Wednesday, 9 January 2013

A2 Religious Studies: Virtue Ethics

Virtue ethics doesn't question how we act, but instead studies who we are as people. It is agent-centred and seeks to find goodness by enriching the individual.

The first person to put forward the idea of looking inwardly in such a way was Aristotle. Proposing the ethical theory in Nicomeachean Ethics, Aristotle argued that as humans everything we want or desire should lead to happiness, because happiness is good as an end in itself.

The great end of happiness - the ultimate happiness we all aim for - is called eudaimonia. In order to reach eudaimonia, Aristotle stated, we must be virtuous people. The following quote is from Aristotle and sums up his belief clearly and concisely:
"We become builders by building."

How can people be virtuous?

How can we be virtuous? Aristotle suggested three different ways (you don't need to know these for the exam):

  • experience
  • repetition
  • observation
Aristotle rejected action-based ethics. He said that an action may seem good but have a bad motive - this is the exact opposite of the utilitarian view, which argues that motive is irrelevant. Virtue ethicists say the action is irrelevant but the motive is pivotal because it shapes who we are as people.

He also argued that we can learn to be virtuous by following virtuous people, whether it's Jesus, Gandhi or Bob Geldof. This has come under huge criticism, however - for two reasons:

  • Louden argues that in our day-to-day lives, we can't just imagine what our virtuous role models would do - we think for ourselves
  • do we really have freedom, like virtue ethics suggests, if all we're supposed to do is copy other people?

Types of virtue

According to Aristotle, there are two types of virtue:
  1. Intellectual virtues
  2. Moral virtues
Intellectual virtues are things which can be taught and developed through teaching.

Moral virtues are qualities of character - they can't be 'taught' and come about through habit and experience.

Aristotle said that everyone can become virtuous, but not everyone will. The most valuable virtue, he suggested, is reason. By reasoning we can work out what is right. And by doing what is right we can reach eudaimonia.

He said quite simply:
"We become just by doing just acts."
Aristotle may seem all nice and virtuous, but he did argue that virtues were only accessible to men... something that has of course been heavily criticised, particularly by Annette Baier, who argues that virtue ethics is male-centred.

Rosalind Hursthouse agrees with Aristotle's differentiation between the two types of virtue. She uses the example of a child genius; a child genius may have several intellectual virtues - because they can be taught - but may lack certain moral virtues - because moral virtues only come about through time and experience.

Working out a virtue - golden mean and vices

In terms of working out a virtue, Aristotle highlighted the importance of finding a 'golden mean' in qualities of character.

He said that all virtues have two vices, or extremes: the vice of deficiency (too little) and the vice of excess (too much). In the middle of those two vices lies the virtue.

Finding the golden mean between the vices is how to work out a virtue; Aristotle doesn't give any tips on how to do this or what happens when people disagree on virtues, though, which is a major flaw in virtue ethics.

If you take the example of the virtue of 'bravery', it may go a little like this:

  1. The vice of deficiency for bravery is cowardice - there's not enough of the virtue
  2. The vice of excess for bravery is foolishness - there's too much of the virtue
  3. Right in the middle lies 'bravery' itself - the midway point between the two vices
Why should we choose the golden mean instead of the vices, though? Aristotle argues that virtues help society whereas virtues are not helpful to society. 

This is a point that's easy to criticise - surely some jobs require certain vices? Surely vices lead us to have more interesting people and encourages debate? If we all stick to certain virtues won't we all be the same?

Furthermore, people may argue about what is a virtue and what is a vice. Most of us would argue that deceit and power are vices; however, Nietzsche and Machiavelli would argue that they are virtues. Who is right?

However, an advantage of virtue ethics is its egalitarian nature - it allows for personal autonomy.

Modern virtue ethicist approaches

Anscombe, a modern day virtue ethicist and Catholic, wrote a paper called Modern Moral Philosophy, and argued that our reliance on action and consequence is wrong. She said:
"How can there be any moral laws if there is no God?"
But she said human flourishing doesn't require a God, even though she argues for one herself.

