Aristotelian virtue ethics

AQA Philosophy
Moral Philosophy

Aristotelian virtue ethics

The good’ for human beings

Eudaimonia is best translated as ‘living well’ or living a good life. If you ask someone, for example, why they study for A levels, their response will be to get good grades. If you then ask them why they want good grades, they might say to get into a good university, and so on, however if you keep asking why they want that, eventually they will have to say “because I think it will enable me to flourish – to live a good life.” Whatever humans choose to do, the reason will ultimately trace back to that they think it will help them live a good life. Aristotle claimed this shows that living a good life is the goal (telos) of all human life, because it is the only thing valued for its own sake. Everything else we value only as a means to that end.

The relationship between Eudaimonia and pleasure.

The function argument

So, Aristotle establishes that the goal/purpose (telos) of human beings is living a good life, but what is a good life? Aristotle’s function argument answers that. He claimed we call something good when it performs its function well. For example, we say a knife is good when it performs its function of cutting well. Everything has a function, which is a things’ distinctive characteristic. You could use a knife to play the piano, but that is not what a knife’s distinctive characteristic is uniquely good for. Aristotle claimed the distinctive characteristic of humans is reason. The function of a knife is to cut. What enables a knife to cut is its various qualities i.e sharpness. Similarly, what will enable humans to fulfil their function of reasoning well is whatever qualities help us have good reasons for our actions. These are the virtues.

Aristotle’s account of virtues and vices

Aristotle states that a virtue is ‘the habit of choosing the mean between the extremes’. The idea is that each virtue exists in a sphere of action or feeling and within that sphere there can be an excess, a deficiency or the golden mean. Being virtuous is the habit of choosing the action which best manifests the golden mean in the relevant sphere.

Sphere of action or feeling Deficiency Golden Mean Excess
Fear and confidence Cowardice Courage Recklessness
Pleasure and pain Insensibility Temperance Self-indulgence
Self-expression Understatement Truthfulness Boastfulness
Social conduct Unfriendliness Friendliness Being too friendly

the role of education/habituation in the development of a moral character;

the skill analogy;

the importance of feelings

Moral responsibility

voluntary, involuntary and non-voluntary actions.

The relationship between virtues, actions and reasons

The role of practical reasoning/practical wisdom.

The issue of clear guidance

Virtue ethics fails to give clear guidance. Utilitarianism and Kant provide systems which explain how to figure out which action is right. Virtue ethics doesn’t do that. It doesn’t give clear guidance on how to act. For example, consider ethical dilemmas like whether the USA should have dropped the nuclear bomb on Japan in WW2. If it helped the war end faster, does that justify killing civilians? It’s hard to see how being a virtuous person could give you an answer to that. In fact being a good person might only make you see how difficult the dilemma is.

Aristotle never intended his theory to provide clear guidance. Aristotle argued that because life is so complicated, and situations so diverse and nuanced, ethics can’t be about applying rules to situations anyway. A good/virtuous person for Aristotle will have practical wisdom which they will then use to figure out the right action for the situation.

Aristotle could be accused of wishful thinking for supposing a virtuous person will just be able to figure out ethical questions using practical wisdom, without any carefully thought out system of ethics. Furthermore, only virtuous people have practical wisdom, therefore his theory gives no guidance to those who need it most.

Aristotle argues however that knowledge of the good comes in degrees. Most people will have a good enough degree of knowledge of the good to get along well enough such that they can improve themselves. Those people can ask whether a certain action in a particular situation will manifest the virtuous – will it be courageous, friendly, truthful, etc. While people will certainly vary in their ability to judge that, Aristotle is convinced that many will be able to do good enough a job to get it right to increasing degrees. Regardless of that success rate however, fundamentally Aristotle doesn’t see any other way for ethics. Telling someone what’s right isn’t enough to get them to do it.

clashing/competing virtues

Conflicting virtues. If a friend asks you to keep a secret and someone else asks you to reveal it, there is a conflict between truthfulness and friendliness.

Aristotle would argue however that the use of practical wisdom would reveal that this case isn’t really within the sphere of self-expression in such a way that demands we must tell the truth. Practical wisdom should tell us that what matters regarding the virtue of truthfulness is not at stake in this situation.

The issue of circularity in defining virtuous persons and acts 

The issue of the disconnect between virtue and Eudaimonia

the relationship between the good for the individual and moral good.