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Lecture 4: Virtue Ethics


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Title: Lecture 4: Virtue Ethics

Lecture 4 Virtue Ethics Introduction to
Natural Law Theory
Basic Framework of Virtue Ethics
  • Premise 1 An action is right iff it is what a
    virtuous agent would do in the circumstances.
  • Premise 1a A virtuous agent is one who acts
    virtuously, i.e., one who has and exercises the
  • Premise 2 A virtue is a character trait a human
    being needs to flourish or live well.

Overview of Ethical Systems Virtue Ethics
Rather than focusing on what we ought to do,
Virtue ethics offers a distinctive approach
whereby we focus on human character asking the
question, What should I be? Thus, ethical life
involves envisioning ideals for human life and
embodying those ideals in ones life. Virtues
are ways in which we embody those ideals.
Plato (c.427-347c) To be virtuous we must
understand what contributes to our overall good
have our desire (appetitive workers), spirit
(warriors), reason (ruler-guardians) educated
properly so they will aggregate with the guidance
provided by the rational part of the soul (Books
2 3 of Republic). When these 3 parts of the
soul conflict with each other, it might move us
to act in ways that go against the greater good
(become incontinent).
Virtue is an excellence of some sort. Originally
the word meant strength and referred to as
manliness. In Aristotles ethics (arete) is
used which is trans. as excellences of various
Socrates Virtue is Knowledge. No one
intentionally pursues what is wrong. Ignorance
and forgetfulness are at fault when one does.
Plato (c. 427-347) is concerned with the quality
of a persons inner state he prized beauty,
health, harmony, strength of a soul as the
virtues we should emulate. We must have a
well-ordered soul whereby our appetites
(temperance), emotions (courage), and reason
(wisdom) operate in their respective roles. When
reason governs, justice manifests itself from out
of the well-ordered person. Aristotle (384-322)
The function of man is reason (the good of the
thing is when it performs its function well)
which is peculiar to him. Thus, the function of
man is reason and the life that is distinctive of
humans is the life in accordance with reason. If
the function of man is reason, then the good man
is the man who reasons well This is the life of
excellence (eudaimonia human flourishing
Aristotle says there are 2 types of virtue
intellectual virtues excellences of the mind
(e.g., ability to understand, reason, judge
well) moral virtues learned by repetition
(e.g., practicing honesty we become honest. To be
virtuous requires knowledge, practice,
consistent effort at character building.
Aristotle Must have knowledge, second he must
choose the acts and choose them for their own
sakes, finally his actions must proceed from a
firm character (1105a).
Overview of Ethical Systems Plato (427-347
Plato believed our natural desires are greedy and
depraved. Thus, they must be held in tight
check by the powers of reason. He compared the
human soul to a city-state made up of
ruler-guardians, guardians, and the
peasants/artisans. Every reality is an
archetype of a corresponding eternal form. The
goal of life is to actualize ones true nature
together with ones many innate potentialities.
So long as the individual is governed by the
power of reason, and reason is assisted by
courage and will power (guardians), the unruly
desires can be suppressed.
If reason for a moment lets down its guard, then
the desires will exert their power, seize
control, and lead the person to corruption and
The highest good is the well-ordered whole to
which each part contributes according to its own
capacity. A thing in reality is good insofar as
it participates in corresponds to the form of
the good (which is the high point of the forms).
4 primary integrated virtues Wisdom corresponds
to reason courage corresponds to the will
temperance, corresponds to desire justice
links individual to society.
Main Points to Know
  • Plato writes dialogues rather than philosophical
    treatises. Hence, most of his philosophical
    positions are voiced through the character of
    Socrates. Even though Socrates was Plato's actual
    teacher, the positions and doctrines
    traditionally attributed to Socrates are actually
    Plato's account of his teacher. Socrates never
    wrote anything.
  • Plato advances a teleological conception of
    morality, "we live the good life insofar as we
    perform our distinctively human function well."

