Virtue Ethics — or, how to be a good person?


Aristotle — oh, how I don’t like thee… but, his theory is good, so you’ll need to figure it out.

Here’s the deal with virtue ethics, it’s not really like deontology (Kant) or utilitarianism — it’s not about outcomes or motives — it’s about modeling a good life.

What’s that?  A virtuous person lives and acts virtuously — helpful, no.. not really…

How about this, we learn to be virtuous by watching others… maybe — that’s a bit more helpful, but — how does that help you make a decision when you need to?  What if you never saw someone sort out a similar problem or challenge…

Well, then it comes down to being the mean between the extremes…

Thing about it this way — Aristotle says that to figure out how to act, consider the extreme options, then choose the middle one.

So — while Kant talks about not treating someone as a means to an end — Aristotle uses “mean” to indicate “middle”…

Think about courage for example — the extremes are being a coward and taking foolish risks — the action between them is displaying courage.

It goes on like this — over and over again…. but, the general idea is that if you choose that middle action on a reliable basis (like, it becomes your habit or your default position) you’ll be leading a virtuous life.

It’s also the case that the same action could be virtuous for one person and not for another.  If I were to donate $100 to a charity, that would probably be generous for me — I can afford it, but I also have to make other spending cuts — If a wealthy person were to donate $100, they probably wouldn’t have to make any spending cuts — so it wouldn’t be generous… and for a poor person, it would be foolish because they couldn’t pay rent etc…

So — figure out what it means to be virtuous — and do that thing…


1 Comment

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One response to “Virtue Ethics — or, how to be a good person?

  1. JC Davis

    Dr. Smith, if we were to follow this internal assessment, does it lack validity because it is not judged objectively by some other standard? I mean, is that enough – to act with virtue to our own conscience – or do we need to have this validated somehow (which begs the question of by whom and under what authority)?

    Put another way: if I donate $100 because that is truly all I can donate, how am I to be perceived by society? Does it matter? If I believe in a god, then I suppose I can abrogate my accountability to him/her/it, and if I don’t believe in god and don’t care for any external validation then I suppose all is well too. Is it all internal?


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