Virtue Ethics: Aristotle's Game
This article is a concise summary of virtue ethics and its main points.
Virtue Ethics: Aristotle's Game
The philosophy of virtue ethics, while brought to life by Plato in The Republic, was brought to the main-stage of practical thought by Aristotle. While there have been many attempts to improve upon or modify what has already been laid out for us by Aristotle, no one has been able to replace his theory with his/her own. Every theory of virtue derived since his time is merely a branch extending from, or an obvious mutation of, Aristotelian ethics. So for all intents and purposes, I shall focus on the fundamentals of Aristotelian ethics, as well as the arduous road one must take to become a true master of virtue.
Virtue ethics is based on the idea that personal character takes precedence over the resulting consequences, as with consequentialism, and the initial intentions, as with deontology. One who is virtuous will fare better when faced with moral decisions as opposed to one following deontology or consequentialism, as the former relies on rules that one must follow in pursuit of an action while the latter requires one to consider the potential outcomes, and neither allow for a “bending” of the rules. Aristotle’s work entitled Nicomachean Ethics lays down the foundation of his view on virtues.
What is virtue? Virtue is an individual characteristic that makes one morally good. Aristotle viewed the virtues as being between two polar opposites, or vices, which was called “The Golden Mean”. Vices were the moral opposite of virtues. He attributed virtue to function; that people had a function to achieve eudaimonia. Eudaimonia is otherwise known as “happiness”, the ultimate goal of ethics; however, he does not believe it can be achieved by virtue alone; some other outside factors must also be present. Eudaimonia can be achieved through a process called phronesis, which is better known as “practical wisdom.” Aristotle splits virtues into two main parts, intellectual virtues and moral virtues.
There are nine intellectual virtues, five of which Aristotle recognized as more important than the other four, and subsequently divided them into three separate categories. The theoretical includes Sophia, Episteme, and Nous. The practical includes Phronesis. The productive includes Techne. The remaining four are Euboulia, Sunesis, Gnomê, and Deinotes. He identified eight moral virtues: Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, Courage, Liberality, Magnificence, Magnanimity, and Temperance.
Aristotle claimed that merely knowing the virtues did not make one good, rather the continued practice of them is what determined the moral character of a person. Aristotle notes the differences between being truly virtuous, and what he calls “continent.” This distinction represents the varying degrees in which one might be virtuous and/or practice the virtues. As virtue is concerned with a state of being, there are many factors involved that will determine whether or not a person is truly virtuous.
The truly virtuous shall do what must be done without internal conflict, whereas the continent must over an inner desire to act out of accordance with what is required. There is also the concept of incontinence, which means that one really wants to act in accordance with the virtues; however, due to some emotional struggle, they fail to do so. The argument for them is not that they are immoral; they are only misguided. To make sense of the confusion, the essence of phronesis is something that is learned over time and through experience. That is why it is better known as “practical wisdom.” One cannot be born truly virtuous, and this is by no fault of his/her own.
The overall idea is that to be a truly virtuous person, one must act according to the virtues and be internally virtuous, while learning through experience throughout one’s life. The main goal is eudaimonia, and it being accomplished is best achieved by living the life of a philosopher. The act of living virtuously will lead to moral decision making in and of itself, and will lead to eudaimonia.