Fresno City College Virtue Ethics Reflection Paper


Question Description

Informed Reflection: Citing, at least, THREE (3) of the sources from this module (my lectures must be one of your sources, and you should include one reading if provided), explain what virtue ethics is and how it is different from the other theories (make sure to explain the concepts of phronesis and eudaimonia). Also, describe at least one advantage that virtue ethics is said to have over the other theories. Make sure you discuss this in your own words. Don't just summarize three sources; use the sources as evidence for your own ideas. Explain how engagement with the material altered and/or confirmed your initial thoughts on the topic. This response must be, at least, 250 words.

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2/27/2019 1 Virtue Ethics 2 Virtue Ethics • Oldest of the main ethical theories; roots in Plato, but developed under Aristotle (most modern conceptions described as neo-Aristotelian); dominated until the Enlightenment, but fell out of favor (probably because of Darwinism); revitalized in 1950’s with a paper by Elizabeth Anscombe that criticized other theories; popular modern proponents: Philippa Foot, Alasdair MacIntyre, & Rosalind Hursthouse • [And most importantly: Wes McMichael ] • Focus: • Other theories focus on right actions, virtue ethics focuses on right character; doesn’t disregard actions, but main emphasis is character • Deontological Ethics focuses on rules; Consequentialism focuses on consequences; virtue ethics focuses on the character of the virtuous person • Example: You know of someone in serious financial need; Kantian looks to rule like, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”; Consequentialist looks to positive consequences of helping someone in need; Virtue ethicist notes that helping someone in need is what a person who is charitable or benevolent does • Three primary concepts of most importance: 1. arête—excellence/virtue 2. phronesis—practical wisdom 3. eudaimonia—happiness/flourishing 3 Arête/Virtue • Examples of virtues: benevolence, kindness, compassion, courage, honesty, loyalty, temperance, prudence, etc. • Examples of vices: callous, cruel, dishonest, intemperate, foolish, disloyal, etc. • Virtues = traits of character; not mere tendencies; goes deep down; part of who one is • E.g. compassionate person is moved by tragedy; one is morally blameworthy for not feeling sadness when hears of tragedy • Unique to virtue ethics; other theories focus only on actions; as long as one does the right thing, she’s fulfilled moral duties; doesn’t count inner feelings; virtue ethics counts attitudes; more demanding • Possessing a virtue means acting for certain reasons—e.g. “Doing X would not be courageous” • E.g. giving back incorrect change because it would be dishonest to take it, or because one doesn’t want clerk to get in trouble • Possessing virtue doesn’t simply mean one always acts a certain way (person who possesses virtue of honesty, may recognize that it would be tactless to use the truth to hurt one’s feelings); suggests a negative attitude toward virtues (repulsed by dishonesty; doesn’t want to be around dishonest people; trains children to be honest; etc.) • Most people possess virtues imperfectly; Aristotle made distinction: virtuous person vs. continent person 1 2/27/2019 • Most people possess virtues imperfectly; Aristotle made distinction: virtuous person vs. continent person • Fully virtuous person acts on virtues without hesitation or regret • Continent person does the right thing, but w/out right motives (hesitant or feels tension) • Distinction sometimes seems counterintuitive; often people praised for doing the right thing when it’s hard for them to do; if hard because of circumstances (e.g. returning a full wallet to a rich man when you are very poor), it is still praiseworthy; if hard because of character (would like to keep what is not yours), then doing the right thing is less praiseworthy 4 Phronesis/Practical wisdom • Possessing a virtue means more than having good intentions related to acts of a virtue (e.g. courage is more than fearlessness, honesty is more than impulse to speak the truth) • Must distinguish between what a nice child would do/feel (children develop virtues over time, but cannot possess them) and what a virtuous adult would do/feel; distinction involves phronesis • Good intentions vs. phronesis • Good intention = intention to “do the right thing” • Phronesis = knowledge/understanding to do the right thing in a given situation; more than intentions, knowledge of what the practice of the virtue would look like in a given situation; ability to recognize the morally relevant features of a given situation • Phronesis comes by life experience; can’t be learned in a book; is a matter of knowing what to do in a given situation, fully aware of the consequences of actions and what is needed in the situation • E.g. To possess