Applied Definition: Virtue Ethics

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1. In what ways did the historical context from which virtue ethics emerged shape its basic principles?
Presocratics, regarded as the first philosophers, brought the term logos to philosophy (literal translation: ‘word’; also denotes ‘logic’, ‘argument’, ‘reason’. Aristotle’s concept of Virtue Ethics regards humans as rational animals, implying that ‘logos’ is purely a human trait. Known as Plato’s most gifted student, Aristotle disagreed with his teacher’s view that the “essence of reality lies in some abstract world of Forms or Ideas” (Brannigan, 2005:60). Aristotle’s point of view directly contrasts his teacher’s, stating that the “source of meaning comes from concrete, physical reality” (Brannigan, 2005:60). This direct contrast with Plato leads to Aristotle opening his own school, which he called the Lyceum. Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics is his literary formation of his ethical theories.

Aristotle believes that ethics originate from real world experiences, that there is not a set of rules to apply to life that will mold us into ethical beings, but rather the “individual exists in relationship with others” (Brannigan, 2005:61). Thus, ethics is based upon how the individuals relate to each other and the cultivation of good character. How do we cultivate good character? Aristotle states we must fulfill our human nature. He tells us that all things existing in nature have their own specific end purpose, which he refers to as telos (Greek term for specific end). For example, an apple seed’s telos would be to grow into an apple tree and produce apples. Aristotle tells us that only humans are capable of using logos as a form of thought, and that all humans are, by nature, rational animals. Therefore, the human’s end purpose is to “fulfill our human nature as rational animals by properly exercising our reason” and he also asserts that, “only in this way can we be genuinely happy” (Brannigan, 2005:62).

Furthermore, Aristotle states that all humans have one end goal – eudaimonia (Greek for happiness), and that happiness is an “intrinsic good”. Intrinsic good means that we seek happiness for the sake of being happy, and we do not seek happiness to obtain something else. In contrast, instrumental good are steps we take to achieve this intrinsic and ultimate good of happiness. For example, students take college courses to fulfill a requirement, gain understanding, and so on. Regardless of the reason, ultimately students take courses to achieve something, with another goal in mind, thus making it an instrumental good. All goods are instrumental, except happiness. Human excellence and telos can be acquired, “only when we realize our true natures as rational animals, when we properly exercise our reason throughout our lives” (Brannigan, 2005:62). Aristotle terms human excellence with a new name – virtue; genuine happiness is to live virtuously, and only by living virtuously can we attain happiness, and living virtuously requires making a habit of practicing virtue to cultivate good character. Therefore only those with good character can be truly happy. To live virtuously, we must avoid extremes and maintain a balance, which Aristotle terms as the “golden mean”. The “golden mean” is the balance between the extremes, and we must use rational thinking and reasoning in a balanced fashion.

He distinguished two types of virtues: intellectual and moral. Intellectual virtues require us to use out reason in two ways, one practical and one philosophical. First, “we reason in order to live practically in our day-to-day lives, which requires us to live sensibly through practical reason” (Brannigan, 2005:64), which Aristotle terms phronesis. Second, “we reason for the purpose of discovering higher truths… so that we may contemplate higher, more theoretical truths and principles such as the idea of the Good” (Brannigan, 2005:64). Moral virtues (which Aristotle termed ethike) focus on our behavior and...
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