A virtue or arete according to Aristotle is a character or a trait of mind that helps an individual to achieve a good and desirable life, a life he argues that is in agreement with reason. The two types of virtues that have been widely discussed are the intellectual and moral virtues. In his works, Aristotle concentrates on moral virtues, the traits of a character. His reasoning was that the list of attributes was not a miscellaneous collection but was rather rooted in a general, reasoned account of the actual meaning of virtue. He defines the states of character as the things in virtue that define our stand well or negatively concerning passion. It entails personal dispositions which relate to that which in different circumstances people think, feel, react, choose or even decide to do. Character exhibits some longevity and stability. It defines a person.
To determine the kind of state of a character in which a virtue falls, one has first to consider its opposite which is the vice. Vices are those character traits that prevent a person from leading a good life such as greediness. Those characters that help a person to lead a healthy life such as kindness are known as virtues. In the art of living, people can feel their passion as being either too little or too much. Virtue, therefore, involves the disposition to a feeling in a way that is intermediate, meaning that there is neither too much nor too little. This defines Aristotles doctrine of mean where a virtue can be placed between two vices. For example, an individual who has too much fear is said to be cowardly whereas the one who is less fearful is said to be rash. The one who has the virtue of relating to fear is said to be courageous. This essay analyzes the differences in views on vices and virtues between Aristotle and the modern day society.
It is not always the case that all works on virtues and vices provide a reflection on a single account of what they are. The discussions on moral character and virtue by Aristotle are the most influential treatment of such issues that have been documented in history. He uses the Greek word arete to refer to goodness or excellence. Brilliance is an eminence that makes a person a good member of its kind. Excellence, for example, is regarded as an axe if it indeed can cut wood effectively and efficiently. It is, therefore, property in which its possessor fulfils its functions. Such approaches to virtues are widely drawn from Aristotle's conceptions and are referred to as the traditional view of moral character. It is important to think of the traditional view as a group of similar related views rather than a fully developed and determinate view itself.
Despite the variation, the traditional view holds that virtues are relatively fixed, stable and reliable actionable dispositions, and they affect that which should be rationally informed. These properties, therefore, mean that they virtues should be good predictors of the behavior of an agent more so if the agent is in a trait-relevant situation. This, however, does not infer that such traits should be exceptionless. A single case of dishonesty, for example, does not necessarily mean that a person lacks an honest character. Dispositions should, therefore, be understood as that which involves some degree of probability. Additionally, while such traits are malleable, individuals may change their character over a period, meaning that such changes are not immediate and take both time and effort.
There is a general disagreement with the traditional view on how best the virtues and the relationship between them should be understood. Another significant discrepancy also exists on whether or not the traditional view is even on the track. One of the most notable sources of criticism is driven by the idea that the normative ethics should be confined to psychological data. This view holds that the theories of moral character should be constrained in a certain way depending on what social and cognitive psychology tells us. Recent empirical work suggests that agents lack the kind of robust moral character that is present in the traditional view. Some philosophers have, and social scientists have begun to question the presumptions that form the basis of moral character and moral character traits. Their primary concern is that it lies on an empirically inadequate view of human agents.
Happiness and the Virtues
The eudaimonic accounts suggest that happiness should be understood in objective terms. The best and earliest known account is that of Aristotle. He proposes in his Nicomachean Ethics a theory of happiness that is commonly known translated to mean flourishing.' Aristotle considers it the ultimate good and unconditional end of human beings. Also, he states that the flourishing of human beings is comprised of their overall realization reason-infused moral and intellectual virtues and also as a fulfillment of other human-specific physical and mental capabilities. If eudaimonia, for example, is harmed, then it is considered an objectively detectable harm. It is worth noting that Aristotles eudaimonia so far is worthy of not only admiration but also emulation. It is, therefore, an explicitly moral notion, not conceptually but rather empirically.
In the eudaimonic accounts, luck matters in the case of happiness, as the external events may spoil blessedness. The modern eudaimonic accounts though not as heavily moralized as that of Aristotle, it still tries to emphasize the extent to which norms of practice that produce happiness are universal. Despite the recent improvement in the objectively measurable goods such as material and health prosperity, there has not been any significant increase in self-reported happiness. Whereas the subjective measures mainly assess the subjective happiness, the proposed objectives measures often assess only the conditions that enable objective happiness to be experienced. One of the advantages of Aristotles original account is its capacity to incorporate a certain component of subjective account, which is kindness. Although he renounces his previous equation of happiness to pleasure as slave-like, and only befitting grazing animals, Aristotle is quick to point out that those who live well enjoy the activities that make them flourish.
Actions chosen are a subset of a broader class of voluntary actions. The act of compulsion most definitely applies when the actor or source of action is outside the agent, whose behavior is passive and makes no contribution at all. There are some instances where the agent is coerced or acts under the influence of impersonal external sources. When asked whether such actions are voluntary, Aristotle answers that such actions are mixed but are more voluntarily than involuntarily because they are done out of will or chosen at the precise time when they are being done. Choices, therefore, are intimately related to virtue. Choices make people do either good or wrong things, and the same applies to vices and virtues so much that virtue can even be defined as a habit of making sound choices. The choice is also a better indicator of character than the actions themselves. The connection between choices and virtue indicate that choice and virtue are interdependent. Aristotle observes that the loss of awareness and control of our dispositions and its growth is imperceptible. He seems so concerned with eliminating the possibility of holding both that the bad people are responsible for their vices while real people are responsible for their virtues.
Modern moral philosophy is mostly concerned with issues that are practical. The choice as a virtue ethics is objected with its emphasis on the less precise nature of ethics fails to give advice on practicalities of how a person should behave. It instead focuses more on the right or wrong while terming them as virtues as virtues and vices respectively. The existence of rules that are rigid is more of strength rather than a weakness as they offer a direction on what should be done.
There is the concern that virtue ethics abandons us as hostages to luck. Morality, as we know, is all about the appropriateness of praise and blame and also the responsibility. We, however, tend only to heap our praises and blame on agents for the actions that are taken under conscious choices. It is a fact that the road to virtue is rough and many things that are beyond our grasp may not go as planned. Some of the accounts on virtue depend on the availability of other external motivators. The Aristotelian virtue is more dependent on friendship and other virtuous agents such that a life lacking noble friendship will also be lacking in eudaimonia. We, however, have no control over the availability right friends. The question, therefore, should be how to praise the virtuous while laying blame on the vicious if their development and respective virtues and vices were not even under control.
Some of the moral theories attempt to eliminate the influence of luck on morality. This objection is however answered by virtue ethics which embraces moral luck. Instead of making morality immune to matters that are beyond our scope, virtue ethics acknowledges the fragility of good life and embraces it as a feature of morality. The reason as to why good life is fragile and vulnerable is because it is precious and rare. Many things are bound to go wrong on the road to virtue so that there is a possibility of virtue being lost. This vulnerability is, however, an essential feature of the human condition which makes the attainment of good life more valuable.
Aristotle's Nicomachean ethics. University of Chicago Press, 2011.
Fieser, James. Moral philosophy through the ages. James Fieser, 2000.
Louden, Robert B. "On some vices of virtue ethics." American Philosophical Quarterly 21, no. 3 (1984): 227-236.
Nussbaum, Martha C. "Nonrelative virtues: an Aristotelian approach." Midwest studies in philosophy 13, no. 1 (1988): 32-53.
Simpson, Peter. Vices, virtues, and consequences: essays in moral and political philosophy. CUA Press, 2001.
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