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Virtue Ethics

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Tyler Zimmer

on 25 May 2017

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Transcript of Virtue Ethics

Virtue Ethics
Other objections to virtue ethics...
What is it to live well? What is flourishing?
Objection #1:
Is well-being objective?
Dr. Tyler Zimmer

Learning Objectives

1. Understand the nuts and bolts of Virtue Ethics.
2. Apply the theory to real-world cases.
3. Compare/Contrast with other theories.
4. Critically evaluate Virtue Ethics: is this a good approach to ethical reasoning or not?
Consequentialists, Kantians and Contractualists are primarily concerned with
right and wrong.

Virtue Ethics is Distinctive
Virtue Ethics
Instead, we should begin by asking: Am I a good person? Am I
? Am I living well?
Virtue Ethics
The most important thing is that we have
good moral character
, i.e. the sort of habits, dispositions, attitudes and skills that enable us to live well, to
Intro to Virtue Ethics
Aristotle (384-322 B.C.)
How to be a Virtue Ethicist
Figure out what is good, what it is to live well.
Determine what sorts of character traits, habits, dispositions, attitudes, etc. help enable us to live well, to flourish.
Cultivate those character traits so that we will be virtuous.
When we have good character, ethics takes care of itself.
Aristotle on
Human Flourishing
Aristotle's view is that
we flourish when we develop an regularly exercise our natural powers and capacities.
A word on terminology...
The good life.
Living well.
We will use the following interchangeably
Function Argument
What is the good life for a human being?
In order to answer this, we should first examine what makes other things in the world good.
Take a plant. What is it for a plant to flourish? It means that it is functioning in an excellent way according to its nature (e.g. it is growing, thriving, blossoming, "doing what it does"). What about a cat? A dog?
Likewise, human beings flourish when they fulfill
their distinctive function in an excellent way
. What is it for us to be excellently functioning beings? For us to use and develop our natural powers/capacities to the fullest extent.
Human Capabilities
Human beings are
rational creatures
. Therefore, we must develop and use our intellectual capacities in order to flourish.
We are also
embodied creatures
. Therefore we must exercise our physical capacities well, live in a healthy way, etc. in order to flourish.
We are also
social creatures
. Therefore we must cultivate meaningful relationships and interact frequently with others in order to flourish.
We are also
sentient creatures
. Therefore we must use and cultivate our capacity to experience pleasures.
We are
emotional beings.
We must use and develop our emotional capacities.
Living well isn't a state... it is an
, namely exercising our powers in an excellent way.
Two Test Cases
1. The Grass Counter.
2. The Icicle Hammerer.
Suppose a friend of yours decided that they wanted to devote thousands of hours of their time trying to get a precise count of the number of blades of grass on the NEIU campus. Would this be good for them? Would this help enable them to flourish? Why or why not?
Suppose someone you know told you that their new life mission was to purchase a tiny hammer and a ladder and go around Chicago in the winter attempting to hit as many icicles as possible, not for any particular purpose, but simply for its own sake. What would you say about this? Would you say this is good for them? Would you say this makes for flourishing?
What is virtue?
Virtues are dispositions to act in a certain way. They are character traits that are ingrained through habituation.
kinds of character traits?
Those that facilitate flourishing.

Some Aristotelian Virtues
Temperance (moderation vis-a-vis desire).
Truthfulness (about oneself).
What is moral rightness?
What would the virtuous person do?
An Anti-Aristotelian Argument: Hedonism
Aristotle is wrong about flourishing. Flourishing is simply a matter of whether people
feel good
, whether they
experience pleasure
The more pleasure we experience, the better our life is going.
Different things are pleasurable to different people, so there is no objective standard of what makes a life go well, what enables us to flourish.
An Aristotelian Reply
This is absurd. Surely pleasure is a component of the good life but it is not
The Pleasure Machine example.
Also, sometimes people derive pleasure from things that are
good for them.
We live better when we cultivate our talents than when we always seek out base pleasures.
A Critique of
the Desire Theory
desires? Present desires? Immediate desires? Long-term desires? What if our desires conflict?
What about self-destructive desires,
e.g. addiction?
What if you need something but you don't desire it? Should we say that the fact that you don't desire it means that it wouldn't help you live better?
What if you have bad habits? In order to live well, shouldn't you try to
your desires?
PROBLEM #1: Tragic Dilemmas
Consider the title character in William Styron's
Sophie's Choice
, who is detained in a concentration camp and then given terrible news: one of her two children will be sent to the gas chamber and she must choose which one. If she refuses, both will be killed. Assume Sophie is a virtuous person.

