5 Virtue Ethics: Being a Good Person

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Learning Objectives

After reading this chapter, you should be able to:

• Explain the core features of a virtue-based moral theory.

• Describe the notion of a telos and how that informs how people should act in particular situations.

• Explain the Aristotelian concept of happiness and what makes it unique.

• Identify and explain the core features of a virtue as defined by Aristotle.

• Identify Aristotle’s cardinal virtues and explain their importance in a flourishing life.

• Discuss objections that claim that virtue ethics is self-centered, doesn’t provide adequate guidance, and reinforces prejudices.

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Section 5.1 Introduction

Whatever you are, be a good one.


5.1 Introduction In Chapter 1 we described ethics as the act of seek- ing answers to the question “How should one live?” The answers examined in the previous two chap- ters focused almost exclusively on accounts of what one should do. Utilitarianism holds that one should do those actions that have the best overall conse- quences relative to the alternatives and refrain from those that do not. Deontological ethics holds that one should do those actions that are right in themselves and refrain from those that are wrong in themselves, regardless of the consequences. In other words, we have a duty to do or not do certain actions. Yet surely there is much more to living well than merely doing right things and avoiding wrong ones.

In fact, we may find ourselves thinking that the rea- son we ought to do certain things and avoid others is because this is integral to something more fun- damental—namely, being a good person. The quote that launched this chapter seems to capture this idea. Our lives are varied and complex. We occupy many different roles and have a multitude of inter- ests and commitments. We are beings that don’t simply make choices but have emotions, instincts, and desires. We aren’t simply minds; we are also animals and bodies. We aren’t merely individu- als, but members of families, communities, teams, clubs, cultures, traditions, and religions. Whatever it is that characterizes our lives in these multifac- eted ways, we want to be good.

But is this merely a matter of doing the right thing, or is it more a matter of being a certain way, as the phrase “We want to be good” suggests? If so, then we might be inclined to think of ethics—the search for answers regarding how one should live—as per- taining more to the kinds of people we ought to be than simply what we ought to do, and in particular to what constitutes good character. This is one of the fundamental ideas behind virtue ethics.

Allegory of the Virtues, c. 1529, Coreggio; 4X5 Collection/Superstock

Allegory of the Virtues by Antonio da Correggio (1489–1534). In the middle sits Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom. The figure on the lower left is surrounded by symbols of the four cardinal virtues: the snake in her hair symbolizes practical wisdom, the sword in her right hand symbolizes justice, the reins in her left hand symbolize temperance, and the lion skin symbolizes courage. The figure to the right is often interpreted as representing intellectual virtue.

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Section 5.2 What Is Virtue Ethics?

5.2 What Is Virtue Ethics? Let’s review the way that we distinguished ethical theories in Chapter 1. We can regard human actions as consisting of three parts:

1. The nature and character of the person performing the action. 2. The nature of the action itself 3. The consequences of the action

The main difference between moral theories has to do with which part they believe to be most important when thinking about ethics. The three moral theories can thus be distin- guished in this way:

1. Virtue ethics focuses on the nature and character of the person performing the action. 2. Deontological ethics focuses on the action itself. 3. Consequentialism focuses on the consequences of the action.

Virtue ethics maintains that the most important consideration for morality is first and fore- most what it means to be a good person, which is described in terms of possessing certain character traits that enable us to live well. These character traits are called virtues.

Generally, when we say that someone or something is good or doing well, we have some idea of what that person or thing is supposed to do; in other words, we understand its function or purpose. For instance, if we call something a good car, then it must be running well, by which we mean that the engine is humming, it drives smoothly, it can get you from point A to point B without trouble, and so on. This is because the purpose of the car is to be a reliable form of transportation. If the tires aren’t aligned or the radiator leaks, then the car as a whole won’t be running well and we won’t say that it’s a good car. If the car is used for racing, then a good car must also be fast and have good handling. If the car is used for transporting children, then

it must have certain safety features. If one’s car is a status symbol, then it may need to be flashy, unique, or expensive. Whatever the purpose, a good car has to have its parts working in harmony, doing what they are supposed to be doing, each contributing to how the whole functions.

Similarly, when we say that a student is doing well in school, we mean he or she is learning concepts and skills, behaving in appropriate ways, earning good grades, and so on. If the student is learning but not getting good grades, getting good grades but misbehaving, or getting good grades but not learning much, then we would be reluctant to say the student is doing well in school. To succeed in school and to be a good student, one must have the discipline needed to complete the required work,

be able to internalize and process the information that is given, have the commitment to per- severe when things are difficult, and maintain an open mind when confronted with new and challenging ideas. Otherwise, he or she will be unable to succeed as a student.

Transtock/SuperStock While the virtues of this car might make it well-suited to racing, it would certainly not be a good choice for a family with young children.

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Section 5.3 Virtues and Moral Reasoning

What does this have to do with ethics? If ethics is concerned with how one should live, the conception of what it means to live well will be concerned with more than simply the kind of world I should strive to bring about or the actions I should or should not do. For a car to run well, it needs certain qualities that enable it to fulfill its function in the ways described. Simi- larly, for students to do well in school, they need certain qualities that enable them to fulfill their goals. These would be the virtues of a car and of a student, respectively. In the same way, we might speak of the qualities that enable a person to live well as a whole and to flour- ish as a human being. These qualities are what we call the moral virtues. So virtue ethics is concerned with two questions: What does it mean for a person to live well and to flourish? and What are the virtues needed for this?

These ideas should be familiar. We often speak of the courage of someone fighting a disease, and we are impressed by the kindness of a neighbor or the generosity of a relative, the patience of a schoolteacher and the sense of justice of an activist, the self-control that a former addict has developed after years of struggle, or the wisdom of a rabbi. Moreover, we can easily see how these qualities are connected to an idea of living well, whether in light of the function or purpose of particular roles like neighbor, teacher, and rabbi, or in light of a sense of overall health and well-being.

Virtue ethics begins with the fact that we seem to have ideas about what a well-lived life involves, what kinds of qualities are admirable, and what sort of behavior people with these qualities will exhibit. The task of ethics, on this view, is to help us refine these ideas, resolve conflicts among them, and explore their implications.

Our source for these ideas will be the Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BCE), particularly his book, Nicomachean Ethics, in which he declared that the aim of studying eth- ics is not to gain knowledge but to become better people (Aristotle, 1931, 1103b). But before considering his ideas, let’s first get a broad sense of what moral reasoning looks like accord- ing to virtue ethics.

5.3 Virtues and Moral Reasoning Virtue ethics does not involve the straightforward process of applying an independent prin- ciple to determine the right action in a given circumstance, as we might find in utilitarianism or deontology. Rather, it emphasizes the qualities of character that we need in order to make good choices in each specific situation, which means that the process of making such choices cannot be reduced to an abstract procedure or recipe. For this reason, some people have dif- ficulty understanding how it applies to concrete problems. Moreover, there are many differ- ent forms of virtue ethics, just as there are many different forms of consequentialist ethics and deontological ethics. However, by focusing on Aristotelian virtue ethics, we can identify a general feature of its approach to moral reasoning—namely, its teleological form.

