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Transcript of Virtue Ethics
Problems and Challenges
What is it to live well? What is flourishing?
Is well-being objective?
ETHICS | NORTHEASTERN ILLINOIS UNIVERSITY
Dr. Tyler Zimmer
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.
Kantians and Contractualists say nothing about goodness and focus entirely on
-- what we owe to each other.
Virtue Ethics is Distinctive
Instead, we should begin by asking: Am I a good person? Am I
? Am I living well?
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's view is that
we flourish when we exercise all of our capacities in an excellent way.
When we don't exercise our capacities and don't develop our talents... we don't enjoy that zest for life that we experience when our capacities are used and cultivated.
A word on terminology...
The good life.
We will use the following interchangeably
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?
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 beings are
. Therefore, we must exercise our intellectual capacties well in order to flourish.
We are also
. Therefore we must exercise our physical capacities well, live in a healthy way, etc. in order to flourish.
We are also
. Therefore we must use and develop our capacities for being creative in order to flourish.
We are also
. Therefore we must use and cultivate our ability to experience pleasure, especially "higher pleasures."
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?
and the Virtues
the virtues? What traits and habits should we cultivate in ourselves?
We should cultivate those traits that enable us to exercise our capacities, in order to live well, to flourish.
The most important thing is to exercise our rational capacities... this requires
The Aristotelian Virtues
The virtuous person uses their rational powers in an excellent way... they are judicious, truthful, thoughtful and reasonable (not impulsive, hot-headed or selfish).
The virtuous person seeks to achieve a "golden mean" so as to avoid excess... they are not greedy, gluttonous, or disposed to be addicted or lead around by their basest desires.
The virtuous person is kind and fair to others... she doesn't need to showboat or compensate or make others feel bad in order to get a rise.
The virtuous person has courage and confidence when situations call for it... they trust and accept themselves (they are neither arrogant nor paralyzed by self-doubt.)
What is moral rightness?
Whatever the virtuous person would do.
The Virtuous Life:
Many religions understand virtue in terms of how an exemplary figure lived their life.
The Life of Jesus in Christianity.
The Life of Buddha in Buddhism.
The Life of Muhammad in Islam.
Many would object that there is no objective content to the idea of "living well."
They would say that whether or not our lives are going well is a subjective matter, that all depends on our beliefs and perceptions.
Is Well-Being Subjective?
An Anti-Aristotelian Argument: Hedonism
Aristotle is wrong about flourishing. Flourishing is simply a matter of whether people
, whether they
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.
The Desire Theory
Aristotle is wrong. Flourishing isn't what he says it is... but neither is it all about pleasure.
getting what you want
When our desires are satisfied, whatever they might be, we are doing well. When not, not.
Desires differ from person to person. There is no such thing as a "good desire"... "good" simply means that it satisfies the desire of a particular person.
A Critique of
the Desire Theory
desires? Present desires? Immediate desires? Long-term desires? What if our desires conflict?
What about self-destructive desires,
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
PROBLEM #1: Tragic Dilemmas
Consider the title character in William Styron's
, 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.
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.
As we'll see... this raises some problems
How come all the paragons of virtue are
? Is this justifiable?
Are traits traditionally (not essentially) associated with femininity being undervalued or ignored?
For instance: empathy, caring, altruism, mercy, compassion, and so on?
The fundamental concern in
The function or purpose of a plant is to...
The function or purpose of a human being is to...
of plants, examine its capabilities, what it can do, what its distinctive powers and faculties are, etc.
Examine the nature of human beings. Examine what our distinctive powers and capabilities are, what we're capable of doing, etc.
Aristotle argues that happiness -- flourishing, living well, etc. -- is
. He denies that it is subjective. Thus, you can be mistaken about whether or not you're truly happy, living well, etc.
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.
But don't right and wrong matter? Don't we need to know what's wrong so that we can avoid doing others wrong?
Virtue ethicists aren't that interested in right/wrong. They're interested in what's good.
But, if pressed, they'll 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?
VIRTUE and VICE
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?
Subjectivism about well-being:
"something we get in life benefits us only when we desire it, or want it, or have some positive attitude towards it."
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.
a life go best?
What thing in life are ultimately to our benefit?
What things make us better off?
What makes a life good for us?
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
What is a good harp player? One who fulfills the function or characteristic activity of a harp player well -- that is, she plays the harp well. Same for sculptors, carpenters, etc.
Do human beings have a function or characteristic activity?
Different parts of us clearly do:
Our eyes, hands, feet, etc.
Other living things do: plants, cats, etc.
What about us? How could we know?