Prior to beginning work on this discussion forum, view the PHI208 Virtue EthicsLinks to an external site. video and the Week 4 content in the PHI208: Ethics & Moral ReasoningLinks to an external site. interactive, and read Chapter 5 in How Should One Live? An Introduction to Ethics and Moral Reasoning.
This week our main discussion will focus on explaining and evaluating the theory of virtue ethics as discussed in Chapter 5 of the textbook. Your instructor will be choosing the discussion question and posting it as the first post in the main discussion forum.
This discussion will require you to carefully read Chapter 5 of the textbook and the assigned portions of Aristotle’s (1931) Nicomachean Ethics.
Aristotle’s account of ethics is “teleological,” which means that our understanding of virtue and living well is based on a sense of the “telos” (function, purpose, or end) of something (see Aristotle’s text and the textbook for the entire account).
1. Engage with the text:
2. Reflect on yourself:
3. Reflect on virtue:
4. Discuss with your peers:
Aristotle. (1931). Nicomachean ethics (W. D. Ross, Trans.). http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/nicomachaen.htmlLinks to an external site.Thames, B. (2018). How should one live? Introduction to ethics and moral reasoning (3rd ed.). Bridgepoint Education.
Reading Philosophy Philosophical Texts
Utilitarianism – John Stuart Mill
1. The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure. To give a clear view of the moral standard set up by the theory, much more requires to be said; in particular, what things it includes in the ideas of pain and pleasure; and to what extent this is left an open question. But these supplementary explanations do not affect the theory of life on which this theory of morality is grounded- namely, that pleasure, and freedom from pain, are the only things desirable as ends; and that all desirable things (which are as numerous in the utilitarian as in any other scheme) are desirable either for the pleasure inherent in themselves, or as means to the promotion of pleasure and the prevention of pain. Mill, J.S. (1863)
2. According to the Greatest Happiness Principle, as above explained, the ultimate end, with reference to and for the sake of which all other things are desirable (whether we are considering our own good or that of other people), is an existence exempt as far as possible from pain, and as rich as possible in enjoyments, both in point of quantity and quality; the test of quality, and the rule for measuring it against quantity, being the preference felt by those who in their opportunities of experience, to which must be added their habits of self- consciousness and self-observation, are best furnished with the means of comparison. This, being, according to the utilitarian opinion, the end of human action, is necessarily also the standard of morality; which may accordingly be defined, the rules and precepts for human conduct, by the observance of which an existence such as has been described might be, to the greatest extent possible, secured to all mankind; and not to them only, but, so far as the nature of things admits, to the whole sentient creation. Mill, J.S. (1863)
Deontology – Immanuel Kant
1. So an action’s moral value doesn't lie in the effect that is expected from it, or in
any principle of action that motivates it because of this expected effect. All the
expected effects something agreeable for me or even happiness for others could
be brought about through other causes and don't need the will of a rational being,
where is the highest good but is unconditionally good can be found only in such a
will. So this wonderful good which we call moral goodness can't consist in
anything but the thought of law in itself that only a rational being can have with
the will being moved to act by this thought and not by the hope for effect of the
action when the person acts according to this conception this moral goodness is
already present in him we don't have to look for it in The upshot of his action so
we have a law the thought of which can settle the will without reference to any
expected result and must do so if the will is to be called absolutely good without
qualification. What kind of law can this be? Since I have robbed the will of any
impulses that could come to it from obeying any law, nothing remains to serve as
a guiding principle of the will accept conducts universally conforming to law as
such that is I ought never to act in such a way that I couldn't also will that the
maximum on which I act should be a universal law.
