Rachels, Chap 12: The Ethics of Virtue




2.       Virtue Ethics

          a.       Aristotle, Socrates, Plato (and feminist ethics) approached ethics by asking:

          b.       Questions about character

          c.       What is a good man (woman)

          d.       What makes someone a virtuous person

          e.       What traits of character make one a good person?


3.       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

          a.       Not what traits of character make one a good person

          b.       But what is the right thing to do

          c.       How should one act, not what kind of a person one should be

          d.       Developed theories of right and obligation and duty, not of virtue


          e.       Ethical egoism, utilitarianism, Kantian ethics, and social contract theory are all theories of right action/obligation


4.       1: Motives/Character/Person; 2: Act itself/kind of act; 3: Consequences

          a.       Virtue ethics focus on the first, Kantian ethics (and contract theorists) on the second, utilitarianism (and egoism) on the third


5.       Virtue ethic critique of modern moral philosophy of right action

          a.       Stop thinking about duty, rightness and obligation and return to thinking about virtues and vices

          b.       Instead of saying “that was wrong,” say, “that was dishonest, stingy, cowardly” and so on

          c.       More progress in ethics made that way

          d.       E.g., Consider raising children

                    i.        More important to raise them to be good people than to give them a bunch of rules about their obligations or teach them to do a utilitarian calculus




7.       Examples of virtues: (for more see list on p. 161)

          a.       Courage

          b.       Self-control

          c.       Generosity

          d.       Truthfulness/honesty

8.       Examples of vices

          a.       Cowardice

          b.       Having a bad temper

          c.       Stinginess

          d.       Dishonesty, exaggeration


9.       Definition of Virtue: A trait of character, manifested in habitual action, that it is good for a person to have

          a.       Character traits

          b.       Manifest in habitual action

                    i.        Honest person doesn’t tell the truth once, but habitually

                    ii.       His honest action springs from his character

                    iii.      Doesn’t have to think about it


                    iv.      But vices too are habitual traits of character

          c.       Virtues are character traits that it is good for people to have

                    i.        Virtues are those traits of character that lead us to seek people

                    ii.       Vices are those traits of character that leads us to avoid people


10.     Aristotle argued virtues are a mean between extremes which are vices

          a.       One of excess and the other a deficiency

          b.       Courage is a mean between extremes of cowardice and foolhardiness in the face of danger



12.     Is a Nazi soldier who fights valiantly and faces risk without flinching, courageous?

          a.       Where the nineteen 9/11 hijackers who flew planes into the World Trade Center courageous?

          b.       Geach: Not a virtue to be courageous in an unworthy cause, and this is not really courage

          c.       Rachels: The brave evil doer has two qualities of character, one admirable (courage) and one not (willingness to defend a despicable regime)

                    i.        He’s courageous alright, but because deployed in an evil cause, his behavior is on the whole wicked

13.     Is it good for a Nazi to be courageous?

          a.       If answer no, this does not fit the claim above that virtues as traits of character it is good for people to have.




15.     **Generosity: Willingness to expend one’s resources to help others

          a.       Aristotle: Generosity is a mean between extremes of stinginess (giving too little) and extravagance (giving too much)

16.     How much generosity is enough?

          a.       Jesus: Give all we have to help the poor; possession of riches while poor starve is unacceptable

          b.       Modern utilitarianism agrees:

                    i.        One’s duty to do what has best overall consequences and so we 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

          c.       Rachels objects: Such a policy would make it impossible for us to live our normal lives; requires us to abandon our everyday lives

          d.       Rachel proposes what he thinks is a reasonable interpretation of demands of generosity:

                    i.        Be as generous with our resources as is consistent with conducting our ordinary lives in a minimally satisfying way

                    ii.       10%?

          e.       Problem of generosity of the super rich

                    i.        Ordinary life is extravagant and filled with luxuries without which she’d feel deprived

                    ii.       Must the rich person sell his yacht and use $ to feed hungry if he is to be seen as generous and not stingy?

                    iii.      Rachels view: Virtue of generosity can’t exist in context of this sort of extravagant life, while others basic needs are unmet

                    iv.      Bill Gates can’t display the virtue of generosity?

                              (1)     Can he be generous and live in luxury while others starve?


17.     Honesty

18.     *Is honesty a mean between two extremes also?

          a.       Between deception and telling the truth too much?

          b.       Not as plausible here as with other virtues

          c.       Can one tell the truth too much?

                    i.        Blabber mouths

                    ii.       Sometimes wrong to tell the truth

                              (1)     To people who it would have been better if they had not known?

                              (2)     To murderers

          d.       Would an honest person tell the truth to a murderer about where his victim is hiding?

          e.       If she doesn’t, is that being dishonest?


19.     *Will an honest person never lie or deceive?

          a.       If we say yes, then honesty is not always a virtue (sometimes it is bad for people to be honest)

          b.       If we say no, then an honest person can sometimes lie (when there are compelling reasons): So an honest person should sometimes be dishonest?

          c.       Rachels uses language of obligation to say

                    i.        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)

20.     Way out? 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


21.     *Is there a moral difference between outright lying and a deceptive truth?

          a.       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 outright

          b.       People do this all the time

          c.       Rachels says no moral difference lying and deceiving in other ways

                    i.        Lying and truthful deception (dishonesty in general) are all a violation of trust: we mislead other people who might act on this false information and get harmed

                    ii.       All wrong for the same reason, so one isn’t less bad than the other.

                    iii.      Is this plausible?


