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


Writing Prompt 3: Virtue Ethics (Group 2)

In virtue ethics good character is considered most morally relevant. This theory differs from the others because it involves choice. While utilitarianism stresses the consequences of one’s actions (in terms of being moral or not) and deontology discusses fulfilling duties, virtue ethics focuses a person’s character and how that shapes their morality. A virtuous person is someone who possesses positive and ideal character traits; they strive to do good in order to achieve eudaimonia – a “flourishing”, “happy” state. This theory stresses that morality is not only dependent on a good action, but good intentions as well. For instance, a moral person would donate money to the poor because they are looking to help someone; it is not moral for one to donate money because they want to be recognized as charitable.

The moral standard for judging virtuous characteristics is based on a “middle ground” between extremes. By finding this middle ground one can be most virtuous. For example, being confident is a virtuous characteristic. It is the mean between arrogance (too much confidence) and insecurity (not enough confidence).

After reading the materials in the second half of our class, I have decided that a significant problem with virtue ethics is the lack of well-defined guidelines. Without giving clear rules as far as how to act, virtue ethics is a bit hard to interpret. Instructing people to act “virtuously” in any given situation does not really tell them what is right or wrong – which can become very problematic in certain situations when defining what is moral. Discussing rational suicide was what made me realize how problematic virtue ethics truly is. In the case of rational suicide, one is caught between two extreme decisions which both seem to be immoral to me. Without universal guidelines, it seems as though there is no moral decision.

Looking at rational suicide through the eyes of a virtue ethicist is incredibly difficult because there is no universal moral code telling you what is virtuous and what is not. The only moral standard given is to try and find a comfortable place between two extremes. Because this theory is so incredibly vague in terms of guidelines, there seems to be no moral decision when it comes to rational suicide. On one hand, ending one’s life is an incredibly severe decision to make. Aristotle explains suicide to be wrong because it gives in to extreme cowardice. This would mean that, no matter what, suicide is wrong because it ends a life that could be spent flourishing and being virtuous (in a state of eudaimonia). On the other hand, a person who is sick or disabled staying alive could make them no longer able to act on their virtue and unable to flourish – making them ultimately immoral by virtue ethics standards. Here is an example similar to those given in the readings: A woman has spent her entire life being virtuous and good-natured, and one day she is diagnosed with an aggressive brain cancer. After undergoing numerous treatments and surgeries, her quality of life has been severely diminished. She can hardly walk, talk, feed or bathe herself. It is safe to say that although she still has the same virtues she did, they are no longer able to be acted upon and all flourishing has ceased. She turns to rational suicide but is deterred by her family, friends, and doctors who urge her to reconsider because "suicide is not the right answer". I feel as though this is also immoral because the woman is subjected to a life that is nearly unbearable. She is no longer able to act virtuously because she can hardly act at all and achieving eudaimonia will be impossible for her at this point.

Because virtue ethics fails to point out clear and definite universal moral standards, there seems to be no way to truly decide rational suicide - and many other issues - are moral /virtuous or not. Leaving this theory so broad and open to interpretation can be problematic when determining a course of action is situations much like those we see in cases for and against rational suicide.

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  1. I think this is why a big part of virtue ethics is based upon reason and rationality. It is difficult to come up with clear and definite universal standards because there are so many different variables in any given scenario, and each situation is different. It is up to us to find this middle ground between the two extremes, and determine for ourselves what is the virtuous action and what is not. However, at the same time, I definitely agree with you that this can be very problematic as well, leaving many people to make the wrong decisions due to this ambiguity.

    • I agree with your comment because I also feel it is sometimes hard to determine what is right and wrong decisions due to the differences in people, culture, life, etc. So virtue ethics is really open and broad to interpretation according to an individual’s specific situation.

  2. “Because virtue ethics fails to point out clear and definite universal moral standards, there seems to be no way to truly decide rational suicide – and many other issues – are moral /virtuous or not. Leaving this theory so broad and open to interpretation can be problematic when determining a course of action is situations much like those we see in cases for and against rational suicide.”

