5 Virtue Ethics: Being a Good Person

5 Virtue Ethics: Being a Good Person

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Learning Objectives

After reading this chapter, you should be able to:

• Explain the core features of a virtue-based moral theory.

• Describe the notion of a telos and how that informs how people should act in particular situations.

• Explain the Aristotelian concept of happiness and what makes it unique.

• Identify and explain the core features of a virtue as defined by Aristotle.

• Identify Aristotle’s cardinal virtues and explain their importance in a flourishing life.

• Discuss objections that claim that virtue ethics is self-centered, doesn’t provide adequate guidance, and reinforces prejudices.

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Section 5.1 Introduction

Whatever you are, be a good one.


5.1 Introduction In Chapter 1 we described ethics as the act of seek- ing answers to the question “How should one live?” The answers examined in the previous two chap- ters focused almost exclusively on accounts of what one should do. Utilitarianism holds that one should do those actions that have the best overall conse- quences relative to the alternatives and refrain from those that do not. Deontological ethics holds that one should do those actions that are right in themselves and refrain from those that are wrong in themselves, regardless of the consequences. In other words, we have a duty to do or not do certain actions. Yet surely there is much more to living well than merely doing right things and avoiding wrong ones.

In fact, we may find ourselves thinking that the rea- son we ought to do certain things and avoid others is because this is integral to something more fun- damental—namely, being a good person. The quote that launched this chapter seems to capture this idea. Our lives are varied and complex. We occupy many different roles and have a multitude of inter- ests and commitments. We are beings that don’t simply make choices but have emotions, instincts, and desires. We aren’t simply minds; we are also animals and bodies. We aren’t merely individu- als, but members of families, communities, teams, clubs, cultures, traditions, and religions. Whatever it is that characterizes our lives in these multifac- eted ways, we want to be good.

But is this merely a matter of doing the right thing, or is it more a matter of being a certain way, as the phrase “We want to be good” suggests? If so, then we might be inclined to think of ethics—the search for answers regarding how one should live—as per- taining more to the kinds of people we ought to be than simply what we ought to do, and in particular to what constitutes good character. This is one of the fundamental ideas behind virtue ethics.

Allegory of the Virtues, c. 1529, Coreggio; 4X5 Collection/Superstock

Allegory of the Virtues by Antonio da Correggio (1489–1534). In the middle sits Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom. The figure on the lower left is surrounded by symbols of the four cardinal virtues: the snake in her hair symbolizes practical wisdom, the sword in her right hand symbolizes justice, the reins in her left hand symbolize temperance, and the lion skin symbolizes courage. The figure to the right is often interpreted as representing intellectual virtue.

© 2018 Bridgepoint Education, Inc. All rights reserved. Not for resale or redistribution.

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