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Virtue ethics emphasizes the role of one's character and the virtues that one's character embodies for determining or evaluating ethical behavior. Virtue ethics is one of the three major approaches to normative ethics, often contrasted to deontology which emphasizes duty to rules and consequentialism which derives rightness or wrongness from the outcome of the act itself.
The difference between these three approaches to morality tends to lie more in the way of how moral dilemmas are approached, rather than in the moral conclusions reached. For example, a consequentialist may argue that lying is wrong because of the negative consequences produced by lying—though a consequentialist may allow that certain foreseeable consequences might make lying acceptable. A deontologist might argue that lying is always wrong, regardless of any potential "good" that might come from lying. A virtue ethicist, however, would focus less on lying in any particular instance and instead consider what a decision to tell a lie or not tell a lie said about one's character and moral behavior. As such, lying would be made in a case-by-case basis that would be based on factors such as personal benefit, group benefit, and intentions (as to whether they are benevolent or malevolent).
Concern for virtue appears in several philosophical traditions; in the West the roots of the tradition lie in the work of Plato and Aristotle, and even today the tradition’s key concepts derive from ancient Greek philosophy. These concepts include arete (excellence or virtue), phronesis (practical or moral wisdom), and eudaimonia (flourishing). In the West virtue ethics was the prevailing approach to ethical thinking in the ancient and medieval periods. The tradition suffered an eclipse during the early modern period, as Aristotelianism fell out of favour in the West. Virtue theory returned to prominence in Western philosophical thought in the 20th century, and is today one of the three dominant approaches to normative theories (the other two being deontology and consequentialism). Virtue theory is not actually in conflict with deontology or teleology: those two viewpoints deal with which actions a person should take in any given scenario, whereas virtue theorists simply argue that developing morally desirable virtues for their own sake will help aid moral actions when such decisions need to be made.
While virtue ethics was born with Plato and Aristotle, their forms of virtue ethics are by no means the only ones. What virtue ethics refers to, rather, is a collection of normative ethical philosophies that place an emphasis on being rather than doing. Another way to say this is that in virtue ethics, morality stems from the identity and/or character of the individual, rather than being a reflection of the actions (or consequences thereof) of the individual. Today, there is a great amount of debate among various adherents of virtue ethics about what specific virtues are morally praiseworthy. However, the one thing they all agree upon is that morality comes as a result of intrinsic virtues—this is the common link that unites the sometimes disparate normative philosophies into the field known as virtue ethics. Plato and Aristotle's treatment of virtues is by no means the same however. For Plato, virtue is effectively an end to be sought, for which a friend might be a useful means. For Aristotle, the virtues function more as means to safeguard human relations, particularly authentic friendship, without which one's quest for happiness is frustrated.
Virtue ethics can be contrasted to deontological ethics and consequentialist ethics by an examination of the other two (the three being together the most predominant contemporary normative ethical theories).
Deontological ethics, sometimes referred to as duty ethics, places the emphasis on adhering to ethical principles or duties. How these duties are defined, however, is often a point of contention and debate in deontological ethics. One of the predominant rule schemes utilized by deontologists is the Divine Command Theory. Deontology also depends, at least partially, upon meta-ethical realism, in that it postulates the existence of moral absolutes that make an action moral, regardless of circumstances. For more information on deontological ethics refer to the work of Immanuel Kant.
The next predominant school of thought in normative ethics is consequentialism. While deontology places the emphasis on doing one's duty, which is established by some kind of moral imperative (in other words, the emphasis is on obedience to some higher moral absolute), consequentialism bases the morality of an action upon the consequences of the outcome. Instead of saying that one has a moral duty to abstain from murder, a consequentialist would say that we should abstain from murder because it causes undesirable effects. The main contention here is what outcomes should/can be identified as objectively desirable. The Greatest Happiness Principle of John Stuart Mill is one of the most commonly adopted criteria. Mill asserts that our determinant of the desirability of an action is the net amount of happiness it brings, the number of people it brings it to, and the duration of the happiness. He also tries to delineate classes of happiness, some being preferable to others, but there is a great deal of difficulty in classifying such concepts. For a more complete outline of the niceties of Mill's classification system see the page on utilitarianism or read Mill's works Utilitarianism, Defense of Utilitarianism, and On Liberty. Examining the meta-ethical theories of naturalism, upon which many consequentialist theories rely, may provide further clarification. Having looked at the other two normative ethical theories we come at last to virtue ethics.
