Rachels Chap 13: Ethics of Virtue
- Virtue Ethics
- Aristotle, Socrates, Plato (and feminist ethics) approached ethics by
- Questions about character
- What is a good man?
- What makes someone a virtuous person?
- What traits of character make one a good person?
- Modern philosophers of ethics (the positions so far studied in this course
except feminist ethics) had an ethics of duty/principle/obligation/right
action which asked
- Not what traits of character make one a good person
- But what is the right thing to do?
- How should one act, not what kind of a person one should be
- Developed theories of rightness and obligation and duty, not of
- Ethical egoism, utilitarianism, Kantian ethics, and social
- 1: Motives/Character---2: Act itself/kind of act---3: Consequences
- Virtue ethics focus on the first, Kantian ethics on the second,
utilitarianism on the third
- Virtue ethic critique of modern moral philosophy as bankrupt:
- Stop thinking about duty, rightness and obligation and return to
thinking about virtue.
- More progress in ethics made that way
- E.g., consider raising children
- More important to raise them to be good people then to do the
- Examples of virtues: (for more see list on p. 176)
- Examples of vices
- Having a bad temper
- Dishonesty, exaggeration
- What is a virtue?
- Aristotle: a trait of character manifest in habitual action
- Honest person doesn't tell the truth once, but habitually
- His honest action springs from his character
- But vices too are habitual traits of character
- Pincoffs on difference virtues and vices
- Virtues are those traits of character that lead us to seek people
- Vices are those traits of character that leads us to avoid people
- Definition of Virtues: A trait of character, manifested in habitual action,
that it is good for a person to have
- Doesn't work with the Nazi courage case
- Nature of the virtues: In what do these virtues consist?
- All different, but some underlying features
- Aristotle argued virtues are a mean
- Between extremes which are the vices (one of excess and other of
- Courage Example:
- Courage is a mean between extremes of cowardice and foolhardiness
in the face of danger
- Problem of virtue used for evil ends
- Is a Nazi soldier who fights valiantly and faces risk without flinching,
- Geach: Not a virtue to be courageous in an unworthy cause, and not
- Rachels: He has two qualities of character, one admirable (courage)
and one not (willingness to defend a despicable regime)
- He's courageous alright, but because deployed in an evil cause,
his behavior is on the whole wicked
- Is it good for a Nazi to be courageous? NO
- Notice this does not fit the definition of virtues as traits of character it
is good for people to have.
- Generosity example: Willingness to expend one's resources to help others
- Aristotle: Like courage, generosity is a mean between extremes of stinginess
(giving too little) and extravagance (giving too much)
- How much generosity is enough?
- Jesus: Give all we have to help the poor; possession of riches while
poor starve is unacceptable
- Modern utilitarianism agrees:
- One's duty to do what has best overall consequences and so
- Should be generous until the point has been reached at
which further giving would be more harmful to us than it
would be helpful to others
- Rachels: Such a policy would make it impossible for us to live our
normal lives; requires us to abandon our everyday lives
- Reasonable interpretation of demands of generosity: Be as
generous with our resources as is consistent with conducting our
ordinary lives in a minimally satisfying way
- Problem of super rich person whose ordinary life is one of extravagant and filled
with luxuries without which she'd feel deprived
- Virtue of generosity can't exist in context of this sort of
extravagant life, while other's basic needs are unmet
- Bill Gates can't display the virtue of generosity!
- Can he be generous and live in luxury while others
- Honesty example:
- Is this a mean between two extremes also?
- Between generally telling the truth and telling the truth too much
- Not really as plausible here
- Can one tell the truth too much?
- Blabber mouths
- Sometimes wrong to tell the truth
- To people who it would have been better if they had not
- To murderers
- Would an honest person tell the truth to a murderer about where his
- If she doesn't, is that being dishonest?
- Does virtue require adherence to absolute rules?
- Honest person will never lie or deceive?
- If we say yes, then honesty is not always a virtue
- If we say no, then an honest person can sometimes lie (when there are
compelling reasons): So an honest person should sometimes be
- Rachels uses language of obligation to say
- Some people have forfeited any right to be told the truth and
that other obligations can outweigh the obligation to tell the
truth (e.g., self-preservation)
- If honesty is a trait of character that is manifest in habitual action, it
doesn't have to be present absolutely all the time for one to be honest
- Is there a moral difference between outright lying and a deceptive
- E.g. Murders are looking for victims and instead of saying I don't
know where the person is (a lie) you say he's close by, rather than lie
- People do this in business all the time
- Rachels says no moral difference
- Lying and truthful deception (dishonesty in general) are all a
violation of trust: we mislead other people who might act on it and
- All wrong for the same reason, so one isn't less bad than the other.