Virtue ethics says that actions performed by the virtuous person are morally right and worthy of praise.
But Sophie's choice is neither.
Therefore, virtue ethics is not the correct account of morality.
PROBLEM #2: Lack of Guidance
When dealing with difficult moral problems, we need more than the advice of the virtue ethicist which says: "just do what the virtuous person would do."
It seems like this will be inconclusive and practically ambiguous.
How do we know exactly what the virtuous person would do? Isn't this vague? Can't we do better than this in ethics?
What do we do when different virtues conflict with one another (e.g. being courageous and truthful)?
are the moral role models? How do we know? How can we be sure we aren't following in the footsteps of a charlatan?
The Priority Problem
Suppose I am living in Ancient Athens, which was a society based on slave labor. I, however, am lucky to be born into great wealth, so I benefit from slavery. It provides me with food, clothing, shelter, in short with all of the resources I need to spend time cultivating my talents, developing my capacities, exercising, studying, painting, building meaningful relationships, getting plenty of rest, etc.
How does virtue ethics explain the wrongness of slavery in this case? Why should I, the flourishing aristocrat, care about the slaves?
What is the reasoning that virtue ethics gives us for why this situation involves something wrong or unjust?
The only thing a virtue ethicist could say is that it would be a vice for me, the aristocrat, to benefit from the enslavement of others. It would be a vice because it would prevent me from flourishing or living as well as possible.
But, in fact, slavery is enabling me to live quite well indeed. It gives me resources, wealth, time to cultivate my talents, etc.
Consequentialist Critique
Kantian Critique
Contractualist Critique
Slavery is wrong because it causes unnecessary suffering to slaves and fails to promote the greatest good for the greatest number.
Slavery is wrong because it treats slaves like mere tools, like mere objects for the enrichment and use of others.
Slavery is wrong because it is not justifiable to the persons who are slaves... we could not expect them to freely agree to moral rules that allow them to be enslaved.
A Saving Reply for
the Virtue Ethicist?
The only reason you shouldn't enslave others is because it would be ultimately be bad for you to do so...
You would be living a better life if you weren't a slave-owner.
A flourishing person with good character wouldn't enslave people because she would know that it wouldn't enable her to flourish.
Why is it all about
What about the
Do what the wise, virtuous person would do...
PROBLEM #4: Conflict and Contradiction
OK, but what if the wise, virtuous people I know think differently and wouldn't all do the same thing? What do I do then?
Virtue Ethics says that
virtuous character is the most fundamental thing
in ethics. Not obligation to others, not right or wrong.
Virtue Ethicists
Amartya Sen
Phillipa Foot
Rosalind Hursthouse
The fundamental concern in
Virtue Ethics
is with