Kant, I. (1785)
2. Consider the question: may I when in difficulties make a promise that I intend not
to keep? The question obviously has two meanings: is it prudent to make a false promise? Does it conform to duty to make a false promise? No doubt it often is prudent but not as often as you may think obviously the false promise isn't made prudent by its merely extricating me from my present difficulties I have to think about it whether it will in the long run cause more trouble than it saves in the present even with all my supposed cunning the consequences can't be so easily foreseen people's loss of trust in me might be far more disadvantageous than the trouble I am now trying to avoid and it is hard to tell whether it mightn't be more prudent to act according to a universal maxim not ever to make a promise that I don't intend to keep. Kant, I. (1785)
3. Being truthful from duty is an entirely different thing from being truthful out of fear
of bad consequences; for in the former case a law is included in the concept of the action itself whereas in the latter I must first look outward to see what results my action may have. How can I know whether a deceitful promise is consistent with duty? The shortest way to go about finding out is also the surest. It is to ask myself: Would I be content for my maxim (of getting out of a difficulty through a false promise) to hold as a universal law, for myself as well as for others? That is tantamount to asking: Could I say to myself that anyone may make a false promise when he is in a difficulty that he can’t get out of in any other way? Immediately, I realize that I could will the lie but not a universal law to lie; for a law would result in there being no promises at all, because it would be futile to offer stories about my future conduct to people who wouldn’t believe me; or if they carelessly did believe me and were taken in ·by my promise·, would pay me back in my own coin. Thus, my maxim would necessarily destroy itself as soon as it was made a universal law. Kant, I. (1785)
4. So, if there is to be a supreme practical principle, and a categorical imperative for the human will, it must be an objective principle of the will that can serve as a universal law. Why must it? Because it has to be drawn from the conception of something that is an end in itself and therefore an end for everyone. The basis for this principle is: rational nature exists as an end in itself. Human beings necessarily think of their own existence in this way, which means that the principle holds as a subjective principle of human actions. But every other rational being also thinks of his existence on the same rational ground that holds also for myself; and so it is at the same time an objective principle—·one that doesn’t depend on contingent facts about this or that subject·—a supreme practical ground from which it must be possible to derive all the laws of the will. So here is the practical imperative: Act in such a way as to treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of anyone else, always as an end and never merely as a means. Kant, I. (1785)
Virtue Ethics – Aristotle
1. Book 2, Chapter 6 I mean moral virtue; for it is this that is concerned with passions and actions, and in these there is excess, defect, and the intermediate. For instance, both fear and confidence and appetite and anger and pity and in general pleasure and pain may be felt both too much and too little, and in both cases not well; but to feel them at the right times, with reference to the right objects, towards the right people, with the right motive, and in the right way, is what is both intermediate and best, and this is characteristic of virtue. Similarly with regard to actions also there is excess, defect, and the intermediate. Now virtue is concerned with passions and actions, in which excess is a form of failure, and so is defect, while the intermediate is praised and is a form of success; and being praised and being successful are both characteristics of virtue. Therefore, virtue is a kind of mean, since, as we have seen, it aims at what is intermediate. Aristotle. (1931)
2. Book 2, Chapter 1
It is from the same causes and by the same means that every virtue is both produced and destroyed, and similarly every art; for it is from playing the lyre that both good and bad lyre-players are produced. And the corresponding statement is true of builders and of all the rest; men will be good or bad builders as a result of building well or badly. For if this were not so, there would have been no need of a teacher, but all men would have been born good or bad at their craft. This, then, is the case with the virtues also; by doing the acts that we do in our transactions with other men we become just or unjust, and by doing the acts that we do in the presence of danger, and being habituated to feel fear or confidence, we become brave or cowardly. The same is true of appetites and feelings of
anger; some men become temperate and good-tempered, others self-indulgent and irascible, by behaving in one way or the other in the appropriate circumstances. Thus, in one word, states of character arise out of like activities. This is why the activities we exhibit must be of a certain kind; it is because the states of character correspond to the differences between these. It makes no small difference, then, whether we form habits of one kind or of another from our very youth; it makes a very great difference, or rather all the difference. Aristotle. (1931)
3. Book 10, Chapter 6
Now that we have spoken of the virtues, the forms of friendship, and the varieties of pleasure, what remains is to discuss in outline the nature of happiness, since this is what we state the end of human nature to be. Our discussion will be the more concise if we first sum up what we have said already. We said, then, that it is not a disposition; for if it where it might belong to someone who was asleep throughout his life, living the life of a plant, or, again, to someone who was suffering the greatest misfortunes. If these implications are unacceptable, and we must rather class happiness as an activity, as we have said before, and if some activities are necessary, and desirable for the sake of something else, while others are so in themselves, evidently happiness must be placed among those desirable in themselves, not among those desirable for the sake of something else; for happiness does not lack anything but is self-sufficient. Now those activities are desirable in themselves from which nothing is sought beyond the activity. And of this nature virtuous actions are thought to be; for to do noble and good deeds is a thing desirable for its own sake. Aristotle. (1931)
Letter from a Birmingham Jail – Martin Luther King Jr.
