Prior to beginning work on this discussion forum, read Chapter 5 of the How Should One Live? An Introduction to Ethics and Moral Reasoning. You should also read or watch the resource your instructor has provided for this discussion, which you can find in the instructor’s discussion prompt post.
In the ancient Greece of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, a “symposium” was a banquet held after a meal, an “after-party” of sorts that usually included drinking, dancing, recitals, and engaging conversations on the topics of the day. For our purposes in this course, the Symposium discussions will not involve dancing, recitals, or a banquet, but they will provide food for thought on current ethical issues and direct application of the ethical theory discussed in each of these weeks.
For this Symposium discussion, your instructor will choose a topic of current ethical interest and a resource associated with it for you to read or watch. Your task is to consider how virtue ethics applies to the controversy, dilemma, event, or scenario selected by your instructor. It is a chance for you to discuss together the ethical issues and questions that it raises, your own response to those, and whether that response aligns with a virtue ethics approach. The aim is to identify, evaluate, and discuss the moral reasoning involved in addressing the chosen issue.
This week, we will consider how virtue ethics applies to performance-enhancing drugs in professional sports.
Please watch this videoLinks to an external site. that outlines the kinds and types of Performance Enhancing Drugs and some ethical issues.
According to Aristotle’s Doctrine of the Mean, Virtue requires that we seek the mean between excess and deficit. Additionally, his conception of eudaimonia, or the good life, suggests that the perfection of excellences is a central component of living. Our physical abilities, character traits, and above all, our intellect were to all be perfected.
Your posts should remain focused on ethical considerations. At some point in your contribution, you must address how a virtue ethicist would approach this issue by explaining and evaluating that approach. If you have a position, you should strive to provide reasons in defense of that position.
When responding to peers, you should strive first to understand the reasons they are offering before challenging or critiquing those reasons. One good way of summarizing their argument before offering a critique or evaluation.
5 Virtue Ethics: Being a Good Person
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After reading this chapter, you should be able to:
• Explain the core features of a virtue-based moral theory.
• Describe the notion of a telos and how that informs how people should act in particular situations.
• Explain the Aristotelian concept of happiness and what makes it unique.
• Identify and explain the core features of a virtue as defined by Aristotle.
• Identify Aristotle’s cardinal virtues and explain their importance in a flourishing life.
• Discuss objections that claim that virtue ethics is self-centered, doesn’t provide adequate guidance, and reinforces prejudices.
Section 5.1 Introduction
Whatever you are, be a good one.
5.1 Introduction In Chapter 1 we described ethics as the act of seek- ing answers to the question “How should one live?” The answers examined in the previous two chapters focused almost exclusively on accounts of what one should do. Utilitarianism holds that one should do those actions that have the best overall conse- quences relative to the alternatives and refrain from those that do not. Deontological ethics holds that one should do those actions that are right in them- selves and refrain from those that are wrong in themselves, regardless of the consequences. In other words, we have a duty to do or not do certain actions. Yet surely there is much more to living well than merely doing right things and avoiding wrong ones.
In fact, we may find ourselves thinking that the rea- son we ought to do certain things and avoid others is because this is integral to something more fun- damental—namely, being a good person. The quote that launched this chapter seems to capture this idea. Our lives are varied and complex. We occupy many different roles and have a multitude of inter- ests and commitments. We are beings that don’t simply make choices but have emotions, instincts, and desires. We aren’t simply minds; we are also animals and bodies. We aren’t merely individu- als, but members of families, communities, teams, clubs, cultures, traditions, and religions. Whatever it is that characterizes our lives in these multifac- eted ways, we want to be good.
But is this merely a matter of doing the right thing, or is it more a matter of being a certain way, as the phrase “We want to be good” suggests? If so, then we might be inclined to think of ethics—the search for answers regarding how one should live—as per- taining more to the kinds of people we ought to be than simply what we ought to do, and in particular to what constitutes good character. This is one of the fundamental ideas behind virtue ethics.