    Maybe these problems are not ‘truly decidable’ but instead are always going to be to some extent contextual. This is where virtue ethics is handy, in that it is malleable to particular situations.

    • Although, I do appreciate your concern about the need for more clear guidelines (especially as advances in modern medicine make rational suicide a more prevalent issue). So I see how virtue ethics might have to be supplemented by other approaches.

  3. @rsamuels
    I completely agree with your response, and I also believe that virtue ethics relies too much on the use of reason and rationality. However, I think that this standard is both a weakness and a strength. As mentioned, without a specific guideline to follow, it makes decisions speculative. But every situation has its own specific circumstances involved and that makes it difficult to judge by a universal standard. This approach is very realistic because it gives an individual flexibility with his/her decisions.

    • I think that this is the most realistic as well. I guess I just have a problem with the fact that since it is SO open to interpretation it is kind of hard to apply.

  4. Something that I found interesting about your post was where you said, “she is no longer able to act virtuously because she can hardly act at all.” This got me to thinking, if a person becomes so physically or mentally incapacitated, to the point where they are not longer able to act virtuously, then where would a virtue ethicist determine their actions, assuming they are still capable of the slightest ones?

  5. I very much agree with your opinion about Aristotle’s views on rational suicide. He considers suicide to be an extreme form of cowardice, and so far as I have been able to learn, he feels this way in all cases. I think Aristotle is wrong as far as this goes, because as you’ve said a person can live their entire lives virtuously and then be permanently incapacitated and mentally disabled by some sort of horrible illness or accident.

    However, I do take issue with your problem with virtue ethics as a whole. The lack of a clear moral standard frustrated me in the beginning of the course as well. As Pgoodman said, you have to understand that it is not the purpose of virtue ethics to define moral guidelines for action. Rather, the purpose is to explain what makes an action moral without giving specific instructions. Basically Aristotle is saying that you cannot be completely rational when you are very young, and in this situation you need teachers to help you decide which actions are moral and virtuous and which are not. Over time you learn from experience and build up your own moral compass. Every individual has their own extremes of each virtue, and the virtuous action is to recognize one’s own extremes and find one’s own “golden mean” for each virtue. Some people might be more naturally fearful or cowardly than others. The virtuous individual would recognize their own natural tendencies and act in the mean of their possible extremes. The point is virtue ethics is less about knowing what’s “right” and more about knowing oneself and moderating one’s actions.

  6. Something that I found to be of interest in your analysis of virtue ethics was similar to what Alex Giyaur had to say. The goal of virtue ethics is not to define a universal set of guidelines. Virtue ethics is more of a case specific ethical theory, with a large emphasis placed on the individual. I think that the problem I have with a universal set of laws or standards for this ethical theory is that it would be very difficult to cater these laws towards the different circumstances of different individual’s situations. The way I see it is what is best for one person may not be best for another, at least in virtue ethics. If virtue ethics were to apply the idea of a universal set of guidelines, then what I feel might happen is that these universal laws would begin to compromise the virtues of an individual. What I believe is best about virtue ethics, and something that I feel may be compromised if universal guidelines were to be applied is that the individual in largely in control. What I mean by this is that an individual has an entire lifetime to form his or her own ideals. They have a great opportunity to develop this off of experience that is tapered to a person of his own character. What one person may see as virtuous, another may not. At this point I have to question though, at what point should we agree? And if one person considers something virtuous and good, but another person considers it to have no virtue and bad, then on what grounds are we to agree on something as differing in viewpoint as this? So my main problem with virtue ethics is this: of what value do we place the character of an individual and their virtues against that of someone with a drastically varying opinion.

    • That is a good question and I believe that we really can’t determine who’s virtues are of more value compared to another virtue. Everyone has different values and so there will always be someone who disagrees or has a different opinion about your values.

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