Analyse the key features of Virtue Ethics
Virtue ethics is a custom which goes back to Plato and Aristotle; it is also known as aretaic ethics, from the Greek word arête meaning excellence or virtue. There are a number of key features to virtue ethics, one of the most significant being that it is an agent-centered theory rather than act-centered theory. Therefore it asks the questions ‘What sort of person ought I to be?’ rather than ‘How ought I to act’. The concept does not focus on actions being right or wrong, but on how to be a good/virtuous person. Virtue ethics was re-examined and redeveloped in the twentieth century by philosophers such as G.E.M. Anscombe.
Plato proposed that virtue ethics centers around the achievement of man’s highest good, which involves the right cultivation of his soul and the harmonious well-being of his life, otherwise known as eudaimonia. Additionally, Cardinal virtues are a vital feature to the proposal of virtue ethics, examples are: temperance, courage, prudence and justice. These Plato seemed to consider central virtues and that, when these virtues are in balance, a person’s actions will be good. However, there was not much agreement among the Greek philosophers about which virtues were central, and Aristotle gives a very different account of the virtues.
Aristotle highlighted a significant feature to the theory as he sought to give an account of the structure of morality and explained, in his book Nicomachean Ethics, that the point of engaging in ethics is to become ‘good’. Here, Aristotle differentiates between things which are good as means and things which are good as ends.
Additionally, Anscombe argues that eudaimonia is the highest good because we desire it for its own sake, and not just as a means to anything else at all. Other good things, such a justice, are desired because they lead to a good life, whereas good living itself is not wanted for anything which it might lead to; it is inherently worth having. Aristotle, highlighting another feature of the ethic, suggests that human well-being and human flourishing is a life characterized by the virtues. However, this good human life is one lived in harmony and co-operation with other people, since Aristotle saw people as not only rational beings but also as social beings. We live in groups and he saw the well-being of the group as more important than that of a single member.
Moreover, Aristotle believed that the best way to achieve eudaimonia was to develop and exercise qualities that are most productive for living in a society. Extremes of behavior, such as being too timid at one extreme or too assertive at the other, are unhelpful to society. This led Aristotle to create a crucial feature of virtue ethics, what he called the Golden Mean, which can be explained as: striking the right balance between extremes. Each extreme he called a ‘vice’, and the midway point where the right balance is struck he called a ‘virtue’. However, the mean is not the same of everything and depends on circumstance – you need to apply phronesis to decide on the right course of action on each situation.
Aristotle was convinced that virtue is something which we acquire and not something which we have when we are born; different people are not inherently good or bad, but become good or bad according to the habits they develop in themselves. Therefore, Aristotle highlighted a key feature in the ethic that it is not enough to have the know-how or even the habit of behaving as the virtuous person does, the actions are not as important as the character, and therefore the virtuous behavior must be done with the right motivation, as the virtuous person would do them.
In the twentieth century there was a revival of interest in virtue ethics by philosophers who were unhappy with act-centered ethical theories. Stressing key features to the theory, modern versions of virtue ethics argue that the assessment of a person’s character is an...
Please join StudyMode to read the full document