Discussion 1: Virtue and TeleologyTo ensure that your initial post starts its own unique thread, do not reply to this post. Instead, please click the “Reply” link above this post.Please read the general discussion requirements above, as well as the announcements explaining the discussion requirements and answering the most frequently asked questions. If you are still unsure about how to proceed with the discussion, please reply to one of those announcements or contact your instructor.Please carefully read and think about the entire prompt before composing your first post. This discussion will require you to have carefully read Chapter 5 of the textbook, as well as the assigned portions of Aristotle’s (1931) Nicomachean Ethics.Aristotle’s account of ethics is “teleological”, which means that our understanding of virtue and living well is based on a sense of the “telos” (function, purpose, or end) of something (see Aristotle’s text and the textbook for the full account).Engage with the text:Using at least one quote from the required text(s), explain the relation between virtue and living well on Aristotle’s account, and briefly describe some of the key characteristics of the virtues.Reflect on yourself:Identify an area of your life in which virtues are needed to do well. Explain what the “telos” of that role or activity is, what virtues are needed and why they are needed, and what would be lost if someone tried to be successful in that activity who didn’t exercise the virtues. This might be a role you have, a vocation or career, a hobby, or something common to all of us.Reflect on virtue:In what ways do the virtues you identify display the characteristics Aristotle describes? For instance, you could explain whether they occupy an intermediate between too much and too little of some quality, how they would affect one’s emotions as well as ones actions, etc.Discuss with your peers:Discuss with your peers the answers they gave to these questions, and offer your own additional reflections, questions, challenges, etc. You could consider possible ways in which the virtues may conflict with each other, or may conflict with the virtues needed in other areas of one’s life; whether practicing virtue in these activities may lead to less success as measured by, say, financial benefit or recognition; and so on.Aristotle. (1931). Nicomachean ethics (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. (W. D. Ross, Trans.). Retrieved from http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/nicomachaen.htmlThames, B. (2018). How should one live? Introduction to ethics and moral reasoning (3rd ed.). San Diego, CA: Bridgepoint Education.
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5
Virtue Ethics:
Being a Good Person
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Learning Objectives
After reading this chapter, you should be able to:
• Explain the core features of a virtue-based moral theory.
• Describe the notion of a telos and how that informs how people should act in particular situations.
• Explain the Aristotelian concept of happiness and what makes it unique.
• Identify and explain the core features of a virtue as defined by Aristotle.
• Identify Aristotle’s cardinal virtues and explain their importance in a flourishing life.
• Discuss objections that claim that virtue ethics is self-centered, doesn’t provide adequate guidance, and
reinforces prejudices.
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Section 5.1
Introduction
Whatever you are, be a good one.
—Unknown
5.1 Introduction
In Chapter 1 we described ethics as the act of seeking answers to the question “How should one live?”
The answers examined in the previous two chapters focused almost exclusively on accounts of what
one should do. Utilitarianism holds that one should
do those actions that have the best overall consequences relative to the alternatives and refrain from
those that do not. Deontological ethics holds that one
should do those actions that are right in themselves
and refrain from those that are wrong in themselves,
regardless of the consequences. In other words, we
have a duty to do or not do certain actions. Yet surely
there is much more to living well than merely doing
right things and avoiding wrong ones.
In fact, we may find ourselves thinking that the reason we ought to do certain things and avoid others
is because this is integral to something more fundamental—namely, being a good person. The quote
that launched this chapter seems to capture this
idea. Our lives are varied and complex. We occupy
many different roles and have a multitude of interests and commitments. We are beings that don’t
simply make choices but have emotions, instincts,
and desires. We aren’t simply minds; we are also
animals and bodies. We aren’t merely individuals, but members of families, communities, teams,
clubs, cultures, traditions, and religions. Whatever
it is that characterizes our lives in these multifaceted ways, we want to be good.
But is this merely a matter of doing the right thing,
or is it more a matter of being a certain way, as the
phrase “We want to be good” suggests? If so, then
we might be inclined to think of ethics—the search
for answers regarding how one should live—as pertaining more to the kinds of people we ought to be
than simply what we ought to do, and in particular
to what constitutes good character. This is one of
the fundamental ideas behind virtue ethics.