the virtue generosity is more than intention to give; a matter of knowing the right amount of the right sort of thing, for the right reasons, to the right people, on the right occasions (i.e. generosity is not giving too much when one cannot afford it; not giving overly expensive gifts to the wealthy; not giving to someone who is simply lazy or idle; not financing someone who is in a bad condition simply because they overspend habitually, etc.); difference between being generous and being a sucker • Key distinction: difference between well-intentioned child or teen who cannot possess virtues (only those w/many experiences possess virtues, others [children, teens, etc.] are merely continent) 5 Eudaimonia/Flourishing • Another way of describing phronesis is to say the person knows what it means to “live well”/flourish • Difficult to translate Greek concept of eudaimonia; most translate “happiness” or “flourishing”; close, but both misleading • “happiness”: understood in contemporary times as subjective; if I think I am happy, then I am; but this is not Greek conception • “flourishing”: good, but Greek conception is that only rational beings flourish; our 2 2/27/2019 then I am; but this is not Greek conception • “flourishing”: good, but Greek conception is that only rational beings flourish; our conception holds that animals and plants flourish as well; I can objectively be wrong about whether or not I am flourishing [think “healthy”], so this captures Greek conception better • Idea: eudaimonia is “true” happiness or “happiness worth having”; it is living well, not by one’s own standards, but by what it means to be a flourishing human • For virtue ethicist, attaining eudaimonia means living a virtuous life; virtues are those character traits that truly benefit the possessor; what it means to live well is to live according to the virtues (barring bad luck: possible for external circumstances to be so bad that virtues alone cannot provide flourishing; rare, but possible) 6 Advantages of Virtue Ethics • Captures elements other theories neglect: • Other theories give praise for doing things from motives that seem wrong • E.g. consequentialist/Kantian can be calloused, but receive moral praise—“I don’t particularly care about the poor, but I know it brings greater happiness (or, it is the demand of duty) to give money to them, so I do”; visiting friend in hospital from duty or consequentialist calculation, not love or loyalty; not praiseworthy for virtue ethicists • Allows for loyalty/special relationships; Kantians & consequentialists demand impartiality, virtue ethicists recognize general duties of benevolence, but note special duties to some (e.g. children) • Moral education: virtue ethics most consistent w/the way we typically train children • E.g. when kid pulls cat’s tail, we don’t say “Maria, don’t pull the cat’s tail, it increases the total amount of suffering in the world” or “Maria, don’t pull the cat’s tail, you cannot consistently wish that your maxim be universalized”, but rather, “Maria, don’t pull the cat’s tail, it’s not nice and it hurts him” (i.e. we appeal to things appropriate for character: a kind person doesn’t want to hurt an animal; a virtuous person doesn’t act meanly) • Potential Problem: Does it give moral guidance? 7 Objections to Virtue Ethics • #1: Virtue ethics cannot provide guidance for acting • Many believe virtue ethics is a good supplement for Consequentialism or Kantian ethics, but cannot guide action alone (which is point of a normative theory) • E.g. Woman wants to know whether or not it is morally permissible for her to get an abortion; must determine if it is cruel, selfish, or unjust or if it is wise or prudent given the circumstances; but how can virtue ethics help? Many say it can’t • #2: Virtue ethics ends up endorsing cultural relativism • Different cultures accept and promote different virtues; if virtue ethics ends up just saying that one should do what it virtuous, then people will only live up to the virtues of their own culture (which is problematic for reasons already discussed) • #3: Virtues often conflict 3 2/27/2019 virtues of their own culture (which is problematic for reasons already discussed) • #3: Virtues often conflict • E.g. Honesty demands that one tell the truth when a spouse asks, “Do you like my haircut?”, but charity demands that one be sensitive to a spouse’s feelings • #4: Virtue ethics cannot justify its choice of virtues and vices • Idea: virtue ethicists cannot say why kindness should be considered a virtue and why cruelty should be considered a vice • #5: If flourishing determines virtues and vices, then some believe this means that virtue ethics must be egoistic • Idea: people end up acting virtuously just because it is in their interest of flourishing to do so 8 Answering the Objections • #1: Virtue ethics cannot provide guidance for acting • (a) Virtue ethics provides obvious rules—e.g. don’t do what is