Main Points to Know
  • The soul is divided into three parts appetitive,
    spirit, and reason. Each part helps us to fulfill
    critical needs, but in Plato's view, only the
    rational part of the soul is fit to rule.
  • In order to live a virtuous life, it is necessary
    for the individual to cultivate balance in
    his/her soul. Thus, persons ruled by appetite or
    spirit (emotion) are "out of balance" and their
    actions are apt to provoke personal or social

Main Points to Know
  • Appetite In cases where appetite rules
    (oligarchic and tyrannical characters fit here)
    individuals are at the mercy of the their
    biological or material whims. Alcohol addiction
    fits this profile. Individuals who are addicted
    to self-destructive patterns of behavior are apt
    to feed their appetites at the expense of other
    life pursuits. People can also be ruled by
    material greed in much the same way. The key here
    is that desire is determinative these are
    cravings of the highest degree.

Main Points to Know
  • Spirit The emotional, passionate side of our
    character is centered on the idea of status on a
    social level. Ambition, desire for honor and
    glory, moral indignation, and cravings for
    admiration, all fit under the umbrella of spirit.
    Love relationships fit into this category as
    well. Our interactions with others provide core
    experiences that influence our emotional

Main Points to Know
  • Reason The intellectual, thinking part of the
    soul that must weigh options, decide between
    alternatives, and "suppress dangerous urges.
    Plato clearly puts reason in control of the soul
    because it acts as good counsel seeking
    understanding and insight before acting. Rational
    individuals possess a strong contemplative
    faculty. They think before they act and are
    unlikely to take rash action in any given

Know Thyself
  • Plato contends that each one of us performs/does
    one thing best. We each have one best skill and
    it is the development of this skill that is of
    paramount importance in creating a harmonious
    existence. If we do not have insight into what
    we do best, the chances of achieving a balanced
    soul are likely reduced. Hence the Socratic
    imperative, "know thyself."
  • Just Society First ask yourself is it possible
    to have a just society? What would it look like?
    How would we direct education, the economy,
    leisure, and social resources? What is fair?
  • Plato wrestles with the idea of justice in his
    most famous work entitled, The Republic.

Plato views social justice exactly parallels his
notion of individual justice. There are three
parts of the soul and three corresponding
divisions in the social order. The social order
is constructed as follows
Overview of Ethical Systems Aristotle (384-322
Though we are naturally suited to moral goodness,
we dont automatically develop such inclinations
Your habits inclinations develop with practice
what you sow is what you reap.
Carefully cultivate moral goodness by rigorous
Ideal of virtue is doing the right thing because
you want to do the right thing you desire to
act virtuously.
In order to desire to act virtuously you must
carefully and consistently practice doing right
until it becomes habitual natural.
If you act selfishly then you will become a
selfish person. Eventually what feels right to
you may be very wrong.
With practice diligence you can develop the
habits inclinations of a virtuous person.
Thus, choose to be virtuous. Desire judgment
must agree.
What is Virtue Ethics?
  • Virtue Ethics emphasizes the development of
    character as its central theme rather than trying
    to define 'goodness' or 'rightness'. It is a
    eudaimonistic theory as it holds 'happiness' to
    be our highest goal. According to Aristotle, we
    attain happiness by cultivating both intellectual
    and moral virtue. We become virtuous by habit we
    deliberately and consistently choose the mean
    between excess and deficiency until it becomes

What is Virtue Ethics?
  • We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then,
    is not an act, but a habit.
  • Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

Virtue excellence
  • Intellectual virtue can be taught.
  • A good person succeeds at rational activity.
  • Moral virtue is acquired through excellent
  • We become good by doing good things.
  • We become virtuous by practicing virtuous acts.

On Becoming Agathos EudaimonFrom Aristotles
Point of ViewCited from Michael Boylan, Basic
Ethics (Upper Saddle River, N.J. Prentice Hall,
2000), 52.
  • Step 1 Master the functional requirements within
    a given type of task or behavior.
  • Step 2 Possess the habitual mastery of the
    functional requirements to an appropriate
  • Step 3 Steps 1 2 excellence in that task or
  • Step 4 Possess habitual excellence in a number
    of key tasks or behavior.
  • Step 5 Possess habitual excellence in those
    tasks or behavior that the common opinion judges
    to be the most worthy.
  • Step 6 Steps 4 5 leads to agathos.
  • Step 7 Possessing Agathos leads to eudaimon.
  • Thus, on balance, excellent traits in human
    character generally produce excellent actions.

