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VIRTUE ETHICS 1 Virtue theory, or virtue ethics, is based on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. To be more specific, modern virtue-based ethical theories.

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Presentation on theme: "VIRTUE ETHICS 1 Virtue theory, or virtue ethics, is based on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. To be more specific, modern virtue-based ethical theories."— Presentation transcript:

1 VIRTUE ETHICS 1 Virtue theory, or virtue ethics, is based on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. To be more specific, modern virtue-based ethical theories are the descendants of the original ethical theory authored by Aristotle. Aristotle presented his views on ethics in the abovementioned book. This is the reason we some times refer to these modern virtue-based ethical theories as “Neo-Aristotelianisms”/“Neo-Aristotelian ethical theories”. There is one fundamental difference between virtue ethics and the theories we have studied so far. Utilitarians and Kantians focus on one thing: the rightness or wrongness of particular/individual actions. On the other hand, virtue ethics focuses on the character of human beings. In particular, virtue theorists claim that: in order for one to be a moral person, one needs to develop or cultivate his virtues; by doing so, one manages to flourish as a human being; and, when one flourishes (as a human being), one becomes a morally good person.

2 VIRTUE ETHICS 2 In what follows, we will take a closer look at the original (ethical) theory authored by Aristotle – this is the theory analyzed in your textbook anyway. However, the analysis to be presented here is not quite the same as the one found in Warburton’s book (-- see pp ). According to Aristotle, all human actions (ultimately) aim at one thing: the highest good in human life. What is the highest good in human life? Aristotle says that it is something called “eudaimonia”. What exactly is eudaimonia? This is a difficult question – especially for philosophers/students who do not have any knowledge of ancient Greek.

3 VIRTUE ETHICS 3 Very briefly, eudaimonia is a state of being where a human being may be said to be flourishing as such – as a human being. To be even more specific, Aristotle believed that everything in the universe has a function. It is not just material objects that have functions; e.g. chairs, pens, etc. He argued that animals have specific functions as well. And, he argued that human beings also have a function. The function of a human being is to: exercise his rational capacities in an excellent manner for a life-time. Furthermore, Aristotle believed that if a human being manages to exercise his function well, then he reaches the state of eudaimonia; he reaches the state where he may be said to be flourishing – as a human being.

4 VIRTUE ETHICS 4 Now, how does the above fit with what we mentioned earlier on -- about virtues and the cultivation of one’s virtues? First of all, we need to consider, very briefly, what an Aristotelian virtue is. Roughly, it is a pattern of behavior and feeling. It is a tendency to act, desire and feel in particular ways in appropriate situations. To spell things out a bit, to have a virtue, i.e. a certain good character trait, is to be able to feel and act in a certain way under the appropriate circumstances. For instance, to have the virtue of generosity, according to Aristotle, is to: feel and act generously under certain circumstances. It is also important to note one more thing. For Aristotle, the truly virtuous person is the person who has managed to do two things: (a) Cultivate all the virtues, and (b) Balance/harmonize these virtues.

5 VIRTUE ETHICS 5 Aristotle’s view is the following: If one manages to develop and harmonize all the virtues, then he becomes a “eudaimon” man; and, if one is eudaimon, then he is also a virtuous/moral person. It turns out, then, that Aristotle’s ethical theory is something along the following lines: All human beings are born with the capacity to be virtuous. We are all born with the capacity to be (e.g.) brave or generous or wise. When we do manage to cultivate and balance all the virtues, then we achieve the state of eudaimonia – the state of human flourishing. This is the state where a man manages to perform his function in an excellent manner. When a man manages to become eudaimon, then he also becomes a morally good person. That is to say, the eudaimon man is the man who always manages to be a morally good person. This is, very briefly, the Aristotelian theory of ethics. The question that remains to be examined here is this: “Is this theory a good one?”.

Do bear in mind that the theory we have just described is the original Aristotelian theory of virtue ethics. This theory faces a number of problems. [Its modern descendants do not face the same problems.] Let us consider, quite briefly, two of these problems. We have just seen that the virtue theorist, i.e. Aristotle, states that: if one is to be a morally good person, then one (essentially) needs to develop and harmonize all the virtues. The question that arises here is this: “Which virtues is one supposed to develop – and harmonize?”. It seems that philosophers cannot agree upon one common list of virtues.