dishonest, cruel, intemperate, etc.; do what is honest, kind, temperate, etc. • Vocabulary and direction of virtue ethics quite extensive; many more vice terms than virtue terms; lots of ways one can make mistakes • (b) Objection ignores common way people go about deciding what to do—i.e. asking people they respect (or imagining what that person would do); should do what a virtuous person would do in the same or similar circumstances (often, we can ask people we respect what they would do • #2: Virtue ethics ends up endorsing cultural relativism • (a) If it does, then no more than other theories; just like cultures have different conceptions of virtues, so cultures have different conceptions of happiness (affects utilitarianism) and different cultures hold different rules of conduct (affects Kantian ethics) • (b) Really a question of metaethics and adoption of natural law theory goes beyond culture and looks to what kinds of beings humans are • #3: Virtues often conflict • This is same objection made against Kantian ethics; Kantians seek to deny conflicts, but virtue ethicists leave room for bad luck; allows that some conflicts are just irresolvable; proper guilt accompanies either choice; sometimes a moral theory cannot offer a right choice at all, because there are only wrong choices available • #4: Virtue ethics cannot justify its choice of virtues and vices • Similar response as above: science does justify the idea that humans are social creatures and it is clear that the virtues are those traits that aid social interactions • #5: If flourishing determines virtues and vices, then some believe this means that virtue ethics must be egoistic • (a) While it is true that a virtuous person does that thing that she wants to do (recall that one who possesses a virtue acts without hesitation, and does it because that is the kind of thing she wants to do), her desires are not her reasons for acting; reason for acting is based on possessing the virtue • (b) Flourishing is how the virtues are discovered, not the reasons for acting 4 Ridgeview Publishing Company Morality and Partiality Author(s): Susan Wolf Source: Philosophical Perspectives, Vol. 6, Ethics (1992), pp. 243-259 Published by: Ridgeview Publishing Company Stable URL: Accessed: 14-09-2018 15:28 UTC JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at Ridgeview Publishing Company is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Philosophical Perspectives This content downloaded from on Fri, 14 Sep 2018 15:28:41 UTC All use subject to Philosophical Perspectives, 6, Ethics, 1992 MORALITY AND PARTIALITY Susan Wolf Johns Hopkins University The great moral theories that have dominated moral philosophy for at least the last forty years have taken impartiality to be a core defining feature of morality. That is, they have identified morality with the idea of acting from a position that acknowledges and appreciates the fact that all persons (or even, on some views, all sentient beings) are in an important sense equal, and that, correspondingly, all are equally entitled to fundamental conditions of wellbeing and respect. Recently, however, many have called attention to the fact that relationships of friendship and love seem to call for the very opposite of an impartial perspective. Since such relationships unquestionably rank among the greatest goods of life, a conception of morality that is in tension with their maintenance and promotion is unacceptable. Thus a debate has arisen between, as we may call them, the impartialists and the partialists. In defense of their position, the impartialists note that someone' s being your friend or relative does not make her more morally deserving than anyone else, and they point to the grave moral dangers of moving that acknowledgment from the center of moral thought. Rather than allow our personal affections to compromise our commitments to justice and equality, they argue, we must shape our ideals of friendship and love to fit the demands of impartial morality. The partialists reply that this denigrates the value of special relationships to friends and loved ones, at best according them the status of acceptable extracurricular activities and at worst regarding them as a consequence of human nature to be warily tolerated. For my own part, I am quite sympathetic to the partialists' concerns. But I think that they locate the problem in the wrong theoretical place. The problem is not that impartiality is too closely or centrally identified with morality, but that morality as a whole is being expected to do too much. I shall, then, defend a conception of morality that, in the context of the debate sketched above, might be labelled a moderate impartialism. But at least as This content downloaded from on Fri, 14 Sep 2018 15:28:41 UTC All use subject to 244 / Susan Wolf important as its location within the impartialist-partialist debate is its selfconscious acknowledgement of the limitations of that debate, and indeed