Allegory of the Virtues, c. 1529, Coreggio;
4X5 Collection/Superstock
Allegory of the Virtues by Antonio da
Correggio (1489–1534). In the middle
sits Minerva, the Roman goddess of
wisdom. The figure on the lower left
is surrounded by symbols of the four
cardinal virtues: the snake in her hair
symbolizes practical wisdom, the
sword in her right hand symbolizes
justice, the reins in her left hand
symbolize temperance, and the lion
skin symbolizes courage. The figure
to the right is often interpreted as
representing intellectual virtue.
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Section 5.2
What Is Virtue Ethics?
5.2 What Is Virtue Ethics?
Let’s review the way that we distinguished ethical theories in Chapter 1. We can regard human
actions as consisting of three parts:
1. The nature and character of the person performing the action.
2. The nature of the action itself
3. The consequences of the action
The main difference between moral theories has to do with which part they believe to be
most important when thinking about ethics. The three moral theories can thus be distinguished in this way:
1. Virtue ethics focuses on the nature and character of the person performing the action.
2. Deontological ethics focuses on the action itself.
3. Consequentialism focuses on the consequences of the action.
Virtue ethics maintains that the most important consideration for morality is first and foremost what it means to be a good person, which is described in terms of possessing certain
character traits that enable us to live well. These character traits are called virtues.
Generally, when we say that someone or something is good or doing well, we have some idea
of what that person or thing is supposed to do; in other words, we understand its function or
purpose. For instance, if we call something a good car, then it must be running well, by which
we mean that the engine is humming, it drives smoothly, it can get you from point A to point
B without trouble, and so on. This is because the purpose of the car is to be a reliable form of
transportation. If the tires aren’t aligned or the radiator leaks, then the car as a whole won’t
be running well and we won’t say that it’s a good car. If the car is used for racing, then a good
car must also be fast and have good handling. If the car is used for transporting children, then
it must have certain safety features. If one’s car is a
status symbol, then it may need to be flashy, unique,
or expensive. Whatever the purpose, a good car has
to have its parts working in harmony, doing what
they are supposed to be doing, each contributing to
how the whole functions.
Similarly, when we say that a student is doing well
in school, we mean he or she is learning concepts
and skills, behaving in appropriate ways, earning
good grades, and so on. If the student is learning
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but not getting good grades, getting good grades
While the virtues of this car might
but misbehaving, or getting good grades but not
make it well-suited to racing, it would
learning much, then we would be reluctant to say
certainly not be a good choice for a
the student is doing well in school. To succeed in
family with young children.
school and to be a good student, one must have the
discipline needed to complete the required work,
be able to internalize and process the information that is given, have the commitment to persevere when things are difficult, and maintain an open mind when confronted with new and
challenging ideas. Otherwise, he or she will be unable to succeed as a student.
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Virtues and Moral Reasoning
Section 5.3
What does this have to do with ethics? If ethics is concerned with how one should live, the
conception of what it means to live well will be concerned with more than simply the kind of
world I should strive to bring about or the actions I should or should not do. For a car to run
well, it needs certain qualities that enable it to fulfill its function in the ways described. Similarly, for students to do well in school, they need certain qualities that enable them to fulfill
their goals. These would be the virtues of a car and of a student, respectively. In the same
way, we might speak of the qualities that enable a person to live well as a whole and to flourish as a human being. These qualities are what we call the moral virtues. So virtue ethics is
concerned with two questions: What does it mean for a person to live well and to flourish? and
What are the virtues needed for this?
These ideas should be familiar. We often speak of the courage of someone fighting a disease,
and we are impressed by the kindness of a neighbor or the generosity of a relative, the patience
of a schoolteacher and the sense of justice of an activist, the self-control that a former addict
has developed after years of struggle, or the wisdom of a rabbi. Moreover, we can easily see
how these qualities are connected to an idea of living well, whether in light of the function or
purpose of particular roles like neighbor, teacher, and rabbi, or in light of a sense of overall
health and well-being.
Virtue ethics begins with the fact that we seem to have ideas about what a well-lived life
involves, what kinds of qualities are admirable, and what sort of behavior people with these
qualities will exhibit. The task of ethics, on this view, is to help us refine these ideas, resolve
conflicts among them, and explore their implications.
