The Aristotles Teachings Virtue Essay Sample

The Aristotles Teachings Virtue Pages
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Aristotelian Virtue ethics is the most developed of the classical philosophy. Virtue Ethics is concerned with the development of ‘virtues’ within a moral agent. Aristotle argues that a ‘virtue’ is an ethical quality that lies between excess and deficiency. His book ‘Nicomachean Ethics’ features a table of personality traits in which there is ‘excess’ and ‘deficiency’ and the doctrine of the mean, which outlines the optimum development of an ethical quality, but it is relative to the people involved, it is described in the book as ‘that which is neither excessive nor deficient, and this is not one and the same for all’. One example he uses in the table of virtues is ‘Shame’, in which shamelessness is excessive and shyness is deficient while modesty lies between them and is the doctrine of the mean. In modern times, Scholars have criticised Aristotle’s Virtue ethics for being too relative, vague and self-centred. Many Modern Ethicists have written their own theories of virtue ethics to try and address some of the issues.

Aristotle’s teachings of virtue have been criticised by J.L Mackie, Louden and Sidgewick for being too vague for actual application. Sidgewick said that it ‘only indicates the whereabouts of a virtue’. Benjamin Franklin’s Virtue Ethics attempts to address the vagueness of Aristotle’s teachings. Franklin was a utilitarian who believed that all actions should bring about the ‘greatest good for the greatest number’- he believed that in order for this to work everyone must develop certain moral qualities that will help guide them to follow the principle of utility. His list of virtues is comprised of 13 ethical qualities that he considers to be Virtuous in a person- all of which are explained. An example of one would be ‘Chastity’ which he describes as ‘rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness or weakness, or to the injury of your own or others reputation’.

Another example would be ‘Humility’ which he describes as behaving in a manner that Jesus or Socrates might. A problem arises when it is applied as there are conflicting virtues, for which he provides no further guidance as to which one we should prioritise to behave morally, other than the principle of utility which underpins his virtue ethics. For example a way that someone might exercise ‘frugality’ and ‘humility’ would be to feed the poor in lesser economically developed countries- however during shipping some of the food might go off which against the virtue of ‘frugality’ as part of it is that we shouldn’t waste anything, but at the same time we should ‘make no expense but to do good for others or yourself’. This is obviously a direct contradiction.

The further guidance as to how one should behave is provided by the principle of utility, which is essentially a short term concept. If one advocates the principle of the greatest good for the greatest number and that food could go off; then surely if that food could do the ‘greatest good’ in the economically developed country that the agent lives in- then it should remain there- because none of it will go off. However, if in the long run, what is left of the food could feed 1000 people, who could eventually change the world- then the greatest good lies in giving the food to them. As explained in this paragraph, Franklin’s virtue ethics are less ambiguous then Aristotle’s, yet they still fail to provide real ethical guidance on how one should behave.

Annette Baier and Micheal Slote argue that Aristotle’s Virtue ethics are outdated, and that they do not account for today’s social values. Annette Baier’s ‘Ethics of Care’ is a theory of Virtue Ethics that aims to address Aristotle’s theories outdated nature. She is a feminist Philosopher who argues that Aristotle’s virtues are androcentric because Aristotle was a man and therefore he thinks of Ethics in his own terms. She argues that terms such as autonomy or justice are male, whereas terms such as caring are female. She calls that one should adopt feminine virtues that are typically exemplified by women such as ‘caring for others, patience, the ability to nurture and self-sacrifice. She argues that these values have been marginalised because the contribution of women in society isn’t valued enough.

Baier essentially criticises Aristotle for being too androcentric, whereas she is arguing not for a balance in male and female influence but that males should develop feminine virtues so that feminine values have more influence over male values, therefore her own theory of virtue essentially does the same that Aristotle’s does when applied today’s society. Secondary to this, her theory is ambiguous as the virtues are not clearly defined; it is not enough to simply say ‘behave like a female’ because this is essentially meaningless in terms of virtues. For example she argues that ‘Patience’ is a feminine virtue; however where is the evidence of this? Some women are not patient and some men are? So there is no objective evidence to prove that either women or men are not patient sometimes.

Deontologists such as Kant have argued that Aristotle’s Virtue ethics on its own are too flexible for moral decision making. Kantian ethics argue that a virtue is something which is developed for helping one to separate emotion from ethical decision making in order to create universaisable maxims. One scholar who has attempted to address this criticism of Aristotle’s teachings on virtue is James Keenan, in his theory of virtue ethics who suggested a new set of virtues.

These are: Justice which requires us to treat all human beings equally; Fidelity, which requires we treat people closer to us with greater care; Self-Care which argues we have a responsibility to care for ourselves and all aspects of our existence; and Prudence which requires us to conduct ourselves by the virtues previously set out, and acquire more of them if we don’t have them. He describes being virtuous as ‘more than having a particular habit of acting eg. Generosity, it means having a fundamental set of related virtues that enable a person to live and act morally’. An issue with both Keenan’s and Aristotle’s teachings of virtue is that a person develops virtues to behave morally, as such they develop the virtue out of their own self-interest, rather than a desire to do good. For example if one develops the virtue of Fidelity, they do it out of their own self-interest- rather than to benefit others, but the acts it produces are moral within themselves.

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