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Analysis of the Philosophical Concept of Virtue Ethics

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All of morality aims at the same thing but there are several basic ways to get there. If you prefer, each approach is like a different tool a hammer, a nail, a level. Using the right tool for the right job makes it easier to do your work and increases the chances that you’ll wind up with a quality product. If we can grasp the basic ideas of each of the different approaches to ethics, in a better position to make a sound ethical decision. There are other ways in which moral philosophy and philosophers can be categorized, but establishing ethical theories into their three schools is a useful way to understand ethics. The three schools are virtue ethics, consequentiality ethics, and deontological or duty-based ethics. Each approach provides a different way to understanding ethics. Ethics or moral philosophy is a branch of philosophy that involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong conduct. The field of ethics, along with aesthetics, concerns matters of value, and thus comprises the branch of philosophy called axiology.

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Virtue ethics is concerned with the character of the individual and not any particular system of analysis or approach that she or he may use when facing an ethical dilemma. The difficulty with understanding this school of ethics is that it does not provide a list of ethically good actions with which to judge behavior in a particular situation. Indeed, it would be incorrect to view virtue ethics as a virtuous person carrying a template of ethical values and principles to consult whenever facing an ethical conundrum of dilemma. Lawrence Kohlberg (1981) called this the “bag of virtues” approach to decision making. Rather, virtue ethics relates to predispositions of the person’s character which have developed over time and resulted in virtuous habits of action exemplifying a virtuous character. Such is not a list of ethical values which are used as a checklist by the individual when facing an ethical scenario requiring a decision. In that sense, St. Thomas More as portrayed in the movie “A Man for All Seasons” is a good example of a character exhibiting Virtue Ethics. A further example may be the Reverend Martin Luther King who acted from an interior belief and a deeply developed character manifested in both word and deed. His sense of justice, brotherhood, and respect in the face of injustice and violence directed towards himself and people of both color and poverty in the United States of America are renown. A third person who exemplified character ethics is Martin Luther who when faced with a choice to recant certain religious beliefs or face excommunication from the Catholic Church refused to recant, and as a matter of personal conscience allegedly said to his inquisitors, “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God”.

In all three of the above examples, the individual’s virtuous character was shaped by his May day-to-day decisions before the penultimate decision-making event. Thus, in a sense, his decision regarding that event did not so much shape his virtuous character as to manifest it. Moreover, the virtuous nature of the individual’s character is seen to involve the cognitive, affective, and relational aspects of the individual. Hence, the decision results from the sum total of the individual’s character, not a particular calculation in a particular set of circumstances. It is in the doing – the acting out on an ethical matter that is where the ethical virtue of the individual is revealed. The above can be difficult to understand.

Let us look at an example of what is meant using Virtue ethics when one says that a person is honest. Note that one does not say that she or he acted honestly, but rather that she or he is honest. It is the character that is at issue; hence, the reasons, including other involved aspects of the personality. For example, the emotional reasons for the – action as understood by the person – are crucial in making the determination of honesty. It is important to note that one can exhibit honesty in some situations but not others. Further, in virtue ethics the concept of practical wisdom is crucial. What does that term mean? One can honestly want a particular result from an action which one initiates but without practical wisdom, it may not be achieved. Practical wisdom comes with experience and may be said to be synonymous, for our purposes, with being able to choose amongst various possible decisions with a broad understanding of the multifaceted and broad meaning of the decision to those affected including the self. A decision made with practical wisdom is made with eyes wide open to all the pre-existing elements, the contextual factors, and the consequences to those affected with the decision. Unlike wisdom simplicities, which does not necessarily consider the impact of a a decision on the ground in terms of the actual persons – including the decision-maker – and relationships to and amongst persons and things, practical wisdom exhibits maturity, deep consideration of culture, persons, and things, and possible consequences with a close appreciation of the actual situation with the temporal nature of the situation involved in the decision.

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For those advocates of Virtue ethics, the belief is that if one lives a life of good character which utilizes practical wisdom, one can achieve the goal, at least for this school of thought, of personal happiness which is sometimes referred to as eudemonia meaning that one flourishes according to the nature of being human. There are four classic or “cardinal” virtues: Prudence (wisdom), justice (fairness), fortitude (courage), and temperance (self-control). These are evidenced in work of Greek philosophers, most obviously in Plato (The Republic, 360 BCE). There are also three well known “theological virtues” found in religions: faith, hope, and love. Other virtues such as excellence, respect, promise-keeping, honesty, and citizenship are commonly described as virtue and citizenship ethicists (such as Michael Josephson, cited earlier).

Reference:

  1. Donlevy, J. K., & Walker, K. D. (2011). Ethical Schools of Thought. Working Through Ethics in Education and Leadership,21-32. doi:10.1007/978-94-6091-376-1_3

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