Virtue Ethics What kind of person should I be?
  • What is a virtue?
  • A virtue is a habit of excellence, a beneficial
    tendency, a skilled disposition that enables a
    person to realize the crucial potentialities that
    constitute proper human flourishing (eudaimonia).
  • What is a habit? A disposition to think, feel,
    desire, and act in a certain way without having a
    tendency to consciously will to do so.
  • What is a character The sum-total of ones
    habits, tendencies, and well-being.
  • Four cardinal virtues temperance, courage,
    prudence, and justice. Piety (reverence to the
    gods) is sometimes considered a fifth virtue.

Closer Look at Virtue
  • A virtue such as honesty or generosity is not
    just a tendency to do what is honest or generous,
    nor is it to be helpfully specified as a
    "desirable" or "morally valuable" character
    trait. It is, indeed a character trait that is,
    a disposition which is well entrenched in its
    possessor, something that, as we say "goes all
    the way down", unlike a habit such as being a
    tea-drinker but the disposition in question,
    far from being a single track disposition to do
    honest actions, or even honest actions for
    certain reasons, is multi-track. It is concerned
    with many other actions as well, with emotions
    and emotional reactions, choices, values,
    desires, perceptions, attitudes, interests,
    expectations and sensibilities. To possess a
    virtue is to be a certain sort of person with a
    certain complex mindset. (Hence the extreme
    recklessness of attributing a virtue on the basis
    of a single action) Stanford Encyclopedia

Three Central Themes
  • Three Central Themes
  • A. Virtue (arete) A habit of excellence, a
    beneficial tendency, a skilled disposition that
    enables a person to realize the crucial
    potentialities that constitute proper human
  • A habit is a disposition to think, feel, desire,
    and act in a certain way without having a
    tendency to will consciously to do so.
  • Character may be defined as the sum-total of
    ones habits.
  • C. Eudaimonia (Human Flourishing Successful
  • C. Phronesis (practical wisdom) How?
  • Practice The Golden Mean Be moderate in all
    things to an appropriate degree avoid both
    deficiency and excessiveness cultivate proper
    virtues that are deemed most worthy by your
  • Mimic, follow the virtuous person.

Practical Wisdom (Phronesis)
  • A good person consistently does the right thing
    at the right time, in the right way, and for the
    right reason.
  • There is no rule for becoming good, or for
    distinguishing good from bad, right from wrong.
  • Practical wisdom ability to draw the right
    distinctions and tell right from wrong.

A Character Trait is a Virtue IFF it is conducive
to eudaimonia The Golden Mean
Virtue Excess
Deficiency Sphere
Courage Rashness Cowardice Danger Temperance S
elf-indulgence Insensibility Sensual
pleasure Liberality Wasteful Stinginess Money M
agnificence Vulgarity Penny pinching Great
wealth Pride Vanity Humility Honor
self-respect Right Ambition Overly
ambitious Lack of ambition Honor Good temper No
emotion Quick-temper Insult Ready
wit Buffoonishness Boorishness Humor Truthfulness
Boastfulness Modesty Self-description Friendlin
ess Flattery Quarrelsome Social
association Shame Bashfulness Pretense Wrongdoi
ng Righteous Spite Envy Fortune of
others Justice Greed ? Scarce goods
Virtue (courage)
Vice (cowardice)
Vice (Rashness)
Virtue as a Mean
  • We must give in to desire in the right
    circumstances, in the right way, for the right
    reason, etc.
  • Practical wisdom allows us to find the mean.
  • Theres no rule for doing this.
  • You must learn to see what is right

Virtue as a Mean
  • Virtues are means between extremes
  • Virtues constrain desires
  • But we may constrain too little or too much

  • In the virtuous person, desire and judgment agree
    whereby the choices and actions will be free of
    the conflict and pain that inevitably accompany
    those who are akratic and/or enkratic