To call moral reasoning “teleological” means it draws on a notion of the human telos—the end, purpose, or function of a person’s life, or what kind of person one should be. It is in terms of the human telos that we understand what a good human life is, and this understanding

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Section 5.3 Virtues and Moral Reasoning

informs an account of the virtues and choices a good person would make in particular circumstances.

This notion of the telos may be tied to a social role, expressing what it means to be a parent, doctor, friend, and so on. It may also reference the ideals and ends specific to a particular person, such as aspirations, religious or spiritual commitments, or loves and passions. It also frequently draws on deeper ideas about human nature—what it means to be a rational agent, a finite being, one who forms communities and relationships, is dependent and vulnerable, and so forth. All of these qualities factor into a sense of what it means to be fulfilled, whole, and living well.

In light of understanding the telos we can reason about the virtues that are needed to live well, such as the trustworthiness one needs to be a good friend or the courage one needs to be a good soldier. We can then reason about the choices one should make if one is to be a trustworthy friend or a courageous soldier. While certain rules and principles may inform our reasoning, doing the right thing—that is, doing what a trustworthy friend or courageous soldier would do—is not a mere matter of following rules and principles. Rather, it involves reasoning about the goods of friendship, military service, and human life itself and how best to live those out.

Virtues and Skills

It is often helpful to understand the teleological account of moral reasoning by comparing it with the exercise of practical skills, like mathematics, playing an instrument or a sport, or cooking, especially considering the development of expertise.

Someone learning a new skill will start by following certain procedures, such as the rules for multiplying two numbers or how to hold a tennis racket. The point of these rules is to enable us do math or play tennis well, so we also begin to develop a sense of what it is that gives those rules their point; that is, the ends and goods of that activity. In time, these rules become second nature. Participating in this activity no longer involves thinking about such details, but focusing on more advanced ones. Things that the beginner has to consciously think about become second nature to the expert, and this must be the case if one is to grow and develop. Moreover, the expert may even come to recognize when some of those rules need to be broken or modified in order to fulfill the ends of that activity. Thus, the expert’s choices can be rational even when she isn’t thinking about them or even when she contravenes certain rules or procedures, and this is because of how her choices relate to the ends and goods of that activity. This is what makes the rationality of these activities teleological.

Ethical reasoning works much the same way. Moral rules and principles have an important place in helping us live a good human life and become the sort of people we ought to be, which gives them their rationality. But following rules is insufficient; one must strive to see the goods at which they aim and to develop the virtuous character needed to fulfill those goods. Virtue ethics tries to uncover and explain how this sense of purpose can factor into a rational conception of how to live, including whether and to what extent we can reason about how anyone should live.

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Section 5.3 Virtues and Moral Reasoning

Think about the various features of your life. You may be a father, mother, husband, or wife. Perhaps you are in the military, in sales or management, work with kids, or work in something hands-on like construction or repair. You may be involved in professions such as healthcare, social work, or religious ministry. You may have various interests or hobbies such as sports, music, or art. Since you are reading this text, you are most likely a student. What qualities do you need to be successful at each of these activities?

Even if you are not personally involved in certain activities, you might be interested in many of them as a consumer or as someone affected by the choices of others. You go to doctors, you follow sports, you are impacted by what our military is doing, you vote for politicians, you call plumbers or electricians, or you attend a church. What qualities do you expect of those who are engaged in activities that affect your life?

For instance, to be a good soldier one needs courage, loyalty, and integrity. To be a good parent one needs patience and care. To be a good student one needs discipline and open- mindedness. To be a good friend, one needs honesty and faithfulness. To be a good nurse, one needs sensitivity and empathy.The list could go on and on.

The character traits in red are the virtues needed to be a good soldier, parent, and so on. What kinds of actions do these virtues call for in various circumstances?

What does courage mean on the battlefield versus in the barracks? How do we balance loyalty and integrity when they conflict? Does having patience as a parent mean we never get angry at our children, or are there appropriate times and ways to express anger? Does caring for the sick mean doctors or nurses limit themselves to the activity of healing, or must they respect the patient’s wishes when that may conflict with healing? How does the dedication and dis- cipline needed to be a good student weigh against the care and thoughtfulness needed to be a good spouse, especially with limited hours in the day? If these activities involve a balance between different aims, what is that balance?

Most people would agree that there are no hard and fast rules or principles that can answer all of the questions we and others encounter in the course of trying to be the best parent, soldier, student, or healthcare worker one can be. However, we can still provide reasons why certain virtues are important and what a virtuous person would do in certain situations.

For instance, we noted earlier that a good student needs virtues like discipline and an open mind to achieve the goods of education. In light of the fact that a good student aims not just to get a good grade but to gain knowledge and understanding, we could add the virtue of hon- esty to that list, for without it one cannot fulfill that aim. When faced with a situation in which one can successfully cheat, the honest student will recognize that this may result in a higher grade but will undermine the goods of knowledge and understanding. Based on this reason- ing, he or she will recognize that the ethical choice is to not cheat.

It is important to note that we are not starting from scratch in trying to understand what virtue is or by articulating what kinds of decisions virtuous people would make in particular circumstances. We already have a basic understanding of these ideas before we start think- ing about them at a deep, philosophical level. Philosophical inquiry can help us clarify these ideas; it can help us expose and work through weaknesses and inconsistencies. It enables

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Section 5.4 The Nicomachean Ethics

us to address challenges that arise from alternative views, difficult questions, and dilemmas, and helps us resist the power that mere personal desire, tra- ditional or established assumptions, or prevailing cultural trends can have over our own sense of how one should live.

As we mentioned previously, our main source for such philosophical investigations into virtue is the Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. Although he lived and wrote almost 2,500 years ago, his ideas remain familiar and relevant to us today. We now turn to his text.

5.4 The Nicomachean Ethics Start by reading Book I of Nichomachean Ethics in the Primary Sources section at the end of the chap- ter and come back to this point in the chapter.

Book I: The Human Telos Aristotle starts his discussion of ethics not with an account of right and wrong, but by describ- ing what we aim at in living our everyday lives. Think for a moment about various decisions you made today. Why did you choose to do one thing over another? You may have chosen to get up at a certain time, eat certain things for breakfast, do certain chores, take a certain route to work, and at some point you decided to sit down and read this book.

Aristotle’s first observation is that when we make choices, we have some reason for doing so. Whatever our reasons, there is something all of our decisions seem to have in common: we consider them to be, in some way, good.

