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Introduction to Philosophy
Lecture 18
Ethics #4: Virtue Ethics
By David Kelsey
Aristotle
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Aristotle:
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384-322 B.C.
Born in northern Thrace
His father was a physician
Student of Plato:
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Studied in Plato’s academy from 367
B.C. until the death of Plato in 347
B.C.
Then pursued research in biology
Tutor for Alexander “the Great”
335: founded the Lyceum in Athens
where he remained until 323 B.C.
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Aristotle’s Ethics
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Virtue Ethics:
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For Aristotle, the highest good in all matters of action is happiness.
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But man is most happy when he is man in the best way
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Eudaemonia…
So happiness is achieved when man is functioning well as man.
But man’s function is:
– Activity of soul in conformity with reason, or at least not without reason. (NE 1.7)
But human life is not limited to purely intellectual pursuits. Thus, man’s function is:
– Activity of soul in conformity with excellence; and if there is more than one excellence, it
will be the best and most complete of these. (NE 1.7)
Thus, happiness comes in acting virtuously.
Virtues
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Happiness comes in acting virtuously:
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Virtue:
• A virtue is a kind of excellence of character.
• Virtue and Function: A virtue is “the state of character which makes a man good
and which makes him do his own work well.”
– A virtue is a state in which a man functions properly…
– “every virtue or excellence both brings into good condition the thing of which it is the
excellence and makes the work of that thing be done well…the excellence of the horse
makes a horse both good in itself and good at running and at carrying its rider…” (NE )
More on virtue
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More on virtue:
– It is for our virtues and vices that we are praised and blamed.
– Not capacities we have by nature. We develop virtues and vices through
experience.
• We become just be doing just acts (NE 2.1)
• We can learn the virtues so “there should be some direction from a very early age,
as Plato says, with a view of taking pleasure in, and being pained by, the right
things. (NE 2.3)
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– To have a virtue is to have developed a habit of choosing and behaving in
ways appropriate…
Examples of Virtues
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Some of the virtues include:
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Courage. When one is fearful or confident
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Temperance (regarding indulgence in pain and pleasure)
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Liberality (regarding giving and taking $)
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Pride (regarding one’s honor and dishonor)
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Good tempered (with regard to anger).
The Doctrine
of the mean
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Excess and Defect: It is in the nature of things to be destroyed by excess or defect.
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“Both excessive and defective exercise destroys the strength, and similarly drink or food which is
above or below a certain amount destroys the health, while that which is proportionate both produces
and increases and preserves it. So too is it, then, in the case of temperance and courage and the
other virtues. The man who runs away from everything in fear, and faces up to nothing, becomes a
coward; the man who is absolutely fearless, and will walk into anything, becomes rash. It is the same
with the man who gets enjoyment from all the pleasures, abstaining from none: he is immoderate;
whereas he who avoids all pleasures, like a boor, is a man of no sensitivity…” (NE 2.2)
Intermediate: Every virtue is an intermediate between some excess and defect.
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So acting virtuously is acting according to the mean. Never too much excess, nor too much defect
with regard to a state of character.
“an intermediate between excess and defect…that which is equidistant from each of the
extremes…neither too much nor too little.”
“For instance, if ten is many and two is few, six is the intermediate…” ()
The mean is relative
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Relative: But the mean isn’t always the same for everyone. The mean is always relative to
the individual and her circumstances.
– For “if ten pounds are too much for a particular person to eat and two too little, it does
not follow that the trainer will order six pounds; for this is also perhaps too much for the
person who is to take it, or too little…” ()
– “Thus a master of any art avoids excess and defect, but seeks the intermediate and
chooses this--the intermediate not in the object but relatively to us.
– “In feeling fear, confidence, desire, anger, pity, and in general pleasure and pain, one
can feel too much or too little; and both extremes are wrong. The mean and good is
feeling at the right time, about the right things, in relation to the right people, and for the
right reason…” (NE 2.6)
– The mean is relative to the circumstances…
The mean is relative
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So the mean is relative to the individual and her circumstances.
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For example, bravery lies on a mean between extremes of fear and confidence.
Too much fear and not enough confidence  cowards.
Too much confidence and too little fear  reckless.
But the brave act doesn’t lie precisely in the middle of extremes. This depends on the
circumstances.
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For example:
– I walk upon someone getting mugged
– I have no training in self defense
– A navy seal walks upon someone getting mugged
The Doctrine of the Mean:
Examples
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So every virtue is the mean between some excess and some defect. For
example:
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Anger:
• You can have too much anger (wrathfulness) or too little (subservience).