- Loyalty to family and friends example
- Friends essential to human life
- Virtues necessary for friendship include loyalty
- What's an example of failing in this virtue?
- Euthyphro prosecuting his father for murder
- In U.S., spouses aren't required to testify in court against each other
- Special/different duties and responsibilities and consideration for
family and friends
- Different from generalized beneficence toward strangers
- The demands of justice which requires impartial treatment applies
less certainly between friends (and family)
- A kind of tit for tat justice inappropriate between friends and
- Why are virtues important?
- Aristotle: They are qualities needed for successful human living
- The virtuous person will fare better in life
- Are the virtues the same for everyone (or are they culturally relative?)
- Is there one sort of good person, as if all people come from same
- No: People live various different kinds of lives requiring different
- Also virtues depend on social roles and different societies have
different social roles and so character traits to fulfil these roles will
differ--thus virtues will differ in different societies
- But some virtues will be need by all people in all times (says
Aristotle and Rachels)
- Friendship and the loyalty it requires.
- These major virtues are not mandated by social convention but by
facts about the common human condition.
Specific and General (Moral) Virtues
- Virtues for certain types of people
- Car mechanic: skillful, honest and conscientious
- Teacher: knowledgeable, articulate and patient
- A virtue for one sort of job, may not be in another
- Good for an accountant to be picky, not good in a parent
- Virtues of people as such: of a good person,
- These are the moral virtues
- Moral virtues are virtues that it is good for everyone to have.
- Advantages of Virtue Ethics vis-a-vis Ethics of Duty/obligation
- Some philosophers believe emphasis on the virtues is superior to
other ways of thinking about ethics
- Rachels mentions two advantages
- One: Moral motivation.
- A person who visits you in the hospital out of a sense of duty
and not out of a sense of friendship and because he wanted to.
- No one needed cheering up more than you, so he decided he could
maximize utility by visiting you
- The value of his visit goes away
- Lacking in moral merit and value
- What he did was fine; what was lacking was his motive
- Sometimes motive is essential for right action, people acting not out
of a sense of duty, but because they are a certain kind of person
- Theories of morality that emphasize only right action, don't
provide completely satisfactory account of the moral life
- Need a virtue ethic that focuses on personal qualities like friendship,
- Two: Handles worries about ideal of impartiality
- Many ethics of duty/obligation (Utilitarian, Kant, social contract,
Rachels) say impartiality is a fundamental moral requirement
- Impartiality=all persons are morally equal and in deciding what to do
we should treat everyone's interests as equally important
- But love (partiality) to family and friends is an inescapable feature of
a morally good life.
- Theories that emphasize impartiality will have difficult time
accounting for this.
- Virtues ethics can handle partiality because some virtues (love,
friendship) are partial and some not (general beneficence toward
- Gives an account of role of character in ethics (which is lacking in an
ethics of duty/obligation)
- Rachels believes that modern moral theory have failed to provide an
understanding of moral character and this is essential to an adequate
theory of ethics
- So he thinks should combine the best features of ethics of
duty/obligation with the insights drawn from virtue ethics
- Radical Virtue Ethics:
- Says don't need ethics of right action
- Virtue ethics is complete in itself
- Get rid of the notion of right action or morally wrong and substituted
virtue or vice descriptions: that was unjust or dishonest, instead of
you have an obligation not to do that
- Can virtue ethics tell us not just about character, but about what we
ought to do, how we ought to act?
- How virtue ethics would decide whether act right or wrong?
- Right if manifests a virtue: Reasons given for right action are that it
manifests a virtue of a certain sort.
- Right action determined by what the virtuous person would do
- Rachels criticisms of radical virtue ethics:
- Such a virtue ethics is incomplete
- Fails to explain why it is better to have some character trait (like
- Didn't Aristotle argue that these traits are what is needed for a
successful life, need them to lead a better life
- How resolve cases where virtues conflict: Honesty and kindness:
tell the truth and be unkind or not tell the truth out of kindness.
- Why can't there be a ranking of virtues
- Rachels doubts that there a virtue that matches every morally good
reason for doing something
- Radical virtue ethics says yes: That for any good reason that may be
given in favor of doing an action, there is a corresponding virtue that
consists in the disposition to accept and act on that reason.
- Rachels says not true
- What virtue behind the decisions of a legislator to maximize
- What virtue behind principle that decides which of two
conflicting virtues trumps? (Virtue of wisdom?)
- Rachels believes virtue ethics adds a valuable dimension to ethics, but is
incomplete by itself.