22.     Loyalty to family and friends

          a.       Friends essential to human life

          b.       Virtues necessary for friendship include loyalty

          c.       What’s an example of failing in this virtue?

                    i.        Euthyphro prosecuting his father for murder

                    ii.       In U.S., spouses aren’t required to testify in court against each other

          d.       Special/different duties and responsibilities and consideration for family and friends

          e.       Different from generalized beneficence toward strangers

          f.       The demands of justice which requires impartial treatment applies less certainly between friends (and family)

          g.       Tit for tat justice inappropriate between friends and family




24.     Why are virtues important? Because virtuous people lead better lives

          a.       Aristotle: They are qualities needed for successful human living

          b.       The virtuous person will fare better in life

          c.       Is this true?

          d.       Is this a self-interested rationale for being moral?

                    i.        Why be moral (why be a virtuous person)? Because you’ll lead a better life


25.     Are the virtues the same for everyone (or are they culturally relative?)

          a.       Rachels answer: Some are the same for all and some are not


26.     Some virtues differ for different people in different roles and cultures

          a.       Is there one sort of good person, as if all people come from same mold?

          b.       No: People live various different kinds of lives, requiring different virtues

                    i.        Virtues of a care giver may not be same virtues of a general

                    ii.       Car mechanic: skillful, honest and conscientious

                    iii.      Teacher: knowledgeable, articulate and patient

          c.       A virtue for one sort of job, may not be in another

                    i.        Good for an accountant to be picky, not good in a parent

          d.       Some 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

                    i.        Examples?

27.     Some virtues will be need by all people in all cultures (says Aristotle and Rachels)

          a.       Courage

          b.       Generosity

          c.       Honesty

          d.       Friendship and the loyalty it requires.

          e.       These major virtues are not mandated by social convention but by facts about the common human condition

          f.       Virtues of people as such: of a good person,

                    i.        Virtues that it is good for everyone to have.


28.     Two advantages of Virtue Ethics vis-a-vis Ethics of Duty/Obligation/Right Action


29.     One: Virtue ethics handles moral motivation better than ethics of right action

          a.       A person who visits you in the hospital out of a sense of duty (because it was the right thing to do) and not out of friendship or care for you

                    i.        No one needed cheering up more than you, so he decided he could maximize utility by visiting you (utilitarianism)

                    ii.       If he was in the hospital, he would want people to visit him (Kantian universalizability)

          b.       What he did was fine; what was lacking was his motive

          c.       Best would be if his friendship and/or love for your made him want to come

          d.       Theories of morality that emphasize only right action, don’t provide completely satisfactory account of the moral life

          e.       Also need a virtue ethic that focuses on personal qualities like friendship, love, loyalty


30.     Two: Virtue ethics handles issues about partiality/impartiality better than ethics of right action

          a.       Many ethics of duty/obligation (Utilitarian, Kant, social contract, Rachels) say impartiality is a fundamental moral requirement

          b.       Impartiality=all persons are morally equal and in deciding what to do we should treat everyone’s interests as equally important

          c.       But partiality to family and friends is an inescapable feature of a morally good life.

                    i.        Theories that emphasize impartiality will have difficult time accounting for this

          d.       Virtues ethics can handle partiality because some virtues (love, friendship) are partial and some not (general beneficence toward people)


31.     Rachels thinks that moral philosophy needs virtue ethics

          a.       It gives an account of role of character in ethics lacking in ethics of duty/obligation/right action

          b.       So he thinks should combine the best features of ethics of duty/obligation/right action with the insights drawn from virtue ethics


32.     Radical Virtue Ethics: Virtue ethics is complete in itself and ethics does not need a theory of right action in addition

          a.       Get rid of the notion of right action or morally wrong action and substituted virtue or vice descriptions

                    i.        E.g., That was unjust or dishonest, instead of you have an obligation not to do that

33.     How virtue ethics would decide whether act right or wrong?

          a.       Right if it manifests a virtue: Reasons given for right action are that it manifests a virtue of a certain sort

                    i.        Wrong if it manifests a vice

          b.       Right action determined by what the virtuous person would do

34.     **Virtue ethics: “The morally right act is the one that the virtuous person would do”


35.     Rachels criticisms of Radical Virtue Ethics as incomplete

          a.       Fails to explain why people should be virtuous

                    i.        Rachels thinks these explanation would lead to the other moral theories (egoism, utilitarianism, social contract theory, Kantian ethics)

                    ii.       Didn’t Aristotle argue that these traits are what is needed for a successful life

                              (1)     But perhaps this justifies virtue ethics in terms of ethical egoism

          b.       Can’t resolve cases where virtues conflict: Honesty and kindness: tell the truth and be unkind or not tell the truth out of kindness.

                    i.        Why can’t there be a ranking of virtues?

36.     Rachels believes virtue ethics adds a valuable dimension to ethics, but is incomplete by itself