• Virtuous action lies between the extremes, depends on circumstances…
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Temperance the mean between self indulgence and insensibleness (with respect to
divulging in pains and pleasures).
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Liberality the mean between prodigal-ness and mean-ness (with respect to giving and
taking $).
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Truthfulness: the mean between boastfulness and mock-modesty (with respect to
truth)
Virtue Ethics: a principle for action
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We can think of Virtue Ethics as offering us a principle for action:
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A Principle for Action: some action X is the right thing to do if and only if X is what a
virtuous person would do in those circumstances.
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A virtuous person lives by or according to the virtues.
But what would a virtuous person do?
You must try to think like Jesus would …
So you might just ask a virtuous person…
A second possible principle for action: the doctrine of the mean
The virtuous agent
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The Virtuous agent: For Aristotle, being a virtuous agent isn’t just doing the
virtuous thing.
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To be just it isn’t sufficient to just act justly.
– Acting for the sake of virtue: one must get pleasure in acting justly for it to count
as a just act at all.
• “…the man who does not rejoice in noble actions is not even good; since no one
would call a man just who did not enjoy acting justly, nor any man liberal who did
not enjoy liberal actions…If this is so, virtuous actions must be in themselves
pleasant…” ()
The second requirement
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Another requirement: And being a virtuous agent is more than merely doing the virtuous
thing and gaining pleasure in her doing the virtuous thing.
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Resisting the appetitive soul: to be virtuous, one’s appetitive soul, that part of the soul
which brings about desires and impulses that pull one away from acting rationally, mustn't
lead one away from doing the virtuous thing.
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“For we praise the rational principle of the continent man and of the incontinent, and the part of their
soul that has such a principle, since it urges them aright and towards the best objects; but there is
found in them also another element naturally opposed to the rational principle, which fights against
and resists that principle.” ()
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The virtuous agent is neither continent nor incontinent.
– The continent man: does the virtuous thing, although he had some impulse or desire
to do otherwise.
– The incontinent man: doesn’t do the virtuous thing just because he follows the
appetitive soul
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Desiring virtue: the virtuous agent desires only to perform the virtuous act
Education &
Training
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Training & Education: To be a virtuous agent takes training and education.
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Experience: Being virtuous takes experience in the real world. Putting oneself
in situations where she learns to act virtuously.
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“Hence we ought to be brought up in a particular way from our very youth, as Plato
says, so as both to delight in and to be pained by the things that we ought; for this is
the right education.” ()
“…by doing the acts that we do in our transactions with other men we become just or
unjust, and by doing the acts that we do in the presence of danger, and being
habituated to feel fear or confidence, we become brave or cowardly.” ()
Habit: Being virtuous is acting virtuously out of habit.
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Acting virtuously without effort…
Objections to Virtue Ethics
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First objection:
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Virtue ethics is too vague and unclear to be action guiding.
Virtue ethics tells us to do whatever the virtuous agent would do.
But how are we supposed to understand what a virtuous agent would do if we aren’t
ourselves virtuous agents?
The response:
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Virtue ethics can offer more clear advice by stating rules that employ the virtue and
vice terms.
The Second objection:
Demandingness
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The second objection:
– The demands that virtue ethics makes are too high:
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To be truly virtuous one must
• have the right training, education and knowledge &
• he must choose the virtuous action, for its own sake &
• he must proceed from a firm and unchangeable character (his emotions, temperament and
conviction must all be to act virtuously without thought of desire or impulse.)
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But, the objection goes:
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no one can live up to these expectations, no one!
The response:
– We could weaken virtue ethics.
The third objection
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The third objection:
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Maybe the mean is not always best.
Surely we are justified in going to extremes in some cases and perhaps temperance
should not be our guiding principle if we want to lead a rich life overall.
A painter, for example, might be justified in going to extremes in his or her passion for
art, as Van Gogh did.
Possible replies:
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The mean is relative to the individual so maybe the mean for Van Gogh is just the
extreme.
Will this work though?
Can the mean be an extreme?
The final objection
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The final objection: Conflicting virtues:
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Won’t there be cases, such as moral dilemmas, in which the requirements of different virtues conflict
because they point in opposing directions?
• Charity vs. justice
• Honesty vs. compassion
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So what do we do when virtues conflict?
The response:
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Such conflicts will always be merely apparent ones.