Allegory of the Virtues, c. 1529, Coreggio; 4X5 Collection/Superstock
Allegory of the Virtues by Antonio da Correggio (1489–1534). In the middle sits Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom. The figure on the lower left is surrounded by symbols of the four cardinal virtues: the snake in her hair symbolizes practical wisdom, the sword in her right hand symbolizes justice, the reins in her left hand symbolize temperance, and the lion skin symbolizes courage. The figure to the right is often interpreted as representing intellectual virtue.
Section 5.2 What Is Virtue Ethics?
5.2 What Is Virtue Ethics? Let’s review the way that we distinguished ethical theories in Chapter 1. We can regard human actions as consisting of three parts:
1. The nature and character of the person performing the action. 2. The nature of the action itself 3. The consequences of the action
The main difference between moral theories has to do with which part they believe to be most important when thinking about ethics. The three moral theories can thus be distin- guished in this way:
1. Virtue ethics focuses on the nature and character of the person performing the action. 2. Deontological ethics focuses on the action itself. 3. Consequentialism focuses on the consequences of the action.
Virtue ethics maintains that the most important consideration for morality is first and fore- most what it means to be a good person, which is described in terms of possessing certain character traits that enable us to live well. These character traits are called virtues.
Generally, when we say that someone or something is good or doing well, we have some idea of what that person or thing is supposed to do; in other words, we understand its function or purpose. For instance, if we call something a good car, then it must be running well, by which we mean that the engine is humming, it drives smoothly, it can get you from point A to point B without trouble, and so on. This is because the purpose of the car is to be a reliable form of transportation. If the tires aren’t aligned or the radiator leaks, then the car as a whole won’t be running well and we won’t say that it’s a good car. If the car is used for racing, then a good car must also be fast and have good handling. If the car is used for transporting children, then
it must have certain safety features. If one’s car is a status symbol, then it may need to be flashy, unique, or expensive. Whatever the purpose, a good car has to have its parts working in harmony, doing what they are supposed to be doing, each contributing to how the whole functions.
Similarly, when we say that a student is doing well in school, we mean he or she is learning concepts and skills, behaving in appropriate ways, earning good grades, and so on. If the student is learning but not getting good grades, getting good grades but misbehaving, or getting good grades but not learning much, then we would be reluctant to say the student is doing well in school. To succeed in school and to be a good student, one must have the discipline needed to complete the required work,
be able to internalize and process the information that is given, have the commitment to per- severe when things are difficult, and maintain an open mind when confronted with new and challenging ideas. Otherwise, he or she will be unable to succeed as a student.
Transtock/SuperStock While the virtues of this car might make it well-suited to racing, it would certainly not be a good choice for a family with young children.
Section 5.3 Virtues and Moral Reasoning
What does this have to do with ethics? If ethics is concerned with how one should live, the conception of what it means to live well will be concerned with more than simply the kind of world I should strive to bring about or the actions I should or should not do. For a car to run well, it needs certain qualities that enable it to fulfill its function in the ways described. Simi- larly, for students to do well in school, they need certain qualities that enable them to fulfill their goals. These would be the virtues of a car and of a student, respectively. In the same way, we might speak of the qualities that enable a person to live well as a whole and to flour- ish as a human being. These qualities are what we call the moral virtues. So virtue ethics is concerned with two questions: What does it mean for a person to live well and to flourish? and What are the virtues needed for this?
These ideas should be familiar. We often speak of the courage of someone fighting a disease, and we are impressed by the kindness of a neighbor or the generosity of a relative, the patience of a schoolteacher and the sense of justice of an activist, the self-control that a former addict has developed after years of struggle, or the wisdom of a rabbi. Moreover, we can easily see how these qualities are connected to an idea of living well, whether in light of the function or purpose of particular roles like neighbor, teacher, and rabbi, or in light of a sense of overall health and well-being.
Virtue ethics begins with the fact that we seem to have ideas about what a well-lived life involves, what kinds of qualities are admirable, and what sort of behavior people with these qualities will exhibit. The task of ethics, on this view, is to help us refine these ideas, resolve conflicts among them, and explore their implications.
