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Virtue Ethics Themes in Ethics and Epistemology Shane Ryan 09/10/13.

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Presentation on theme: "Virtue Ethics Themes in Ethics and Epistemology Shane Ryan 09/10/13."— Presentation transcript:

1 Virtue Ethics Themes in Ethics and Epistemology Shane Ryan 09/10/13

2 Topic What is virtue ethics?

3 Structure 1. The Motivation for Virtue Ethics 2. Virtue Ethics: historical background 3. Virtue Ethics: characteristic claims 4. Objection and Response 5. Conclusion

4 1. The Motivation for Virtue Ethics Alternatives ● Deontology: – A moral theory focused on our duties/rules – An action is right if it's in conformity with/from a moral rule. Acting from such rules has priority over what might produce most good.

5 1. The Motivation for Virtue Ethics Alternatives ● Consequentialism: – A moral theory focused on consequences – Morality requires us to act to bring about the best consequences. – Different consequentialist theories spell out best consequences differently.

6 1. The Motivation for Virtue Ethics Dissatisfaction with alternatives ● Elizabeth Anscombe (1958): – She criticised the rigid use of rules/principles in Kant's deontology and Mill's utilitariansm. – Both suffer from counterexamples that it's difficult to dismiss.

7 1. The Motivation for Virtue Ethics Dissatisfaction with alternatives ● Bernard Williams (1985, and Athanassoulis, 2010): – Ethics broader than morality as characterised in Kant's philosophy – Morality is concerned with duty/obligation and blame – Ethics has broader concerns, including certain emotions, relations with family and friends. – Deontology and Consequentialism don't address those concerns.

8 1. The Motivation for Virtue Ethics Virtue Ethics ● Deontology and consequentialism are primarily concerned with saying what makes for a good act. ● In contrast, virtue ethics is agent focused rather than act focused. – Virtue ethics focuses on how you should be rather than what you should do.

9 2. Virtue Ethics: historical background ● Historically, various ethical accounts are or have been interpreted as virtue ethical accounts: – From Chinese philosophy, Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, Aquinas, Hume and Nietzsche.

10 2. Virtue Ethics: historical background Examples of Approach ● Aquinas' virtue ethics: – “A virtue is an aspect of, or constitutive element in, being a person of good character. To have the virtues is to have a stable and ready willingness to make choices that are morally good because in line with the bonum rationis, the basic good of practical reasonableness.” (Finnis, 2011).

11 2. Virtue Ethics: historical background Examples of Approach ● Hume's virtue ethics: – “[A] virtue is a character trait (of human beings) that is useful or agreeable to its possessor or to others (inclusive 'or' both times)”. (Hursthouse, 1996).

12 2. Virtue Ethics: historical background ● Aristotelian virtue ethics, however, is what has been drawn on most heavily in the recent revival of the approach. ● Three concepts commonly drawn from Aristotelian virtue ethics: – Aretê – excellence or virtue – Phronesis – practical or moral wisdom – Eudaimonia – happiness or flourishing

13 3. Virtue Ethics: characteristic claims From Aristotle ● Two kinds of virtue: intellectual and moral ● Two kinds of intellectual virtue: theoretical wisdom and practical wisdom (Phronesis) ● Virtue is understood as an excellence ● Phronesis is required for the application of moral virtue – For example, how do I be just in this situation?

14 3. Virtue Ethics: characteristic claims From Julia Annas (2011) on virtue ● What does it mean to say Jane is generous? – It's not just to say that they did something generous or that they had a generous feeling – A person might do something generous, say, to impress a friend – Or she might have momentarily felt generous because of a song she heard

15 3. Virtue Ethics: characteristic claims From Julia Annas (2011) on virtue ● “For Jane to be generous, generosity has to be a feature of her” – A persisting, reliable, and characteristic feature of her.

16 3. Virtue Ethics: characteristic claims From Julia Annas (2011) on virtue ● Persisting: – she retains her generosity in the face of challenges ● Reliable: – She can be expected to be generous on the occasions that call for generosity ● Characteristic: – She is acting in and from character when she is acting generously

17 3. Virtue Ethics: characteristic claims ● For Aristotle being virtuous is a necessary requirement for eudaimonia. – Being virtuous is self-interested because virtues bring their own reward and are constitutive elements of eudaimonia. ● Alternative view: An agent-based theory – Common sense intuitions determine the virtues. Those Intuitions are based on what we judge to be admirable traits in other people (Athanassoulis, 2010).