Now, you may be thinking, “I’ve made lots of bad choices, including some that I knew were bad when I made them. So Aristotle can’t be right.” But perhaps the “bad” choice was intended to bring you immediate gratification or to avoid some pain, even if you knew that it was only momentary and would lead to more problems later. Or perhaps you simply misjudged a situ- ation and made a choice that turned out worse than you hoped. In either case, though, wasn’t there some sense in which your choice was aimed at something good? If we think it was a bad choice, then it may be because it seemed good but wasn’t actually good, or it wasn’t good overall.

If this is correct, then it suggests that when we make choices, we are, indeed, aiming at some- thing good. This reflection leads us to a further question: what is good? What should we be aiming at when we make choices?

PanosKarapanagiotis/iStock/Thinkstock Aristotle, an ancient Greek philosopher.

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Section 5.4 The Nicomachean Ethics

As we discussed previously, we often aim at a good connected to some sort of identity, role, or function; sometimes it has to do with one’s private and personal life, such as one’s interests and hobbies; and sometimes it connects to an overall sense of health and well-being. In such cases, the good choice is the one that helps us to be a good parent or friend, fulfill God’s will for us, promote justice, live healthy, and so on, while the bad choice is one that hinders this goal.

However, two difficulties arise. First, how do we know whether our aims, especially those associated with a particular role or personal commitment, are genuinely good? We know that one can be really good in a certain role yet be a thoroughly rotten person. Take the example of Adolf Eichmann, a man who was fantastically good at his job, had all of the qualities needed to do well, and was admired and praised by his colleagues and superiors. His role? To round up and exterminate Jews in Nazi Germany (Arendt, 1963).

Ethics FYI

Aristotle Aristotle was a student of Plato and went on to become one of the most important figures in Western history. Aristotle invented the study of logic, made contributions to the natural sciences (especially physics and biology) that dominated scientific studies for nearly 2,000 years, and his metaphysical views had a tremendous impact on the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic religious traditions. He also tutored the famous Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great and established an important school in Athens call the Lyceum.

Aristotle’s influence on the ancient world was tremendous, and most of the philosophical debates in the centuries following his death had to contend with his ideas, either by showing how certain views were consistent with his or by attempting to refute him. However, for reasons we don’t entirely know, a great many of his writings were lost in the early part of the Common Era. What survived were, for the most part, not Aristotle’s own writings themselves, but notes and summaries that his students took of his lectures at the Lyceum. For hundreds of years, these were preserved mostly in eastern Europe and the Middle East until they were rediscovered by Western Europeans around the 12th century as the period known as the Dark Ages was drawing to a close.

The Nicomachean Ethics is not the only work containing Aristotle’s ethical teaching, but it is certainly the most well-known and influential. Aristotle had a son named Nicomachus, and historians speculate that the Nicomachean Ethics was probably either compiled by his son or dedicated to him. Either way, the legacy of this work, as with much of his thought, cannot be overstated. However, it is also important to note that virtue ethics is not to be strictly identified with Aristotle’s ethics, any more than utilitarianism should be identified with John Stuart Mill’s ideas or deontology with Immanuel Kant’s. For one thing, utilitarians like Mill, deontologists like Kant, and many others who depart from Aristotle’s views in important ways have nevertheless recognized the importance of virtue and incorporated it into their broader ethical systems. Second, Aristotle held views that many people today find objectionable, particularly regarding women and slavery. For this and many other reasons, even those who have been heavily influenced by Aristotle end up going beyond him.

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Section 5.4 The Nicomachean Ethics

Second, many of us often find it difficult to balance our various roles and ambitions, even when there is no question as to whether they are worthwhile. How should we decide whether to prioritize our responsibilities as a student or a parent when the two conflict? Similarly, within a society there are many different roles and occupations, not to mention cultures, com- mitments, backgrounds, and preferences. Is there some overall aim, or telos, in terms of which we can evaluate the merits of particular aims, balance the goods in our own lives, and recog- nize ethical standards that we all have in common?

Aristotle says yes: we all aim for happiness.

Happiness: More Than a Feeling Aristotle (1931) poses the following observation and question:

If . . . there is some end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake (everything else being desired for the sake of this), and if we do not choose everything for the sake of something else (for at that rate the process would go on to infinity, so that our desire would be empty and vain), clearly this must be the good and the chief good. Will not the knowledge of it, then, have a great influence on life? Shall we not, like archers who have a mark to aim at, be more likely to hit upon what is right? . . . Most people] say that it is happiness, and identify living well and faring well with being happy. (1094a, 1095a)

Aristotle describes happiness as the chief good at which all of our activities aim and proposes that understanding what happiness is will allow us to “hit the mark” when seeking to make good choices. However, his final remark that “being happy” is identified with “living well and faring well” presents a contrast to what this term often means to us today.

Think about what springs to mind when you hear the word happiness. You may think of hap- piness as a good feeling, like that which we get when we hear good news, when we’re with people we love, or are doing something we enjoy. It may conjure up the kind of personal sat- isfaction or contentment that we strive for by reading self-help books, going to therapists, or attending an uplifting religious service. You may think of it in the way it is meant when we say things like, “I don’t personally agree with her choices, but if it makes her happy, who am I to say there’s anything wrong with it?”

In this sense, “happiness” would mean something internal and very personal, having to do with pleasure, inner peace, or the satisfaction of inner desires and goals. While Aristotle would acknowledge that this is important, it is not quite what he means by the term. Rather, if we carefully consider the idea that happiness is the ultimate aim of human life (or “chief end,” as Aristotle calls it), we realize that it has to be more than simply how someone feels about their life. What we all want, says Aristotle, is a life that is truly flourishing, which in Greek is called eudaimonia. This is far more than feeling good, far more than satisfying our personal desires or goals, and even more than achieving a sense of satisfaction and contentment, for we could have all these things and not have a life that one could truly say was going well.

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Section 5.4 The Nicomachean Ethics

To get a sense of the difference between Aristotle’s notion of eudaimonia and the common notion of happiness as merely an inner feeling or sense of personal satisfaction, imagine a life of little more than such experiences and consider whether that life could be called truly well lived. For instance, drug addicts are known to be willing to give up anything and every- thing for their next high, sacrificing family, career, and health to attain that blissful, feel-good moment as often and as long as possible. If happiness really is just a matter of feeling good or experiencing what you happen to consider pleasant and enjoyable, then it would stand to reason that someone who is able to experience a constant state of drug-induced high would be the happiest person around; yet we would generally say quite the opposite about such a person, especially when that state involves complete oblivion to the world around them, such as the ravaging of his or her body or the suffering of his or her family as a result of such a condition. Is this what we would consider to be human flourishing? Is that permanent state of bliss what we have in mind when we think of what we all strive for?

