The virtue theory derives from Aristotle who thought that we as human beings should ask the question ‘How should I live?’ rather than the dominant question at the foundation of deontological ethical theories, ‘What should I do?’ Aristotle maintained that the ultimate ‘telos’ (ultimate purpose) for human beings is to develop the characteristics of a virtuous person. These virtues have to be cultivated and the main goal is to require the ‘Golden mean’. This is the virtue that lies in-between the vice of deficiency and the vice of excess. For example for the virtue of ‘courage’ there could be a deficiency of ‘cowardice’ and an excess of ‘rashness’. When we have met all the needs of this theory we are essentially a ‘good’ person, we can cope with moral dilemmas without a set of rules, by using our own virtuous judgements to determine our actions.
There are many strengths attached to the virtue theory, the main appeal is that it steers away from the deontological theory which has absolute moral rules which can cause extreme problems. It helps us have a sense of our own innate morals and use our own judgments on a situation which avoids the problem of having conflict between personal feelings and what the theory tells us to do. Another advantage is that it can be accommodated by both religious and secular ethics. Jesus can be seen as the ultimate virtuous person for whom we should aspire to, or the inspiration can come from peers. It does not set unrealistic goals and is pretty simple in essence. The theory claims to be universal however one problem with this is that virtues may differ through different cultures, this is known as cultural relativism and asks how we can provide universal answers to who we ought to be when different cultures value different traits.
Another problem with the theory is how to distinguish which virtues are most valuable and therefore the virtues which must be cultivated, someone who is considered as a virtuous role model for one person, may not be desirable for another. Aristotle’s ‘means’ are not as easy to apply to all traits as courage which has clear deficiency and excess, therefore making the golden mean hard to identify. Overall the theory does come with problems however does go some way to providing a theory for ethical decision making. One thing it excels in is not condoning any outrageously immoral acts which most deontological theories fail to do.
Explain the concept of miracles (20 marks)
The general definition of a miracle is an act of God that cannot be explained in any other way. However philosophers have re-defined this standard meaning to help characterise a miraculous event. Thomas Aquinas placed miracles into three categories. The first is most adjacent to the standard definition; events done by God which nature could never re-create for example Joshua 10:13 where ‘the sun stopped in mid-heaven and did not hurry to set for about a whole day’. Aquinas’ second category is events performed by God which nature could do, but not in the same way. An example of this would be Matthew 21:19 where Jesus withers a fig tree by words alone. The third category is events done by God which nature could do but God does instead, for example the weather.
Richard Swinburne, a believer in miracles thinks that because the laws of nature are predictable, anything which occurs outside of these laws can be labelled a miracle. This goes some way to defining the meaning of the concept of miracles and also gives us a reason to believe in them, as they are uncommon so we know that it won’t happen to everyone, and we probably will not experience one ourselves but this won’t mean they don’t exist.
Brian Davies disagrees with this notion and thinks miracles are impressive occurrences but do not necessarily break the laws of nature; they are more ‘co-incidences’. An example from the Bible is the feeding of the five thousand which is usually viewed as breaking the laws of nature, however could be explained as people being too greedy to admit to having food at first but when the boy gives up his they feel guilty and put their food in the basket as it is passed around. Davies is being realistic by saying miracles (especially Biblical events) are not what they appear to be but there is still some worth in them as they are impressive, and this gives us a reason to believe in them as they are perhaps more likely and less ‘magical’ than sometimes portrayed, which wouldn’t appeal to cynical scientific people.
RF Holland thinks that miracles depend upon perspective, and that the miraculous worth of an event will vary according to who is viewing it (and its consequences). This view of perspectives gives an explanation to miracles; they exist as long as people hold it in their minds that they exist.
David Hume is a big critic of miracles. For him a miracle is not simply an extraordinary event but one which breaks the laws of nature, and as he believes we never see the laws of nature being broken it is entirely unreasonable to believe in miracles. He continues to say that because miracles are such improbable events they need strong evidence from witnesses.
He claims that witnesses to miracles appear to be unreliable; for example uneducated, impressionable people and we should not trust them. However Swinburne counters this by asking why we think the worst in people and believes it is in their own interest to tell the truth. Another argument against Hume is that although things may seem unalterable they may have just understood them incorrectly for example thinking the world was flat instead of round.