1. We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have never yet engaged in a direct-action movement that was "well timed" according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "wait." It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This "wait" has almost always meant "never." It has been a tranquilizing thalidomide, relieving the emotional stress for a moment, only to give birth to an ill-formed infant of frustration. We must come to see with the distinguished jurist of yesterday that "justice too long delayed is justice denied." We have waited for more than three hundred and forty years for our God-given and constitutional rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jet-like speed toward the goal of political independence, and we still creep at horse-and- buggy pace toward the gaining of a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. King, M.L. (1963)
2. I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say "wait." But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she cannot go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television; … when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored… when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodyness" — then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. King, M.L. (1963)
3. Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The urge for freedom will
eventually come. This is what has happened to the American Negro. Something within has reminded him of his birthright of freedom; something without has reminded him that he can gain it. Consciously and unconsciously, he has been swept in by what the Germans call the Zeitgeist, and with his black brothers of Africa and his brown and yellow brothers of Asia, South America, and the Caribbean, he is moving with a sense of cosmic urgency toward the promised land of racial justice. Recognizing this vital urge that has engulfed the Negro community, one should readily understand public demonstrations. The Negro has many pent-up resentments and latent frustrations. He has to get them out. So let him march sometime; let him have his prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; understand why he must have sit-ins and freedom rides. If his repressed emotions do not come out in these nonviolent ways, they will come out in ominous expressions of violence. This is not a threat; it is a fact of history. So I have not said to my people, "Get rid of your discontent." But I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled through the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. Now this approach is being dismissed as extremist. King, M.L. (1963)
4. I wish you had commended the Negro demonstrators of Birmingham for their
sublime courage, their willingness to suffer, and their amazing discipline in the midst of the most inhuman provocation. One day the South will recognize its real heroes. They will be the James Merediths, courageously and with a majestic sense of purpose facing jeering and hostile mobs and the agonizing loneliness that characterizes the life of the pioneer. They will be old, oppressed, battered Negro women, symbolized in a seventy-two-year-old woman of Montgomery,
Alabama, who rose up with a sense of dignity and with her people decided not to ride the segregated buses, and responded to one who inquired about her tiredness with ungrammatical profundity, "My feets is tired, but my soul is rested." They will be young high school and college students, young ministers of the gospel and a host of their elders courageously and nonviolently sitting in at lunch counters and willingly going to jail for conscience's sake. One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters they were in reality standing up for the best in the American dream and the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage. King, M.L. (1963)
A Theory of Justice – John Rawls
1. The circumstances of justice may be described as the normal conditions under
which human cooperation is both possible and necessary. Thus, as I noted at the
outset, although a society is a cooperative venture for mutual advantage, it is
typically marked by a conflict as well as an identity of interests. There is an
identity of interests since social cooperation makes possible a better life for all
than any would have if each were to try to live solely by his own efforts. There is
a conflict of interests since men are not indifferent as to how the greater benefits
produced by their collaboration are distributed, for in order to pursue their ends
they each prefer a larger to a lesser share. Thus, principles are needed for
choosing among the various social arrangements which determine this division of
advantages and for underwriting an agreement on the proper distributive shares.
These requirements define the role of justice. The background conditions that
give rise to these necessities are the circumstances of justice.
Rawls, J. (1990)
2. If wealth, position, and influence, and the accolades of social prestige, are a
person's final purposes, then surely his conception of the good is egoistic. His
dominant interests are in himself, not merely, as they must always be, interests
of a self. There is no inconsistency, then, in supposing that once the veil of
ignorance is removed, the parties find that they have ties of sentiment and
affection and want to advance the interests of others and to see their ends
attained. But the postulate of mutual disinterest in the original position is made to
ensure that the principles of justice do not depend upon strong assumptions.
Recall that the original position is meant to incorporate widely shared and yet
weak conditions. A conception of justice should not presuppose, then, extensive
ties of natural sentiment. At the basis of the theory, one tries to assume as little
Rawls, J. (1990)
3. Thus, there follows the very important consequence that the parties have no
basis for bargaining in the usual sense. No one knows his situation in society nor
his natural assets, and therefore no one is in a position to tailor principles to his
advantage. We might imagine that one of the contractees threatens to hold out
unless the others agree to principles favorable to him. But how does he know
which principles are especially in his interests? The same holds for the formation
of coalitions: if a group were to decide to band together to the disadvantage of
the others, they would not know how to favor themselves in the choice of
principles. Even if they could get everyone to agree to their proposal, they would
have no assurance that it was to their advantage, since they cannot identify
themselves either by name or description.
Rawls, J. (1971)
References Aristotle. (1931). Nicomachean ethics (W. D. Ross, Trans.). Oxford: Oxford University
Press (Original work published ca. 350 B.C.E.) Kant, I. (2008). Groundwork for the metaphysics of morals. In J Bennett (Ed & Trans)
Early Modern Philosophy. Retrieved from: http://222.earlymoderntests.com/assets/pdfs/kant1785,pdf (Original work published 1785).
King , M. L., Jr (1963, August). Letter from a Birmingham Jail. The Atlantic Monthly. Vol
22. No 2, p. 78-88. Mill, J. S. (2008). Utilitarianism. In J. Bennett (Ed. & Rev.), Early Modern Philosophy.
Retrieved from http://www.earlymoderntexts.com/assets/pdfs/mill1863.pdf Rawls, J. (1971,1999). A theory of justice. Oxford University Press.
5 Virtue Ethics: Being a Good Person
Hero Images Inc./Hero Images/SuperStock
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
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