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VIRTUE ETHICS. From Aristotle to the 21 st century. Why Should I Be Moral? Because of My Character!. Aretology. Arete - Excellence, Strength, Virtue Aretaic Ethics - Strength-Centred Ethics Emphasizes Virtues (Strengths) and Vices (Weaknesses) of Character

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virtue ethics


From Aristotle to the 21st century

  • Arete - Excellence, Strength, Virtue
  • Aretaic Ethics - Strength-Centred Ethics
  • Emphasizes Virtues (Strengths) and Vices (Weaknesses) of Character
  • Not “What Should I Do?” (both Deontology and Teleology) but

“What Kind of Person Should I Be?”

aristotle s ethics
Aristotle’s Ethics
  • 384-322 B.C.
  • The Nicomachean Ethics
  • Two Kinds of Persons
    • Continent:
      • Do what is right, but not necessarily because they want to
    • Temperate:
      • Do what is right because they want to; the more holistic person
the goal of human existence
The Goal of Human Existence
  • Eudaimonia
  • Flourishing, Happiness
  • A Lifelong Pursuit, accomplished
    • Rationally, through theoretical wisdom and contemplation
    • Functionally, through practical wisdom and politics
the goal of human existence eudaimonia
The Goal of Human Existence & Eudaimonia
  • Aimed at the “perfect happiness” which is the perfect activity
  • An excellence in any activity in accordance with the nature of that activity
  • Thus, “Human happiness is the activity of the soul in accordance with perfect virtue (excellence)”. (I.8; Pojman, 394).
the virtues
The Virtues
  • Intellectual Virtues
    • Wisdom, Understanding, Prudence
    • Taught through instruction
  • Moral Virtues
    • Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, Temperance
    • The result of habit
    • Not natural or inborn but acquired through practice
    • Habit or disposition of the soul (our fundamental character) which involves both feeling and action
      • “Those strengths of character that enable us to flourish” (Hinman)
the virtues1
The Virtues
  • Defined / understood in terms of spheres of human experience

Adapted from Martha C. Nussbaum, “Non-Relative Virtues”

the doctrine of the mean
The Doctrine of the Mean
  • Proper position between two extremes
    • Vice of excess
    • Vice of deficiency
  • Not an arithmetic median
    • Relative to us and not the thing
    • Not the same for all of us, or
    • Any of us, at various occasions
    • “In this way, then, every knowledgeable person avoids excess and deficiency, but looks for the mean and chooses it” (II.6)
virtues and the mean
Virtues and the Mean
  • Defined through Reason
    • Education, contemplation, reflection
  • Balanced with Other Virtues and applied using phronesis:
    • To have any single strength of character in full measure, a person must have the other ones as well.*
      • Courage without good judgement is blind
      • Courage without perseverance is short-lived
      • Courage without a clear sense of your own abilities is foolhardy
  • “The virtuous person has practical wisdom, the ability to know when and how best to apply these various moral perspectives.” (*Hinman)
virtues and community
Virtues and Community
  • Virtues are defined and lived in community
  • Sharing a common identity and story
  • Modelling the Virtues
    • Importance of Moral Exemplars (Saints and Heroes)
  • Practicing the Virtues – Habit is Crucial!

“In a word, then, like activities produce like dispositions. Hence we must give our activities a certain quality, because it is their characteristics that determine the resulting dispositions. So it is a matter of no little importance what sort of habits we form from the earliest age ̶ it makes a vast difference, or rather all the difference in the world.” (II.i.) (Pojman, 396)

  • Reinforcing the Virtues
other virtue ethicists
Other Virtue Ethicists
  • G.E.M. (Elizabeth) Anscombe

In 1958 she published an article

called Modern Moral Philosophy arguing

that we should return to the virtues,

as the idea of a law without a lawgiver

was incoherent.

other virtue ethicists1
Other Virtue Ethicists
  • Alasdair MacIntyre
  • After Virtue(1981)

Modern moral philosophy is bankrupt; it must recover the tradition of virtue.

Importance of Narrative as a

“live tradition” – you need to know where ethics has come from.

Virtues change over time.

other virtue ethicists2
Other Virtue Ethicists
  • Philippa Foot

Tries to modernise Aristotle.

Ethics should not be about dry

theorising, but about making the

world a better place (she was one of the founders of Oxfam)

Virtue contributes to the good life.

other virtue ethicists3
Other Virtue Ethicists
  • Rosalind Hursthouse

A neo-Aristotelian – Aristotle was wrong on women and slaves, and there is no need to be limited to his list of virtues.

We acquire virtues individually, and

so flourish, but we do so together

and not at each other’s expense.

other virtue ethicists4
Other Virtue Ethicists
  • Carol Gilligan
  • In a Different Voice (1982)

Developmental theories have been built on observations and assumptions about men’s lives and thereby distort views of female personality.

The kinds of virtues one honors depend on the power brokers of one’s society.

The Ethics of Care

other virtue ethicists5
Other Virtue Ethicists
  • Michael Slote

Develops the feminist ‘ethics of care,’

and links it to a virtue ethics inspired

more by Hume and Hutcheson’s moral

sentimentalism than by Aristotle.

Slote’s version of virtue ethics is agent-based (as opposed

to more Aristotelian forms which are said to be agent

focused) i.e. the moral rightness of acts is based on the

virtuous motives or characters of the agent. The motives are all important.

other virtue ethicists6
Other Virtue Ethicists
  • Martha Nussbaum

She interprets Aristotle’s views as

absolutes… justice, temperance,

generosity etc. are essential to human flourishing

in all societies and in all times.

Nussbaum sees a relativist approach as being incompatible with Aristotle’s virtue theory.

examples of virtue ethics
Examples of Virtue Ethics
  • Bruderhof and Amish communities
    • Anti-worldly
    • Pacifist
    • Family
    • Story
what makes one group virtuous and not another
What makes one group virtuous and not another?
  • Inner-City Gangs
    • Common values
    • Models
    • “Virtuous” actions
    • Codes of honour

Ku Klux Klan?

    • Focused
    • Live tradition
    • Stories and


    • Common


    • “The family is the strength of our nation.”

The Christian Church?

  • The Taliban?
  • The Scouting Movement?
  • Your school?
  • Your friends?
are the virtues the same for everyone
Are the virtues the same for everyone?
  • People are very different.
  • But we face the same basic problems and have the same basic needs.
  • Everyone needs courage as danger can always arise.
  • Some people are less well off, so we will need generosity.
  • Everyone needs friends so we need loyalty.
strengths of virtue ethics
Strengths of Virtue Ethics
  • Importance of the Person, Motive, Heart, Conscience
  • Connection to Community
  • Realization that morality is not defined by moments but by a long-term process
  • Allowance for gray areas, varying contexts, different levels of moral maturity and life contexts
weaknesses of virtue ethics
Weaknesses of Virtue Ethics
  • Dependence on strong communities
  • Not easily applied to ethical issues or to give us practical solutions
  • Demands time
  • Can be turned into a really poor duty-based ethics
  • Might be taken as situational ethics
  • Utilitarianism and Deontology are helpful
  • They demand some kind of larger criteria or grounding, a larger view
  • Virtue ethics seems to provide this view
  • It seems to reflect Christian ethics best, and
  • It is not dependent on any particular way of thinking (e.g. Enlightenment rationalism)