Instead, what Aristotle has in mind is that we aim to be the sort of person about whom others would ultimately say, “this person lived a good life.” Maybe you have had a grandmother like

Ethics and Politics

Aristotle describes the study of ethics and the well-lived life as “politics” or “political science” (Aristotle, 1931, 1094b). This may initially sound strange to us, since we often think of politics as concerned with how governments should function, what laws should be in place, and so on. We often think that politics should be kept separate from the “private” sphere in which we pursue the things that make us happy. Indeed, on many contemporary accounts the main function of government is to ensure people as much freedom as possible to discover and pursue their own personal vision of the good life. Aristotle’s use of the term politics to describe the way we form and revise an understanding of what the good life actually is would seem to be quite different than our modern conception.

While it may be the case that we have good reason to limit the extent to which governments get involved in legislating around particular views of happiness, the idea behind Aristotle’s word choice is that living a human life and living it well is shaped through our relations with others. Before we begin to think reflectively about our individual lives, we have already been formed and shaped by our families and communities. Our identities depend in part on how we relate to others. We are never merely individuals but are also mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, friends, neighbors, citizens, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, Republicans, Democrats, and so on. We are dependent on others and vice versa. We work together, strive toward common goals, and experience each other’s suffering and joy.

If this is true, then any account of what it means to live a flourishing life cannot be simply a private matter. Just as it initially emerges through our relations with others, it must continually be developed and refined through them. So when Aristotle talks about the inquiry into happiness and living well as “political science,” he means that, as social beings (Aristotle, 1931, 1097b), we are inquiring into the flourishing of a life that is lived out in common with others, that the most important goods that we pursue are common goods, and thus we need to deliberate with others about what it means to live well.

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Section 5.4 The Nicomachean Ethics

that, or you might be thinking of a community or religious leader, or someone you have read about in a history class. Often in such cases the person has decidedly not lived a life of bliss; in fact, it is typically the way in which they overcame hardships and persevered in the pursuit of some noble purpose outside of themselves that leads us to hold them up as examples of well- lived lives. So Aristotle urges us to move beyond the immediate ideas we might have about happiness and examine more deeply what it means to talk about “a life lived well,” especially in light of examples of those we admire. How might we characterize such a life?

The Flourishing Life It is important to point out that Aristotle recognizes a limit to how specific and concrete an account of eudaimonia can be; the best we can do, as he says repeatedly, is to provide an account “roughly and in outline” (Aristotle, 1931, 1094b). Having said that, we remember first that Aristotle identified happiness as the ultimate telos, and to understand the telos of something like a wolf, student, parent, athlete, or human being we must identify its charac- teristic activity. In other words, to flourish as a human being—to be truly happy—is to be performing well those activities characteristic of humans (as distinguished from other kinds of creatures). So what is this characteristic activity of human lives? What is it that most deeply captures our humanness?

Let’s look at a passage in which Aristotle (1931) describes what this function or characteristic activity of human life involves:

Life seems to be common even to plants, but we are seeking what is peculiar to man. Let us exclude, therefore, the life of nutrition and growth. Next there would be a life of perception, but it also seems to be common even to the horse, the ox, and every animal. There remains, then, an active life of the ele- ment that has a rational principle. . . . Now if the function of man is an activity of soul which follows or implies a rational principle . . . and the function of a good man to be the good and noble performance of these, and if any action is well performed when it is performed in accordance with the appropriate excellence: if this is the case, human good turns out to be activity of soul in accordance with virtue, and if there are more than one virtue, in accor- dance with the best and most complete. But we must add ‘in a complete life.’ For one swallow does not make a summer, nor does one day; and so too one day, or a short time, does not make a man blessed and happy. (1098a)

There are a few key points that we should take away from this passage.

First, happiness is an activity. Sometimes, especially when we associate happiness too strongly with a positive inner feeling, we like to think that happiness is something like loung- ing on the beach and doing nothing. But if we compare the flourishing of a human life to flour- ishing in particular roles, we recognize the importance of activity. We wouldn’t say a running back is flourishing if he is just sitting on the sidelines or that a musician is flourishing if she never picks up an instrument. Similarly, a flourishing, happy life is one in which a person is actively living in a way that fulfills his or her potential. In this sense, when we are striving for

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Section 5.4 The Nicomachean Ethics

happiness we aren’t striving after some sort of condition whereby we attain it and then stop. Rather, Aristotle’s view of happiness is that of a continuous, ongoing activity.

Second, happiness is an activity of “soul which follows or implies a rational principle.” Unlike non-human animals whose behavior is largely a matter of instinct and reaction to stimuli, humans have the capacity to consciously reflect on who we are and what we are doing, to take a stand on what we believe to be good and true, and to base our lives and decisions on that. Therefore, exercising that capacity by living a reflective life that continually seeks to orient itself toward the good is superior to a life that is unreflective or concerned only with enjoy- ment or the satisfaction of desires.

Are there other characteristic functions of human life that we could include as part of a general definition of happiness? Some possibilities suggested by philosophers have included living in community, forming relationships, aesthetic appreciation, creativity and play, justice and fair- ness, authenticity, and spirituality. Whatever account we give of the human telos, happiness will require nurturing and developing the kinds of characteristics needed for these areas of our lives to flourish. That is, happiness is not simply a matter of doing certain things, but being a certain way, which brings us to the last part of Aristotle’s definition of happiness—living “in accordance with virtue.” So we now turn to look more closely at the virtues themselves.

Book II: The Virtues Read Book II of Nichomachean Ethics in the Primary Sources section at the end of the chapter and come back to this point in the chapter.

Early in Chapter 6, Aristotle (1931) provides a general account of what a virtue is that should be familiar to us by now:

every virtue or excellence both brings into good condition the thing of which it is the excellence and makes the work of that thing be done well . . . There- fore, if this is true in every case, the virtue of man also will be the state of character which makes a man good and which makes him do his own work well. (1106a)

As we have seen from examples like a good car, student, athlete, musician, parent, and so on, we start by describing the telos of an entity or being (its role, function, or characteris- tic activity) and then uncover the qualities it needs to fulfill its telos well. We can think of the moral virtues as the qualities and characteristics that are essential to eudaimonia, or an overall happy and flourishing life of the sort we discussed earlier. That’s not to say that the moral virtues are independent of the virtues specific to being a good soldier, athlete, and so on. Indeed, to truly flourish in any of these roles and activities, one will need the moral virtues in addition to the virtues specific to that particular practice. So what are these moral virtues?

Aristotle lists four cardinal virtues, or those that are most important to a flourishing human life: courage, temperance, justice, and practical wisdom. There are many others that we may add, including honesty, generosity, benevolence, hope, love, patience, friendliness, and many that we might have an idea of without necessarily having the right words to describe.

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Section 5.4 The Nicomachean Ethics

We can observe, for instance, the importance that courage has in all areas of life. Obviously it is a highly important virtue to being a good member of the military. But good parents often need courage to face an unruly child, to stand up at a parent–teacher meeting, and so on. Being a good manager often requires courage to confront an employee or boss or to give a presentation at a meeting. People need courage to face illness, talk to the cute guy or girl at a party, try the strange dish one’s friend has lovingly prepared, or to risk one’s life to help a stranger in trouble.