Our source for these ideas will be the Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BCE),
particularly his book, Nicomachean Ethics, in which he declared that the aim of studying ethics is not to gain knowledge but to become better people (Aristotle, 1931, 1103b). But before
considering his ideas, let’s first get a broad sense of what moral reasoning looks like according to virtue ethics.
5.3 Virtues and Moral Reasoning
Virtue ethics does not involve the straightforward process of applying an independent principle to determine the right action in a given circumstance, as we might find in utilitarianism
or deontology. Rather, it emphasizes the qualities of character that we need in order to make
good choices in each specific situation, which means that the process of making such choices
cannot be reduced to an abstract procedure or recipe. For this reason, some people have difficulty understanding how it applies to concrete problems. Moreover, there are many different forms of virtue ethics, just as there are many different forms of consequentialist ethics
and deontological ethics. However, by focusing on Aristotelian virtue ethics, we can identify a
general feature of its approach to moral reasoning—namely, its teleological form.
To call moral reasoning “teleological” means it draws on a notion of the human telos—the
end, purpose, or function of a person’s life, or what kind of person one should be. It is in terms
of the human telos that we understand what a good human life is, and this understanding
© 2018 Bridgepoint Education, Inc. All rights reserved. Not for resale or redistribution.
Virtues and Moral Reasoning
Section 5.3
informs an account of the virtues and choices a good person would make in particular
circumstances.
This notion of the telos may be tied to a social role, expressing what it means to be a parent,
doctor, friend, and so on. It may also reference the ideals and ends specific to a particular
person, such as aspirations, religious or spiritual commitments, or loves and passions. It also
frequently draws on deeper ideas about human nature—what it means to be a rational agent,
a finite being, one who forms communities and relationships, is dependent and vulnerable,
and so forth. All of these qualities factor into a sense of what it means to be fulfilled, whole,
and living well.
In light of understanding the telos we can reason about the virtues that are needed to live
well, such as the trustworthiness one needs to be a good friend or the courage one needs
to be a good soldier. We can then reason about the choices one should make if one is to be
a trustworthy friend or a courageous soldier. While certain rules and principles may inform
our reasoning, doing the right thing—that is, doing what a trustworthy friend or courageous
soldier would do—is not a mere matter of following rules and principles. Rather, it involves
reasoning about the goods of friendship, military service, and human life itself and how best
to live those out.
Virtues and Skills
It is often helpful to understand the teleological account of moral reasoning by comparing
it with the exercise of practical skills, like mathematics, playing an instrument or a sport, or
cooking, especially considering the development of expertise.
Someone learning a new skill will start by following certain procedures, such as the rules for
multiplying two numbers or how to hold a tennis racket. The point of these rules is to enable
us do math or play tennis well, so we also begin to develop a sense of what it is that gives
those rules their point; that is, the ends and goods of that activity. In time, these rules become
second nature. Participating in this activity no longer involves thinking about such details,
but focusing on more advanced ones. Things that the beginner has to consciously think about
become second nature to the expert, and this must be the case if one is to grow and develop.
Moreover, the expert may even come to recognize when some of those rules need to be
broken or modified in order to fulfill the ends of that activity. Thus, the expert’s choices can
be rational even when she isn’t thinking about them or even when she contravenes certain
rules or procedures, and this is because of how her choices relate to the ends and goods of
that activity. This is what makes the rationality of these activities teleological.
Ethical reasoning works much the same way. Moral rules and principles have an important
place in helping us live a good human life and become the sort of people we ought to be,
which gives them their rationality. But following rules is insufficient; one must strive to see
the goods at which they aim and to develop the virtuous character needed to fulfill those
goods. Virtue ethics tries to uncover and explain how this sense of purpose can factor into a
rational conception of how to live, including whether and to what extent we can reason about
how anyone should live.
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Virtues and Moral Reasoning
Section 5.3
Think about the various features of your life. You may be a father, mother, husband, or wife.
Perhaps you are in the military, in sales or management, work with kids, or work in something
hands-on like construction or repair. You may be involved in professions such as healthcare,
social work, or religious ministry. You may have various interests or hobbies such as sports,
music, or art. Since you are reading this text, you are most likely a student. What qualities do
you need to be successful at each of these activities?
Even if you are not personally involved in certain activities, you might be interested in many
of them as a consumer or as someone affected by the choices of others. You go to doctors, you
follow sports, you are impacted by what our military is doing, you vote for politicians, you call
plumbers or electricians, or you attend a church. What qualities do you expect of those who
are engaged in activities that affect your life?
