Examples: Bernard Leach the potter – 1887-1979 – Japanese craft traditions – worked every day until 1972. Urbans about Leach’s teacups Malcolm the wheelwright. Both also virtuous in general as well as in particular.
Virtue theory general introduction
Virtue TheoryAn alternative approach to ethics
A Theory or a Practice?• Theories such as Utilitarianism and Kantianism address the question “How should I act?”• They answer this question by considering the nature of acts, or the nature of outcomes…each provides a theory…• In contrast, Virtue Theory addresses the questions “How should I live my life?”, “What kind of person should I be?” – and “How do I get there?”• Not so much a guide for moral decision-making, more a description of the moral life: a life which cultivates virtue.• But has immediate and practical consequences…
Origins: Aristotle• The ancient Greeks recognised virtue and the virtuous person as a central element of ethical thinking.• The emphasis that the theory puts on the whole person, not just their actions, is typical of the ancient Greeks.• Hence Virtue Ethics is ‘agent-centred’, not act-centred, or outcome-centred.• Virtue is particularly important in the writings of Aristotle.• Buzz-words from Aristotle’s ‘Ethics’ follow…
Eudaimonia• Aristotle: the goal of ethics is to describe Eudaimonia = ‘the good life’ – sometimes called ‘Human Flourishing’ or ‘happiness’…• Yet Aristotle defines the good relationally• …what the good life is for each thing is different...he is not a Platonist, who thinks that The Good exists in itself in a separate (rational) realm!• For Aristotle each thing has a telos or purpose e.g. plants grow, stones fall when dropped.• This purpose is different for each kind of thing.• To fulfil this purpose is eudaimonic, or happiness-making.• The telos (end purpose) of humanity is to be rational.• So “the good for human beings is an activity of the soul in accordance with arete (virtue or excellence).”• Right. So what “activities of the soul” or rational capacities are there?
Sophia or intellectual wisdom• Some rational abilities are purely intellectual ones, such as the ability to understand, reason and make sound judgement…• Sophia is Aristotle’s word for the more abstract, intellectual kind of wisdom: knowing about “universals”. Sophia can be taught: think of logic and mathematics.• However, the ability to be rational about “particulars” is also important.• “Whereas young people become accomplished in geometry and mathematics, and wise within these limits, prudent young people do not seem to be found. The reason is that prudence is concerned with particulars as well as universals, and particulars become known from experience, but a young person lacks experience, since some length of time is needed to produce it.” (Ethics)• So we are actors as well as contemplators: we have practical as well as abstract reason.• It can take a while to develop practical wisdom…
Phronesis or practical wisdom• Phronēsis is the name Aristotle gives this power of practical thought.• Phronesis is often translated as "practical wisdom", but sometimes as "prudence".• Phronesis moderates between the emotions, appetites, and rational mind.• Phronesis is acquired over time, as individuals come to understand their human nature and recognise the tensions between their emotions and reason.• Phronesis is therefore the exercising of a mature will which enables a person to act with wisdom and discernment.• Phronesis is the executive, deciding when to act upon emotions through a balanced appetite.• “It is easy to become angry, anyone can do that; but to be angry with the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, in the right way, with the right aim; that is not easy.”• The function of practical reason is to develop excellence or virtue.• Or: The ergon of phronesis is to develop arete.
Virtue forms your character• A virtue is simply a positive character trait.• Through the development of practical reason, excellence becomes a habit, and you achieve human flourishing.• Or: through phronesis, aretaic personal qualities are cultivated, and eudaimonia occurs.• Virtue is, quite literally, habit-forming, for Aristotle.• It lies in doing, as much as in knowing.• Other approaches to ethics forget this essential part of ethics – the character of a person and how personal moral growth is encouraged.• “We are not concerned to know what goodness is but how to become good people, since otherwise our enquiry would be useless.” Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book II• “The ethical condition is not the condition of having a certain right theory; rather the ethical condition is having a certain character.” Alasdair MacIntyre, “After Virtue”
Judging Character• The theory suggests that we are judged by our character, not specific actions.• An individual who has developed excellent character traits (virtues) is judged as a morally good person.• An individual who has developed poor character traits (vices) is judged as a morally bad person.• Most of us have a mixture or virtues and vices.• So we need to take a holistic approach to virtue.
