Introduction to Ethics Phil 140 @ Binghamton University, Win '11


Writing Prompt 3- Virtue Ethics (Group 2)

Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics is a moral theory that is different in its structure than the other two ethical theories: deontology and utilitarianism.  Instead of focusing on the specific actions and decisions of the agent, or the outcomes of these actions, virtue ethics focuses on the moral character of the rational agent as the critical morally relevant element.  One first needs to properly develop his/her moral character, a process that should be desirable in itself, not done for certain ends.  One is able to properly develop his/her moral character by encompassing the various intellectual and moral virtues and by finding a mean amongst each individual virtue, which can only properly be found through wisdom and reason.  Wisdom is properly developed through intellect and knowledge, while reason is properly developed through experience.  These factors, when developed properly, then help to form the proper habits.

To be a truly virtuous being, one’s actions must be consistent; acting virtuously in one instance does not define one as a virtuous.  Virtue ethics is also not as sweeping as deontology or utilitarianism and understands that different circumstances call for different sets of actions and approaches. When one has properly developed their virtues, it is argued that they will make the correct decisions.  Understanding and acting appropriately under any given situation through wisdom and reason and also finding a specific balance amongst the individual virtues allows one to achieve eudaimonia (a flourishing state), more or less, the goal of human existence.  Aristotle explains that this flourishing state is only accessible to those who follow and fulfill the aforementioned criteria.

However this pillar upon which virtue ethics stands is its greatest stumbling block.  The theory focuses on the individual acquiring specific virtues through wisdom and reason and then finding the mean of every virtue because being too deficient or excessive will not allow one to reach their full potential or this flourishing state.  But this entire approach is completely speculative and biased towards Aristotle's elite class (ex: claiming that the slightly boastful man is more virtuous than the humble man).  For one, other cultures and societies may not value the same virtues in the same perspective as the Nicomachean Ethics lays forth.  The mean Aristotle describes is completely speculative and a reflection of the admired values of his time.  Second, certain circumstances, whether social, economic, or cognitive, may prevent certain individuals from acquiring these virtues.  These issues leave Virtue Ethics unable to provide a universal standard that all groups and individuals can follow, and simultaneously excludes certain groups and individuals from consideration.

This specific issue is presented when discussing cognitive impairment.  Aristotle mentions that children are not included in those who are fully rational agents because they have not developed their wisdom or reason.  This same argument excludes the cognitively impaired from those capable of finding a virtuous existence and achieving eudaimonia because they are not fully rational agents, and as the argument concludes, are therefore incapable of achieving this state.  However, the acquisition of wisdom, reason, and the virtues, should not be the only criteria upon which one is judged.

Eva Kittay argues against this moral standard and explains that other factors must be included when evaluating individuals.  Eva Kittay explains that, "rationality and autonomy are not requisites for claims of justice, a good quality of life, and moral considerations of personhood."  She explains how her daughter, who is cognitively impaired, is able to experience a good life through interests, experiences, and personal relationships of her own; her life is not as different as one may intitially have imagined.  Kittay argues that her daughter’s life “contains a great deal of good in it-- possibly more good than other individuals who qualify as persons worthy of a high degree of moral respect.”  Kittay espouses that although her daughter's life may not be as rich as her own, that should not disqualify her from being included in those capable of achieving eudaimonia.

Kittay’s argument demonstrates that the method virtue ethics uses to determine one’s ability to become a virtuous individual and achieve eudaimonia are negligent, biased, and unfair.  Her argument demonstrates that virtue ethics is flawed because it is incapable of finding a means in which to measure individuals that can be applicable to all peoples and groups.  The current standard is antiquated and can lead to severe consequences such as complete exclusion or an “us vs. you” mentality, as exhibited through the cognitively impaired.

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  1. I liked how you brought in the idea that the cognitively impaired could achieve eudaimonia as well. Aristotle’s theory always struck me as exclusive. Granted he was talking to the elite when he wrote this and excluding other less ‘virtuous’ groups in society. These elite men did think that only they were able to achieve eudaimonia and they made it so because of the inclusion of certain virtues (acknowledgement of your accomplishments and what is owed you as such) that the lower classes had no ability to achieve. (How would the lower class have any situations where they would be receiving honors?)

    In some ways I think that Utilitarianism and Deontology are more encompassing towards the masses (although deontology expects reasoning abilities) than Virtue Ethics. If one takes the actual virtues that Aristotle wrote down, it would be difficult for anyone to be virtuous because of the expectations to have all of the virtues, including the one about knowing what honors you should receive. It is interesting how this ends up. It seems more difficult to be considered morally relevant in Virtue Ethics, but easier to attain eudaimonia since the virtues are on a spectrum. In Deontology it is easier to be considered morally relevant (reasoning abilities is all that is required), but more difficult to always be moral as a universal standard is always in place (the categorical imperative).

