Virtue ethics denies that any ethical theories or systems are valid, relevant, adequate or helpful. It is not a normative branch of philosophy, like Utilitarian or Kantian ethics. As its name suggests, it calls upon the character of a person (moral agent) to deal with the moral problem instead of applying some fixed set of codes or theories. Hence, if a person lies, you cannot deem his action as right or wrong. He is just dishonest, which is his character. An ethical person is thus, an individual who is able to develop a desirable character. Which leads us to the next question…what virtues are desirable?
Before answering the question above, it seems we have to define what virtue is. Over the years people have suggested various cardinal virtues, but I do not think there is a set of virtues we must follow and find the Greek philosopher, Aristotle’s arguments more convincing. Aristotle believes that; ‘…every action and pursuit, is considered to aim at some good’. This theory is known as his ‘Nichomachean Ethics’ or ‘Ethics of Eudaimonia’. This ‘aim’, or telos, mentioned by Aristotle shows us that fundamentally, he is a teleological philosopher, and looks at the consequences of a moral action – the telos.
Aristotle makes it clear that he does not just mean psychological pleasure, as he associates ‘virtuous’ happiness, as it were, with those who ‘live do well’; otherwise this virtuous position of being happy could be extended to people who become happy through immoral acts, or those who are stupid and happy, who are completely different cases all together. The main accomplishment in Eudaimonia is gaining a sense of achievement, success and moral excellence; which is an imperative to the hedonistic view of pleasure. Aristotle believes that human beings have a special ‘function’, the Greek translation being ‘ergon’. This function is special in each individual, and is not found in any other being, making them different to animals and basic instinct. He believes that this is their ability to reason, which allows them to function well, which results in a virtuous character.
The main definition of Virtue Ethics is ‘a good action is one performed by a virtuous person’. To understand this we have to first unpack it. In virtue ethics when deciding what is morally right, we have to take the persons emotions into account, as they play a prime role in this theory. We know what is right by educating ourselves of certain feelings and emotions so that we naturally aspire to do goods, which reward us with pleasure. Therefore this idea of doing what is right is dependent on the ‘education of character’. An example to show this, is when A deals honestly with B; not because they will achieve ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number’ (Bentham), or because it is their ‘duty’ (Kant) to do so. A acts honestly because it is in their character, and allows them to express themselves as a virtuous person.
So now we know that a moral life; according to Aristotle’s theory, is not attained through obedience to rules; but through that beings own desire to and motivation to achieve happiness. We have the ability to reason, as well as the sense to obey reason. Thus, there are two branches of virtue; the virtue of intellect (wisdom) and the virtue of character (generosity), both of which are equally valuable.
Reason again must play a part in controlling these virtues, especially those of character, and in achieving them. For, if being virtuous is in our capacity, we have been given the potential to do well – but this moral good cannot be fully realised without it being practised, which Aristotle believes, over a lifetime. A good explanation is given here that men ‘will become good builders as a result of building well and bad ones as a result of building badly’. Through practising these virtues of character – generosity, kindness, and bravery – we will eventually possess a virtuous character, and will therefore have the ability to lead a flourishing life.
Aristotle believes that virtue is a mean between two kinds of vice, one of excess and the other of deficiency. For example, the mean of rashness and cowardice is courage, and hence courage is a virtue. This is commonly known as the ‘Doctrine of the Mean’, which allows an individual to asses whether their actions will make them virtuous people.
There are four things to take into account when discussing the doctrine of the mean. Firstly, it is not mathematical, nor is it an average; but it is individual, depending on the person’s situation. For instance, to keep fit and excel in her sport, a short distance runner would have to train totally different muscles to a long distance runner, as their functions and aims are different, like each person who wants to be virtuous.
Secondly, it is not healthy for one to always adopt the mean of their emotions. It is not necessary to constantly tone down your feelings, and it is sometimes good to express strong emotions. Even a virtuous person has the right to extreme anger once in a while. However, this virtuous person would not feel this anger at trivial matters, but, say when they are witnessing an appalling injustice or cruelty.
Aristotle’s third condition of the mean is that it only applies to actions that have a scale of value, or initiate a range of emotions, varying from excess to deficiency. There is no ‘mean’ emotion to be felt regarding issues such as adultery or murder. One cannot have a ‘little bit’ of an affair, or moderately murder some one; you either do it, or you don’t, and no matter how short the affair is, it is still regarded as a shameless act.
Finally, and most importantly, one has to be able to distinguish between a person’s real internal desire to do good and act virtuously, and a person who is just acting in conformity of virtue. In other words, the individual must act virtuously upon their own free will, and not be swayed by others opinions. If they follow these conditions, and follow the mean, they will achieve a great feeling of ‘telos of their being’, and happiness.