Virtue ethics attempts to create a fresh approach to ethics which has only become popular recently but is an ancient theory stemming back to Plato and Aristotle and areatic ethics, which is derived from the word ‘arête’ meaning virtuous or excellence. Unlike Situation ethics and Natural law which concentrate on moral actions, Virtue ethics concentrates on the person or the agent performing the actions. It is not concerned with the motive or the consequence of an action but rather the person and therefore resists a teleological/deontological classification. Everyone aims for Aristotle’s Eudaimonia – the ancient Greek concept of a state of being concerned with contentment and satisfaction in life. This is the highest good because we desire it for its own sake; it is intrinsically good, unlike the desire for Justice which leads good living. Alisdair MacIntyre, who was a recent moderniser of Aristotles theory believes that our society has lost track of the virtues. He says that a moral society would be one in which people recognise and accept common virtues. He also noted that in moral dilemmas naturalistic theories are of little value because they are too time consuming and overly complex.
The telos of virtue ethics for Aristotle, 384BC-322BC, was that humans have a universal purpose of eudemonia which he said was “an activity of the soul in conformity with virtue” He believed that eudamonia was the superior aim for all people and that there was also subordinate aims: these being the 12 virtues. Aristotle believed that to achieve eudamonia we must practice mean of 12 moral virtues, where we adjust each virtue to an appropriate level for what we need to do. He classed these twelve virtues as subordinate aims. Among them were patience, truthfulness and modesty. He believed that we needed to master the virtues through Phronesis: knowing what we should do (knowledge) and controlling Akrasia: weakness of will (emotions). An example of adjusting the mean of virtues is that a firefighter needs more courage than a primary school teacher.
Macintyre, a 20th century moderniser of Aristotle in his book ‘After virtue a study in moral theory’ said that groups of people made different purposes, for example Christians share the purpose or aim of reaching heaven. Different moral ideals are neither incidental nor optional additions to the role a person plays, but each reflects an overall telos inherent in the social fabric of sometime and place. Macintyre believed that both superior and subordinate aims are decided by the group, context or social conditions at that particular time. He disagreed with a universal nature. He believed that groups of people make their virtues- contextually and that they came from history and narrative, where we gain virtues from what we are doing as they develop into traditions. He used the example of Homer or Homer’s odyssey the concept of an arête being different to ours. “for the new testament not only praises virtues of which Aristotle knows nothing- faith, hope and love” “Even though some virtues are available only to certain types of people, none the less virtues attach not to men inhabiting social roles, but to man as such.
Aristotle believed that our friends should be more skilled than us/ more virtuous so that we can learn from them – our role models. Aristotle believed that we need people like this, so that when we want to give up due to Akrasia then seeing our role models carry on, helps us to want to because others have made the effort. Stanley Millgrams experiment involving electric shocks where people carried out 450 volt shocks, if someone of higher authority told them it was okay to do so, demonstrating MacIntyre’s, ideas on virtues and the idea that we are influence by those around us.
To conclude, Virtue theory is person rather than action based: it looks at the virtue or moral character of the person