Similar things can be said of how all of the other cardinal virtues are crucial for flourishing in particular roles and activities as well as in one’s life as a whole. As we said before, Aristotle (1931) believes there is a limit to how specific or precise one can be about the ultimate telos of human life, and so there is a corresponding limit to how precisely we can define or specify moral virtues. However, according to Aristotle, we can still say a lot of general things about those virtues. Let’s first look at how he defines virtue at the end of Chapter 6, after which we will break it down:

Virtue . . . is a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean, i.e. the mean relative to us, this being determined by a rational principle, and by that principle by which the man of practical wisdom would determine it. (Aristo- tle, 1931, 1107a)

A State of Character The first thing to be said of a virtue is that it is a “state of character,” or as Aristotle says in Chapter 1, a habit.

What do we usually mean when we describe something as a habit? Think about a habit in your own life, now or in the past. You might think of smoking, overeating, procrastinating, lying, checking social media, or cracking one’s knuckles. These behaviors are acquired over time by repeating similar kinds of action. In doing something repeatedly, it eventually becomes ingrained to the point that it feels like second nature; indeed, we often feel in some sense

controlled by our habits—they strongly effect our behavior, and breaking the habit involves a great deal of effort and discom- fort. For this reason, we are used to thinking of habits as bad things.

But habits can also be good things. Think of how teachers talk of developing good study habits. When a basketball player shoots free throws over and over again, he or she is try- ing to develop certain habits needed to play well. When people join the military, they have to go through basic training, which is essentially an attempt to replace bad hab- its with ones that are needed to be a good soldier. Students, athletes, and military per- sonnel need to have certain things ingrained

Wavebreakmedia Ltd/Wavebreak Media/Thinkstock Just as it’s important for children to develop healthy eating habits, it’s important for them to develop the good emotional and behavioral habits we call virtues.

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Section 5.4 The Nicomachean Ethics

in them to perform well and would be greatly hindered if they had to constantly struggle to perform their characteristic actions.

Similarly, in Aristotle’s view, not only can habits be good, but a well-lived life requires good habits, since that is what virtues are, while vices are bad habits. Honesty is a habit, and dis- honesty is as well. Generosity, courage, and all the other moral qualities that we admire in people are habits.

For instance, consider the following two cases:

1. On his way home after a night of heavy drinking, Bill spots someone trying to rob an old man on the street and risks his life to confront the robber and defend the old man. Later he barely remembers that and reckons that the whiskey and beer must have inhibited his usual sense of fear and caution, since he would never have been so bold otherwise.

2. On his way home after a night of studying, Brian spots someone trying to rob an old man on the street and risks his life to confront the robber and defend the old man. As a veteran of multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan with the Marines, Brian is no stranger to life-threatening situations and would not hesitate to do the same thing again.

While both of these people performed the same action, in the first case the action wasn’t natural; it did not flow from a deeply rooted characteristic in the way it did for the person in the second example.

If virtues are good habits, then we should expect that good behavior will normally feel good and bad behavior will normally feel bad, which is exactly how Aristotle describes things. The generous person enjoys giving to others, the honest person is pained at the thought of telling a lie, and the courageous person wants to aid her fellow soldier in trouble. The mark of a vir- tuous person is that his or her feelings are in harmony with his or her actions, and he or she gains pleasure through virtuous activity.

Moreover, as with any habit, becoming virtuous requires practice, repeatedly doing similar kinds of things until it becomes second nature. To become a good athlete or musician, one has to practice. Similarly, to become an honest student, a patient parent, a faithful spouse, or generous friend, one has to repeatedly make the same choices a virtuous person would make.

Lying in a Mean Aristotle defined virtue as “a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean, i.e. the mean relative to us” (Aristotle, 1931, 1107a). Aristotle meant that the states of character or habits that we call virtues exhibit some kind of quality, but neither too much nor too little of that quality. A virtue is thus an intermediate between two extremes—excess and defect—and virtuous action will express this kind of intermediate between extremes, sometimes called the golden mean. The best way to understand this is to consider some examples that focus on two of the cardinal virtues that Aristotle recognized: courage and temperance.

1. Courage Consider a quality like respect for potential harms and dangers, perhaps on the battlefield.

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Section 5.4 The Nicomachean Ethics

Too much fear of harm is the vice of cowardice. This is a pretty familiar idea. If a sol- dier runs away from battle and abandons his fellow soldiers the moment he hears gunfire, he is letting his fear of harm get in the way of being a good soldier, which sometimes requires a willingness to sacrifice life and limb. His overabundance of fear may also lead him to misjudge a situation and regard it as more dangerous than it really is.

But there is another side to this as well: Too little respect for harm and danger is also a vice. This is less familiar and doesn’t have a single term associated with it, but we can still recognize it. A soldier who runs into a firefight without any good reason, needlessly putting his life, the life of his fellow soldiers, and the mission at risk, is not displaying courage. We would call his behavior something like rashness or reckless- ness. Similarly, someone who fails to appreciate the risks and dangers of a situation isn’t courageous but rather exercising poor judgment.

Just the right amount of respect for potential harms and dangers is the true virtue of courage. Knowing when it is appropriate to put oneself at risk and how much risk to take is the exercise of that virtue. Moreover, we can see how essential this “right amount” is to fulfilling the telos of a good soldier.

2. Temperance Consider another characteristic of human life like one’s physical desires; let’s focus on eating habits as an example.

When one’s desire for food is too strong and one eats too much—especially the kinds of things that aren’t good to eat—we call this the vice of gluttony or overindulgence.

On the other hand, when one’s desire for food is too weak and one eats less than is healthy or too few of the kinds of foods that are important to health, we also recognize that there is a problem (though we don’t really have a proper term for this vice). Many children (and adults), for example, lack a desire for vegetables and do not eat enough of them to be healthy; people who eat too little overall may be anorexic.

Just the right amount with respect to what we eat and how much is called the virtue of temperance or moderation; or, simply, good eating habits (a term that reinforces the connection between virtue and habit). As we know, and as Aristotle himself acknowl- edges, our desires strongly affect our behavior (Aristotle, 1931). So it is important for us not to simply eat the right amounts of the right things, but for our desires to align with that. This is why many parents insist that children eat their vegetables and don’t indulge them every time they want a candy bar; the hope is that they will come to enjoy vegetables and crave sugar less often. We can also see how crucial temperance is to the flourishing and happiness of our lives as a whole, given the importance of bodily well-being.

