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  1. An encyclopedia of philosophy articles written by professional philosophers.
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This focus on our dispositions and our character, rather than our actions in isolation, is what earns Aristotelian Virtue Ethics the label of being an agentcentred moral theory rather than an act-centred moral theory. Act-centred moral theories may be teleological or deontological, absolutist or relativist, but they share a common worldview in that particular actions are bearers of moral value — either being right or wrong. When explaining and evaluating Aristotelian Virtue Ethics you must keep in mind this focus on character rather than specific comments on the morality of actions.

Virtues are those particular dispositions that are appropriately related to the situation and, to link back to our function, encourage actions that are in accordance with reason. Again, a more concrete example will make clear how Aristotle identifies virtues in practice. For example, I may become angry when my step-son thoughtlessly eats through the remaining crisps without saving any for others, or he may feel anger when he has to wait an extra minute or two to be picked up at work because his stepfather is juggling twenty-six different tasks and momentarily loses track of time how totally unfair of him….

The correct response to a feeling is described as acting on the basis of the Golden Mean , a response that is neither excessive nor deficient. The table below makes this more apparent. However, the correct response to anger — the Golden Mean between two extremes — is patience, rather than a lack of spirit or irascibility. Virtues are not feelings, but characteristic dispositional responses that, when viewed holistically, define our characters and who we are. If someone puts their life on the line, when unarmed, in an attempt to stop a would-be terrorist attack, then their action may be rash rather than courageous.

However, if armed with a heavy, blunt instrument their life-risking action may be courageously virtuous rather than rash. The Golden Mean is not to be understood as suggesting that we always act somewhere between complete inaction and breathless exuberance, but as suggesting that we act between the vices of excess and deficiency; such action may well involve extreme courage or exceptional patience. He suggests the following examples. A person does not cease to have a witty disposition in virtue of a single joke that might err on the side of buffoonery, or cease to be generous because they fail to donate to charity on one occasion.

If we act in accordance with reason and fulfil our function as human beings, our behaviour will generally reflect our virtuous personality traits and dispositions. Making progress in any endeavour is always a journey that requires both effort and practice over time. Aristotle holds that the same is true for human beings attempting to develop their virtuous character traits in attempt to live the good life.

You may feel yourself coming to an Aristotelian Virtue Ethical view after reading this chapter and therefore be moved to become wittier, more courageous and more generous but you cannot simply acquire these traits by decision; rather, you must live these traits in order to develop them. Aristotle compares the development of the skill of virtue to the development of other skills. Building requires practical skill and not merely intellectual knowledge and the same applies to developing virtuous character traits.

Ethical characters are developed by practical learning and habitual action and not merely by intellectual teaching. A skilled builder will not need abstract reflection when it comes to knowing how to build a wall properly, and nor will a skilled cyclist need abstract reflection on how to balance his speed correctly as he goes around a corner.

This is not to say that builders, cyclists and virtuous people will not sometimes need to reflect specifically on what to do in abnormal or difficult situations e. Putting up a single bookshelf does not make you a skilled builder any more than a single act of courage makes you a courageous and virtuous person. It is the repetition of skill that determines your status and the development of virtuous characters requires a lifetime of work rather than a single week at a Virtue Ethics Bootcamp.

Aristotle suggests that the aim of an action will be made clear by the relevant virtuous characteristic as revealed by the Golden Mean; for example, our aim in a situation may be to respond courageously or generously. For the Aristotelian, practical wisdom may actually be the most important virtuous disposition or character trait to develop as without the skill of practical wisdom it may be difficult to actually practice actions that are witty rather than boorish, or courageous rather than cowardly.

Imagine trying to be a philosopher without an acute sense of logical reasoning; you would struggle because this seems to be a foundational good on which other philosophical skills rely. So too it may be with the virtues, practical wisdom supports our instinctive knowledge of how to respond virtuously to various feelings, emotions and situations.

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A child, for example, will most certainly need to learn how to be virtuous by following examples of others. If we are unsure in our own ability to discern what a courageous response in a given situation is, then we may be guided by the behaviour of Socrates, Jesus, Gandhi, Mandela or King, as examples.

If we learn from the wisdom and virtue of others, then just as a building apprentice learns from a master so too virtue apprentices can learn from those more skilled than they in practising virtue. Hopefully, such virtue apprentices will eventually reach a point where they can stand on their own two feet, with their personally developed sense of practical wisdom.

We can separate actions into two obvious categories:. These distinctions matter in ethics because a person might be held to be morally responsible for their voluntary actions but not for their involuntary actions. According to Aristotle, an action is voluntary unless it is affected by force or ignorance , as understood in the following ways.

Out of the blue, his passenger grabs his hand and forces him to turn the steering wheel, sending the car into oncoming traffic. Without this physical force, Reuben would not have turned the wheel and he very much regrets the damage that is caused. David is told that if he does not open the safe then he will be killed. On this basis, David is not morally responsible in any way for the theft.

However, in the days before the surprise concert his friend, unbeknown to Rhys, develops an intense and very personal dislike for Manilow. In this situation, Aristotle would accept that Rhys acted involuntarily when causing offence because he was unaware of the changed circumstances; he acted from ignorance when performing the song rather than from malice.

Without this epistemic or knowledge-related barrier, Rhys would not have acted as he did and he very much regrets the distress caused. For these reasons, Rhys bears no moral responsibility for the upset resulting from his song choice. However, for Aristotle this would not mean that his action was involuntary because Laurence acts in ignorance rather than from ignorance due to an external epistemic or knowledge-based barrier.

