Aristotle outlined his theory of Virtue Ethics in his book Nichomachean Ethics. Born in Thrace in 384 BC, Aristotle was sent to Athens at seventeen to complete his education at Plato’s Academy. He remained at the Academy for twenty years, where he developed a somewhat acrimonious (but by no means bitter) relationship with his teacher. This was due to their divergent beliefs and differing methods of reasoning, famously depicted by Raphael’s painting Scuola di Atene. Plato, who is often regarded as the founder of Western Philosophy, is shown pointing upwards, demonstrating the precedence he places on a priori reasoning and the metaphysical, whereas Aristotle’s hand faces the ground, showing his reliance on empiricism and the knowledge one can gain from the natural world.
However, although the two men’s beliefs were not always succinct, both centred their ethics on agents rather than acts, and both concentrate on the idea of a human character, asking how one can be a better person. In fact, Aristotle once said: “For we are enquiring not in order to know what virtue is, but in order to become good, since otherwise our enquiry would be of no use.” Aristotle is attributed with the development of Virtue Ethics; however, he was hugely influenced by Plato’s ideas, particularly his Cardinal Virtues. Virtue Ethics is neither deontological nor teleological, since it is concerned with neither duty nor consequences, but rather the state of the person acting. Aristotle believed that once you are good, good actions will necessarily follow, and this belief is at the centre of Virtue Ethics. Rather than defining good actions, Virtue Ethics looks at good people and the qualities that make them good. The non-normative theory, although very effective in determining the morality of individuals, is particularly flawed when applied to whole societies. This weakness is largely due to its imprecision and abstraction; however, before these weaknesses can be considered, it is necessary to give an account of the theory itself.
Virtue Ethics is centred on the belief that everything has a purpose and that, when something fulfils its purpose, it is good. For example, the purpose of a knife is to cut, and so a knife that cuts well has achieved its purpose. This links in to Aristotle’s ideas about the Four Causes and the Final Cause. Plato and Aristotle agreed that the purpose of humanity was the fulfilment of flourishing, and this is known as eudaimonia. When a person has achieved eudaimonia they will be fully content with their lives and they will act morally because they want to. He referred to eudaimonia as “an end in itself”. Aristotle insists that this telos can only be achieved through the use of reason, since the ‘ergon’ (function) of reason in practice is virtue. He says: “The good for human beings is an activity of the soul in accordance with arête (virtue).” Thus, through the practise of arête reason becomes an activity of the soul, eventually leading to eudaimonia. Therefore one must be rational to be eudaimon. Both Plato and Aristotle also believed that if you acted virtuously then your life would go well. They said that if virtue did not pay off in self-interested terms then the virtue had false value; thus, unlike Christianity, Virtue Ethics does not demand self-sacrifice. In fact, a eudaimon is necessarily happy. However, becoming eudaimon and gaining happiness for being virtuous was not seen as a reward, but rather just a consequence.
Aristotle also distinguished between different types of virtue, claiming that there are both intellectual virtues and moral virtues. He said that intellectual virtues, like logic and reason, can be taught, whereas moral virtues, which we are not born with, must be gained through practice. He once said: “In the same way we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, and courageous by doing acts of courage.” Aristotle also believed that we are born with intellectual virtues and that this allows us to gain moral virtues, which become second nature over a period of time. This is known as habituation. Moreover, Aristotle said that some virtues are more important than others, and this is where Plato’s influence features most prominently. Aristotle and Plato both said that there are four Cardinal Virtues: Justice, Prudence, Temperance, and Fortitude. These virtues are all necessary to flourish and achieve eudaimonia. Aristotle also said that, while it is important to fulfil one’s purpose, one person’s telos may contradict another’s, and so to be moral one must also be involved in social activities and have a concern for the good of others, as well as oneself. He once said: “Man is a political and social animal.”
Another key part of Aristotle’s ethic is what he referred to as ‘The Golden Mean’. He believed that a virtue is not necessarily a virtue when it is in excess. For example, courage is a virtue, but in excess it becomes rashness, a vice rather than a virtue. Moreover, when there is a lack or deficiency of a certain virtue (e.g. courage), this is also a vice (cowardice). Thus he said:
“The mean [i.e. the balance] is successful and commendable. Virtue then is a state of deliberate moral purpose consisting in a mean that is relative to ourselves, the mean being determined by reason, or as a prudent man would determine it.”
Aristotle puts a lot of emphasis on the fact that this mean can only be found through the use of reason or phronesis, practical wisdom found through experience. Reason decides which emotions to put into practice through a balanced appetite. It is important to note that, while the Golden Mean advises against excess or deficiency, it does not deny emotions. Rather the Golden Mean guides people on how and to what extent they should allow their reason to govern their emotions. When reason is used and the emotions are controlled through a balanced appetite, eudaimonia takes place. Phronesis allows a person to act with wisdom and discernment, and thus overcoming akrasia (a weakness of the will caused by emotion). It is phronesis that allows somebody “to be angry with the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, in the right way, with the right aim.” (Aristotle) Michael Slate said that, for Aristotle, the use of practical reason meant “being rationally alert and responsive to what was valuable or disvaluable in the different circumstances of one’s life.”
