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Virtue Ethics Essay

1577 words - 7 pages

The next theory we will consider goes by the name of virtue ethics (sometimes it’s referred to as human nature ethics), and it is well represented by the thought of Aristotle (384-322 BC). Robert Solomon is a contemporary thinker who tries to develop a specifically ‘Aristotelian’ approach to business ethics. Both Aristotle and Solomon present rich and somewhat complex systems of moral thought, so we will have to be a bit selective in what we consider given our time constraints.

We can start by going back to Kant and Mill, and noticing a big difference between them and Aristotle. Both Kant and Mill focus on behavior first and foremost, providing a fundamental principle that is to guide ...view middle of the document...

We are not, however, simply rational animals. Humans live complex, social lives in which we play various roles at any given moment. I am, for instance, at one and the same moment a wife, a mother, a daughter, a sister, a friend, a professor, and so on. Each of these roles is one I can play better or worse—we can talk about good wives, good mothers, and so on. So Aristotle’s basic idea can be applied here too: the virtues are those qualities of character that enable me to play these roles well. If wives, mothers, and so on are better able to live up to the obligations and commitments these roles bring if they are honest, for example, then honesty is a virtue. If a lack of self-control interferes with my ability to play these roles well, then a lack of self-control is a vice.

To bring it all together, the basic idea is that we ought to be able to list all the traits the help us do well in our various roles, and those that interfere. The first list would be a list of virtues, the latter a list of vices. Just what would be on these lists is a matter of some debate, but Aristotle’s criteria ultimately references reason and our flourishing as humans.

Aristotle also considers the question of how we acquire virtues. He does not suppose we are simply born with them, or that they are impossible to acquire. A bit more hopeful, he supposes that we can come to have them by behaving in certain ways and not in others. This is where his theory adds a concern with actions. The idea is rather simple: we acquire a virtue by acting in the appropriate way. We become brave by doing brave things; we become honest by doing honest things. Vices, as you might expect, are acquired in the same way: a habit of cowardly behavior leads to a cowardly character. Aristotle calls this habituation, and you can think of practice in the sense of practicing a musical instrument or a sport. At first you can’t play piano, but by just doing it, a bit mechanically at first and under the directions of a teacher, you learn. After a while you have acquired the ability to play piano, and it just comes naturally. Same with the virtues—acquiring them requires a moral education—a proper upbringing that helps to instill the requisite traits through habituation. As children we act impulsively and without much knowledge, but if we are well brought up we will be led to do virtuous things and prevented from doing bad things, and eventually the virtues become part of our character.

(This process is never really over—we should always avoid actions that are more expressive of a vice (acts of dishonesty, selfishness, cowardice, etc.) because they will always tend to corrupt our character. This is where acquiring virtue is quite different from learning to play the piano. Once you learn how to play the piano, then it is said of you that you are a good piano player, regardless of whether you have played recently. This is not the case with acquiring virtue. To have...

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