18 3. Virtue Ethics: characteristic claims The Development of Moral Character ● People have natural tendencies which may be encouraged or discouraged ● Our natural tendencies are affected by parents, teachers, peers, role-modes etc. ● Our character generally is affected by habituation and education.

19 3. Virtue Ethics: characteristic claims The Development of Moral Character ● A person begins to become virtuous by trying to emulate her virtuous role-model. – This involves habituating oneself in right action ● But virtue is not merely a habit – The virtuous person acts reflectively recognising why she should act virtuously (Athanassoulis, 2010) – Becoming virtuous takes practice

20 3. Virtue Ethics: characteristic claims A portrait of the virtuous agent ● “The virtuous agent acts effortlessly, perceives the right reason, has the harmonious right desire, and has an inner state of virtue that flows smoothly into action.” (Athanassoulis, 2010).

21 4. Objection and Response Objection: Action Guidance ● Deontology and consequentialism tell us what we need to do in a situation to act morally. ● Objection: Virtue ethics doesn't tell us how to act morally in a situation. – Implication: Virtue ethics is not a rival to deontology and consequentialism.

22 4. Objection and Response Hursthouse (1996) ● Utilitarian account of right action – U1. An action is right iff it promotes the best consequences. – U2. The best consequences are those in which happiness is maximised.

23 4. Objection and Response Hursthouse (1996) ● Deontological account of right action – D1. An action is right iff it is in accordance with a correct moral rule or principle – D2. A correct moral rule (principle) is one that... – is universalisable – would be the object of choice of all rational beings – …

24 4. Objection and Response Hursthouse (1996) ● A virtue ethicist account of right action – V1. An action is right iff it is what a virtuous agent would characteristically (i.e. acting in character) do in the circumstances. – V1a. A virtuous agent is one who acts virtuously, that is, one who has and exercises the virtues. – V2. A virtue is a character trait that.... – a human being needs for eudaimonia – is useful or agreeable to its possessor or to others (inclusive 'or' both times)” – … –

25 4. Objection and Response Hursthouse (1996) ● Objector's response: But how can you know what the virtuous agent would do in particular circumstances unless you yourself are already virtuous? ● Hursthouse's response: – We can go to the virtuous agent and ask what they do in the circumstances. ● Appeal to experts. How is it to be judged who should qualify? – Based on a knowledge of what the virtues are, I can know what to do.

26 4. Objection and Response Hursthouse (1996) ● Conflict Problem: When different virtues seem to demand conflicting actions – For example, when the honest thing to do seems to be to tell the truth, albeit while saying something hurtful in the process, and the kind thing to do seems to be to remain silent or perhaps to lie. ● Virtue ethicist response: – Such conflicts may merely be apparent due to a misunderstanding of what the virtues require in particular circumstances. – But it may also be the case that some conflicts aren't resolvable by normative ethics.

27 4. Objection and Response Hursthouse (1996) ● Dilemmas: – Anti-theory – rejecting normative ethical theory – By rejecting a normative ethical theory supporters of anti-theory are rejecting the claim that a set of general principles can provide a decision procedure that can yield the correct answer to all questions about how to act morally.

28 5. Conclusion ● What is a virtue? – Annas: a persisting, reliable, and characteristic feature of her. ● For Aristotle being virtuous is a necessary requirement for eudaimonia.

29 5. Conclusion ● What is virtue ethics? – It's agent centred rather than act centred – Virtue ethics seems to better reflect what we think of as our moral lives – it says something about how we should be. ● Contemporary virtue ethicists tend to draw on Aristotle's virtue ethics but there are many other alternatives.

30 5. Conclusion ● Objection: Virtue ethics doesn't tell us how to act morally in a situation. – Implication: Virtue ethics is not a rival to deontology and consequentialism. ● Hursthouse: An action is right iff it is what a virtuous agent would characteristically (i.e. acting in character) do in the circumstances. (Key condition) – Virtue Ethics can tell us what to do in numerous circumstances – It's an advantage that it doesn't claim to have a procedure that can tell us what to do in every circumstance.


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