Different thinkers seem to come up with different lists of virtues. Furthermore, it is also true that these lists of virtues vary from culture to culture. In other words, it seems that there is one major problem here: The theory assumes that there is one (common/universal) list of virtues that one ought to cultivate and harmonize; the fact of the matter, however, is that this does not appear to be true. There is also a second objection – this is the objection usually raised (against virtue ethics) by the existentialists. Virtue ethics assumes that human beings do have a certain nature/function. The existentialists refuse to admit this claim; i.e. the claim that there exists a human nature. Very briefly, they take that each human being forms his own nature.

We examined several theories in ethics. What we are yet to see is how these theories may be applied to real life (rather than imaginary) situations. This is what we usually call “applied ethics” or “practical ethics”  It is the effort to see how a certain theory in ethics may be applied to real life situations. The example we will be considering here is (voluntary) euthanasia or “mercy killing”. Is this action ever morally justifiable? Before we move on to examine this issue in any detail, it is important to clarify that there are different kinds/types of euthanasia.

There is voluntary euthanasia: It involves cases where a patient wishes to die, and expresses his wish. This is also known as “mercy killing”. Then we have involuntary euthanasia: It involves cases where the patient does not wish to die, but his wish is ignored. It often amounts to murder. Can you think of any examples? Finally, we have non-voluntary euthanasia: It involves cases where the patient is unconscious, and some other person makes a decision for him/her. In what follows, we will focus exclusively on voluntary euthanasia. In particular, we will consider the following question: “How would the theories examined so far deal with the problem/a case of voluntary euthanasia?”.

It seems that the Christian has a standard answer to a question like this: “Euthanasia = Murder; God’s commandments forbid killing other people; Thus, it follows that euthanasia, i.e. voluntary euthanasia, is morally wrong. But, are things so simple – for the Christian? What about the other well-known Christian dogma: you should love and respect your fellow human beings? Given the above, doesn’t it follow that there is a conflict between two of God’s commandments? What’s the answer to this dilemma? It seems that the Christian will have to decide which one of these two rules has more force – in a certain situation.

How would Kant deal with the problem of voluntary euthanasia? It seems that the second version of the Categorical Imperative causes trouble for Kant. This moral rule dictates that: we should treat other people with respect. So, it would seem that voluntary euthanasia goes against the spirit of the second version of the Categorical Imperative. At the very same time, however, this rule dictates that we should respect a person’s wishes. If this is so, then what about the wish of a patient to put an end to his suffering? It seems that Kantian Ethics does not have an easy answer to the problem of euthanasia either.

Now, what about the Utilitarian? Does he have an answer to the problem of voluntary euthanasia? It seems that the Utilitarian has an easy answer to this question. If by euthanizing somebody we manage to satisfy the principle of utility, then this particular action is morally right. But, are things that simple? Can the Utilitarian really calculate the possible consequences in a case like this? This issue will be discussed in class. See also the material in your textbook, pp

Finally, we need to consider the virtue ethicist’s answer to the problem of voluntary euthanasia. It seems that there are problems here as well. Putatively, the virtue of charity is not opposed to euthanasia. But, what about the virtue of justice (= respect for the laws of a country). Isn’t this virtue opposed to such an action? What does the material in the last few slides show? A cynic would probably argue that the study of ethics is a waste of time. After all, it transpires that ethical theories are in no position to help us solve (real life) ethical problems. I believe, however, that the above is an unfair assessment.

It may indeed be true that the various ethical theories we have examined so far are in no position to give us practical solutions to real life (ethical) problems. After all, we have just seen that all of these theories face problems when it comes to the issue of voluntary euthanasia. However, this is not the most important point here. We need to acknowledge that ethics, and philosophy in general, gives us the tools we need in order to solve such real life problems. That is to say, reasoning is what is required to successfully solve such problems. And, ethics/philosophy is the discipline that gives us the skills/the tools we need to deal with such issues.

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