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


Writing Prompt 3 – Virtue Ethics

Aristotle describes the ultimate goal of a person's life is to achieve eudaimonia. This is roughly translated as a "flourishing" state and is dynamic in that it can be attained but must be maintained through virtuous or "beautiful" action. Aristotle writes that having a virtuous character is necessary for attaining eudaimonia, and this is broken down into several other virtues. However to achieve a virtuous character it is necessary for one's actions to be virtuous and intentionally so. I think that action is therefore the key element to focus on here.

The standard for judging virtue in action is interesting in this case. Aristotle describes it as a "golden mean" between extremes. These extremes are not fixed but vary from person to person depending on their individual nature. Consequently, the golden mean varies from person to person as well. The only way to learn what the golden mean (and thus the virtuous choice of action) is in any given scenario is to have wisdom and to use reason. Aristotle considered the ability to use reason to be the most important characteristic of humans. Wisdom is gained through intellect and knowledge. Knowledge comes from experience. Therefore younger or generally less experienced individuals may need help making virtuous decisions. Once you make the virtuous decisions, you can form habits out of these, and if you have the wisdom to understand what the virtuous choice of action would be, these habits become voluntary choices and are indicative of a virtuous character. It is this virtuous character that will lead you on the path towards achieving and maintaining eudaimonia.

Not all of the extremes are completely variable from person to person, however. Aristotle does make a couple of distinctions of extremes and in this way sets up very broad guidelines for what is virtuous and what is not. In doing so, however, he does rule several things out as not being virtuous or moral. One of the issues that he singles out is suicide. According to Aristotle, suicide is a cowardly act and a crime against the state. Basically he considers it to be a lack of two separate virtues: courage and justice. I think that this is an idealistic and outdated philosophy and that it shouldn't apply in modern society.

According to Aristotle in Book III of Nicomachean Ethics: "But to die to escape from poverty or love or anything painful is not the mark of a brave man, but rather of a coward; for it is softness to fly from what is troublesome, and such a man endures death not because it is noble but to fly from evil." In Book V Aristotle also writes: "...he who through anger voluntarily stabs himself does this contrary to the right rule of life, and this the law does not allow; therefore he is acting unjustly. But towards whom? Surely towards the state, not towards himself. For he suffers voluntarily, but no one is voluntarily treated unjustly. This is also the reason why the state punishes; a certain loss of civil rights attaches to the man who destroys himself, on the ground that he is treating the state unjustly."

Essentially he's saying it is cowardly to commit suicide and someone possessing the virtue of courage would not make such a decision. Aristotle is also implying that since suicide is against the law and is therefore unjust, someone must be being treated unjustly. He doesn't believe that by definition one can be voluntarily treated unjustly and suicide is voluntary so it must be the state that is being treated unjustly. Therefore the virtue of justice is not being satisfied and the victim of the injustice is the state. Theoretically, this makes sense. Practically, I don't believe that it does, especially in our contemporary society.

In our readings and discussions we learned about the disabled and the choice some of them make to commit suicide or request assistance in killing themselves. Today, people are living longer than ever before, definitely much longer on average than in Aristotle's time. We have modern medicine to thank for this. However, because of this many people are living longer than they normally would with severe disabilities and terminal illnesses. For some people modern medical practices just lengthen their period of suffering instead of improving their actual quality of life. For this reason, I don't think it is necessarily cowardice to want to quicken the inevitable if it means shortening what would otherwise be a very prolonged period of suffering. Additionally, in many modern societies the state shoulders the cost of medical care for the severely disabled. Terminally ill people and severely disabled people are not exactly providing much benefit to the state. Therefore, I don't see it as an injustice to the state for these people to take their own lives if they should so choose.

Aristotle's views on suicide are remnants of a time and culture that is no longer existent. While I believe that in general Aristotle's emphasis on reason and wisdom to act virtuously in accordance with the golden mean can still apply, some of the specific virtues (such as courage, pride, magnificence) do not hold as much weight in our society as they did in his. Additionally, some of the specific examples he gives (such as his views on suicide as I have mentioned) should also be taken with a grain of salt as they were written in a much different historical context from today's society.

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  1. In regards to your last paragraph, you state that “some of the specific virtues (such as courage, pride, magnificence) do not hold as much weight in our society as they did in his.”
    Because virtue ethics relies so heavily on these specific virtues, maybe it is not that these virtues are outdated, but the mean is just different from what it was in his time. The specific virtues could hold just as much weight in our society, but it is up to us to find that perfect mean that fits our society as well.

    • I don’t know. I think, although some of the virtues still remain prevalent in our culture today, they are remnants of Greek culture. Different languages and different cultures will render different virtues. They may express something similar, but not exactly the same virtues. That does make the virtue ethics approach irrelevant, but rather makes virtue ethics conscious of the historical/cultural natures of certain virtues.

    • I feel as if it does hold the same kind of weight but because it is now so hard to find it has less importance to find it but when these virtues are found they do get magnified and do hold some sort of weight int he society that that individual at least is in.

  2. “However, because of this many people are living longer than they normally would with severe disabilities and terminal illnesses. For some people modern medical practices just lengthen their period of suffering instead of improving their actual quality of life.”

    I agree with this. I do not think in cases of suffering that it is cowardly to want to end one’s life. With advances in modern medicine that prolong life (at times at the cost of quality of life) the decision for ‘rational suicide’ in certain circumstances does not seem cowardly, but well reasoned.

    • But if the account of modern medicine is being taking into account should we not also factor in the sheer number of people in the world? I mean the increased lifespan of people is not completely the result of modern medicine, but other factors such as refined food production methods and understanding of the need for sanitary environments. Basically, the statistical probability of people who end up in situations that make living an extreme task.

  3. @rsamuels I think that’s a really good point actually, never really thought about it that way.
    @ryan I like your idea that virtue ethics is conscious of the historical context, but I think that the virtues chosen are remnants of an outdated society and don’t necessarily cover all the bases. For instance in our society it can be considered virtuous to be “green” and this is something that was never really thought about in previous generations.
    @jkwak I’m not exactly sure what you’re saying here, but what does it matter if it is medicine or a combination of factors that allows people to live longer, what does that have to do with the idea of suicide?

    • If we have all the advances in modern medicine and we can live longer, then I don’t believe there should be reason to commit suicide. I believe people resort to the idea of suicide due to the pressures of society and the judgments passed upon them, and so they are just looking for an escape, not a solution. Because if they were looking for a solution to live, I feel like there are advances in our world today to provide that solution.

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