Monday February 27, 2012
Important Announcement: Our class on the morning of Monday March 19 will
be cancelled due to my participation in a conference. My sincere apologies for this.
R EMINDER THAT YOUR SHORT PAPERS ARE DUE IN CLASS ON W EDNESDAY M ARCH
A LSO,Term paper questions and instructions now posted on B.B.
This week: Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics
Next week: We begin our adventure into “Metaphysics”
Aristotle (384-322 BCE)
- Student of Plato, and teacher to Alexander the Great…
- Hugely influential in virtually every area of philosophy: Logic, Metaphysics,
- Perhaps the first wholly systematic philosopher.
- His many claims were both amazingly impressive and, at other times,
strangely off the mark:
(1) Spherical earth.
"there are stars seen in Egypt and [...] Cyprus which are not seen in the northerly
regions.” This could only be true on a curved surface, so Aristotle concluded that the
earth was spherical.
(2) The claim that human males have more teeth than females. What traits of character make one a good person?
Other theories = right action
VE = excellence of character
We judge persons as well as actions. And it is with persons that the ethics of virtue is
“Virtues are dispositions not only to act in particular ways, but also to feel in
particular ways.” (MacIntyre)
-Evaluates both intent/motivation AND outcome/utility
-Neither by itself is enough to guarantee virtue!
For Aristotle (as James Rachels says),
“a virtue is a trait of character manifested in habitual action.”
The ‘habitual’ is important.
But how do we then distinguish virtues from their opposites (i.e. vices)? Vices
are “traits of character manifested in habitual action” too, after all. We seek out people for different purposes, and this affects which virtues are
relevant. In looking for an auto mechanic, we want someone who is skillful, honest,
and conscientious; in looking for a teacher, we want someone who is
knowledgeable, articulate, and patient. Thus, the virtues associated with auto repair
are different from the virtues associated with teaching.
But we also assess people as people in a more general way, so we have the concept,
not just of a good mechanic or a good teacher, but of a good person.
The moral virtues are the virtues of persons as such. Thus, we may define a virtue as
a trait of character, manifested in habitual action, that it is good for a person to have.
And the moral virtues are the virtues that it is good for everyone to have.
A “partial” list of virtues:
Benevolence, civility, compassion, conscientiousness, cooperativeness, courage,
fairness, friendliness, generosity, honesty, justice, loyalty, moderation, patience,
prudence, reasonableness, tolerance, and so on….
Aristotle thought we should always act in accordance with “the mean” – sometimes
called “the golden mean”.
The mean is the right balance in between excess and lack in terms of a virtue – “the
mean by reference to two vices: the one of excess and the other of deficiency.”
We must hit the mean to act rightly. Thus, if you eat too much, that is an extreme
(an excess), whereas if you eat too little, that is the other extreme (a deficiency). If
you eat jut the right amount, that is the mean. The same is true of our emotions. If you are always losing patience with people that
is an excess. But if you never get angry at all, that is a deficiency , because in some
circumstances anger is appropriate. Getting angry at the right things, at the right
time and in the right place, Aristotle would say, is to hit the mean.
Pride = the mean between bragging shamelessly and acting sheepishly diffident
Courage = the mean between cowardice and a ‘suicide wish’
Generosity = the mean between stinginess and extravagance.
And so on.
The mean is (partly) context dependant:
The right amount to eat will differ for a ballerina and a weightlifter. A generous act
may well differ for a millionaire and a beggar.
The mean is an objective feature of the situations in which we act and not just
a matter of subjective feelings or opinion. But because people with their
particular needs and temperaments are part of those situations, the mean is
often partly relative to them. How does the virtuous agent figure out what to do?
(1)One ought to act courageously (major premise)
(2)To do X would be to act courageously (minor premise)
(3)Therefore, one ought to do X.
(1) Requires rationality
(2) Requires a kind of practical reasoning; a recognition of what is called for in a
To be virtuous requires:
-Seeing in the right way;
-Noticing what a moral situation specifically calls for.
-Acting as appropriate to the situation.
Martha Nussbaum, a contemporary Aristotelian, says the virtuous agent is: “Finely
aware and richly responsible”
John McDowell says that virtuous agents demonstrate “a reliable sensitivity” to
moral situations. An illustrative example:
“You are in the hospital recovering from a long illness. You are bored and restless,
ad so you are delighted when Smith arrives to visit. You have a good time chatting
with him; his visit is just what you needed. After a while, you tell Smith how much
you appreciate his coming – he really is a good friend to take the trouble to come all
the way across town to see you. But Smith demurs; he confesses that he is merely
doing his duty. At first you think he is onl