Have you ever met someone who simply seems to have it all together? They get up early, exercise in the morning, face their challenges with composure, work hard, give to others in need, love their family, and still go to bed on time? In other words, have you every met a virtuous person? If I’m a little insecure, such an individual might be a bit annoying, reminding me of my own shortcomings, but on the other hand it is hard not to respect such an individual, and root him or her on. The virtuous person is admirable.

The virtue theorists holds that what matters for an individual, morally speaking, is manifesting a virtuous character, not maximizing consequences or acting from duty. A character trait is some disposition a person has to act in one way or another, independent of the situation they are involved in. For example, a courageous person will act in the face of fear in all situations where it is called for. If someone only acted in the face of fear in their class but never in sports games, it might be hard to call that person courageous — though you might say they are trying to be. 

Aristotle, Plato’s pupil, is the most famous western virtue ethicist. He outlined his views in a book called Nichomichean Ethics — which is really a set of lecture notes compiled together and named after his son. For Aristotle, all virtue aims at something. A plant aims at growing tall. A dog aims at eating food and companionship. A virtuous person, for Aristotle, aims at a certain form of happiness he called eudaimonia, or human flourishing. To reach Eudaimonia is to have lived an excellent life as a human being. It is like having grown tall as a plant. Flourishing is a life well lived.  In this way, the virtuous person strives, and gets closer and closer to, a good which all human beings seek to obtain. He or she develops a strong character because, if successful, she will flourish.

But you might wonder, what makes someone virtuous, and how do we know when we have done the virtuous thing? It is one thing to see virtue in other people and judge them with admiration, but it is another to know when you yourself have manifested virtue. Aristotle answered the first question with what is called the doctrine of the mean. For Aristotle, virtue is always the mean between two extremes. The generous person, for example, is that middle point between being stingy and being prodigal (over-giving). The courageous person acts in between cowardice and recklessness. What makes an action manifest a good character — what makes someone virtuous — is when he always chooses the middle porage, so to speak; his actions fit just right between too much and too little.

How we can tell that an action is virtuous — or manifest a good character — for Aristotle, is a matter of perception. Like a baker who just knows when the bread is cooked just right from years of practice, we have to train ourselves or be trained through moral education to just see what we ought to do in any particular circumstance, given the balance of reasons. We eventually come to just recognize what the courageous thing to do would be.

This may seem unsatisfying, as it leaves it open to interpretation how one can know if an action manifests virtue or not, but I think it is a feature of the theory, not a bug. Life can be complicated, and decisions not so simple. We require some wisdom — time and training about what to do — to make good decisions in complex situations. 

Consider again the case of the organ transplant that was brought up in deontological theory. The deontologist always gives the same answer — never harvest the organs. But you might think there could be some tragic scenarios in which taking the organs would be the right thing to do. The virtuous person would likely mourn having to make a decision, for it wouldn’t be easy, but no choice is barred from the virtue ethicist. This reflects a healthy understanding of the complexity in life.

Questions:

  1. What is the good that we seek to obtain, for the virtue ethicist?
  2. What makes an action right or wrong?
  3. What is the moral target of concern?
  4. What are some of the different character traits you can think of, and what would be their extremes?

Further Reading

Answers:

  1. Human flourishing, or Eudaimonia — an excellent life.
  2. When it fits between as the mean of two extremes
  3. An individual’s character. The virtue ethicist is concerned with character and not consequences or duty.
  4. Examples: ambition, gregarious, and honest.

5 thoughts on “Virtue Ethics

  1. Aristotle answered the first question with what is called the doctrine of the mean. For Aristotle, virtue is always the mean between two extremes.

    I have always had difficulty with this chracterization of virtue and I reject it. The key to a better understanding, I think, is found in the Greek word aretê which is used interchangeably to mean virtue or excellence. Your description of virtue hardly brings out the concept of excellence. Read instead the introduction to this SEP article on ancient ethcial theory:
    https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-ancient/
    and you will find he brings out the concept of excellence very strongly, using the term 23 times in the introduction.

    We need to think of virtue more through the lens of excellence and less in terms of balance. The concept of balance neuters excellence and lead to a life of mediocrity.

