Defense of Aristotles Virtue Ethics

Moral theories are concerned with the nature of human actions particularly the rightness or wrongness of an act. It involves discussions regarding responsibility, character, and the ultimate end of man. Over the years, several theories have merged yet three remain dominant among the others which include deontology, utilitarianism and Aristotles virtue ethics. Among the three, Aristotles virtue ethics reigns supreme based on the following reasons (1) It centers on man as the doer of the act and the agent responsible for his actions. (2) It does not rigid rules of principles that dictate how an individual should act rather it is flexible to the factors which may influence ones decision making process and (3) It aims to provide guidelines on how to attain happiness, contentment and fulfillment which are all necessary in achieving a good life. In this paper, I will provide justification for these three reasons mentioned above and defend it against the criticisms of those who adhere to other moral theories.

Greek culture considers man as the center of the universe where everything revolves around him. This is reflected in their epics, poetry, sculptures, theatrical presentation and even in their political affairs. Never in any other ancient civilization can we see a high regard to human nature but in Greek society.  In this period of European history, we first realized the birth of humanism which is an intellectual principle that meant the process of educating man into his true form (Chambliss 10).  According to Aristotle, one of the main distinctions of man over other creatures is his rational ability. We are the only being who is capable of contemplating our actions and such contemplations will lead us to the realization of the ultimate function of man. He states this in the Nicomachean Ethics,

If ... we state the function of man to be a certain kind of life, and this to be an activity or actions of the soul implying a rational principle, and the function of a good man to be the good and noble performance of these, and if any action is well performed when it is performed in accordance with the appropriate excellence ... human good turns out to be activity of the soul in accordance with virtue, and if there are more than one virtue, in accordance with the best and most complete. (Book I)
The Aristotelian man is an individual who develops an appropriate inner being that is able to recognize the proper virtue which should be applied on particular incidents. It is ultimately grounded on rational principles but the acquisition of such a character is not done overnight. It is a product of habit which starts at a very early age with the aid of society, primarily the government.

Education is the art of readying a man to become complete (Weiss 116). Such is the quest of virtue ethics. It is the education of man so he may acquire all the necessary virtues which will aid him in making rational decisions in life. It focuses on the character development of an individual rather than the immediate effects of his actions. For what is vital to Aristotle is the completion of an individual and full realization of his being. In as much as others consider this as an impossible feat, it is something that is realizable in the eyes of Aristotle for only in the attainment of this completion can man make right choices. This character based analysis of actions has been criticized by philosophers. They claim that this makes it difficult to judge the wrongness of an act because there is no general principle that will govern it. Character alone becomes the sole basis of rightness or wrongness. For them, it only states that a virtuous person will never succumb to corruption, deception or will never allow his other faculties to be used as a tool in promoting injustice or harm to anyone. It focuses on the individuals inner perspective regarding the possible consequences of his acts. But such a feat is treacherous because it is prone to personal preferences.

In response to this I remind us not to forget the fact that before anyone can ever make virtuous actions he must first develop and instill these virtues within him self. Character development is vital. This is an internal battle which he must win over first and foremost. He restrains within himself desires that are unhealthy towards the development of the self. He first conquers the demons within himself and does so through habit. In doing so, the individual who makes the decisions is not ordinary individual who can easily be swayed by personal whims and desires. He has been trained to act always in reference to the common good. Thus wrong doings does not fully become the fault of the individual but a flaw in his character which can further be remedied through education and training.

The self-centeredness nature of virtue ethics is not a weakness on its part but an additional empowerment. We place all the responsibilities on the shoulders of the agent who does the act. No other individual can take the blame for his misdoings. He alone is the captain of his fate. He will face the consequences of his actions. Those who criticize the self-centeredness nature of virtue ethics fails to distinguish the role or virtues in the decision making process. Person with virtue will never act against the common good but those who lack these virtues will certainly fall prey to the evils in society.