Our source for these ideas will be the Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BCE), particularly his book, Nicomachean Ethics, in which he declared that the aim of studying eth- ics is not to gain knowledge but to become better people (Aristotle, 1931, 1103b). But before considering his ideas, let’s first get a broad sense of what moral reasoning looks like accord- ing to virtue ethics.
5.3 Virtues and Moral Reasoning Virtue ethics does not involve the straightforward process of applying an independent prin- ciple to determine the right action in a given circumstance, as we might find in utilitarianism or deontology. Rather, it emphasizes the qualities of character that we need in order to make good choices in each specific situation, which means that the process of making such choices cannot be reduced to an abstract procedure or recipe. For this reason, some people have dif- ficulty understanding how it applies to concrete problems. Moreover, there are many differ- ent forms of virtue ethics, just as there are many different forms of consequentialist ethics and deontological ethics. However, by focusing on Aristotelian virtue ethics, we can identify a general feature of its approach to moral reasoning—namely, its teleological form.
To call moral reasoning “teleological” means it draws on a notion of the human telos—the end, purpose, or function of a person’s life, or what kind of person one should be. It is in terms of the human telos that we understand what a good human life is, and this understanding
Section 5.3 Virtues and Moral Reasoning
informs an account of the virtues and choices a good person would make in particular circumstances.
This notion of the telos may be tied to a social role, expressing what it means to be a parent, doctor, friend, and so on. It may also reference the ideals and ends specific to a particular person, such as aspirations, religious or spiritual commitments, or loves and passions. It also frequently draws on deeper ideas about human nature—what it means to be a rational agent, a finite being, one who forms communities and relationships, is dependent and vulnerable, and so forth. All of these qualities factor into a sense of what it means to be fulfilled, whole, and living well.
In light of understanding the telos we can reason about the virtues that are needed to live well, such as the trustworthiness one needs to be a good friend or the courage one needs to be a good soldier. We can then reason about the choices one should make if one is to be a trustworthy friend or a courageous soldier. While certain rules and principles may inform our reasoning, doing the right thing—that is, doing what a trustworthy friend or courageous soldier would do—is not a mere matter of following rules and principles. Rather, it involves reasoning about the goods of friendship, military service, and human life itself and how best to live those out.
Virtues and Skills
It is often helpful to understand the teleological account of moral reasoning by comparing it with the exercise of practical skills, like mathematics, playing an instrument or a sport, or cooking, especially considering the development of expertise.
Someone learning a new skill will start by following certain procedures, such as the rules for multiplying two numbers or how to hold a tennis racket. The point of these rules is to enable us do math or play tennis well, so we also begin to develop a sense of what it is that gives those rules their point; that is, the ends and goods of that activity. In time, these rules become second nature. Participating in this activity no longer involves thinking about such details, but focusing on more advanced ones. Things that the beginner has to consciously think about become second nature to the expert, and this must be the case if one is to grow and develop. Moreover, the expert may even come to recognize when some of those rules need to be broken or modified in order to fulfill the ends of that activity. Thus, the expert’s choices can be rational even when she isn’t thinking about them or even when she contravenes certain rules or procedures, and this is because of how her choices relate to the ends and goods of that activity. This is what makes the rationality of these activities teleological.
Ethical reasoning works much the same way. Moral rules and principles have an important place in helping us live a good human life and become the sort of people we ought to be, which gives them their rationality. But following rules is insufficient; one must strive to see the goods at which they aim and to develop the virtuous character needed to fulfill those goods. Virtue ethics tries to uncover and explain how this sense of purpose can factor into a rational conception of how to live, including whether and to what extent we can reason about how anyone should live.
Section 5.3 Virtues and Moral Reasoning
Think about the various features of your life. You may be a father, mother, husband, or wife. Perhaps you are in the military, in sales or management, work with kids, or work in something hands-on like construction or repair. You may be involved in professions such as healthcare, social work, or religious ministry. You may have various interests or hobbies such as sports, music, or art. Since you are reading this text, you are most likely a student. What qualities do you need to be successful at each of these activities?
