What is Virtue Ethics?

Good afternoon everyone,

I hope that you’re all keeping well 🙂

Over the last couple of months, we’ve started to explore the world of Philosophy, and the role that ethics plays in our lives. We’ve touched on Utilitarianism & Consequentialism already, but now it’s time to venture into one of my favourite ethical theories – Virtue Ethics!

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Virtue Ethics, sometimes referred to as Aristotelian Virtue Ethics, is an approach to normative ethics commonly believed to have been founded by Aristotle and other Greek Philosophers. However, some believe it originated in China, by Eastern Philosophers Socrates and Mencius.

Greek Philosopher Aristotle

Virtue Ethics focuses on the notion that ‘virtuous people’ will undertake morally correct actions. Before we delve further into this theory, we must first define what we mean by the term ‘virtues’, as they are at the forefront of Virtue Ethics.

Philosopher Christine Swanton defines virtues as “a good quality of character, more specifically a disposition to respond to or acknowledge, items within its field or fields in an excellent or good enough way.” From this definition, we can see that virtues are traits such as wisdom, kindness, loyalty and compassion – commonly associated with somebody becoming a benevolent (or virtuous) character.

A key concept of Aristotelian Virtue Ethics is that of ‘eudaimonia’, which some would define as the condition of human flourishing or of living well. Aristotle saw eudaimonia as the ultimate ‘telos’ (or goal) of human lives, which we should all aspire to do. He saw traits such as patience, generosity & honesty as virtues, which all contributed to a person’s flourishing.

Aristotelian Virtue Ethics also highlights the importance of community & friendship among people. Aristotle believed that a truly virtuous person wanted to both contribute to and benefit from society. From this, we can see that the concept of ‘eudaimonia’ isn’t solely tied to a singular person flourishing, but it can be more so related to societal flourishing as a whole.

When it comes to how you should act under Virtue Ethics, this is where the theory sometimes comes into question…

Historically, followers of the Aristotelian School of Thought, would tell you that a virtuous person is one who will undertake morally virtuous actions, but what does this mean? Does this mean that a morally virtuous person will always be benevolent in everything that they do? Surely this belief is rooted in fiction? I mean, in a world where life is as complicated as it is, it’s completely natural for people to sometimes make the wrong move and mess up, it’s all a part of the parcel of growth and being a person.

One of the most notable thoughts that comes to mind when taking a Virtue Ethics perspective, is to think – what would a virtuous person do?

Personally, I like to view it all a tad differently. I tend to take the viewpoint of someone focused on the concept of ‘eudaimonia’, as we touched upon earlier. When considering which action to take, I like to take the Aristotelian angle of what would lead to maximum human flourishing? What action displays the characteristics of what we would typically describe as a benevolent or ‘good’ person?

While that may not sound like the most specific of foundations on which to base how you make a decision, it can open up the potential for a load of different discussions and debates. Virtue Ethics, in my opinion, isn’t designed to give you a concrete set of instructions/guidelines as to how to live your life – it’s more so there as a reflection of the collation of your chosen actions, and the kind of person that you are.

Think of Virtue Ethics as being concerned with who you are as a person, your victories and failures, your positives and shortcomings, your strengths and weaknesses, the whole passage.

I’m not going to lie, Virtue Ethics is one of my favourite ethical theories, there are just so many different viewpoints and avenues that you can explore with it. The next time you encounter a problem, why don’t you stop for a second and think, which of these options is going to lead to the greatest overall flourishing? It could open up some really cool thoughts 🙂

So, there we have it, this has been a summary of the ethical theory of ‘Virtue Ethics’, I hope you’ve enjoyed the blog! 🙂

Be sure to let me know your thoughts & opinions, either in the comments below or through our Facebook page!

Thanks for reading & I hope you have a lovely day!

Sweeney’s Blogs

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James Sweeney

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