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Does virtue ethics make a significant contribution to moral theory

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Virtue theory puts emphasis on the ‘good’ person, a person whom practices Eudaimonia, an endeavour which is unique to man and which is the activity of the soul in accordance to reason and therefore virtue. The ideas of Aristotle provide a valuable reference when participating in ethical thinking and are especially valuable in the study of moral psychology but on a practical applied level such a theory seems to be empty. Aristotle provides a substantial framework for a practical approach but doesn’t provide the contents.

Although he supplies extensive descriptions of numerous moral and intellectual virtues in his edited work Nicomachean Ethics this isn’t enough and as Sidgewick says ‘he only indicates the whereabouts of virtue’1. He doesn’t give appropriate guidance to one who is in a moral dilemma. The belief that happiness is defined as ‘a form of good living and good conduct’ could be criticised on the grounds that one who practices eudaimonia will still be unhappy or discontented at times during his life.

But Aristotle defends his concept by recognising that as human beings we are all subject to the whims of fortune and it isn’t isolated cases of discontent that are important but instead the complete life. The merits of Aristotle’s argument lay in his recognition that a good life will consist of activities in accordance with excellence and virtue. Aristotle believes that all people have a function, a teleos. Although this is psychologically plausible it is logically wrong.

His reasoning being because people are made up of individual parts all with there own particular function, and the same analysis can be applied to the soul, that the human being too also has a function is a fallacy of composition. It is similar to saying that just because the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle all have a particular function the completed jigsaw must have a function also. This is evidently not the case. This provides a fundamental flaw in any debate that presupposes the existence of a human nature. As previously stated virtue theory has emphasis on the ‘good’ person, so it is important to determine the nature of ‘good’.

Aristotle states his position on this at the beginning of chapter 1 believing that one can ‘assent to the view … that the good is that at which all things aim’. Aristotle recognises that there are many activities which all progress towards differing ends and concludes that the morally good will pursue the ‘end which as moral agents we seek for it’s own sake’ (Ch. II). Later in chapter IV this is termed as eudaimonia, a word that is often translated as ‘well-being’ or ‘happiness’ but as previously discussed it is neither of these things but is indeed an activity (albeit such an activity can lead to well-being or happiness).

It is not therefore happiness that the individual aspires but instead as a rational man he aspires towards the correct performance of himself as a human being. It is important to understand such distinctions to avoid misunderstanding when analysing virtue theory and is especially important when considering Aristotle’s virtues. Aristotle believes that virtues are not inherently a part of us but instead believes that we should be able to train the virtues, a view that a modern account is likely to agree with.

Believing that virtues are acquired by the means of training or ‘habit’ and the dismissal that what is virtuous is inherently known to us does pose a particular difficulty in as one could interpret acting in a virtuous manner simply a matter of following social conventions. This of course cannot be the case. So how does one act virtuously? Virtues are ‘dispositions of character acquired through ethical training, displayed not just in actions but in patterns of emotional reaction. 2 This gives the concept of virtues a degree of flexibility when applying them to practical situations. Virtues are blueprints, a pattern of behaviour and feeling and the idea that one would act and feel in a particular way in appropriate situations. Moral wisdom may therefore be defined as: ‘… A disposition of the soul which, when it has to choose among actions and feelings, it observes the mean relative to us, this being determined by such a rule or principle as would take shape in the mind of a man of sense or practical wisdom… ‘ (Ch. VI)

This idea relies on ones own conception of what is right and what is wrong. The problem here is what blueprints can be considered virtues. Aristotle provides the answer that which ‘actively exercises the faculties in conformity with excellence or virtue’ (Ch. 1). This doesn’t provide a great deal of insight on a practical level and although Aristotle developed extensive lists of moral and intellectual virtues with deep analysis of each in Books II, III and IV, historically there has been much debate as to what qualities can be deemed virtues.

Aristotle’s work is particularly admired within a particular social context, he holds the Greek view that the man and society are as one and any moral study should relate to man as a member of the community. Of course this alone provides ground for criticism in a contemporary age. Today it wouldn’t only be men that would be subject to such ethical training but also women and other individuals that Aristotle coined ‘natural slaves’. Similarly Aristotle’s idea that mans virtues can be discovered from a teleological study of human nature is unrealistic.

In face of changing ideas and values the views that can be formed from studying human nature are wide and often conflicting. The possibility of constructing a single set of virtues is impractical when taking into account historical variations on interpretation. This is an important issue to consider when evaluating the contributions made by virtue theory in any contemporary application. The virtues do not transcend culture differences and do not stand the test of time.

Although it is evident that what constitutes a virtue is debateable there are many advantages to having multiple virtues. Other theories limit themselves to a single objective, for example utilitarianism and the principle of happiness and Kantian Ethics and the principle of duty. Virtue theory recognises there are many elements that contribute to a virtuous life but at the same time Aristotle did believe that you couldn’t possess one virtue without possessing them all.

This is based in the idea that to possess one virtue one must exercise reason and ‘good sense’ and if one could exercise what he called phronesis in developing one kind of virtue he had in his power the means to possess all such virtues. Although his reasoning is consistent it is difficult to deny that some people enjoy some virtues but lack others. Virtue theory differs from other major ethical theories because it puts emphasis on the ‘good’ life rather than concentrating on what constitutes a right action.

A consequentialist approach would see the right action as the action that would promote the values of the individual, in the case of utilitarianism the right action would be the action that would promote the most happiness. Virtue theory dismisses such claims believing that a virtuous action has to be a voluntary action and consequences are not voluntary. Aristotle’s theory doesn’t give any mention to moral obligation or duty either, his ethics are naturalistic and teleological rather than deontological.

He doesn’t tell us how one should behave, but instead suggests a pattern to live by to maximise our ‘well-being’, this can be considered one of the greater weaknesses of virtue theory and it is possibly the greatest reason that it’s contribution to moral theory isn’t as significant as consequentialist and deontological approaches. The emphasis that virtue theory puts on a ‘good’ person is significant and the notion of a virtue is important to the study of ethics, but whereas other theories can effectively advise us what to do in particular cases virtue theory cannot.

Virtue theory tells us what we need to advocate and do the right things are called virtues it is not a theory about virtues themselves. It is also evident that the reasoning of a virtuous person does not solely consist of thoughts about the virtuous but also a combination of reasoning about responsibilities and consequences. It is therefore evident that virtue theory is not autonomous but dependent on the ideas of other ethical theories. Deontological studies of ethics maintain that it is the intrinsic nature of an action that deems it either right or wrong and this is determined by applying the categorical imperative.

It is the belief that people as rational beings are bound to perform certain duties, such duties are unconditional hence they are categorical. One should apply them regardless of any consequences that result from them. Utilitarianism on the other hand follows the rule of utility. By following the principle of utility a person can determine the right action by calculating the total amount of happiness produced from each possible action. Virtue theory is important to both of these ethical theories as the virtues provide the correct disposition of a moral agent to allow them to obey such moral rules.

Although one who is virtuous is more likely to act in accordance with moral rules it is significant to state that one may fulfil his moral obligations and lack various virtues. One does not have to be virtuous to perform his moral obligations it just helps. It is this analysis that would suggest that the virtues play a supplementary role to rule theories. Virtues are dispositions needed to complete the more precedent duties that the moral rules require us to perform.

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