    We have, for reasons I have explained in another comment, an innate love of truth, good and beauty. This is a love that is universally present in our species. We are drawn, to it, some more strongly than others but almost everyone tries to realise this in their own lives. Our love of truth, goodness and beauty is reflected in a drive for excellence. This is a strange and unique property of our species that distinguishes us in a most striking way from other species.

    The properties of character(settled dispositions) that enable excellence in the pursuit of truth, goodness and beauty are what we call the virtues. The defects of character that hinder the achievement of this kind of excellence we call the vices.

    And so I reject the bland and mediocre concept of balance and replace it with the drive for excellence as being the highest form of realising our innate love of the three great transcedentals, truth, goodness and beauty. I consider virtue to be the properties of character that enable the realisation of excellence in the pursuit of truth, goodness and beauty.

    Nevertheless, the person trying to realise excellence in his life must make inumerable choices between competing demands and needs useful heuristics for doing this. This is where I think the concept of wisdom is far more useful than balance. Balance takes a linear, two dimensional view of the situation, for example profligacy versus meanness and this rules out consideration of a larger, more nuanced context. Wisdom, on the other hand, takes a larger, all things considered point of view. It is multidimensional. It looks to the past, the present with its complete context and to the future with all its implications. It seeks understanding and powerful insights. It considers the point of view of others, not in terms of judgement but in terms of understanding. The problem is seen not just in the immediate context but in the group context and broad societal context. It also considers the problem in terms of one’s own nature and how should one behave in a way that is authentically true to one’s nature.

    Having done all of this as wisely as possible, and having understood one’s goals as excellence in one or more of truth, goodness and beauty one may reach the conclusion that the indicated course of action does not lie in balance but in an extreme. The pursuit of excellence, by its very nature, often requires extremes. But it may also require balance. It all depends. Understanding this takes wisdom and this is the heuristic we must go to great length to cultivate..

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  2. Cosindering your essay as a whole, I find it a little unusual that an article about virtue ethics fails to enumerate the virtues themselves. Aristotle listed wisdom, temperance, justice and courage. Christianity added love, faith and hope to these four. Buddhists have their own classification that roughly corresponds with Western understanding. Some web sites have gone as far as to list 52 distinct virtues, though they are better grouped under major headings. One piece of research into the belief systems of the world has identified seven major groupings of the virtues.

    It is interesting to consider how the Christian addition of love, faith and hope to the classical four virtues makes sense from a non-religious perspective.

    1) Love is an obvious addition. Anyone who has loved and been loved should immediately recognise the primacy of love in the classification of the virtues. But then consider how strongly we also love truth, goodness and beauty, that love for these is an extraordinary motivating force. This lends further weight to the idea that love is the primary virtue.

    2) Faith is a non-obvious addition from a non-religious perspective. By faith Christians do not mean an unjustified belief in God. Their belief in God, they think, is soundly based on evidence and rationality. Faith instead means trust. Trust that everything will work out in the end. Trust that God will keeps his promises.

    From a non-religious perspective faith(trust) is the primary virtue that enables the specialiation, delegation of duties, coordination and collaboration that is the hallmark of our species extraordinary success. I have faith in you. I have faith that this will work. I know you will be faithful. I will faithfully follow your instructions, etc, etc. This requires that we act in a trustworthy way. Trust lies at the heart of social interaction and it is the cement of our closest relationships. The betrayal of trust is one of the most damaging things we can do as many wives and husbands have found out..

    3) Hope is also a non-obvious addition from a non-religious perspective. But consider that our minds are time-machines. We are the only species whose minds can roam over the past and explore potential futures. The ability to explore potential futures is radically transformative because it enables us to choose a path to a better future. We have become a future oriented species, planning for a better future, preparing for a better future and working towards a better future. And thus we achieve a better future. That is the history of humankind.

    Hope is the virtue that encapsulates this belief in a better future. Hope powers us towards a better future. Hope makes the present more bearable. People without hope sink into a mire of depression, despondency and despair. Give people hope and they will rise above this.

    Thus hope is an important virtue that deserves its place in the seven cardinal virtues.

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  3. I should have made the point that while Catholics consider Love, Faith and Hope to be theological virtues, they are much more than theological virtues. Love, Trust(faith) and Hope are important secular virtues and indeed are cardinal virtues that are rightly considered to be among the seven primary virtues.

