Virtue Ethics seeks to explain how we ought to be in life by examining character traits and habits of a person. In this paper, I aim to express why I think Virtue Ethics is true. I will be exploring the works and teachings of Aristotle from the textbook, Philosophy for Ethics: Theory, 9th Edition, particularly from his Nicomachean Ethics, and applying his views to everyday examples. Ultimately, I will conclude that Virtue Ethics is a true way of illustrating ethical behavior.
Aristotle’s definition of Virtue Ethics begins with the assertion that human actions are good and aim for happiness. Aristotle states in The Nicomachean Ethics that the human soul is rational and that “human good turns out to be activity of soul in accordance with virtue, and if there are more than one virtue, in accordance with the best and most complete.” In the quotation from Aristotle, he is emphasizing how virtue and goodness are intertwined within a person. By this standard, a person can only be happy if they are being virtuous.
To further understand Virtue Ethics, one must understand how this explanation of ethics describes how to become a virtuous person. Aristotle thought that there are two types of virtues: intellectual virtues and moral virtues. The difference between intellectual virtues and moral virtues stems from how someone obtains a virtue. For example, intellectual virtues derive from teaching and moral virtues result from a habit that a person acquires. Furthermore, we must exercise these virtues and ultimately perfect them through habits in order to cement our lives in virtue.
We can apply these ideas to how we make friends. For Aristotle, the highest form of friendship is based on goodness. Friendship based on goodness includes that both parties admire one another’s goodness and strive for goodness together. Moreover, the friends are concerned with each other’s well being. To have a friendship based on goodness, Aristotle describes it as having a “complete sort of friendship between people who are good and alike in virtue.”
Friendship based on goodness is rare, long-lasting, and one does not encounter many of these friendships. With friendships, we are autonomous in our choice of friends. We choose our friends by seeking those who have the same virtues as us or who possess virtues we would like to acquire. In this example of friendship, virtues are habituated by learning from a person we are close to and therefore, we are able to become a better person as the friendship flourishes.
Furthermore, it is also imperative that one looks into the concept of vices when discussing the truth of Virtue Ethics. In Philosophy for Ethics: Theory, 9th Edition, the texts explains:
“The same thing applies to the opposite of virtue, namely, vice. The person who lies and lies again finds that lying is easier and telling the truth is more difficult. One can have bad moral habits (vices) as well as good ones (virtues). Just like other bad habits, bad moral habits are difficult to change or break. And like other good habits, good moral habits take practice to develop.”
When I think about this idea, I cannot help but think about the virtue of honesty and the vices associated with it. For example: you are meeting with a friend on campus to study and you notice that they look very drained. If you tell them, in all honesty, how bad their appearance is, I am not sure that would constitute a virtuous action. Most likely, they are aware of their appearance and your comments were solicited in the wrong way, at the wrong time, and did not result in any kind of good. This is a situation where Aristotle’s concept of the “Golden Mean” can be implemented to absolve your mistake. The “Golden Mean” asserts that there is a balance between deficiency and excess. Using this definition, one can then use Virtue Ethics to determine where their actions fall on the spectrum and help to analyse how to better adhere to a virtuous action, rather than acting towards on extreme.
These passages and examples paint the idea of Virtue Ethics as a seemingly perfect way to explain what a virtuous person is and how one can achieve a high level of virtue. However, even Aristotle was not immune to objections — objections founded on very important questions, nonetheless. I think the best objection for Virtue Ethics raises the concern about how one can define which traits are virtuous and if they are virtuous in all circumstances. This was a difficult matter to discern. There are infinite ways of determining virtuous traits, since, we, as human beings are subjective in concluding what is virtuous and what is not.
As the textbook states: “Aristotle’s society included slavery and gender hierarchy. One wonders whether it makes sense to speak of virtuous slave-masters or whether the submissive traits of women in patriarchal cultures are really virtuous.” I think it goes without saying that our generation, and the generations of our parents, grandparents, and even great great grandparents made great progress for Civil Rights and Women’s Rights, whereas in the times of Aristotle, these concepts would not be tolerated in this day and age. I know that I could not imagine a life for myself where I would not have the freedom to work, or deepen my knowledge of Philosophy by attending college.
However, in refutation to these objections, I would like to explore the assumption that Aristotle, or anyone with a strong belief in Virtue Ethics, would not attempt to apply actions deemed acceptable in another time or culture as a universal mean for defining a virtuous act. Perhaps, there is some ambiguity in how eternal these ideas and assumptions are. I would argue that if one was to apply Virtue Ethics in the subject of Women’s Rights, the timing, place, and social setting would have to be taken into account to correctly apply Aristotle’s virtues.