As stated before, deontology focuses on adhering to ethical duties, while consequentialism focuses on the outcomes (consequences) of actions. Here virtue ethics differs in that the focus is instead upon being rather than doing. A virtue ethics philosopher will identify virtues, desirable characteristics, that the moral or virtuous person embodies. Possessing these virtues, in virtue ethics, is what makes one moral, and one's actions are a mere reflection of one's inner morality. To the virtue philosopher, action cannot be used as a demarcation of morality, because a virtue encompasses more than just a simple selection of action. Instead, it is about a way of being that would cause the person exhibiting the virtue to make a certain "virtuous" choice consistently in each situation. There is a great deal of disagreement within virtue ethics over what are virtues and what are not. There are also difficulties in identifying what is the "virtuous" action to take in all circumstances, and how to define a virtue.
Consequentialist and deontological theories often still employ the term 'virtue', but in a restricted sense, namely as a tendency or disposition to adhere to the system's principles or rules. These very different senses of what constitutes virtue, hidden behind the same word, are a potential source of confusion. This disagreement over the meaning of virtue points to a larger conflict between virtue theory and its philosophical rivals. A system of virtue theory is only intelligible if it is teleological: that is, if it includes an account of the purpose (telos) of human life, or in popular language, the meaning of life. Obviously, strong claims about the purpose of human life, or of what the good life for human beings is, will be highly controversial. Virtue theory's necessary commitment to a teleological account of human life thus puts the tradition in sharp tension with other dominant approaches to normative ethics, which, because they focus on actions, do not bear this burden.
Eudaimonia (εὐδαιμονία) is a state variously translated from Greek as 'well-being', 'happiness', 'blessedness', and in the context of virtue ethics, 'human flourishing'. Eudaimonia in this sense is not a subjective, but an objective, state. It characterizes the well-lived life. According to Aristotle, the most prominent exponent of eudaimonia in the Western philosophical tradition, eudaimonia is the proper goal of human life. It consists of exercising the characteristic human quality -- reason—as the soul's most proper and nourishing activity. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle, like Plato before him, argued that the pursuit of eudaimonia is an "activity of the soul in accordance with perfect virtue", which further could only properly be exercised in the characteristic human community—the polis or city-state.
Although eudaimonia was first popularized by Aristotle, it now belongs to the tradition of virtue theories generally. For the virtue theorist, eudaimonia describes that state achieved by the person who lives the proper human life, an outcome that can be reached by practicing the virtues. A virtue is a habit or quality that allows the bearer to succeed at his, her, or its purpose. The virtue of a knife, for example, is sharpness; among the virtues of a racehorse is speed. Thus to identify the virtues for human beings, one must have an account of what the human purpose is. There is, and always has been, sharp disagreement on this question: thus, as Alasdair MacIntyre observed in After Virtue, though thinkers as diverse as Homer, Aristotle, the authors of the New Testament, Thomas Aquinas, and Benjamin Franklin have all proposed lists, and sometimes theories of the interrelation, of the virtues, these do not always overlap.
Aristotle categorized the virtues as moral and intellectual. Aristotle identified nine intellectual virtues, the most important of which was wisdom; sophia (theoretical wisdom) and phronesis (practical wisdom). The other eight moral virtues include:
Aristotle argued that each of the moral virtues was a mean (see Golden Mean) between two corresponding vices, one of excess and one of deficiency. For example: courage is a virtue found between the vices of cowardliness and rashness.
Like much of the Western tradition, virtue theory seems to have originated in ancient Greek philosophy. Discussion of what were known as the Four Cardinal Virtues - wisdom, justice, fortitude and temperance - can be found in Plato's Republic. The virtues also figure prominently in Aristotle's moral theory (see below). Virtue theory was inserted into the study of history by moralistic historians such as Livy, Plutarch, and Tacitus. The Greek idea of the virtues was passed on in Roman philosophy through Cicero and later incorporated into Christian moral theology by St. Ambrose of Milan. During the scholastic period, the most comprehensive consideration of the virtues from a theological perspective was provided by St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologiae and his Commentaries on the Nicomachean Ethics.