The enkratic The enkratic is the morally strong
person who shares the akratic agents desire to
do other than what he knows ought to be done, but
acts in accordance with his better judgment.
The akratic The akratic is the morally weak
person who desires to do other than what he knows
ought to be done and acts on this desire against
his better judgment.
In neither kind of choice are desire and judgment
in harmony. In the virtuous desire and judgment
Why does desire and judgment agree for the
  • The reason why the choices and actions will be
    free of the conflict and pain that inevitably
    accompanies those of the akratic and enkratic
    agent is because the part of their soul that
    governs choice and action is so disposed that
    desire and judgment coincide. The disposition is
    concerned with choices as would be determined by
    the person of practical wisdom (phronesis) these
    will be actions lying between extreme
    alternatives. They will lie in a man-popularly
    called the golden mean-relative to the talents
    and stores of the agent.

Why does desire and judgment agree for the
  • Choosing in this way is not easily done. It
    involves, for instance, feeling anger or
    extending generosity at the right time, toward
    the right people, in the right way, and for the
    right reasons. Intellectual virtues, such as
    excellence at mathematics, can be acquired by
    teaching, but moral virtues cannot. I may know
    what ought to be done and even perform virtuous
    act without being able to act virtuously.
    Nonetheless, because moral virtue is a
    disposition concerning choice, deliberate
    performance of virtuous acts can, ultimately,
    instill a disposition to choose them in harmony
    and with pleasure, and hence, to act virtuously.

What does it take to be fully virtuous?
  • The fully virtuous do what they should without a
    struggle against contrary desire possess
    practical wisdom (phronesis) which is the
    knowledge or understanding that enables its
    possessor to do just that in any given situation.
    Most contend that phronesis comes out of at
    least three sources
  • 1. Comes only with the experience of life. The
    virtuous are mindful of the consequences of
    possible actions. How could they fail to be
    reckless, thoughtless and short-sighted if they
    were not? Moreover, they have developed the
    capacity to recognize some features of a
    situation as more important than others, or
    indeed, in that situation, as the only relevant
    ones. The wise do not see things in the same way
    as the nice adolescents who, with their
    imperfect virtues, still tend to see the
    personally disadvantageous nature of a certain
    action as competing in importance with its
    honesty or benevolence or justice.
  • 2. They mimic, follow the virtuous person.
  • We might add that it also takes a certain set
    of external goods (e.g., right background, right
    education, right financial resources, right
    community, etc).

3 Commonly Ascribed Advantages of Virtue
  • Focuses on the development of habits that promote
    human excellence.
  • Focuses on an account in which being virtuous
    means recognizing how rational behavior requires
    being sensitive to the social and personal
    dimensions of life.
  • Focuses on how rational actions are not based
    on abstract principles but on moderation.

Common Criticisms of Virtue Ethics (VE)
  • Vast differences on what constitutes a virtue
    (e.g., different people, societies, opinions,
  • VE lacks clarity in resolving moral
  • VE is self-centered because its primary concern
    is the agents own character.
  • Well-being is a master value all other things
    are valuable only to the extend that they can
    contribute to it.
  • VE is imprecise It fails to give us any help
    with the practicalities of how we should
  • VE leaves us hostage to luck for only some will
    attain moral maturity others will not.
    Moreover, life is very fragile. One small
    misstep and it will cost you everything it will
    forever be beyond your reach.

New Material
  • We will now turn to examine Theistic
    Deontological Ethics with Natural Law Theory
  • Next Time we will explore Thomas Aquinas four
    cardinal virtues and Introduce Kants
    deontological model as a model that became

Deontological Framework
  • An action is right if and only if (iff) it is in
    accordance with a moral rule or principle.
  • This is a purely formal specification, forging a
    link between the concepts of right and action and
    moral rule, and gives one no guidance until one
    knows what a moral rule is.