    • @cbaxter
      I definitely agree that utilitarianism and deontology are more encompassing towards the masses because they provide a guideline and because these guidelines are more universal than the very narrow guidelines presented in virtue ethics. I also agree that the virtues he presents would be difficult for anyone to achieve at all.

    • I too really like how you brought up the idea that the cognitively impaired can achieve happiness as well. It really is geared more towards the individual than any of the other theories, which is why I believe that virtue ethics encompasses this idea.

      • The cognitively disabled, as shown through Kitay’s argument are more than capable of achieving eusaimonia, but not according to virtue ethics which seems to be the main issue. It seems as though virtue ethics is the most realistic in many respects, but least realistic when it comes to people achieving eudaimonia.

  2. This is really well-written! You definitely have a good grasp on the material. I’m just going to list my comments below to make things easier…

    – (Second paragraph) While I think that virtue ethics is more specified than the other two theories, they are pretty broad and generalized – which is probably why they’re all so problematic.
    – (Third paragraph) I agree that this is a huge problem. He does not take into consideration that people are not given all the same opportunities to develop their virtues. Not only that, as you point out, virtues are debatable depending on where you are and who you are asking.
    – (Fourth paragraph) I understand why he says that children and the cognitively impaired are not fully rational agents but it must be said that they are at a disadvantage. Like I said just before, they cannot control the fact that they haven’t been able to cultivate virtuous characteristics.

    As for the rest of your piece, you make a valid point by bringing up Kittay’s text. Virtue ethics is very focused on the individual when it comes to eudaimonia and I think it fails to acknowledge how people are connected to one another, and how one persons decisions affect another.

  3. Perhaps those who have not yet had enough experiences to have attained the “wisdom, reason, and… virtues” you described are those who are the most capable of fulfillment. Kittay describes how her daughter may not experience the world as richly as a non-impaired person does, but that she is still experiencing her own kind of fulfillment. Those who have not aware of the realities and complexities of the world may be the most able to achieve eudaimonia because they are not yet jaded, nor know of a great variety of options for where their lives may lead them. With a smaller set of possibilities, and the naive optimism of ignorance, it can be argued that the cognitively impaired are indeed capable of fulfillment.

    • I was thinking about that as well when I read this. I think some of the cognitively impaired people could also be some of the happiest people, along with children. They don’t see the world in the same way we do and although they experience a kind of hardship that we will never know, they don’t experience the evils of the world that we do. Or perhaps they do, but they don’t realize it. They may not have had as many opportunities, but they have a naivete that leaves us when we mature.

      • @Amanda & @Becca
        I definitely agree and I think that brings up one of the issues of virtue ethics- it is not encompassing. I think often times children are content because they have, as you said, “a smaller set of possibilities, and the naive optimism of ignorance.” I think that one’s experiences during life often beat them down instead of help them to rise up. And as you grow you are able to understand things in a different and much more realistic way, as opposed to the way a child might view the world.

  4. At the end of your post, after analyzing Kittay’s argument you say that “her argument demonstrates that virtue ethics is flawed because it is incapable of finding a means in which to measure an individuals that can be applicable to all peoples and groups. The current standard is antiquated and can lead to severe consequences such as complete exclusion or an “us vs. you” mentality, as exhibited though the cognitively impaired.” My issue with this, although I agree it is antiquated, is that virtue ethics is geared toward the individual. If it were to be anything different, it could no longer be considered virtue ethics because it would no longer be characteristic of that ethical theory. Virtue ethics is different than any other ethical theory because it focuses more on what the individual wants or needs, rather than what society wants or needs. If we were to develop a universal standard of laws or guidelines for what to judge what is virtuous or not, would be losing the flagship characteristic of virtue ethics. While I am not in disagreement with anything you have said, I do believe that the desire for this universal set of guidelines is compromising the beliefs of which virtue ethics was founded on. The interesting part of virtue ethics that I think is a problem, and you hit upon is that it fails to consider the individual in respect to another individual. This is probably where one sees a standard necessary, but would having this standard jeopardize the basis of virtue ethics? Or do you think that there is some common ground that can be reached that is still largely and heavily geared towards the characteristics of an individual.

    • Wow this post really has a lot of the same points that I wrote and agree upon. The flaw with virtue ethics is the way it kind of implies that people with disabilities, such as the cognitively impaired, aren’t capable of reaching eudaimonia. That’s the only thing I find to disagree upon about this theory because I do believe that everyone can reach eudaimonia and find their own form of happiness. While we all try to figure out and determine a standard for everyone’s happiness, realistically it is almost impossible to do so because due to the differences in how we are raised and such.

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