The tradition was eclipsed in the Renaissance, and throughout the early modern period, when the Aristotelian synthesis of ethics and metaphysics fell into disfavour. Though the tradition receded into the background of European philosophical thought in these centuries, the term "virtue" remained current during this period, and in fact appears prominently in the tradition of classical republicanism or classical liberalism. This tradition was prominent in the intellectual life of 16th-century Italy, as well as 17th- and 18th-century Britain and America; indeed the term "virtue" appears frequently in the work of Niccolò Machiavelli, David Hume, the republicans of the English Civil War period, the 18th-century English Whigs, and the prominent figures among the Scottish Enlightenment and the American Founding Fathers. Despite this common term, classical republicanism should not be conflated with virtue theory, as the two philosophical traditions draw from different sources and often address different concerns. Where virtue theory traces its roots to Aristotle, classical republicanism draws primarily on Tacitus.
Virtue theory emphasizes Aristotle's belief in the polis as the acme of political organization, and the role of the virtues in enabling human beings to flourish in that environment. Classical republicanism in contrast emphasizes Tacitus's concern that power and luxury can corrupt individuals and destroy liberty, as Tacitus perceived in the transformation of the Roman republic into an empire; virtue for classical republicans is a shield against this sort of corruption and a means to preserve the good life one has, rather than a means by which to achieve the good life one does not yet have. Another way to put the distinction between the two traditions is that virtue ethics relies on Aristotle's fundamental distinction between the human-being-as-he-is from the human-being-as-he-should-be, while classical republicanism relies on the Tacitean distinction of the human-being-as-he-is from the human-being-as-he-is-at-risk-of-becoming.
Although some Enlightenment philosophers (e.g. Hume) continued to emphasize the virtues, with the ascendancy of utilitarianism and deontology, virtue theory moved to the margins of Western philosophy. The contemporary revival of virtue theory is frequently traced to the philosopher G. E. M. Anscombe's 1958 essay "Modern Moral Philosophy". Following this:
The aretaic turn in moral philosophy is paralleled by analogous developments in other philosophical disciplines. One of these is epistemology, where a distinctive virtue epistemology has been developed by Linda Zagzebski and others. In political theory, there has been discussion of "virtue politics", and in legal theory, there is a small but growing body of literature on virtue jurisprudence. The aretaic turn also exists in American constitutional theory, where proponents argue for an emphasis on virtue and vice of constitutional adjudicators.
Aretaic approaches to morality, epistemology, and jurisprudence have been the subject of intense debates. One criticism that is frequently made focuses on the problem of guidance; opponents, such as Robert Louden in his article "Some Vices of Virtue Ethics", question whether the idea of a virtuous moral actor, believer, or judge can provide the guidance necessary for action, belief formation, or the decision of legal disputes.
Non-Western moral and religious philosophies, such as Confucianism, also incorporate ideas that may appear similar to those developed by the ancient Greeks. Like ancient Greek ethics, Chinese ethical thought makes an explicit connection between virtue and statecraft. However, where the Greeks focused on the interior orientation of the soul, Confucianism's definition of virtue emphasizes interpersonal relations. Confucian ethics have been labeled as a form of role ethics rather than virtue ethics. Normally when the term virtue theory is used, it is in reference to the western conception of virtue theory, rather than any of the schools of East Asian ethical thought.
Nick Gier in Buddhist Ethics as Virtue Ethics compares Buddha's ethical teachings to Aristotle's: "Like Greek virtue ethics, Buddhist ethics is also humanistic and thoroughly personalist."
Damien Keown devotes a great deal of his work to debunking claims that Buddhism is Utilitarian in nature. His work then goes on to examine the structure of Buddhist Ethics, focusing specifically on morality (Pali: siila). His conclusion is that Buddhist Ethics most closely resembles the ancient Greek virtue ethics found in Aristotle.
James Whitehill in Buddhist Ethics in Western Context: The Virtues Approach says: "Buddhism's legitimation in the West can be partially met by demonstrating that Buddhist morality is a virtue-oriented, character-based, community-focused ethics, commensurate with the Western 'ethics of virtue' tradition."
Some criticize the theory in relation to the difficulty involved with establishing the nature of the virtues. Different people, cultures and societies often have vastly different opinions on what constitutes a virtue.
