Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics

If we can agree to ethical objectivism and that there is something more to morality than just calculated, collective self-interest, the next question before us is what is the proper basis for making moral decisions. That is, what is the moral theory that best explains our moral behavior? We will look at three traditional theories of morality in order: Aristotelian Ethics, Mill’s Utilitarianism, and Kant’s Deontological Ethics. While these should not be viewed as exhaustive of the possibilities, they do capture most people’s opinions about the basis of right and wrong action. We should take a moment to reflect on the nature of and our expectations for any theory or description of morality.
Our theories of morality, like any other theory, seek to explain the phenomenon of morality, i.e., our notions of right and wrong, in order to establish the basis for future judgments and actions. That is, part of what we want from our theory is to guide, and give reasoned justification for, those judgments and actions that can be considered within the moral context. This notion also explains the order of readings scheduled for this course. This course first examines basic critical thinking skills in order to analyze the ethical views to follow. We then move on to our traditional ethical theories in order to lay a foundation for understanding the various ethical issues and positions, i.e., in each of the readings to follow, one of these three ethical theories will be an important premise to their argument.
Because our views of what human life ought to be about largely determines our own values, and hence our assessment of certain premises, we will dedicate some time to that question (The Meaning of Life!). Finally, with our bagful of skills, experiences, and values in hand, we will proceed to analyze ethical views concerning suicide, sexual relations, capital punishment, illicit drug use, genetic engineering of humans, abortion, and animal rights (if time permits). As already mentioned, the purpose of this course is not to advocate or persuade for any particular position on these topics; it is to provide an opportunity to analyze, study and understand a number of different views about some very important moral issues. Your understanding of the various positions will determine your grade for this course.
The single most fundamental aspect of Aristotle’s Ethics is that, like his inquiries into nature, this is a teleologicallygoverned understanding. That is, Aristotle’s understanding of human moral behavior is viewed from the perspective of a thing’s function; in this case, morality is viewed from the perspective of the function of a human being.
Since morality says something about our actions, Aristotle begins by assessing the fundamental purpose of human behavior. That is, any moral theory seeks to judge this behavior as bad and that behavior as good. This is a judgment of ultimate good since we are making the judgment about ourselves and other humans, not objects, animals, and the rest of the world. However, this sense of ‘good’ still shares important features with its application to the lesser existences of the world. That is, such a judgment can only be made if we understand the nature of that which we are judging.
Aristotle argues in the Nicomachean Ethics and elsewhere (e.g., the Categories) that a thing’s nature is largely determined by its function or purpose. The discussion, thus, begins with an inquiry into the claim that ‘the good’ is whatever a thing aims for, i.e., its end or function. The goal or function of a human being seems to be Happiness since that is the one thing that all of our other activities seem to be directed toward and there is nothing further that Happiness can be for. Furthermore, happiness is self-sufficient in that sense and this too is what we expect of any ultimate Good. Aristotle explicitly rejects any definition of happiness as pleasure or avoidance of pain. Happiness is understood as a life well-lived, an overall assessment of a person’s success at navigating the rough seas of human existence.
While such a life must certainly include pleasure, a happy person will know which pleasures are worth pursuing and which are not. And this, then, calls for person of the right character to make such determinations. Thus, once the good has been identified with Happiness, we must still discover the nature of Happiness and the kind of character that will provide such a life. Aristotle seems to recognize that if this is not defined in some way, we would tend toward subjectivism once again. (Since morality is tied to happiness and undefined happiness leaves things up to the individual.) He defines happiness as the practice of virtue since when something is used (teleologically) correctly, i.e., performs its function well, we say that that is its virtue.
For example, to comment on the virtue of a particular hammer is to refer to its ability to function as a tool to pound in nails; a discussion of its color or beauty would seem irrelevant to its virtue. When something excels at performing its function, we generally acknowledge it as setting a standard of virtue for all such things of that function or purpose. We also generally acknowledge that in most cases the standard is a kind of ‘golden mean’ between the extremes of deficiency and excess. Furthermore, the ‘golden mean’ will be different for each of us as determined by our particular circumstances, talents, etc. Therefore, what is required for a moral theory is a standard of virtue for human beings. Thus, Aristotelian Ethics is a Virtue Ethics. Moral behavior is a matter of performing the virtues and the virtues are a matter of a certain deliberative activity based on our rational, intellectual nature and its application to action.
Virtuous activities can only be learned by attending to the activities of the virtuous person ‘the standard’ (and much of the Nicomachean Ethics is devoted to identifying that person) and imitating their behavior. For example, for any situation we might ask what would Jesus or Martin Luther King, Jr. et. al. do here. Since morality is a matter of activity, not a state, and activities are learned by habituation, moral behavior is acquired by forming the habit of right action. When our moral actions become habitual, we then become the Virtuous Person that others may imitate. Aristotle makes it clear in the Nicomachean Ethics that we are not by nature moral, but most of us do have the capacity for moral behavior, depending on our natural gifts and the capriciousness of natural fortune. So morality is like any other skill or craft that can be learned, and even excelled at if one has the right disposition and is in the right circumstance.
It is also worth noting that Aristotelian Ethics is a communitarian-based moral theory. That is, unlike the next two moral theories (Mill’s Utilitarianism and Kant’s Deontological Ethics), Aristotle’s view of what it is to be an individual is always conditioned by the community that produces the individual. Indeed, Aristotle would not have understood our more modernist notions of the autonomous individual who is born with certain fundamental rights and natures.
For Aristotle, the notion of the individual only makes sense within the context of their community. Thus, the possibility of achieving the best life and becoming the archetype of virtue is as much determined by whether one is produced by the right community (since most communities do not promote the best set of values and beliefs to excel at life) as by fundamental human nature and one’s dispositions. That is, just as some people may not be able to acquire the skill to repair an automobile at all, and others may acquire the skill but not have the disposition or luck to excel at it, and a few will have the opportunity, disposition, and luck (perhaps to grow up in Detroit or in a Nascar family) to become expert mechanics, some people will also never become virtuous, others (perhaps most of us) will acquire the skill to be moral but never really excel at it, and a precious few will actually become the paragons of virtue that we tend to look up to.
Below is a brief outline of the argument. As you read this and reflect back on the excerpted portion in the text book assigned for today, you should determine whether Aristotle’s views (premises) reflect your own experiences and values. If not, where do you differ?
Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics: The Argument

