Virtue Ethics Notes

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Virtue Ethics

Aristotle was a Greek philosopher who lived between 384 and 322 BCE. He was deeply interested in the idea of cause and purpose. On the Foundation Paper, you will have explored the ideas of the Four Causes and the Prime Mover. Both of these theories look at the idea of how things are caused and how they move towards their purpose.

In ethics, any theory that looks at how we become better people over time, or that looks at how we move towards our purpose is called a teleological theory, from the Greek word telos meaning goal or purpose. Virtue ethics is teleological because it argues that we should practice being good, or virtuous people over time. Virtue ethics is therefore not deontological (like Kant’s ethics) and it is also not normative. It is known as aretaic ethics from the Greek word arête meaning excellence or virtue. Virtue ethics is not concerned with what we ought to do, but with what kind of person we should try to become.

Aristotle argued that every action we perform is directed towards some purpose, that it tries to achieve something. He then argued that there are superior and subordinate aims. Subordinate aims are what we have to achieve first, before we achieve superior aims, for example, if you are hungry (which might be a superior aim) you need to make a sandwich to achieve that aim. Making the sandwich becomes a subordinate aim.

The aim of life

Aristotle argued that the superior aim of human life is to achieve something called eudaemonia. Eudaemonia is a Greek word that roughly translates to mean ‘happiness’ or ‘flourishing’. Aristotle argued that this is the aim that should govern our lives: the pursuit of happiness or pleasure. Eudaemonia is achieved when we become virtuous and Aristotle argued that this is a process that we grow towards by practising virtues. It is much like learning to play a musical instrument: the more you practise, the better you get.

Some of you will have come across the word daemon before in the ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy by Philip Pullman. All the characters in the books have daemons and Pullman says of them: ‘the daemon is that part of you that helps you grow towards wisdom.’ Lyra, the central character in the trilogy has a daemon called Pantalaimon who is instrumental in helping her deal with situations wisely as the story progresses.

‘[Pleasure] is also thought to be most important for the forming of a virtuous character to like and dislike the right things because pleasure and pain permeate the whole of life and have a powerful influence upon virtue and the happy life, since people choose what is pleasant and avoid what is painful.’[1]

Aristotle did realise however, that one person’s view of happiness might be very different from another person’s view of happiness. He distinguished between three types of pleasure/happiness:

1. Pleasure seekers: these are people who are driven by their basic desires and simply live from one pleasurable experience to the next: e.g. eating good food, sleeping, drinking and having sex. 2. Seekers of honour: Aristotle saw politicians as seekers of honour. These are people who try to find solutions to important problems and get a sense of honour from doing that. 3. Those who love contemplation: these are philosophers and thinkers.

Aristotle believed that the lowest forms of happiness are those found by the pleasure seekers. He wrote:

‘The utter servility of the masses comes out in their preference for a bovine [animalistic] existence.’[2]

For Aristotle, the distinguishing feature of humans is their ability to reason, which they get from their soul. In plants, the anima or soul produces the search for nourishment and food, and in animals, the anima produces the ability to move. Humans have these two characteristics, but also the ability to reason. Aristotle called humans ‘rational animals’. It is for this reason that he believed we should strive to achieve something better with our...
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