Laurence does not, therefore, escape moral responsibility as a result of his self-created ignorance. The action cannot be voluntary as Rhys acted from ignorance, but it is not obviously involuntary as, without a sense of regret, it may have been that Rhys would have performed the action even if he knew what was going to happen. The summary, however, is refreshingly simple. If an action is voluntary, then it is completed free from force and ignorance and we can hold the actor morally responsible.

An encyclopedia of philosophy articles written by professional philosophers.

However, if the action is involuntary then the actor is not morally responsible as they act on the basis of force or from ignorance. Wanting to know what to do you may consult the guidance offered by Utilitarianism or Kantian Ethics and discover that various specific actions you could undertake are morally right or morally wrong. Moving to seek the advice of Aristotelian Virtue Ethics, you may find cold comfort from suggestions that you act generously, patiently and modestly whilst avoiding self-serving flattery and envy.

Rather than knowing how to live in general, you may seek knowledge of what to actually do in this case. Virtue Ethics may therefore be accused of being a theory, not of helpful moral guidance, but of unhelpful and nonspecific moral platitudes. Who are the virtuous agents [that we should look to for guidance]? Whether or not you believe that this level of guidance is suitable for a normative moral theory is a judgment that you should make yourself and then defend. Courageous behaviour may, in certain cases, mean a lack of friendliness; generosity may threaten modesty. A Formula One car, for example, will be good when it has both raw speed and delicate handling and it is up to the skilled engineer to steer a path between these two virtues.

So too a person with practical wisdom can steer a path between apparently clashing virtues in any given situation. Virtue ethicists have no interest in the creation of a codified moral rule book covering all situations and instead put the onus on the skill of the virtuous person when deciding how to act. Again, whether this is a strength or weakness is for you to decide and defend. According to Aristotle, the following statements seem to be correct:.

An act is virtuous if it is an act that a virtuous person would commit in that circumstance. A person is virtuous when they act in virtuous ways. If virtuous actions are understood in terms of virtuous people, but virtuous people are understood in terms of virtuous actions, then we have unhelpfully circular reasoning. Great piano playing is what great pianists do. It is not the case that whatever a great pianist plays will be great, but rather that great pianists have the skills to make great music.

So too it is with virtues, for virtuous people are not virtuous just because of their actual actions but because of who they are and how their actions are motivated. It is their skills and character traits that mean that, in practice, they provide a clear guide as to which actions are properly aligned with virtues.

Two Views of Virtue

Thus, if we wish to decide whether or not an act is virtuous we can assess what a virtuous person would do in that circumstance, but this does not mean that what is virtuous is determined by the actions of a specifically virtuous individual. The issue is whether or not a person, with virtuous characteristics in the abstract, would actually carry that action out. Virtuous people are living and breathing concrete guides, helping us to understand the actions associated with abstract virtuous character dispositions. A challenge to this view may be based on the fact that certain dispositions may seem to be virtuous but may not actually seem to contribute to our flourishing or securing the good life.

Shelley is often described as generous to a fault and regularly dedicates large amounts of her time to helping others to solve problems at considerable cost, in terms of both time and effort, to herself. Working beyond the limits that can reasonably be expected of her, we may wish to describe Shelley as virtuous given her generous personality. However, by working herself so hard for others, we may wonder if Shelley is unduly limiting her own ability to flourish. We may say that Shelley has either succumbed to a vice of excess and is profligate with her time rather than generous, or we may accept that she is generous rather than profligate and accept the uncomfortable conclusion and say that this virtuous character trait is helping her to flourish.

Moral relativism - Wikipedia

This second claim may seem more plausible if we ruled out a description of Shelley wasting her time. You should consider your own possible cases if you seek to support this general objection. After all, a virtuous person will be charitable and friendly etc. Hedonism which claims that pleasure is the only source of well-being — see Chapter 1 , as a rival theory attempting to outline what is required for well-being, might be thought to fail because it downplays the importance of acting in accordance with reason, so hedonists do not therefore live according to their telos or true function.

On the contrary, the non-virtuous person will have a psychology in conflict between their rational and non-rational elements. In considering who has the better life from their own individual perspectives — the happy Hedonist or the Aristotelian virtuous person — you should again form your own reasoned judgment. However, for Aristotle, being virtuous is necessary for the achievement of eudaimonia ; without the development of virtues it is impossible for a person to flourish even if they avoid poverty, disease, loneliness etc.

Whether this, in itself, is a virtue or a vice is an issue for your own judgment. The lack of a codified and fixed moral rule book is something many view as a flaw, while others perceive it as the key strength of the theory. Regardless, there is little doubt that Aristotelian Virtue Ethics offers a distinct normative moral picture and that it is a theory worthy of your reflections.

Misunderstanding the function of a human being eudaimonia. Incorrect differentiation between voluntary, involuntary and nonvoluntary actions.

Claiming that Virtue Ethics offers no guidance whatsoever in moral situations. Claiming that Virtue Ethics is uninterested in actions. The relativists however, could respond that truth is relative to a group conceptual scheme, framework and they take speakers to be aiming a truth relative to the scheme that they and their interlocutors are presumed to share.

Editorial Reviews

The difficulty with this approach is that it seems to make communication across frameworks impossible. Such a response, however, will be answerable to the charge of incoherence raised by Donald Davidson against both alethic and conceptual relativism. According to Davidson, the principle of charity—the assumption that other speakers by and large speak truly by our lights —is a pre-requisite of all interpretation. He takes this to imply that there could not be languages or conceptual schemes that we cannot in principle understand and interpret, in other words, if a system of signs L is not recognizable as a language by us then L is not a language.