Aristotelian Virtue Ethics

Aristotelian Virtue Ethics: Key Concepts

  • Eudaimonia: Derived from Greek meaning ‘flourishing’, Aristotle used this term to refer to ultimate human goal or the ‘highest good’. It is often translated as ‘happiness’ in a broad sense.
  • Virtue (Arete): The character traits that enable us to function well as humans and thus achieve eudaimonia. Virtues are habits of behaviour that are developed through practice.
  • Doctrine of the Mean: Aristotle’s approach to finding the balance between extremes in order to determine virtuous behaviour. Every virtue is a mean between two vices, one of excess and one of deficiency.
  • Phronesis (Practical Wisdom): The intellectual virtue needed to discern how best to act virtuously.

Understanding Aristotelian Virtue Ethics

  • Virtue Ethics places focus on the character of the moral agent rather than the act itself (deontology) or the consequences of the act (consequentialism).
  • Virtue ethics is agent-centred rather than action-centred. The ethical life is more about the person and their character than the actions they perform.
  • Aristotle proposed that human beings have a purpose (telos) which is to achieve eudaimonia.
  • Virtues are cultivated through habituation. In other words, by repeatedly performing virtuous actions, we become virtuous.

Criticisms of Aristotelian Virtue Ethics

  • One key criticism is that Virtue Ethics is too vague and does not provide clear guidance on what actions should be taken in moral dilemmas.
  • There are also issues relating to cultural relativism, as what is seen as a virtue in one culture might not be seen as such in another.
  • Some might argue that the idea of a fixed human nature or telos is outdated and does not align with modern understandings of psychology and sociology.

Responses to the Criticisms

  • In response to the criticism of vagueness, virtue ethicists argue that ethics requires a nuanced approach that takes into account the specific contexts and characters involved rather than prescribing a ‘one-size-fits-all’ rule.
  • To the critique of cultural relativism, virtue ethicists may respond that while specific virtues might vary, the underlying values, such as respect, courage or kindness, can be universally applicable.
  • As for the criticism of a fixed human nature, virtue ethicists might argue that while the specifics of human nature may evolve, the basic capacity for rationality and social interaction remains a cornerstone of humanity, which their theory accounts for.