Examine the key features of Virtue Ethics

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Examine the key features of Virtue Ethics (18)

Evaluate the extent to which the selected theory can withstand criticism (12)

Virtue Ethics is an ethical method that rejects the deontological ethics of Kant, the consequentialism of Utilitarianism and religious ethics as some ethicists were worried by an apparent lack of love, care and compassion in both of these moralities. ‘Virtue’ comes from the Greek word, arête, which means excellence, and centers on the character of the person making the moral decision rather than the action itself. Instead of focusing on the act, like deontology, it is agent-centered. ‘We are not concerned to know what goodness is but how to become good people, since otherwise our enquiry would be useless.’ Those such as Aristotle suggest that the ‘ethics of dilemma’ approach to morality forgets an essential part of ethics.

A key feature of Virtue Ethics is eudaemonia, which Aristotle argued should be the superior aim of human life. Eudaemonia is achieved when we become virtuous and Aristotle argued that this is a process that we grow towards by practicing virtues. However, Aristotle noted that ‘happiness’ could be subjective, consequently leading him to define three types of pleasure. The three types of pleasure are, pleasure seekers, seekers of honour and those who love contemplation. We slowly develop into good people by practicing such virtues, however absolute rules are not required. Instead, a good person will behave in the right way simply because it is right. Aristotle believed that the pleasures seekers find the lowest forms of happiness; he wrote ‘the utter servility of the masses comes out in their preference for a bovine [animalistic existence.]’ This is a similar view to John Stuart Mill, who defined higher forms of pleasure and lower forms in utilitarianism. Mill labelled intellectual activities as high forms, and behaviors such as gluttony as low forms. Aristotle believed that these high virtues are what separate us from animals, as the difference between humans and animals is the human ability to reason. People are able to understand their human nature and recognise tensions between emotions and reason through practical wisdom, phronesis. Phronesis is therefore the exercising of a mature wills which enables a person to act with wisdom and discernment. According to Aristotle, this ability originated from the soul and the soul was divided into two parts, rational and irrational. Reason is the executive, deciding when to act upon emotions through a balanced appetite. There are three fragments of the soul, the calculative, the desiderative and the vegetative and if the soul uses all these parts well and properly, then it is truly functional. This is very important because only a soul that functions correctly can find eudemonia.
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Another key feature of Virtue Ethics is the doctrine of the golden mean, which does not entail a denial of emotions but investigates to what extent reason permits the expression of emotions. Aristotle developed Plato’s tripartheid teaching of the soul by attributing virtues to each feature, reason, emotions and appetite. The golden mean is the perfect balance between excess and deficiency, and there must be an awareness of the circumstances in which we act, otherwise known as prudence. Aristotle (as well as Plato and the Stoics) also put forward four main virtues, the cardinal virtues. Temperance, justice, courage ...

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