Even if you are not personally involved in certain activities, you might be interested in many of them as a consumer or as someone affected by the choices of others. You go to doctors, you follow sports, you are impacted by what our military is doing, you vote for politicians, you call plumbers or electricians, or you attend a church. What qualities do you expect of those who are engaged in activities that affect your life?
For instance, to be a good soldier one needs courage, loyalty, and integrity. To be a good parent one needs patience and care. To be a good student one needs discipline and open- mindedness. To be a good friend, one needs honesty and faithfulness. To be a good nurse, one needs sensitivity and empathy.The list could go on and on.
The character traits in red are the virtues needed to be a good soldier, parent, and so on. What kinds of actions do these virtues call for in various circumstances?
What does courage mean on the battlefield versus in the barracks? How do we balance loyalty and integrity when they conflict? Does having patience as a parent mean we never get angry at our children, or are there appropriate times and ways to express anger? Does caring for the sick mean doctors or nurses limit themselves to the activity of healing, or must they respect the patient’s wishes when that may conflict with healing? How does the dedication and dis- cipline needed to be a good student weigh against the care and thoughtfulness needed to be a good spouse, especially with limited hours in the day? If these activities involve a balance between different aims, what is that balance?
Most people would agree that there are no hard and fast rules or principles that can answer all of the questions we and others encounter in the course of trying to be the best parent, soldier, student, or healthcare worker one can be. However, we can still provide reasons why certain virtues are important and what a virtuous person would do in certain situations.
For instance, we noted earlier that a good student needs virtues like discipline and an open mind to achieve the goods of education. In light of the fact that a good student aims not just to get a good grade but to gain knowledge and understanding, we could add the virtue of hon- esty to that list, for without it one cannot fulfill that aim. When faced with a situation in which one can successfully cheat, the honest student will recognize that this may result in a higher grade but will undermine the goods of knowledge and understanding. Based on this reason- ing, he or she will recognize that the ethical choice is to not cheat.
It is important to note that we are not starting from scratch in trying to understand what virtue is or by articulating what kinds of decisions virtuous people would make in particular circumstances. We already have a basic understanding of these ideas before we start think- ing about them at a deep, philosophical level. Philosophical inquiry can help us clarify these ideas; it can help us expose and work through weaknesses and inconsistencies. It enables
Section 5.4 The Nicomachean Ethics
us to address challenges that arise from alternative views, difficult questions, and dilemmas, and helps us resist the power that mere personal desire, tra- ditional or established assumptions, or prevailing cultural trends can have over our own sense of how one should live.
As we mentioned previously, our main source for such philosophical investigations into virtue is the Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. Although he lived and wrote almost 2,500 years ago, his ideas remain familiar and relevant to us today. We now turn to his text.
5.4 The Nicomachean Ethics Start by reading Book I of Nichomachean Ethics in the Primary Sources section at the end of the chap- ter and come back to this point in the chapter.
Book I: The Human Telos Aristotle starts his discussion of ethics not with an account of right and wrong, but by describ- ing what we aim at in living our everyday lives. Think for a moment about various decisions you made today. Why did you choose to do one thing over another? You may have chosen to get up at a certain time, eat certain things for breakfast, do certain chores, take a certain route to work, and at some point you decided to sit down and read this book.
Aristotle’s first observation is that when we make choices, we have some reason for doing so. Whatever our reasons, there is something all of our decisions seem to have in common: we consider them to be, in some way, good.
Now, you may be thinking, “I’ve made lots of bad choices, including some that I knew were bad when I made them. So Aristotle can’t be right.” But perhaps the “bad” choice was intended to bring you immediate gratification or to avoid some pain, even if you knew that it was only momentary and would lead to more problems later. Or perhaps you simply misjudged a situ- ation and made a choice that turned out worse than you hoped. In either case, though, wasn’t there some sense in which your choice was aimed at something good? If we think it was a bad choice, then it may be because it seemed good but wasn’t actually good, or it wasn’t good overall.