Aristotle: the Doctrine of the Mean• How is excellence to be cultivated?• Aristotle believed that the moral man was the man of virtue.• He did not see virtue as the opposite of vice.• Virtue is the mean between two extremes – a middle way.• For example, a excellent appetite is the mean between greed and crazed dieting…• Finding this middle way is the key to leading a moral life.• Think of it as being in balance.• Or call it the ‘Goldilocks’ theory – being neither too hot, nor too cold, but ‘just right’.
Mean Test – What lies in between?Excess Mean DeficiencyRash CowardiceProfligate MeanOver- AsceticindulgentRude Lying
The Golden Mean as the middle way• Aristotle’s term for the middle way Excess Mean Deficiency between extremes is ‘The Golden Mean’.• The Golden Mean does not entail a denial of emotions. Rash Courage Cowardice• Following the Golden Mean in any situation depends on letting practical wisdom, or phronesis, be the executive (in charge), deciding Profligate Generous Mean which emotions to put into practice through a balanced appetite – so producing eudaimonia: human flourishing. Over- Temperate Ascetic• Another good example of the indulgent Golden Mean at work is that of courage: the truly courageous person avoids both excess Rude Honest Lying (rashness) and deficiency (cowardice).
Virtue and the Golden Mean• How does arete relate to the Golden Mean?• Aretaic qualities or virtues are not possessed absolutely, but are midpoints on a scale between excess and deficiency: the Golden Mean.• “Virtue is concerned with emotions and actions, and here excess is error and deficiency a fault, whereas the mean is successful and commendable.”• The mean or middle state is a relational quality: “Virtue then is a state of deliberate moral purpose consisting in a mean that is relative to ourselves, the mean being determined by reason, or as a prudent man would determine it.”• So phronesis develops eudaimonia when there is arete within the soul, and arete is known by reference to the mean for each kind of thing.
How do we become virtuous?• Obviously, we become virtuous by doing virtuous acts until they are habitual. – “We acquire virtues by first doing virtuous acts. We acquire a skill by practising the activities involved in the skill. For example, we become builders by building and we learn to play the harp by playing the harp. In the same way, we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts & courageous by doing acts of courage.” (Ethics)• So we become patient by doing patient acts.• And we become brave through acts of bravery.
So virtue is acquired by doing, not theorising• Phronesis is acquired through experience, through repetition and practice, like learning a musical instrument. – “One swallow does not make a spring so a short time does not make for a fortunate or happy man.” (Ethics)• As with learning an instrument, we get better with practice. – This is why phronesis takes a long while to develop. – And it is why young people are usually not prudent.• So for the Virtue Theorist becoming virtuous is a developmental process: we need moral education• And the virtuous life is a happy life – we will enjoy acting virtuously.
What are the Virtues, though?• Reminder: positive character traits• Alastair Macintyre points out that “different positive character traits/virtues have been prized by different societies, and at different points in history.”• Virtue Ethics is therefore (arguably) a morally relativist, non-cognitivist account of ethics. – The virtuous person is able to act virtuously without needing to think about it (non-cognitivist). – But what counts as virtue might change over time, or between societies (morally relativist).• So, not an ethical theory in the same way that Utilitarianism or Kantianism are: both U and K are cognitivist theories. – (Are they relativistic theories?)