Of course, our physical desires (and lack thereof) also extend to exercise, drugs, alco- hol, and sex. Accordingly, we should be able to talk about the ways in which too much or too little desire for such things, or desires that are oriented toward the wrong objects, can be detrimental to one’s health, relationships, community, career, and so on, while the right amount of these—the virtue of temperance—is essential to flour- ishing in these particular areas and in one’s life as a whole.

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Section 5.4 The Nicomachean Ethics

A Mean Relative to Us We have been considering Aristotle’s idea that a virtue is an intermediate between too much and too little of some quality and how exercising virtue makes a difference to one’s flourishing.

This raises the question of whether this “right amount” is exactly the same for all people in all situations. Aristotle said no: a virtue, according to his definition, lies in a mean relative to us. In other words, the intermediate between the extremes will vary depending on the person and the situation.

It is important to note that this idea of the “mean relative to us” is quite different from the kind of relativism about moral value that we discussed in Chapter 2. There we defined rela- tivism as the view that moral “truth” is relative to what an individual or culture happens to believe or value. Thus, if an individual or culture regards something as having a certain moral value (good or bad, right or wrong), then other individuals or those of other cultures can neither affirm nor deny these judgments. But this is not what Aristotle means when he says that the intermediate state that defines virtue is relative. What he means is that there is an objective truth regarding the right amount, but this can vary according to certain features of the particular situation.

This is best seen by looking at some examples. Let’s revisit the eating example. Take a look at this meal plan and think about whether it would be the daily diet of someone who eats too much, too little, or the right amount.

“Phelps’ Pig Secret: He’s Boy Gorge,” New York Post, August 13, 2008 (

How would the average person feel after a day of this diet?

Breakfast Lunch Dinner

• Three fried-egg sandwiches with cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, fried onions and mayonnaise.

• An omelette — containing five eggs. • A bowl of grits. • Three slices of French toast, with powdered sugar on top.

• Three chocolate chip pancakes. • Two cups of coffee.

• Half a kilogram of enriched pasta. • Two large ham and cheese sandwiches on white bread with mayo.

• Energy drinks (about 1,000 calories).

• Half a kilo of enriched pasta. • A whole pizza. • Energy drinks (about 1,000 calories).

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Section 5.4 The Nicomachean Ethics

For most of us, this sort of diet would be far too much, and if we followed it we would be dan- gerously obese.

However, this diet was part of the actual routine of this person in 2008:

This was the diet of Michael Phelps, the great swim- mer who won 28 Olympic medals. Clearly this diet was the right amount for him, as he needed a tre- mendous number of calories to swim at the Olympic level. Moreover, a diet that would be temperate or the right amount for the rest of us would have been deficient for Phelps, failing to provide him the nec- essary energy and nutrition.

So temperance—eating the right amount of the right things—is relative in the sense that it would be different for someone like Michael Phelps than it would be for the rest of us. We can say the same thing about other situations as well: if I am trying to lose weight, then the right amount may be consid- erably different than if I am trying to regain weight after, say, cancer treatment. If I’m a Catholic monk and it is Lent (when many Catholic monks abstain from most foods), the right amount to eat will be different than if it is Easter (when they celebrate the resurrection of Christ with great feasting).

But notice that in such cases there is still an objec- tive fact as to what the right amount is, so it is not relative in the sense that any view is just as right as any other. Clearly for an Olympic-level swimmer like Phelps, eating like a monk during Lent would be bad; and if his coach were to say, “I personally believe that you should be eating more, but who am I to judge?” we would say he was a pretty bad coach.

Similarly, if an ordinary middle-aged man or woman happened to believe that subsisting on a diet like Phelps’s was good for them, we would say that they are wrong, and we would have good reasons for saying that.

We have been talking about the virtue of temperance, but we could say similar things about how the other virtues lie in an intermediate that isn’t the same for all people and all situa- tions but is relative to them. In the example of courage on the battlefield, we noted how the right amount of respect for potential harms and dangers depends on the circumstances— what one’s mission is, how important certain goals are relative to others, what the actual danger is, what role one plays, and so on. Since there is an endless number of variables that

AP Photo/David J. Phillip As an Olympic athlete, Michael Phelps had to eat a tremendous amount of food to provide his body with the fuel it needed to train and perform well.

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Section 5.4 The Nicomachean Ethics

could factor into a situation, it is impossible to anticipate everything that might happen and establish rules for all scenarios. But this doesn’t mean that there is no correct answer; there usually is a fact as to whether certain choices in battle are cowardly, rash, or expressing the intermediate state of courage.

How is the virtuous intermediate determined? Aristotle (1931) says it is “determined by a rational principle” (1107a).

Virtue Ethics and Moral Absolutes

We have distinguished virtue ethics from deontology, which is based in the notion of absolute duties. Unlike utilitarianism, according to which anything may potentially be morally justified if the consequences are good enough, the deontological view holds that certain actions should never be undertaken, no matter the consequences.

Virtue ethics emphasizes the importance of moral development and practical wisdom n dealing with the particular features of each situation rather than relying on a set of rules or principles that can be applied by anyone. Does this mean that virtue ethics is more like utilitarianism in the sense that there are no absolute duties or prohibitions, actions that would always be right or wrong to perform?

Not necessarily. While some virtue ethicists may deny that there are any absolute duties or prohibitions, others believe that there can be. Remember that a virtuous person will have reasons for what he or she chooses, and it is possible that there could never be a good enough reason for certain kinds of things. That is, some kinds of things are inherently contrary to even a minimal conception of virtue.

Aristotle, for one, thought this. He describes virtue as “hitting the mark” (Aristotle, 1931, 1106b) with respect to both feeling and action, which means that one avoids both excess and defect in choosing the intermediate. However, “not every action nor every [feeling] admits of a mean” (Aristotle, 1931, 1107a), he said. Some are bad in themselves, including feelings like spite, shamelessness, and envy, and actions like adultery, theft, and murder. “It is not possible, then, ever to be right with regard to them; one must always be wrong” (Aristotle, 1931, 1107a). There isn’t a good way to do such things distinguished from a bad way, as if we could speak of “committing adultery with the right woman, at the right time, or in the right way.” Rather, “simply to do any of them is to go wrong” (Aristotle, 1931, 1107a).

Later, the notion of the natural law developed among medieval Christian, Islamic, and Jewish thinkers, combining Aristotle’s views with the notion of divine laws and commands inherited from the religious traditions. They and their contemporary descendants argue that certain actions are inherently contrary to human nature, and, as such, are always wrong.

Determined by a Rational Principle For something to be determined by a rational principle means we should be able to account for why something was the right choice or why certain feelings and emotions are appropri- ate. On the Aristotelian view, this account will generally involve an implicit, and sometimes

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Section 5.4 The Nicomachean Ethics

explicit, reference to the relevant good or telos of the activity, role, individual, or community in question.

As we have seen, when considering what it means to be a virtuous student, friend, soldier, or neighbor, we ask, what is their characteristic activity? What goods do they aim at, charac- teristically? What would constitute excellence or flourishing in that kind of activity, role, or relationship? Asking these kinds of questions is a way of asking about the telos of someone engaged in a particular practice.

