Virtue Ethics and the view that ethics should be wholly concerned with a person’s attributes based on the holistic theory of Aristotle and his Golden Mean, is a newly accepted theory, which looks at a person’s virtues and not their actions. It is a view that directly contrasts with the theories of Kant and Bentham, which focus on actions as opposed to the actual person making those actions.
Although the deontological nature of Kant’s theory does partially contradict the teleological constitution of Bentham’s theory, they both focus on the moral decision that a person chooses to make and these theories both clash with Virtue Ethics, in respect that Virtue Ethics looks at why and what made the person make that decision. Whilst it is important to focus on the person behind the action, a more consequentialist view of ethics is a better functioning theory in today’s society due to the emphasis placed on the result of actions and the many cultures in the world, where virtuous acts would be difficult to define.
In this essay, I will explore these contrasting ethical positions to prove that ethics should be more concerned with what you do than who you are. Aristotle’s theory is ultimately based on the idea of reaching eudaimonia, and this was something which, unlike the theories of Bentham and Mill, was sought for itself rather than as a means to some other end. The virtues that lead to this “happiness” are described by Aristotle to be like a habit, they should be learnt and acquired – making one a better person, meaning that they will make the correct moral decisions.
Using “ Virtue Ethics” as an approach to life is taken up by many parents across the globe, as they act to make the child become a better person. However, one must question whether Virtue Ethics is a logical means of moral explanation as perhaps just because a person has many desirable virtues, it doesn’t certainly follow that they will make good, ethical, moral decisions. The aim of reaching Eudaimonia highlights the teleological aspect of Virtue Ethics as it is Aristotle’s GOAL for life.
However whereas in consequentialism actions are taken in order to be happy, Aristotle believes that we should be happy in order to do something else. Aristotle arrived at the answer of whether an act was virtuous or not by using his “Final Cause” argument. In this, he believed that everything has a final good, which is achieved by fulfilling the purpose for which it was designed. Aristotle claimed that we all learn to have virtues that are “good” and will help us to obtain Eudaimonia.
However, a major flaw of Virtue Ethics, leads from this, as Virtues are liable to change. The attributes that Aristotle valued are not necessarily what is valued in today’s society. He also talked about the doctrine of the Golden Mean. This aspect of virtue ethics is, for me, what makes it a potentially credible theory, as it takes into account human emotions, recognising that we can sometimes be extreme. This is explained by the idea of vices versus virtues, in that we should not have extremes of virtues as they are no longer “good”.
However, surely this makes virtue ethics hard to follow, as there are no clear rules of what to do in a moral dilemma, instead just telling us to be a balanced person. By being a balanced person, Aristotle concludes that people will also be moral After Aristotle Virtue ethics was dismissed until Elizabeth Anscombe revived it in 1958, criticising Kant and Bentham claiming they are in their ivory tower, with theories that are not in touch with todays society. This point made by Anscombe really highlights the changeability of ethics, as ethics can change with society.
The point about morals adapting to society reflects MacIntyre’s view on Virtue Ethics as he makes it more current and recognises that virtues must operate within a community for them to be “virtuous”. Contradicting Virtue Ethics are the theories that hold that ethics and morals should be based on the actions that one takes, such as the theories of Kant and Bentham. The Teleological stance on morals, taken by relativists including Bentham and Mill believe that the consequences of an action define its ‘goodness’.
By doing so, relativists ensure that the focus of ethics is on the actions that are taken, which relates to todays society. An example of this is the justice system in Britain… Jury’s are not interested in your attributes, or how good a person you are; if somebody has committed a crime (a bad action) then they will be punished for that. Personally, I feel that just because you are a good, virtuous person does not defy you from making unethical decisions, a view that Virtue Ethics contradicts.
Unlike consequentialism, absolutism focusses on the motives for the action. By following definite rules, absolutists believe that acts are intrinsically wrong. Kant believes that all his definite rules can be universalised and followed by anybody – no matter how ‘virtuous’ they are. These rules are meant to give the best moral outcome, but circumstances occur that when these rules can contradict a deep rooted moral conscience. This is shown with the example of is a murder asked you where your friend was so they could kill them, would you be obliged to tell the truth?
This problem is eradicated by consequentialism as each moral issue is treated differently and circumstances, time and place are all taken into account. This is a clear advantage of relativism as opposed to absolutism, because it can change with different societies, and is accepting of other cultures. By focussing on what people do, ethics ensures that people can be held responsible for their actions. The ends of a decision are what really matters in ethics because that is what makes the change to your life, the lives of others or society. Morals need to be based on ends in order to take into account these differences.
Without basing morals on ends, the same rules would have to apply to everything, all the time which wouldn’t work. Despite this strength of the teleological argument I think it needs to be interpreted with this quote in mind “when in Rome do as the Romans do”. This way, we avoid the criticism that ‘anything would go’, as within societies people would be clear on the moral guidelines, but unlike absolutism, would not feel condemned if they felt the need to break those guidelines. Virtue Ethics is a good way of life, but I don’t feel that is as good for functioning in society as consequentialism