Further criticisms of virtue ethics consider it lacking of strict guiding principles which are especially present in Kants Categorical Imperative and Mills Utilitarianism. One can easily judge the action of an individual as right or wrong by following particular maxims and principles which these philosophers presuppose to exist. But such principles are not proven to be factual in the first place nor can it be universalized as Kant would want us to believe. The only universalizable principle is the Golden Rule. But it does not act as a strict guiding principle rather it is open to being flexible and situation sensitive. It is the nature of man to weigh the consequences of his actions. We are not automatons who follow strict moral codes. We are not programmed in that manner but we are programmed to develop are rational skill so we can make just decisions. Virtue ethics in full likelihood only mirrors the true nature of man. We are not robots but beings endowed with free will which allows us to exercise the power of choice. We are fooling ourselves if we believe that moral questions can be answered just like a mathematical question. There is no accurate formula within our neurons who can act in that manner because the circumstances that we face everyday vary from one person to another. There may indeed be similarities in some occasions in cases where judges use the power of precedents, but there are no two cases that are truly alike in all aspects. But does it make virtue ethics not action guiding Certainly not The more it becomes an action guiding theory because it values formation of character of an individual and acquisition of virtues. These virtues will serve as the individuals conscience in judging right or wrong actions.

Virtue ethics is not only character based but also action based. Virtue is a state of character concerned with choice. (Book II-6). Some philosophers take virtue ethics only in relation to it being character based when in fact it isnt. Virtue ethics entails an activity or a particular movement in character. It is the process of finding the mean between two extremes and such an activity is not an easy task. He further states,

For in everything it is no easy task to find the middle, e.g. to find the middle of a circle is not for every one but for him who knows so, too, anyone can get angry--that is easy--or give or spend money but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for every one, nor is it easy it is for this reason that goodness is both rare and laudable and noble. ( Book II-9).

This is the task of moral theories which makes it a difficult endeavor to take. Those who do find satisfaction after realizing the benefits it brings.

The ultimate end of virtue ethics is human flourishing and well being. Everything that man does is pointed towards that direction. Civilization is fashioned in like manner to serve that purpose. Science is pursued because it aims in making our lives better. Laws are created and enacted so people may live harmoniously with one another.  The same is true with virtue ethics. The good life for human is a life governed by virtues because the full realization of mans function will lead him to the understanding that only in the use of his rational faculty can he find happiness, contentment and fulfillment. Thus happiness is defined by Aristotle as, not god-sent but comes as a result of virtue and some process of learning or training, to be among the most godlike things for that which is the prize and end of virtue seems to be the best thing in the world, and something godlike and blessed.

Happiness is what man seeks for. It is an elusive gem which is tracked down in history and is still being followed by modern man. Unfortunately only a few acquires it because most men look very far when it is not far from him. Happiness is contained within man. Know thyself as the oracle will say to you and in doing so you will find satisfaction in life. This is the offer of virtue ethics to society. It is not complex and may be very simple for some yet this is reality laid down in words.

Virtue ethics emphasizes on the character of the agent and in doing so shifts the basis of moral judgment from actions to the critical thinking skills of an individual. It works on the following  key concepts, arte (excellence or virtue), phronesis (practical or moral wisdom) and eudaimonia (flourishing). In as much as deontology and consequentialism stand in opposition with it based on several grounds, they support its claim one way or another.  Thus virtue ethics becomes a collection of normative ethics. It is the unity of all moral theories since all moral theories centers on human nature and the limitations of man. The link which connects all moral theories together is the influence of intrinsic virtues like courage, temperance, justice and wisdom to an individuals act.

Although virtue ethics is mainly associated with Aristotle, it cannot fully be attributed to him alone. One may say that comes from a history of Greek though which started from Socrates and passed on to Plato which eventually reached Aristotle. It acts as a shield of the philosopher class which Plato supports as the worthy rulers of Athenian society from possible corruption. Fortunately, it has been discovered by the philosophers of the Enlightenment period  and further accepted and analyzed by contemporary philosophers like Philippa Foot, Anscombe and McIntyre.

Nevertheless, the focus on mans character is not isolated in western tradition. Confucius, in the East, has also embarked on a similar journey which the ancient Greek philosophers took. He also incorporated individual virtues like loyalty and filial piety with the character of a noble gentleman. Both thinkers may have spoken of virtues in a different term yet they share the same view that whatever is inside the soul of an individual will be reflected in his actions. Similarly, the Bible states of the same philosophy,

The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks.

Virtue ethics is used in almost all civilized culture and is widely accepted. Why should we not It has a number of applications in almost all fields of discipline which includes, bioethics, political affairs and even in the field of education. Presently, it has been incorporated into several international codes. Its universal effect in all culture proves its strength and its flexibility should never be seen as its deficiency.


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