Rationally determining the right thing to do, or more broadly, what the virtuous person would do, is a matter of asking these kinds of questions and attempting to answer them. Ultimately, though, to have a virtue like courage or temperance and to be able to make the right choices that express that virtue requires another virtue, namely practical wisdom, or in Greek, phronesis.

This is like the wisdom that a good coach must have when deciding what kind of diet an Olympic-level swimmer like Michael Phelps should follow. It is like the wisdom that a military commander must possess when determining how best to lead his or her team, how to effec- tively engage and defeat the enemy, or what kinds of things are off limits even if they would be effective. Practical wisdom is what parents must possess and exercise when trying to raise children to become good practical reasoners in their own right.

Notice that the need for wisdom in these areas is partly because there are no set procedures to follow that are sufficiently comprehensive and concrete to be a good coach, military com- mander, or parent. A computer could never be programmed to completely replace these roles, no matter how many lines of code are written, because a computer program does not under- stand the goods and values that are integral to the practice of a sport, the military, or parent- ing. A computer that can only do what it has been programmed to do lacks the capacity to adapt to situations in ways that draw on a deep understanding of meaning and value, which is characteristic of people with genuine wisdom (Dreyfus, 1992).

Similarly, a parenting book can help someone become a good parent, but ultimately the par- ent has to take that advice and adapt it to the particular circumstances and particular child, which requires wisdom. Rules and codes like those found in the Constitution, the Uniform Code of Military Justice, or in religious texts like the Bible or Koran likewise require wisdom for their application, which is why we need judges, commanders, pastors, and imams.

Aristotle describes three general characteristics of those with practical wisdom. First, the wise person acts with knowledge; they choose the acts for their own sake; and their choices, actions, and emotional responses proceed from a firm and unchangeable character. Let’s briefly consider each of these.

1. The virtuous and practically wise person acts with knowledge. Virtuous action isn’t accidental, nor is it mindless. Since virtues are habits, virtuous action can be automatic; however, that is not the same as saying that the virtuous per- son doesn’t know what he or she is doing. When a virtuous person acts from practical wisdom, she has good reasons for what she does. This doesn’t necessarily mean that

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Section 5.4 The Nicomachean Ethics

she is thinking about those reasons when she acts, but if asked later she could give an account of why she made particular choices.

2. The virtuous and practically wise person chooses the acts for their own sake. Is there a difference between a person who acts bravely to win a medal and one who does it because he sees the value in the brave action itself? Do we think that some- one who tells the truth because he is afraid of getting caught is worthy of the same admiration as someone who tells the truth out of a commitment to the importance of honesty and integrity? These examples point to the idea that virtuous people make decisions because they are good in themselves, rather than merely being good for the sake of something else.

3. The virtuous and practically wise person’s choices, actions, and emotional responses proceed from a firm and unchangeable character. When someone unexpectedly and uncharacteristically does something kind or coura- geous, we rightly praise what she does. But it is another thing to praise and admire who she is and say that she is a kind or courageous person. If someone is a kind or courageous person, he will consistently act kindly or courageously, and his character will be reflected in his feelings and emotional responses.

This last point is quite important, for it touches on an important way that virtue ethics differs from deontology and utilitarianism.

Virtues, Feelings, and Pleasure When we discussed the idea that virtues are habits, we noted how this means that the notion of a virtue concerns not simply how one behaves but also how one feels. When one has a habit one feels strongly inclined toward that behavior, and vice versa. Thus we often find it difficult to break bad habits or pick up good ones, but once we do, we begin to see our feelings and desires align with the new behavior. A person with good character feels pleasure at doing good things, whereas a person who lacks good character may find the same things painful or unpleasant.

This leads us back to the point that ethics and moral reasoning, in the Aristotelian view, involves more than just what we ought to do, but how we ought to feel. By contrast, Kant’s deontological approach maintained that morality is strictly concerned with duty, which rea- son alone determines; feelings and desires have nothing to do with the moral worth of an action.

However, consider these two cases:

1. Jennifer is a wealthy businessperson, while her brother Scott works for an organiza- tion that aids disabled veterans and makes very little money. Scott’s wife is suddenly stricken with breast cancer, and though they have medical insurance, the amount they must contribute to her treatment is far more than they can afford. Scott asks Jennifer if she can help financially so his wife can get treatment. Jennifer doesn’t want to, because she was planning to buy a new vacation home, and helping her

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Section 5.4 The Nicomachean Ethics

brother would require her to put that off for a few years. Grudgingly, however, she decides that it is her duty to help out a family member in need and writes a check that Scott can use to cover his wife’s medical bills.

2. Rhonda is a wealthy businessperson, while her brother Peter works for an organiza- tion that aids disabled veterans and makes very little money. Peter’s wife is suddenly stricken with breast cancer, and though they have medical insurance, the amount they must contribute to her treatment is far more than they can afford. Peter asks Rhonda if she can help so that his wife can get treatment. Rhonda immediately takes off work and flies to her brother’s house not only to pay for the treatment but to lend emotional support, help out around the house, and ease their burdens any way she can. When Peter worries that this may cut into her business profits, Rhonda dismisses this by saying she already has more than enough and that helping a fam- ily member deal with cancer is far more important than profit.

Whose action would we consider to have greater moral value, Jennifer’s or Rhonda’s? Many people would be inclined to say that while it’s good that Jennifer did the right thing, Rhonda’s actions are more worthy of admiration and esteem given that her feelings, attitude, and personal priorities aligned with the choice that she made. In the Aristotelian view, that judgment would be justified because of the ethical signifi- cance of emotions and feelings.

The ways we interact with and treat other people in the course of everyday life involve not just actions but attitudes. Emotions can be important ways to clue us in to something of moral significance and to be a check on the misuse of reason to “justify” something that would be unethical. We often praise or blame people not just for what they do but for their responses and reactions. For instance, we admire the person who takes delight in people with physical or mental handicaps rather than being uncomfortable or repulsed by them. Conversely, if a person delights in the unjust suffering of a person of another race, we would find that mor- ally reprehensible and blameworthy, even if they never actually did anything to cause suffering. All of this requires the cultivation of our emotions such that we will feel the right way at the right times.

Stoic Virtue Ethics

There was a school of philosophy called Stoicism that emerged in Greece not long after the time of Aristotle. It also emphasized the importance of virtue to a happy life. However, the Stoics departed from Aristotle’s view in some important ways. For one thing, Aristotle maintained the importance of external goods like health, adequate resources, a good family, the avoidance of misfortune, and even good looks (Aristotle, 1931). The Stoics denied this, insisting that if one has virtue, one needs nothing else for happiness. By controlling one’s desires and emotions and cultivating a calm equanimity, one can be subjected to any kind of misfortunate and not be fazed.

