Elements of an Ethics Textbook (5): Virtue Ethics

Together with utilitarianism and deontology, virtue ethics presents the final category in the triumvirate of the most common classifications of ethical theories. Having fallen into the shadow cast by the novel Enlightenment theories of Kant, Bentham, and Mill for several centuries, virtue ethics has nevertheless experienced something of a revival in the latter part of the last century (thanks, in part, to Elizabeth Anscombe’s seminal 1958 essay “Modern Moral Philosophy,” which has been included amongst the readings in this chapter). This is a somewhat ironic turn of events given that virtue ethics is arguably the most traditional form of ethics and many philosophers have maintained that it is the most natural as well. Indeed, given the essentially imitative and emulative nature of human beings, it seems that virtue ethics captures the de facto method by which our implicit moral conditioning is established, at least until we start to reflect critically upon it.

Like utilitarianism, virtue ethics can be classified under the rubric of teleological approaches to ethics. Unlike utilitarianism, however, the end or telos toward which virtue ethics strives is integral to the character of the agent in question. The Greek words hedonia (ἡδονία), which refers to pleasure, and eudaimonia (εὐδαιμονία), which literally indicates something like “the state of being in good stead with one’s spirit or conscience,” expressively convey the distinction between the orientations of utilitarianism and virtue ethics, respectively. That fact that the English term “happiness” remains equivocal as to which of these connotations it is intended to designate presents an initial challenge to any attempt to distinguish between these two basic teleological outlooks. Moreover, that J. S. Mill employed the term “happiness” to describe the summum bonum of the utilitarian doctrine while, at the same time, many translators have opted to render the term eudaimonia, as it appears in Aristotle’s seminal text The Nicomachean Ethics with the same English word has led to untold confusion amongst students of philosophy. In fact, this equivocation is partly responsible for kindling my motivation to compose this ethics reader. 

The divergence between virtue ethics and utilitarianism is more significant than the difference between “pleasure” and “human flourishing,” which represent alternate translations of hedonia and eudaimonia, respectively. Indeed, despite both representing teleological approaches to ethics, virtue ethics is something of an inversion of utilitarianism in an essential sense: to wit, virtue ethics emphasizes the cultivation of virtuous traits of character in the moral agent. This transformation of the agent is sought by means of acting in a manner that is consistent with the possession of such traits so that they become habits. “Practice makes perfect,” as the old saw expresses this principle. Utilitarianism, by contrast, renders the moral agent somewhat incidental to the question of ethics except for its ability to promote net utility with its actions and its instrumental function as a venue for the experience of pleasure. Virtue ethics assumes almost the opposite stance, in which the moral agent is front and center. In this way, the consequences that follow from a given action are subordinated in significance to the manner in which performing that action served both (a) to express a given virtue and also (b) to sculpt the character of the moral agent. The latter, as noted above, is accomplished by way of inclining her, through practice and force of habit, toward future actions of the same caliber. In this way, virtue ethics does not attempt to abstract the outcome of a given deed from either the deed itself or the doer of the deed. 

Virtue ethics possesses the further advantage over other theories of ethics that a certain responsiveness to context is inherent in the theory itself. To act in a manner consistent with virtue does not preemptively prescribe a universal principle to follow, or a moral law for the agent to submit himself to. At the same time, this very lack of express moral guidance is largely responsible for virtue ethics having been supplanted by utilitarian and deontological theories of ethics in the last centuries. Whether it is possible to identify the answer to which is the correct approach is not a question that is likely to be settled in the final paragraph of this introduction to virtue ethics but, as Socrates observed at the very dawn of the Western philosophical tradition: conscious ignorance is the beginning of wisdom. 

Following the “industry standard,” I have chosen a selection from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (350 B.C.) as the keynote text for this chapter on virtue ethics. It is not without reason that Aristotle has been recognized as the preeminent representative of this approach. Building on the work of his teacher Plato, Aristotle was the first thinker to attempt a systematic codification of virtue ethics and to this day, the result of his attempt remains one of the finest and clearest expositions of this approach. Following the excerpt from Nicomachean Ethics is a short selection culled from the anonymous Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf which is followed by a miscellany of excerpts from the Platonic dialogues which display Socrates as the archetypical philosopher or “wisdom-lover” and also offer a theoretical presentation of ethics as virtue. 

Before continuing with the presentation of readings, a brief digression is in order by way of clarification for my choices above. Evidently, the ordering outlined in the preceding paragraph flouts the historical sequence of composition that I indicated would serve as my rule for organizing the texts. Still, I have opted to present the selection from Beowulf before turning to Plato because the former represents a manifestly “earlier” or “younger” approach to virtue ethics than do the Platonic dialogues. This distinction is best understood in terms of “degree of explicitness.” In Beowulf, the virtues are depicted; in the Nicomachean Ethics they are described. The Platonic dialogues represent something of a transitional form. Plato, in other words, had one foot in each world and the dialogue form—as a combination of dramatic and dialectical elements—serves as the perfect expression of this. It is perhaps important to acknowledge the geographical as well as the historical leap that the decision to place Beowulf between Aristotle and Plato entails. Not only do roughly fourteen centuries separate the composition of these texts, but approximately fourteen hundred miles divide England from Greece as well. I could have easily maintained fidelity to the historical approach, and homogeneity of tradition as well, by selecting one of Homer’s epics, which both Plato and his most famous student are endlessly quoting. But I chose to select an Anglo-Saxon epic for the sake of suggesting this general principle of evolution from pictorial to conceptual presentations of virtue ethics that is not confined to a specific culture, people, or tradition. That this process of transition in ancient Greece predated that in Northern Europe by over a millennia does not diminish from the ability to recognize the isomorphism of a common principle any more than does the fact that two individuals born in different years and in different places are likely to reach adolescence at different circumstances as well. The absolute difference in years and in place does not obviate the commonality in principle of the phenomenon in question.

Following the initial selection from Aristotle, the excerpt from Beowulf, and the miscellany of excerpts from the Platonic dialogues, I have included Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount,” which offers one of the most radical and challenging presentations of virtue ethics in all of history. Next is an excerpt from Epictetus’ The Enchiridion (135 C.E.) which serves as an exemplary presentation of the Stoic approach to virtue ethics. Next, I have included Benjamin Franklin’s famous list of 13 virtues, which, according to his autobiography, he wrote composed at the mere age of twenty. Finally, I have included Elizabeth Anscombe’s 1958 essay “Modern Moral Philosophy” which is largely credited with sparking the modern revival of virtue ethics following several centuries of primarily utilitarian and deontological approaches to the subject.

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