A. The highest good is happiness. (1097b)

1. The highest good must be something that all other actions and goods are done for or desire would be empty and futile.
2. All agree that happiness is the thing that all other activities ultimately are done for, even if they cannot agree on what happiness is.

B. Activities expressing virtue control happiness.(1100b)

1. The good for something depends on that thing’s function.
2. So if we find the function of a human being, we shall find the best good.
3. The function of a human being seems to be a life expressing reason.
4. To find the highest good of a thing, we should look to the most excellent examples expressing that thing’s function.
5. The excellent man’s function seems to be actions that express reason finely and well.
6. But expressing reason finely and well is expressing the proper virtue.

C. Thus, if we are to know the highest good we must know the nature of virtue.(1102a) “Since happiness is an activity expressing complete virtue, we must examine virtue; for that will perhaps be a way to study happiness better.”
D. Virtue, then, is a state that decides, [consisting] in a mean, the mean relative to us, which is defined by reference to reason, i.e., to the reason by reference to which the intelligent person would define it.”(1107a)

1. Virtue of character arises from the soul’s activity which is that of making decisions.
2. There are three conditions arising from the soul: feelings, capacities, and states
3. Virtue cannot be a feeling because excellence is not based on feelings, we are neither praised nor blamed for our feelings, and feelings move us to action while virtue is a condition.
4. Virtue cannot be a capacity since we are not called good or bad for our capabilities.
5. Thus, virtue is a state.
6. A well-crafted product is praised for its lack of deficiency and excess; it is good because of its intermediate state.
7. Virtue is more exact and better than any craft.
8. Hence, virtue will also aim for what is intermediate, i.e. a mean.
9. But the intermediate for us is what is neither deficient nor excessive for us, i.e. relative to us.

E. Decisions are wishes for the end that is really good.
F. The excellent person wishes for what is really good.
G. Therefore, the excellent person is the standard of virtue.
For a full version of Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics” and his “Eudemian Ethics” go to the above “Aristotle Links.”

IV. Objections to Virtue Ethics

A. Provides no objective answer to who would be the excellent person. Although Aristotle spends a great deal of effort in describing characteristics of various virtues, because of the virtues are always relative to us and circumstance, there doesn’t seem to be any general formula or definition we can apply to determine our paragon of virtue. Indeed, recall that Aristotle goes to some effort to show that we should not expect the same kind of precision in our account of the morality that we would expect from other areas of inquiry (1094b10-20). That is, Aristotle seems to suggest that human behavior and the world are far too complex to admit to any simple formulaic understanding of right action. He offers, instead, sort of general accounting of the various virtues, suggesting that such behavior will lead to success in a well-designed community. What if you and I disagree about who the standard ought to be? What if my standard bearer of the virtues is Joseph Stalin? To what can you appeal to dissuade me?
B. What if two excellent people differ on what is a right action? For example, what if I consider both Ghandi and Churchill as excellent persons and they disagree on Indian independence? Whose views are right? How would I decide? That is, Aristotle’s ethical theory does not seem to provide an objective way of determining which excellent person to imitate on this issue or any other divisive issue. It cannot be just a matter of unjustified opinion or there is no need for a moral theory in the first place.
C. What does Aristotle mean by ‘a mean relative to us’? Are there different levels of morality for different individuals? Aristotle seems to suggest that we should not apply the same standards of behavior to all people; our moral expectations should be relativized to the person and circumstance. How do we understand a mean, relative to us, that does not suggest a kind of subjectivism? Are there minimal standards of decency below which no moral person should fall? If so, Aristotle’s theory is vague on how they are determined.
D. Can ‘virtue’ simply be defined for everyone? Can Aristotle be accused of ethnocentrism since he clearly espouses some fundamentally classic Greek values within his collection of the moral virtues? There seems no reason to believe that what counted as virtuous behavior for the ancient Greeks should be counted as such today.

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