But this also means that they rejected the notion that strong feelings like anger could have a place in the virtuous life. To get angry is to allow oneself to be overcome by passion, which is the root of suffering and unhappiness.

Do you think that getting angry at certain times and in certain ways shows a lack of virtue, as the Stoics thought, or can it be a part of virtue like Aristotle believed? More broadly, is happiness merely a matter of one’s inner condition, or does it depend in part on external goods, even ones that are outside one’s control?

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Section 5.5 Objections to Virtue Ethics

Aristotle’s view also calls into question utilitarian assumptions about feelings and desires. In the Aristotelian account, there is no such thing as pleasure in itself. Rather, pleasure is always connected with some kind of activity. Since some activities are good and others bad, some pleasures will be good and others bad, depending on what kind of activity they are associated with. This conflicts with utilitarian views that regard pleasure as something that is inher- ently good and worth maximizing through our actions.

Similar remarks could be made about desires and feelings in general. Desires can be good when they are for the kinds of things that contribute to a good life, but they can be bad when they are for things that are detrimental to living well. Thus, moral and political principles that aim to maximize desire, satisfaction, or freedom of choice are not necessarily justified, since not every desire or preference is worthy of being promoted.

5.5 Objections to Virtue Ethics There are a number of problems and objections to virtue ethics that can be raised (Solomon, 1988), and we will address the most common and challenging of these here. The first is that, by taking the notion of character and flourishing as the central concept, virtue ethics might appear to be a self-centered theory, having us focus on ourselves rather than on others. The second is that virtue ethics does not adequately help us decide which choices are moral or immoral. Finally, the third is that morality, by this account, seems to be tied too closely to fac- tors like culture and upbringing, and thus fails to provide an objective account of ethics.

The Self-Centeredness Objection Virtue ethics, especially the Aristotelian approach, starts with an account of happiness or flourishing as the ultimate end and describes virtues as the traits we should strive to culti- vate in ourselves in order to flourish. Accordingly, it is sometimes thought that the primary concern is with oneself rather than with one’s responsibilities or with the world at large, making this approach ultimately self-centered. Why should I suppose that my primary ethi- cal concern be my own character if the only reason I am concerned with that is so I can be happy? Shouldn’t the primary focus of an ethical theory instead be the actions that we should or should not perform? Or if happiness factors in, shouldn’t it be the happiness of all and not just my own that determines what is moral?

It is important to clarify that this objection is not directed at the fact that virtue ethics regards individual happiness as important, nor is it to the importance that virtue ethics places on good character. Almost all ethical theories affirm the importance of both of these, including

Going Deeper: Pleasure and Pain

Aristotle’s view calls into question certain common assumptions about pleasure and pain. For more on the difference between Aristotelian and utilitarian conceptions of pleasure and desire, see Going Deeper: Pleasure and Pain: Aristotle vs. Utilitarianism at the end of the chapter.

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Section 5.5 Objections to Virtue Ethics

utilitarianism and deontology. The difference with virtue ethics is partly a matter of the prior- ity that individual happiness and good character have relative to other ethical factors, such as good consequences or the goodness of certain actions themselves.

A deontological theory will say that good character is important to reliably carry out one’s duties, and a utilitarian theory will say that good character is important to reliably make those choices that lead to the greatest overall good. But this means that these theories begin with an account of what we ought to do and define virtue or good character in terms of those qualities that will enable us to reliably carry this out, making this account of right action independent of the happiness or flourishing of the individual agent. By contrast, Aristotelians regard the notions of a flourishing life and good character to be more fundamental than an account of what we ought to do; we have to start with what it means to be a good person, and once we have an adequate sense of that, we can talk about what a good person would do.

The worry, then, is that virtue ethics gets its priorities backward. It seems to maintain that the ultimate reason we ought to cultivate virtue isn’t so we can reliably fulfill our moral duties or bring about the greatest happiness for everyone, but so that we can attain happiness, which makes it ultimately self-centered. Yet surely, we may think, morality often demands that we sacrifice our own happiness for the sake of duty or the happiness of all.

To see how the Aristotelian virtue ethicist might respond, we should first recall the distinc- tion between the more common notions of happiness and the notion of eudaimonia (flourish- ing, living well) that Aristotle identifies as the telos of human life. Many common notions that identify happiness with a positive subjective feeling, personal satisfaction, or the fulfillment of one’s personal desires and interests do indeed tend to be much more subjective and individu- alistic. But as we saw, Aristotle considered this to be mistaken: when we think of happiness in the sense of eudaimonia or our ultimate good, particular things like desires or pleasures are sometimes good, but sometimes not, depending on how they relate to that ultimate good.

In fact, someone who is merely concerned with what he or she wants or what makes him or her satisfied, when those are taken at face value, will almost certainly not be pursuing a flourishing life. This is because living well involves the flourishing of our lives as a whole, not simply the satisfaction of particular desires or interests, and a major part of what it is to be human involves our connections to other people and to the world. Our lives are lived out in communities; we have friendships and family relationships; we participate in hobbies, sports, and artistic activities; we have careers; we are members of organizations; and so on. Thus, most of our activities and pursuits are those in which we aim at common goods, those shared by many rather than just by individuals. In these and countless other areas of life, if we simply focused on ourselves—on our own profit, success, comfort, or desires—we would miss the point of the activity and would fail to live well and flourish. This is why we can say—as we often do—that if a friend, spouse, child, coworker, or neighbor is not doing well, we are not doing well.

Given these interconnections with others, a self-centered life cannot be a flourishing or happy one; accordingly, the virtues needed to flourish will call for choices and feelings that are beyond ourselves, even while they also contribute to our personal flourishing at the same time. Moreover, if we think about what it means to be courageous, honest, or generous, we often find that the kinds of lives we admire and hold up as examples of a well-lived life

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Section 5.5 Objections to Virtue Ethics

involve a willingness to sacrifice individual well-being for a greater cause. When one is committed to some higher good like justice, one’s family or nation, or one’s God, one’s identity becomes intertwined with that cause or purpose to the extent that sacrific- ing individual well-being for its sake is a ful- fillment of one’s telos rather than opposed to it. Accordingly, the Aristotelian would argue that the self-centeredness objection relies on a misunderstanding of what it means to take happiness and character as fundamental.

The Guidance Objection The second objection is that virtue ethics does not provide us with an adequate guide for making or evaluating moral choices. When we think about the dilemmas we face or the moral debates that rage around us, we may want an ethical theory to offer us a determinate, con- crete answer, and one that has objective validity. Both deontological and utilitarian theories (at least on some accounts) seem to be able to provide this through a clear deductive argu- ment. For example:

A Simple Deontological Argument

1. Stealing is wrong. 2. X is stealing. 3. Therefore, X is wrong.

A Simple Utilitarian Argument

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