Aristotle’s Athens (c. 400 b.c.)• Fortitude (=determination in the face of adversity)• Justice• Temperance (= self-control)• Prudence ( = phronesis)
The 7 Christian Virtues• St Ambrose (340-397c.e.) defined the following Greek virtues as the four cardinal virtues:• Courage• Justice• Temperance• Wisdom• He took the following three from St. Paul and these became known as the three theological virtues:• Faith• Hope• Love (charity – Greek: caritas)
Alastair MacIntyre• A modern virtue theorist• Definition: ‘A virtue is an acquired human quality the possession and exercise of which tends to enable us to achieve those goods which are internal to practices and the lack of which effectively prevents us from achieving any such goods.’• ‘Core conception’ of virtue has three components: – ‘an account of what I call a practice’, – ‘an account of a moral tradition’. – ‘an account of the narrative order of a human life’
Internal and External Goods• Macintyre discusses the practice of playing chess• ‘There are two kinds of good to be gained by playing chess.’ – ‘On the one hand there are goods externally and contingently attached to chess- playing…candy, prestige, status and money. ‘ – ‘and on the other there are goods internal to the practice of chess which cannot be had in any way but by playing chess. Those who lack the relevant experience are incompetent as judges of internal goods’.
MacIntyre on ‘Practices’• ‘By a “practice” I mean any coherent and complexform of cooperative human activity through whichgoods internal to that form of activity are realized in thecourse of trying to achieve those standards ofexcellence which are appropriate to, and partiallydefinitive of, that form of activity.’• ‘A practice involves standards of excellence. To enterinto a practice is to accept the authority of thosestandards. It is to subject my own attitudes, choicesand tastes to the standards which partially define thepractice.’
The importance of history and tradition• ‘Practices have a history: games, sciences and arts all have histories. The standards are not immune from criticism, but we cannot be initiated into a practice without accepting their authority.’• ‘We identify a particular action by invoking two kinds of context. We place the agent’s intentions with reference to their role in his or her history; and we also place them with reference to their role in the history of the settings to which they belong.’
The importance of narrative• In [situating actions in history’, we ourselves write a further part of these histories. Narrative history turns out to be the essential genre for the characterization of human actions.• Man is a story-telling animal. I can only answer the question “What am I to do?” if I can answer the prior question “Of what stories do I find myself a part?” We enter society with roles into which we have been drafted … there is no way to understand any society except through the stock of stories which constitute its dramatic resources. The telling of stories has a key part in educating us into the virtues.
The good lies in seeking the good• To ask “What is the good for me?” is to ask how best I might live out that unity [of a single life’s narrative] and bring it to completion.• To ask “What is the good for man?” is to ask what all answers to the former question must have in common. It is the systematic asking of these two questions and the attempt to answer them in deed as well as in word which provide the moral life with its unity.• The unity of a human life is the unity of a narrative quest… for a conception of the good…which will extend our understanding of the purpose and content of the virtues…• …the quest is not a search for something already adequately characterized…it is in the course of the quest that the goal is finally to be understood.
Macintyre’s final definition of virtue• ‘The virtues therefore are to be understood as those dispositions which not only sustain practices and enable us to achieve the goods internal to practices, but which also sustain us in the quest for the good.’• ‘The catalogue of the virtues will therefore include the virtues required to sustain the households and communities in which men and women can seek for the good together and the virtues necessary for philosophical inquiry about the good.’
Some advantages of Virtue Ethics• Explains importance of motive in moral action, with its emphasis on pleasure and emotion – it is good that we should enjoy acting virtuously• Makes moral education important as being moral is a developmental process; plausible in terms of psychological development• Consideration of life as a whole – “One swallow does not make a spring” (Aristotle)• No decision procedure to get hung up on – moral decision making is too complicated to have a single criterion for decision.• Reflects changing nature of society.• Integrates self- and other-regarding components of personality.
And some disadvantages…• Offers no solution to specific moral dilemmas – it doesn’t guide actions strongly enough.• Not everyone has the equal opportunity to develop morally – do we judge them the same?• Many non-virtuous people live happy lives, many virtuous people are miserable.• Cultural relativism – whose virtues are best?• We recognise that some non-virtuous people are useful in our society; life would be dull without them.• Allows ‘good’ people to be vile…• Is motive always important in moral action? Wouldn’t we really be happy with the right thing being done, even if with the wrong motive?• Is it always wholly clear that being a certain sort of character will help human flourishing more generally? Don’t consequences matter?
Exam question• Evaluate the claim that virtue theory is not compatible with moral realism as it is simply a relativistic account.• Please compose a plan for this essay for next lesson. Another student will use your plan to write their essay…
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