living well.
Richard Kraut
The function or purpose of a plant is to...
The function or purpose of a human being is to...
Examine the
of plants, examine its capabilities, what it can do, what its distinctive powers and faculties are, etc.
Examine the
of human beings. Examine what our distinctive powers and capabilities are, what we're capable of doing, etc.
Martha Nussbaum
Aristotle argues that happiness -- flourishing, living well, etc. -- is
. Thus, you can be mistaken about whether or not you're truly happy, living well, etc.
Let's review...
The fundamental concern of...
Other theories ask "what's right and wrong? What do we owe others?"
According to virtue ethicists, these are the wrong questions to be asking.
Eudaimonist Virtue Ethics
What is right? What is it to wrong someone?
If pressed, some say:
Right actions = the sorts of actions that a virtuous person would perform.
But what are our distinctive powers and capacities as human beings?
What distinctive powers do we have?
What abilities do we have as humans?
The words "virtue" and "vice" have different connotations in ordinary speech than they do in moral philosophy.
What connotations does the word "virtue" typically have? What about vice?
Well-being consists in getting what I want, whatever that might be. My life goes best to the extent that my desires are satisfied.
There is an objective standard for what makes a life go better.
Certain things objectively good for us and make our lives go better, whether or not we desire or want them.
There is no objective standard; what makes a person's life go best depends upon what they individually want and desire.
What's good for us is getting what we want or getting what we desire, whatever it might be.
What makes
a life go best?
What things in life are ultimately to our benefit (in our interest)?
What makes a person's life go best?
What is it to fare well?
What is it to flourish?
Other ways to ask it...
The Fundamental Question for Virtue Ethics:
The Function Argument
A good X is an X that fulfills its function well.
Test it: does it work for tools, professions, plants, animals?
Jorge Garcia
Aristotle on Virtue
Extreme (Excess)
Extreme (Excess)
Golden Mean (Moderation)
Example: Courage
Extreme State
Extreme State
What makes certain traits or dispositions virtuous? And why should we want to be virtuous?
For eudaimonists, the answer is simple: certain traits count as virtues just because they conduce to flourishing -- and that is reason enough to seek virtue and avoid vice.
An Anti-Aristotelian Position,
Subjectivism about the Good:
What about generosity? Or truthfulness?
virtue ethics: applications
What should a virtue ethicist say about lying and deception?
What should a virtue ethicist say about our duties to help others in need?
What should a virtue ethicist say about racism?
Compare: Jorge Garcia, "The Heart of Racism" with Charles Mills, "Heart Attack"
What about questions of justice?
What might the function argument imply here?
What is the point or function of social institutions?
Try health care. Then try education.
What does virtue ethics imply about work life in modern capitalist societies?
See B. Williams "The Ideal of Equality" for an Aristotelian analysis of health care policy.
Virtue Ethics and Higher Education
What is the point of higher education? What goal(s) ought it to achieve?
Some variables:
Length of workday/week.
Pace of work. Working conditions.
Division of labor? Intellectual vs. manual labor? Dirty or hard work?
Paid vacations?
How does society respond to increases in productivity?
Does it keep toil constant and increase output, or does it keep output constant and reduce toil?
To be alienated is to be estranged from; torn away from; separated from.... from what?

From our nature (species-being)?
From our will (rational agency)?
From others (community)?
From the products we create?
Contemporary Debate Among Virtue Ethicists:
Do we need the concept of "moral rightness" at all?
Hursthouse: yes.
Kraut: no.
“We can reason satisfactorily to conclusions about what we should do without needing to talk about moral rightness and wrongness. Of course, there will always be a place for the right thing to do, where this simply means what one should do or (more emphatically) what one must do. But moral rightness -- the special kind of reason that is alleged to support conclusions about what one should do, the kind of reason so potent that it can nullify goodness -- does not exist.”

Richard Kraut,
What's Good and Why
, p.29

"An action is right iff it is what a virtuous agent would characteristically (i.e. acting in character) do in the circumstances... but moral wisdom is required if [this standard] is to be applied correctly."

Rosalind Hursthouse, "Normative Virtue Ethics"
Right is prior.

Good is prior.
Virtue Ethicists
Does Virtue Ethics need to worry about moral rightness?
Anscombe, Kraut, et al.
Hursthouse, Slote, et al.
"The moral use of 'right' and 'wrong' have so fully entered the vocabulary of ordinary discourse and moral philosophy that it may seem that any ethical theory worth taking seriously must put forward a view about what moral rightness and wrongness are... "
According to Kraut, however, this is a mistake. Ethics should focus only on the good and eliminate talk of rightness.
"I believe that all justification proceeds by way of good and bad -- no realm of practical reasons floats free of what is good or bad for someone and competes with them... good is "sovereign," to use Iris Murdoch's phrase: it is the "master value" of practical life and the focal point of practical thought."

What is Good and Why
Michael Slote
"...it takes theory to beat a theory (shades of Thomas Kuhn)... so V.E. needs serious, theoretical reflections on rightness" to compete with Kantians, consequentialists and contractualists.
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