Virtue Ethics has often been considered a flawed ethic on account of its ambiguity and lack of rules, and this explains its fall from popularity until it was revived by Elizabeth Anscombe in the 20th Century. The American philosopher Robert Louden points out that, while Virtue Ethics is effective in the development of the individual, it often ignores the bigger picture. According to Louden, Virtue Ethics does not attempt to resolve big moral dilemmas. Because of its vagueness, the theory does not give any answers when a person is faced with a moral crisis. Louden is criticising the ethic for being too abstract: how is one to know how to apply these virtues to particular ethical dilemmas? For example, Virtue Ethics gives no answer to the issue of Abortion or Euthanasia. In this way, the theory can be too vague to be useful.
One of the other major reasons for the theory’s lack of support is that it relies too much on reason. Aristotle regards humanity’s capability to reason very highly, and indeed he seems to think that all people desire to be good; when they are not good, that is simply caused by a weakening of their will. Calvin and Augustine would argue otherwise: both men believed that humans are naturally sinners and that they cannot be relied upon to make good decisions. Thus they believe that relativist theories are particularly flawed since, in a world without laws, there is almost no reason to be good. In fact, the morally bankrupt and evil people in the world rarely get their just deserts, even in a world with laws. Calvin also claimed that Virtue Ethics leads to arrogant and proud people basking in their own glories, rather than the development of virtuous individuals. This is because the theory seems to highly value humanity’s capacity to reason and to be good, something that Calvin views as wrong. He thinks that the only true way to be virtuous is to praise God. Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics can therefore be seen as too focused on phronesis and reason, and does not give enough absolute guidance.
However, many have praised the theory for exactly this reason. Richard Taylor refers to it as “An ethics of aspiration rather than an ethic of duty.” It allows people to develop their rationality and grow as moral beings, and avoids the rigidity of legalistic, deontological ethics. For example, Natural Law and the Roman Catholic Church condemn the use of artificial contraception. Virtue Ethics, however, allows the individual to use their reason and show phronesis in adopting the Golden Mean: they may see that using artificial contraception has benefits in that it stops unwanted pregnancies and the spread of STDs. Because Virtue Ethics does not have fixed rules, it promotes a desire to do good, rather than forcing people to be good. In fact, Aristotle once said: “Nobody would call a man just who does not enjoy acting justly…” Thus Virtue Ethics is effective in the edification of individuals and in making society kinder. In the same vein, since Virtue Ethics is non-normative and allows people to learn for themselves, it allows for the true cultivation of moral character. As John Hick notes: “Virtues are better hard won than ready made.” Moreover, Virtue Ethics focuses on the individual’s growth, and although many think that this can be detrimental to the development of society, Adam Smith writes, in his book The Wealth of Nations, that individual growth and virtuous conduct is beneficial to both the self and society.
Virtue Ethics has often been praised for its consideration of the emotions. While making it a more abstract ethic, this holistic approach leaves room for important human emotions like love and compassion, which normative theories like Kantian ethics may ignore. Martha Nussbaum once said: “Life is not complete if emotions are not cultivated.” However, Virtue Ethics does not fall into the same trap as some more relativist theories like Situation Ethics, which often disregards the use of reason altogether. Rather Aristotle’s theory lets phronesis be the executive in moral decision making, thus setting a balance between Hume’s belief that “Reason is and ought to be the slave of the passions” and Kant’s complete lack of emotion. Akrasia is therefore avoided, but emotions are still considered. This means that human relationships and the functioning of society are also considered.
Nonetheless, Virtue Ethics is still flawed. As Professor Philip Zimbardo points out, virtue cannot hold up under large amounts of pressure. He says that tyrannous dictatorships like Stalin’s only succeed because virtuous people are too afraid to act and they simply “stand by”. Because there are no fixed rules, and because it relies on peoples’ reason and good will, it can often be an unsuccessful ethic. When people are under pressure, they may not use their reason. Virtue Ethics has also been criticised for teaching people to imitate the acts of virtuous people and to follow their role models. Kant says that role models are “fatal to mortality”. In fact the very idea of imitation seems to contradict the theory’s focus on reason: as autonomous individuals humans ought to use their reason to discover virtues, rather than simply copying somebody else and bowing to peer pressure. Jean-Paul Sartre taught that people should decide to be virtuous for its own sake, rather than because somebody else has. One of Virtue Ethics’ major strengths (that it allows for the growth of the individual through his own use of autonomy and reason), then, is contradicted.
Virtue Ethics, despite being a strong ethic for individuals to follow, and despite being an ethic that crosses many religious, political and ideological boundaries, is still a flawed ethic. This is largely on account of its over-reliance on reason and humanity’s good will. If all people could overcome their desires or their akrasia easily, then Virtue Ethics would be extremely effective, and there would be no reason for a fixed law system. But this is not the case. We know that the human condition is naturally a selfish one. Darwin’s On The Origin of Species showed us that life is about the survival of the fittest, and therefore that no ethical theory that relies on good will can ever work. Moreover, Ayn Rand taught people that moral duty was to oneself and oneself only. Thus, in a society of Virtue Ethicists, people would begin to disregard the ethical code and would begin to take advantage of the good will of others by doing non-virtuous acts. Virtue Ethics is a strong theory for the development of individuals, but would only work practically alongside an already fixed set of laws. Otherwise, it would result in an inevitable descent into chaos.