If this is correct, then it suggests that when we make choices, we are, indeed, aiming at some- thing good. This reflection leads us to a further question: what is good? What should we be aiming at when we make choices?
PanosKarapanagiotis/iStock/Thinkstock Aristotle, an ancient Greek philosopher.
Section 5.4 The Nicomachean Ethics
As we discussed previously, we often aim at a good connected to some sort of identity, role, or function; sometimes it has to do with one’s private and personal life, such as one’s interests and hobbies; and sometimes it connects to an overall sense of health and well-being. In such cases, the good choice is the one that helps us to be a good parent or friend, fulfill God’s will for us, promote justice, live healthy, and so on, while the bad choice is one that hinders this goal.
However, two difficulties arise. First, how do we know whether our aims, especially those associated with a particular role or personal commitment, are genuinely good? We know that one can be really good in a certain role yet be a thoroughly rotten person. Take the example of Adolf Eichmann, a man who was fantastically good at his job, had all of the qualities needed to do well, and was admired and praised by his colleagues and superiors. His role? To round up and exterminate Jews in Nazi Germany (Arendt, 1963).
Aristotle Aristotle was a student of Plato and went on to become one of the most important figures in Western history. Aristotle invented the study of logic, made contributions to the natural sciences (especially physics and biology) that dominated scientific studies for nearly 2,000 years, and his metaphysical views had a tremendous impact on the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic religious traditions. He also tutored the famous Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great and established an important school in Athens call the Lyceum.
Aristotle’s influence on the ancient world was tremendous, and most of the philosophical debates in the centuries following his death had to contend with his ideas, either by showing how certain views were consistent with his or by attempting to refute him. However, for reasons we don’t entirely know, a great many of his writings were lost in the early part of the Common Era. What survived were, for the most part, not Aristotle’s own writings themselves, but notes and summaries that his students took of his lectures at the Lyceum. For hundreds of years, these were preserved mostly in eastern Europe and the Middle East until they were rediscovered by Western Europeans around the 12th century as the period known as the Dark Ages was drawing to a close.
The Nicomachean Ethics is not the only work containing Aristotle’s ethical teaching, but it is certainly the most well-known and influential. Aristotle had a son named Nicomachus, and historians speculate that the Nicomachean Ethics was probably either compiled by his son or dedicated to him. Either way, the legacy of this work, as with much of his thought, cannot be overstated. However, it is also important to note that virtue ethics is not to be strictly identified with Aristotle’s ethics, any more than utilitarianism should be identified with John Stuart Mill’s ideas or deontology with Immanuel Kant’s. For one thing, utilitarians like Mill, deontologists like Kant, and many others who depart from Aristotle’s views in important ways have nevertheless recognized the importance of virtue and incorporated it into their broader ethical systems. Second, Aristotle held views that many people today find objectionable, particularly regarding women and slavery. For this and many other reasons, even those who have been heavily influenced by Aristotle end up going beyond him.
Section 5.4 The Nicomachean Ethics
Second, many of us often find it difficult to balance our various roles and ambitions, even when there is no question as to whether they are worthwhile. How should we decide whether to prioritize our responsibilities as a student or a parent when the two conflict? Similarly, within a society there are many different roles and occupations, not to mention cultures, com- mitments, backgrounds, and preferences. Is there some overall aim, or telos, in terms of which we can evaluate the merits of particular aims, balance the goods in our own lives, and recog- nize ethical standards that we all have in common?
Aristotle says yes: we all aim for happiness.