Other proponents of virtue theory, notably Alasdair MacIntyre, respond to this objection by arguing that any account of the virtues must indeed be generated out of the community in which those virtues are to be practiced: the very word 'ethics' implies 'ethos'. That is to say that the virtues are, and necessarily must be, grounded in a particular time and place. What counts as virtue in 4th-century Athens would be a ludicrous guide to proper behavior in 21st-century Toronto, and vice-versa. To take this view does not necessarily commit one to the argument that accounts of the virtues must therefore be static: moral activity—that is, attempts to contemplate and practice the virtues—can provide the cultural resources that allow people to change, albeit slowly, the ethos of their own societies. MacIntyre appears to take this position in his seminal work on virtue ethics, After Virtue. One might cite (though MacIntyre does not) the rapid emergence of abolitionist thought in the slave-holding societies of the 18th-century Atlantic world as an example of this sort of change: over a relatively short period of time, perhaps 1760 to 1800, in Britain, France, and British America, slave-holding, previously thought to be morally neutral or even virtuous, rapidly became seen as vicious among wide swathes of society. While the emergence of abolitionist thought derived from many sources, the work of David Brion Davis, among others[who?], has established that one source was the rapid, internal evolution of moral theory among certain sectors of these societies, notably the Quakers.
Another objection to virtue theory is that the school does not focus on what sorts of actions are morally permitted and which ones are not, but rather on what sort of qualities someone ought to foster in order to become a good person. In other words, while some virtue theorists may not condemn, for example, murder as an inherently immoral or impermissible sort of action, they may argue that someone who commits a murder is severely lacking in several important virtues, such as compassion and fairness. Still, antagonists of the theory often object that this particular feature of the theory makes virtue ethics useless as a universal norm of acceptable conduct suitable as a base for legislation. Some virtue theorists concede this point, but respond by opposing the very notion of legitimate legislative authority instead, effectively advocating some form of anarchism as the political ideal. Others argue that laws should be made by virtuous legislators. Still others argue that it is possible to base a judicial system on the moral notion of virtues rather than rules.
Some virtue theorists might respond to this overall objection with the notion of a "bad act" also being an act characteristic of vice. That is to say that those acts that do not aim at virtue, or stray from virtue, would constitute our conception of "bad behavior". Although not all virtue ethicists agree to this notion, this is one way the virtue ethicist can re-introduce the concept of the "morally impermissible". One could raise objection with Foot that she is committing an argument from ignorance by postulating that what is not virtuous is unvirtuous. In other words, just because an action or person 'lacks of evidence' for virtue does not, all else constant, imply that said action or person is unvirtuous.
Martha Nussbaum has suggested that, though virtue ethics is often considered to be anti-Enlightenment, "suspicious of theory and respectful of the wisdom embodied in local practices", it is actually neither fundamentally distinct from nor qualifies as a rival approach to deontology and utilitarianism. She argues that philosophers from the latter, Enlightenment traditions often include theories of virtue. She pointed out that Kant's "Doctrine of Virtue" (in The Metaphysics of Morals) "covers most of the same topics as do classical Greek theories", "that he offers a general account of virtue, in terms of the strength of the will in overcoming wayward and selfish inclinations; that he offers detailed analyses of standard virtues such as courage and self-control, and of vices, such as avarice, mendacity, servility, and pride; that, although in general he portrays inclination as inimical to virtue, he also recognizes that sympathetic inclinations offer crucial support to virtue, and urges their deliberate cultivation."
Nussbaum also points to considerations of virtue by utilitarians such as Henry Sidgwick (The Methods of Ethics), Jeremy Bentham (The Principles of Morals and Legislation), and John Stuart Mill, who writes of moral development as part of an argument for the moral equality of women (The Subjection of Women). She argues that contemporary virtue ethicists such as Alasdair MacIntyre, Bernard Williams, Philippa Foot, and John McDowell have few points of agreement, and that the common core of their work does not represent a break from Kant.
Robert Louden criticises virtue ethics on the basis that it promotes a form of unsustainable utopianism. Trying to come to a single set of virtues is immensely difficult in contemporary societies as, according to Louden, they contain "more ethnic, religious, and class groups than did the moral community which Aristotle theorized about" with each of these groups having "not only its own interests but its own set of virtues as well". Louden notes in passing that MacIntyre, a supporter of virtue-based ethics, has grappled with this in After Virtue but that ethics cannot dispense with building rules around acts and rely only on discussing the moral character of persons.
Virtue ethics has a number of applications. For instance, within the field of social ethics, Deirdre McCloskey argues that virtue ethics can provide a basis for a balanced approach to understanding capitalism and capitalist societies. Within the field of philosophy of education, James Page argues that virtue ethics can provide a rationale and foundation for peace education. Thomas Alured Faunce has argued that whistleblowing in the healthcare setting would be more respected within clinical governance pathways if it had a firmer academic foundation in virtue ethics. He has argued that whistleblowing should have been expressly supported in the UNESCO Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights.
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