of the limitations of morality itself in settling some of the most important questions of our lives. Types of Impartialism The position that impartiality is a central and defining feature of a moral perspective is open to many interpretations. The most extreme, if also the most obvious interpretation directly identifies the moral point of view with the impartial point of view. According to Extreme Impartialism, a person is morally required to take each person's well-being, or alternatively each person's rights, as seriously as every other, to work equally hard to secure them, or to care equally much about them, or to grant them equal value in her practical deliberations. A person acts immorally, on such a view, if she fails either to do or to try to do what is best from a perspective that takes each person's interests, rights, or welfare as of equal importance to every other. Such an extreme form of impartialism seems to me patently absurd. For it is absurd to suggest that morality requires one to care, or to act as if one cares, no more about one's own child than about a stranger's, or that it is immoral to go to the movies with a friend whenever more good could be done by working at a soup kitchen. Only slightly less absurd, though much more popular, is a view that permits partisan emotions and behavior, as long as in fact they promote nonpartisan goals. For the acceptability of coaching one's daughter's soccer team, or taking one's friend to dinner on her birthday does not rest on the fortuitous coincidence that this action, or even the way of life that gives rise to it, is the one that will maximize human welfare or equal respect all around. The grip that such views have on moral theory, despite their apparent absurdity, comes, I think, from the fact that they seem able to claim for themselves a special kind of objectivity. For it is an objective truth that my daughter is no more deserving than anyone else just for being mine. If one's aim in acting (or in forming one's values) is first and foremost to reflect objective truth, then, the extreme impartialist perspective seems better than any alternative.1 But it is neither rationally nor morally required that this be one's first and foremost aim. If Italian food is objectively no better than Thai food, this surely does not impose a requirement that I consume equal quantities of each. If Botticelli is objectively no better a painter than Tintoretto, this does not oblige me to spend equal time looking at their paintings. Similarly, it would seem, in the absence of further argument, the fact that my daughter is no better This content downloaded from on Fri, 14 Sep 2018 15:28:41 UTC All use subject to Morality and Partiality / 245 than some stranger does not require me to care about them equally or to act in a way that equally promotes their welfare. Unless one thinks that we are put on this earth for the sole purpose of serving it or its subjects, the idea that morality, much less rationality, requires us solely or dominantly to do so seems totally unjustified. We are, after all, subjects as well as objects, with interests of our own. The idea that impartiality is part of the core of morality admits of more moderate interpretations than this, however. If we refer to the claim that all persons are equally deserving of well-being and respect as the Impartialist Insight, then we may characterize impartialism generally as the position that a moral person is one who recognizes and appreciates the Impartialist Insight and integrates it into her life. Understanding impartialism this way allows us to see the variety of views that may fairly be called impartialist. For integrating the Impartialist Insight into one's life need not mean letting it absolutely take over. There are both formal and substantive ways of shaping one's life so as to reflect people's basic moral equality which fall far short of identifying morality with living, as it were, from the impartial point of view The familiar idea that morality requires one to act only in ways that one thinks any reasonable person would accept is one formal and more moderate interpretation of impartialism. The notion that one must hold oneself to whatever standards one expects of others is another. The first counts as impartialism because it treats all persons as equally deserving of a say in setting the moral standards. The second counts as impartialism because, although one sets the standards oneself, one sets them in such a way as expressly to avoid granting oneself (or one's friends) special privilege. These forms are more moderate because the standards thus set are apt unconditionally to allow a good deal of partiality in one's psychology and behavior. One would not expect or demand a stranger to take one's own interests as seriously as the interests of her loved ones, nor would a stranger expect or demand this of oneself. What would, or w ...
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