuous lives:
    • Jesus (WWJD = What Would Jesus Do?)
    • Saints (Francis of Assisi, Maria Goretti, Dominic Savio)
    • Others (Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr.)
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Ethics—The Basics VIRTUE ETHICS
  • Virtues are good for the individual who practices them
  • Virtues are good for those who have social contact with the virtuous person

Many of the virtues have to do with our dealings with others

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Ethics—The Basics VIRTUE ETHICS

There are two kinds of virtues:

  • Intellectual virtues can be taught.
  • Moral virtues can only be learned through habitual practice.
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Ethics—The Basics VIRTUE ETHICS
  • Example of an intellectual virtue:
    • Knowledge
  • Examples of moral virtues:
    • Prudence
    • Justice
    • Fortitude
    • Temperance
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Ethics—The Basics VIRTUE ETHICS

The Instruction of Ptahhotep, written 4000 years ago, long before Aristotle, recommends the following virtues to everyone:

Self-control, moderation, kindness, generosity, justice, truthfulness, and discretion

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Ethics—The Basics VIRTUE ETHICS

In New Testament Scripture, Paul’s letters support virtue ethics:

  • Practice virtues (e.g. Galatians 5:22):

Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control

  • Don’t practice vices (e.g. Galatians 5:19):

Fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing

  • Follow an exemplary model of character (Galatians 2:20):

“…it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”

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Ethics—The Basics VIRTUE ETHICS

Universalist virtue ethics:

  • Admits that different cultures emphasize different virtues
  • BUT states that some virtues are universally important
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Ethics—The Basics VIRTUE ETHICS

Relativist virtue ethics:

  • Admits that different cultures emphasize different virtues
  • AND states there are NO universally important virtues
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Ethics—The Basics VIRTUE ETHICS
  • To interpret different inventories of virtues from different cultures and times (cultural relativism) as proof of ethical relativism is to commit the fallacy of hasty generalization.
  • Ethical relativism is an exaggeration of cultural relativism.
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Ethics—The Basics VIRTUE ETHICS

What, then, is the nature of man?

  • According to Aristotle, we are essentially rational in nature.
  • Mizzoni adds that we are also emotional, social, and political in nature, and Aristotle notes this.


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Ethics—The Basics VIRTUE ETHICS

What is the good life, according to Aristotle?

  • Everything in nature has a purpose
  • The purpose of man is to exercise his reason in a life of virtue, or moderation, to achieve happiness
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Ethics—The Basics VIRTUE ETHICS
  • Some scholars view Aristotle’s model as leading to a life of contemplation rather than to a life of action.
  • Other scholars view this model of human development as leading to a life of action (courage and justice), with a retirement to contemplation.
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Ethics—The Basics VIRTUE ETHICS

Ethics and Literature

The virtues and vices that are important in developing a literary character are an essential part of the plot.


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Ethics—The Basics VIRTUE ETHICS

Advantages of Virtue Ethics

  • It provides a reasonable account of moral motivation
  • It is flexible
  • It focuses on the whole person
  • It fits well with common sense
  • It accounts for the fact that partiality, not impartiality, is a part of life
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Ethics—The Basics VIRTUE ETHICS

Disadvantages of Virtue Ethics

  • Virtue ethics is anthropocentric
  • Virtue ethics is individually focused
  • Virtue ethics is incomplete
    • Why is one trait better than another?
    • How do we resolve moral conflict?
    • What about people with disabilities?
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Ethics—The Basics VIRTUE ETHICS

Conclusion: Origins of Virtue Ethics

  • Ethical standards come from a combination of human nature and society. (Societal standards that contradict human nature would not lead to human happiness.)
  • Ethical standards do not come from God or religion
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Ethics—The Basics VIRTUE ETHICS

Conclusion: Relativism v. Universalism

  • Cultural relativism may be true, because we observe ethical diversity among cultures, but ethical relativism could not be true, because some virtues are important in any culture.
  • Aristotle, then, is a ethical universalist who accepts cultural relativism
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Ethics—The Basics VIRTUE ETHICS

Conclusion: Human Nature

  • Aristotle argues for a universal human nature, observing that all human beings are striving after happiness.
  • Aristotle observes that human beings are rational animals (who can control their actions and feelings, and choose what habits they will develop), and social/political animals.
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Ethics—The Basics VIRTUE ETHICS

Conclusion: What Makes Something Right or Wrong?

  • Virtue ethics answers such questions as:
    • How one should live a life?
    • What is a life lived well?
    • What kind of person I should become in terms of virtues and universal human nature?
  • A trait is virtuous if it is a product of our developed natural potential and if it contributes to our happiness, well-being, and flourishing. DOES ALL THIS INFORMATION HELP YOU CHOOSE THE RIGHT THING TO DO?