Happiness: More Than a Feeling Aristotle (1931) poses the following observation and question:
If . . . there is some end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake (everything else being desired for the sake of this), and if we do not choose everything for the sake of something else (for at that rate the process would go on to infinity, so that our desire would be empty and vain), clearly this must be the good and the chief good. Will not the knowledge of it, then, have a great influence on life? Shall we not, like archers who have a mark to aim at, be more likely to hit upon what is right? . . . Most people] say that it is happiness, and identify living well and faring well with being happy. (1094a, 1095a)
Aristotle describes happiness as the chief good at which all of our activities aim and proposes that understanding what happiness is will allow us to “hit the mark” when seeking to make good choices. However, his final remark that “being happy” is identified with “living well and faring well” presents a contrast to what this term often means to us today.
Think about what springs to mind when you hear the word happiness. You may think of hap- piness as a good feeling, like that which we get when we hear good news, when we’re with people we love, or are doing something we enjoy. It may conjure up the kind of personal sat- isfaction or contentment that we strive for by reading self-help books, going to therapists, or attending an uplifting religious service. You may think of it in the way it is meant when we say things like, “I don’t personally agree with her choices, but if it makes her happy, who am I to say there’s anything wrong with it?”
In this sense, “happiness” would mean something internal and very personal, having to do with pleasure, inner peace, or the satisfaction of inner desires and goals. While Aristotle would acknowledge that this is important, it is not quite what he means by the term. Rather, if we carefully consider the idea that happiness is the ultimate aim of human life (or “chief end,” as Aristotle calls it), we realize that it has to be more than simply how someone feels about their life. What we all want, says Aristotle, is a life that is truly flourishing, which in Greek is called eudaimonia. This is far more than feeling good, far more than satisfying our personal desires or goals, and even more than achieving a sense of satisfaction and contentment, for we could have all these things and not have a life that one could truly say was going well.
Section 5.4 The Nicomachean Ethics
To get a sense of the difference between Aristotle’s notion of eudaimonia and the common notion of happiness as merely an inner feeling or sense of personal satisfaction, imagine a life of little more than such experiences and consider whether that life could be called truly well lived. For instance, drug addicts are known to be willing to give up anything and every- thing for their next high, sacrificing family, career, and health to attain that blissful, feel-good moment as often and as long as possible. If happiness really is just a matter of feeling good or experiencing what you happen to consider pleasant and enjoyable, then it would stand to reason that someone who is able to experience a constant state of drug-induced high would be the happiest person around; yet we would generally say quite the opposite about such a person, especially when that state involves complete oblivion to the world around them, such as the ravaging of his or her body or the suffering of his or her family as a result of such a condition. Is this what we would consider to be human flourishing? Is that permanent state of bliss what we have in mind when we think of what we all strive for?
Instead, what Aristotle has in mind is that we aim to be the sort of person about whom others would ultimately say, “this person lived a good life.” Maybe you have had a grandmother like
Ethics and Politics
Aristotle describes the study of ethics and the well-lived life as “politics” or “political science” (Aristotle, 1931, 1094b). This may initially sound strange to us, since we often think of politics as concerned with how governments should function, what laws should be in place, and so on. We often think that politics should be kept separate from the “private” sphere in which we pursue the things that make us happy. Indeed, on many contemporary accounts the main function of government is to ensure people as much freedom as possible to discover and pursue their own personal vision of the good life. Aristotle’s use of the term politics to describe the way we form and revise an understanding of what the good life actually is would seem to be quite different than our modern conception.
While it may be the case that we have good reason to limit the extent to which governments get involved in legislating around particular views of happiness, the idea behind Aristotle’s word choice is that living a human life and living it well is shaped through our relations with others. Before we begin to think reflectively about our individual lives, we have already been formed and shaped by our families and communities. Our identities depend in part on how we relate to others. We are never merely individuals but are also mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, friends, neighbors, citizens, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, Republicans, Democrats, and so on. We are dependent on others and vice versa. We work together, strive toward common goals, and experience each other’s suffering and joy.
If this is true, then any account of what it means to live a flourishing life cannot be simply a private matter. Just as it initially emerges through our relations with others, it must continually be developed and refined through them. So when Aristotle talks about the inquiry into happiness and living well as “political science,” he means that, as social beings (Aristotle, 1931, 1097b), we are inquiring into the flourishing of a l
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