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Virtue Ethics, a modern-day aspiration?

by / 0 Comments / 04/10/2014

Saliently, Virtue Ethics is ‘an ethic of aspiration, not an ethic of duty’, and therefore is contrary to any other normative ethic. It rejects the ethics of dilemma, recognising that a consequential approach results in a lack of intrinsic goods, whilst a duty-based approach – with its focus on the perfection of obedience – belittles the integrity of the individual. For Aristotle, virtue is the difference in doing something, and doing something well without being concerned with what the goodness is, but how to become good people. Indeed, ‘the person that doesn’t enjoy doing good things, isn’t a good person’ – Aristotle.

Virtue Ethics takes an agent-centered approach to morality, recognising above all the need for habituation in order to allow an individuals character to grow, rather than dictating how a person should act in a given situation, contrary to a normative ethic. For example, Kant would advocate doing one’s duty, resulting in the case of Eichmann, who allowed sympathy to persuade him from his duty on only two cases. Rationality alone is, therefore, cold and impersonal, as illustrated by the infamous William Blake’s Nebuchadnezzar, and the golden mean, as consequence, needs to be exercised, “excess is error , deficiency is fault” – Aristotle. One can look to David Hume’s assertion that “reason is and ought to be the slave of all passions”, for surely, life is not complete unless emotions are cultivated.

Susan Wolf has claimed that Virtue Ethics is dull and boring, yet there is nothing boring about those who stand up in the face of great adversity. If only Eichmann had taken seriously the importance of the Virtue Ethics approach, adopting the four cardinal virtues of justice, prudence, temperance and fortitude, the injustice may have been reduced. The fact that the contemporary versions of virtue ethics is neo Aristotelian is a great strength in itself, due to his emphasis on an agent-centered approach to morality. In taking seriously the cultivation of emotions, and encouraging virtues to be followed out of a sense of understanding of what it is to be fully human, one acknowledges the cardinal virtues. Significantly too, as Elizabeth Anscombe recognises, the idea that we have an obligation to follow rules is nonsensical in an increasing secular Western society. In Western society, many people choose not to believe in God as “talk of a moral law without a moral law giver” lacks credibility. Furthermore, to obey the moral law out of self-punishment belittles the individual, as we are self-governing agents. Instead, a synthesis can be found in Virtue Ethics as a medium, in that it encourages the growth of the human. Virtue Ethics, therefore, has the pragmatism of Fletchers’ Situation Ethics, rather than being too rigid and legalistic like the Divine command Theory. This is a noteworthy strength, since this ensures, unlike Natural Law, which is too biological, condemning the use of artificial contraception as outlines in Humane Vitae 1968, Paul V1, Virtue Ethics wont become obsolete.

Indeed Virtue Ethics should be a modern day aspiration. MacIntyre wishes for the renaissance of Aristotelian Virtue Ethics to rectify the failings of our Western, capitalist meritocracy through the unification of phronesis in order to achieve a society where communal eudaimonia is apparent. MacIntyre’s “Dependent rational Animals” 1999 portrays that humans are a vulnerable species, and need relationships to counteract our wide inadequacies: this sense of solidarity appears to be lacking in our Western society. In order to flourish, we require the assistance of our associates in order to focus on our own character, and, in turn, improve the ethics of society. Our actions correspond to our morality, in which, we are also responsible for our omissions, in the tradition of Peter Singer, for we have a duty to help and support others. Common ground can be found in Christian Ethics here, for, if one looks to Mark 8:36, one can recognise “what does it benefit a man to gain the world but loose his soul”. Yet, currently, there seem to be three types of figures that dominate Western culture. Firstly, the Bureaucratic Manager, obsessed with matching a means to an end, such as Civil Servants. Secondly, the Young Aesthete, an example being a materialistic politician, and, finally, the Therapist, for example, the journalist keeping the system going.

The reason why Virtue Ethics should be favoured is because it overcomes the perennial tension existing within humans, reason vs desire. Phronesis, for example, entails interpreting a moral dilemma from a holistic approach, recognising an individual’s emotions, yet overcoming akrasia through following their rational choice over irrational desires. This is summed up by Immanuel Kant, who states that “the ground for obligations must not be found in the nature of man, nor in the circumstances of the world, but solely a priori in the concept of pure reason”. Virtue ethics succeeds as a worthy ethic, namely because it recognises the struggles on life journeys, and promotes the benefit of self-understanding and development of character via hardship.

Ultimately, Virtue Ethics can correct deviant and harmful behavior through exercising virtues, such as courage and determinism in the face of powerful dictatorship. Arguably, where arêtes such as courage are misguided towards an evil end, such as courageous suicide bombers killing innocent people, acts such as this can no longer be described as virtuous, for they are misguided towards an intrinsically evil end. However, whilst there are quite clearly many strengths to this ethic, the utopian vision will not be brought about for generations, further proven by the etymology of the word ‘utopia’. Derived from the Greek, utopos – ‘eu-topos’ – can mean ‘good place’, however ‘u-topos’ also means ‘no place’. In which case, it may not materialise at all! Instead, it may actually lead to dystopia, where, as Kant knew only too well, the wicked prosper, whilst the virtuous suffer. We appear to be left with a Hobbesian view of life, being “isolated, nasty, brutish and short”, in which Virtue Ethics fails to overcome.

Law student, King's College London

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