In philosophy, virtue ethics can come in different flavours. The form of virtue ethics that I will be using in this tutorial is Aristotelean virtue ethics. This kind of virtue ethics, surprisingly enough, comes from the traditional philosopher Aristotle.
In Aristotle’s approach to ethics, it is less about judging by our actions and the consequences, and more about the person’s character. The character we should aim for, is a character of someone who is virtuous. The character we should avoid, is a character of someone who is vicious. A virtuous person, is someone who’s character is better explained in terms of virtues, whereas a vicious person, is someone who’s character is better explained in terms of vices.
What makes something a virtue or a vice?
A virtue, in the Aristotelean sense, is the mean between two extremes of behaviour, and a vice is the extreme version of that behaviour. The most clear example of an Aristotelean virtue is the virtue of being courageous. Courage is the mean between the two extremes of being cowardly or timid, and being rash or careless. An example of this could be a soldier during war. A soldier who does their duty and follows their orders is courageous, whereas one that runs away abandoning their fellow soldiers is being cowardly, whilst a soldier who charges like crazy without any consideration for the well being of themselves or others is being rash and careless.
Aristotles defence of the virtuous character is that it would lead to a world he called ‘Eudiamonia’, which roughly translates as human flourishing. In a world where most people were virtuous rather than vicious, would create such a world. This is because he believed that behaviour of a more virtuous nature would bring about consequences that would more likely create circumstances that reflected a flourishing world. For instance, in both worlds where the solider is rash or cowardly, they are not helping anybody, whilst when they are courageous they are.
Try to see whether you can decide what kinds of behaviour are virtuous or vicious:
- Stealing a sweet because you like them
- Stealing a can of beans because you are poor and starving
- Giving 10% of your income to charity
- Giving 80% of your income to charity
- Buying your child a used car when they turn 18
- Buying your child a third BMW when they turn 18
I highly recommend the book “Twelve theories of human nature” by Leslie Stevenson, David L. Haberman and Peter Matthews Wright, which is in the link below.