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.
- What is the good that we seek to obtain, for the virtue ethicist?
- What makes an action right or wrong?
- What is the moral target of concern?
- What are some of the different character traits you can think of, and what would be their extremes?
- Human flourishing, or Eudaimonia — an excellent life.
- When it fits between as the mean of two extremes
- An individual’s character. The virtue ethicist is concerned with character and not consequences or duty.
- Examples: ambition, gregarious, and honest.