For instance, to be a good soldier one needs courage, loyalty, and integrity. To be a good
parent one needs patience and care. To be a good student one needs discipline and openmindedness. To be a good friend, one needs honesty and faithfulness. To be a good nurse,
one needs sensitivity and empathy.The list could go on and on.
The character traits in red are the virtues needed to be a good soldier, parent, and so on. What
kinds of actions do these virtues call for in various circumstances?
What does courage mean on the battlefield versus in the barracks? How do we balance loyalty
and integrity when they conflict? Does having patience as a parent mean we never get angry
at our children, or are there appropriate times and ways to express anger? Does caring for the
sick mean doctors or nurses limit themselves to the activity of healing, or must they respect
the patient’s wishes when that may conflict with healing? How does the dedication and discipline needed to be a good student weigh against the care and thoughtfulness needed to be
a good spouse, especially with limited hours in the day? If these activities involve a balance
between different aims, what is that balance?
Most people would agree that there are no hard and fast rules or principles that can answer
all of the questions we and others encounter in the course of trying to be the best parent,
soldier, student, or healthcare worker one can be. However, we can still provide reasons why
certain virtues are important and what a virtuous person would do in certain situations.
For instance, we noted earlier that a good student needs virtues like discipline and an open
mind to achieve the goods of education. In light of the fact that a good student aims not just to
get a good grade but to gain knowledge and understanding, we could add the virtue of honesty to that list, for without it one cannot fulfill that aim. When faced with a situation in which
one can successfully cheat, the honest student will recognize that this may result in a higher
grade but will undermine the goods of knowledge and understanding. Based on this reasoning, he or she will recognize that the ethical choice is to not cheat.
It is important to note that we are not starting from scratch in trying to understand what
virtue is or by articulating what kinds of decisions virtuous people would make in particular
circumstances. We already have a basic understanding of these ideas before we start thinking about them at a deep, philosophical level. Philosophical inquiry can help us clarify these
ideas; it can help us expose and work through weaknesses and inconsistencies. It enables
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Section 5.4
The Nicomachean Ethics
us to address challenges that arise from alternative
views, difficult questions, and dilemmas, and helps
us resist the power that mere personal desire, traditional or established assumptions, or prevailing
cultural trends can have over our own sense of how
one should live.
As we mentioned previously, our main source for
such philosophical investigations into virtue is the
Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. Although he
lived and wrote almost 2,500 years ago, his ideas
remain familiar and relevant to us today. We now
turn to his text.
5.4 The Nicomachean Ethics
Start by reading Book I of Nichomachean Ethics in
the Primary Sources section at the end of the chapter and come back to this point in the chapter.
Book I: The Human Telos
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Aristotle, an ancient Greek
philosopher.
Aristotle starts his discussion of ethics not with an account of right and wrong, but by describing what we aim at in living our everyday lives. Think for a moment about various decisions
you made today. Why did you choose to do one thing over another? You may have chosen to
get up at a certain time, eat certain things for breakfast, do certain chores, take a certain route
to work, and at some point you decided to sit down and read this book.
Aristotle’s first observation is that when we make choices, we have some reason for doing so.
Whatever our reasons, there is something all of our decisions seem to have in common: we
consider them to be, in some way, good.
Now, you may be thinking, “I’ve made lots of bad choices, including some that I knew were
bad when I made them. So Aristotle can’t be right.” But perhaps the “bad” choice was intended
to bring you immediate gratification or to avoid some pain, even if you knew that it was only
momentary and would lead to more problems later. Or perhaps you simply misjudged a situation and made a choice that turned out worse than you hoped. In either case, though, wasn’t
there some sense in which your choice was aimed at something good? If we think it was a
bad choice, then it may be because it seemed good but wasn’t actually good, or it wasn’t good
overall.
If this is correct, then it suggests that when we make choices, we are, indeed, aiming at something good. This reflection leads us to a further question: what is good? What should we be
aiming at when we make choices?
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The Nicomachean Ethics
Section 5.4
Ethics FYI
Aristotle
Aristotle was a student of Plato and went on to become one of the most important figures
in Western history. Aristotle invented the study of logic, made contributions to the natural
sciences (especially physics and …
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