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  4. To continue my diatribe against balance as the ruling consideration when considering virtuous behaviour, see this paper about the value of passion to sustainable psychological wellbeing:-
    https://www.researchgate.net/publication/257885639_The_role_of_passion_in_sustainable_psychological_well-being

    ——-Abstract————
    Using the Dualistic Model of Passion (DMP), the purpose of the present paper is to show the role of passion for activities in sustainable psychological well-being. Passion is defined as a strong inclination toward a self-defining activity that people like (or even love), find important, and in which they invest time and energy on a regular basis. The model proposes the existence of two types of passion: harmonious and obsessive. Harmonious passion originates from an autonomous internalization of the activity into one’s identity while obsessive passion emanates from a controlled internalization and comes to control the person. Through the experience of positive emotions during activity engagement that takes place on a regular and repeated basis, it is posited that harmonious passion contributes to sustained psychological well-being while preventing the experience of negative affect, psychological conflict, and ill-being. Obsessive passion is not expected to produce such positive effects and may even facilitate negative affect, conflict with other life activities, and psychological ill-being. Research supporting the proposed effects and processes is presented and directions for future research are proposed.
    ———–End of Abstract————

    Psychological well­being, broadly defined as happiness, life satisfaction, and self­growth, represents one of the most important aspects of efficient psychological
    functioning.

    harmonious passion results from an autonomous internalization of the activity representation into the person’s identity. An autonomous internalization
    occurs when individuals have freely accepted the activity as important for them without any or little contingencies attached to it. This type of internalization emanates from the intrinsic and integrative tendencies of the self (Deci & Ryan 2000; Ryan & Deci 2003). It produces a motivational force to engage in the activity willingly and engenders a sense of volition and personal endorsement about pursuing the activity. When harmonious passion is at play, individuals do not experience an
    uncontrollable urge to engage in the passionate activity, but rather freely choose to do so. With this type of passion, the activity occupies a significant but not
    overpowering space in the person’s identity and is in harmony with other aspects of the person’s life. In other words, with harmonious passion the authentic integrating
    self (Deci & Ryan 2000) is at play allowing the person to fully partake in the passionate activity with a flexibility and a mindful (Brown et al. 2007) open manner that is conducive to positive experiences (Hodgins & Knee 2002).

    Consequently, people with a harmonious passion should be able to fully focus on the task at hand and experience positive outcomes both during (e.g., flow, positive
    affect, concentration) and after task engagement (e.g., satisfaction, general positive affect). Thus, there should be little or no conflict between the person’s passionate
    activity and his/her other life activities.

    A very similar concept is contained in the Japanese practice of Ikigai. I maintain that it is our innate drive for excellence that ignites our passion.

    What is really interesting about this paper is their emphasis on harmony in the pursuit of passions. Their passions are harmonized and integrated with the other aspects of their life so that they are not obssessive.

    In the same way the drive for excellence can be seen as a kind of harmonious passion where the virtues are hamonized in the way one lives.

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  5. A paper by Martin Seligman and others Shared Virtue: The Convergence of Valued Human Strengths Across Culture and History (http://www.precisionmi.com/Materials/UniveralVirtuesMat/Shared%20Virtue%20The%20Convergence%20of%20Valued%20Human%20Strengths.pdf)

    They examined the primary literature of the following belief systems: Confucianism,Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Athenian philosophy, Christianity, Judaism and Islam, looking for a convergence in shared values. Despite differences in terminology and presentation, they found a strong commonality and concluded that all cultures possess and value the following six fundamental virtues:

    1. Courage
    Emotional strengths that involve the exercise of will to accomplish goals in the face of opposition, external or internal; examples include bravery, perseverance, and authenticity (honesty).
    2. Justice
    Civic strengths that underlie healthy community life; examples include fairness, leadership, and citizenship or teamwork.
    3. Humanity
    Interpersonal strengths that involve “tending and befriending” others (Taylor et al., 2000); examples include love and kindness.
    4. Temperance
    Strengths that protect against excess; examples include forgiveness, humility, prudence, and self control.
    5. Wisdom
    Cognitive strengths that entail the acquisition and use of knowledge; examples include creativity, curiosity, judgement, and perspective (providing counsel to others).
    6. Transcendence
    Strengths that forge connections to the larger universe and thereby provide meaning; examples include gratitude, hope, and spirituality.

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