Deontological Framework
  • So, the next thing the theory needs is a premise
    about that A moral rule is one that would have
    been historically
  • A. Theistic
  • 1. Given to us by God
  • 2. Is required by Natural Law (theistic
  • B. Secular (though can still be connected to
  • 1. Is laid on us by reason.
  • 2. Is required by rationality
  • 3. Would command universal acceptance
  • 4. Would be the object of choice of all
    rational beings.

Deontological Ethics
  • In sum, we should choose actions based on their
    inherent, intrinsic worth evangelical approaches
    to ethics are deontological because it
    presupposes Scripture as revelation.
  • Deontological comes from the Greek word
    deon, meaning that which is binding, in
    particular a binding duty. So, you are bound to
    your duty.

Deontological Ethics
  • For example, a deontologist might argue that a
    promise ought to be kept simply because it is
    right to keep a promise, regardless whether the
    doing so will have good or bad consequences.
  • In contrast, a utilitarian will argue that we
    should keep our promises only when keeping them
    results in better consequences than the

Deontological Ethics
  • It holds that acts are right or wrong in and of
    themselves because of the kinds of acts they are
    and not simply because of their ends or
  • - The ends do not justify the means.
  • - A good end or purpose does not justify a bad
  • - You are duty-bound binding is not dependent
    on consequences, no matter if it is painful or

Deontological Ethics
  • For example
  • 1. You are duty-bound to keep your promise to be
    faithful to your spouse, even if a more
    attractive person comes along.
  • 2. You are duty-bound to always telling the
    truth, even if it cost you a job.
  • Duty is not based on what is pleasant or
    beneficial, but rather upon the obligation itself.

Natural Law Theory
  • I do not feel obliged to believe that the same
    God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and
    intellect has intended us to forgo their use.
  • Galileo Galilei.

Natural Law Theory
  • 1. It is moral law presumed to be grounded in
    nature itself. A natural law is a norm for
    ethical behavior that is deemed binding on all
    humans because it coheres with the human essence
    or with the structure of the universe (grounded
    in nature itself), perhaps because it was
    legislated by God.
  • 2. Insofar as natural law can be known by reason
    alone, without special revelation, they provide
    guidance for all humans, and when followed they
    enhance the common good, but also render each
    person morally responsible to a divine judge.

Natural Law Theory
  • 3. The idea initially arose among the Jews,
    Greeks, and Romans, esp. promoted by Judaism and
    Stoics. But it came to the foreground in the
    Christian tradition as thinkers drew from both
    philosophy and the Bible to devise a theory of
    morality and politics that could be understood to
    be universally applicable.
  • Natural Rights Entitlements with which humans
    are endowed by nature or by virtue of their
    status as being human.

What is natural law theory?
  • There are foundational moral principle which are
    not only right for all, but at some level known
    to all.
  • In other words, there exists ethical standards
    which are the same for all, meaning they are
    right for everyone at some level, everyone knows
  • It is natural law because it is built into the
    design of human nature and woven into the fabric
    of the normal human mind it is genuine knowledge
    written on the heart.
  • Therefore, there are no moral skeptics supposed
    skeptics are playing make-believe.

Clarifying Natural Law Theory
  • Natural law is not innate for we are not born
    knowing it. With the capability of understanding
    we come to understand what is meant by murder
    and by wrong.
  • Natural law is not merely biological instinct
    though it does take into account of certain
    biological realities.
  • Natural law is not mere custom-though customs of
    almost all times and places more or less
    acknowledge it.
  • Natural law is not a law of nature in the same
    sense that gravitation is a law of nature.

Natural Law Theory
  • The conscience is the pedagogue to the soul
  • Judaism, Origen, and Aquinas say that all ten of
    the Commandments (the Decalogue) are in some
    sense self-evident. Modern Christian scholars
    such as J. Budziszewski defend this view.

  • We know that we are to pursue good and avoid evil
    because natural law is written on the heart
    (prescriptive, not descriptive).
  • We have the ability to tell right from wrong.
  • We can violate natural law, but when we do, we
    personally suffer (e.g., guilt).

Next Time
  • More on Natural Law
  • Aquinas four cardinal virtues
  • Introduction to Kants Categorical Imperative.
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