Philippa Foot, also a modern day virtue ethicist, counters a popular criticism against virtue ethics. Many people often argue that virtues may be used to a bad end, ie. an end that isn't eudaimonia. Foot stated that this is wrong, seeing as a virtue is only virtuous if used to the right end. She said that loyalty - a virtue - isn't a virtue if used to a bad end - so for example loyalty to Hitler.

However, Foot has been criticised for assuming that all people work towards similar goals, when this is simply not true of humanity. We all have different goals and motives - it is foolish to suppose we all work towards a common good.

MacIntyre, who wrote After Virtue, argued strongly against the meta-ethical theory of emotivism. He said that virtue is important in achieving our purpose (his argument regarding purpose has similarities to the arguments put forward in Natural Law). He also criticises Kantian ethics and utilitarianism for not appreciating the importance of virtue. He said that human virtue depends on a sense of community:
"Not having a certain right theory, rather having a certain character."
"Virtues which sustain the households and communities..."
 MacIntyre's reliance on community brings up another weakness of virtue ethics: it is not culturally aware. In some countries it is virtuous to marry a twelve year old girl. Is that virtuous in our society? Of course not. So who is right? Surely there can't be a common good if different nations have different virtues?

You won't get far in an essay if you're providing such a one-sided argument, though. Virtue ethics does have its strengths:

  • it looks at individuals as opposed to actions - this increases our sense of individual worth
  • not legalistic and allows for personal autonomy
    • this point is arguable, as noted above
  • exists without the requirement of religion
  • appeals to human intuitions - most of us would want to reach for eudaimonia
  • arguably eliminates dangerous and unhelpful vices in society
As well as the weaknesses listed above, you can attack virtue ethics on the following grounds:
  • how do we know who is virtuous?
  • different people argue for different virtues - Nietzsche/Machiavelli example
  • aren't 'deficient' and 'excessive' subjective words to use?
  • society may actually benefit from extremes of character
  • it is naive to assume that everyone aims for goodness
  • how do you reach eudaimonia? 
  • how will you know when you've reached eudaimonia?
  • how do we work out a golden mean? How do we know if we're right?
  • two or more virtues may conflict
  • difficult to apply
  • goodness is not reached in one way - Owen Flanagan argues that
"people find their good in many different ways."

  • Keenan asks what sort of virtuous person one should become - should you be loving and committed? Or perhaps decisive and controlled? How is virtue measured?

The flurry of question marks in the above list makes one thing obvious: virtue ethics is very vague. It's impossibly difficult to apply to situations, which arguably makes it a hugely flawed ethical theory.

Perhaps one of the greatest weaknesses, though, suggests the following:
  • virtue ethics isn't agent-centred at all - it focusses on the acts of virtuous people. If we are told to follow the acts of virtuous people, surely that means we're not looking at ourselves?

That's virtue on its own - I'll mention it in terms of application to other areas when I write up the other areas (I've already done it for environmental and sexual ethics - will do the same for business).



  1. Lifesaver. All the supporting and refuting philosophers on one page. THANK YOU

  2. This is brilliant! Thank you so much! :D

  3. Really good job! Thank you aha

  4. I am so so so grateful for this blog for getting me through my RS exams, THANK YOU

  5. "Why should we choose the golden mean instead of the vices, though? Aristotle argues that virtues help society whereas virtues are not helpful to society.", im going to assume you meant vices the second time you wrote virtues.

  6. Shout out to my boy Mr Lowis, doing bits on road

  7. Rah cuz Jake does revision is pretty lit 🔥🔥🔥

  8. "aren't 'deficient' and 'excessive' subjective words to use?"

    I think the very fact that the vices are subjective draws a light to the fact that our nature is both objective (i.e. common to us all) and also accidental or subjective (there are things that make me, me and Tom, Tom). Aristotle new that there is no 'one size fits all' when it comes to ethics, and that any system of moral thinking that thought so would not sufficiently make reference to the fact that everyone is unique. Subjectivity can be a negative to an ethical system, but in this case it proves to be a strength if anything.