Rachels, Chap 12: The Ethics of Virtue


1.      Virtue Ethics

         a.      Proponents of virtue ethics such as Aristotle, Socrates, Plato (and feminist ethics) approach ethics by asking

         b.      Questions about character (as opposed to conduct/acts)

                  i.      What is a good man (woman)

                  ii.     What makes someone a virtuous person

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

2.      Modern philosophers of ethics (the positions so far studied in this course except feminist ethics) had an ethics of right action or duty/obligation or principle 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

3.      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

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

         a.      Stop thinking about duty, obligation, and what is right, 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


5.      Examples of virtues and vices: (for more see list on p. 162)

                  Virtue                                  Vice

         a.      Courage                               Cowardice

         b.      Generosity                           Stinginess

         c.      Honesty, truthfulness          Dishonesty, exaggeration

         d.      Patience                               Impatience

         e.      Loyalty                                Disloyalty

6.      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

7.      Aristotle argued virtues are a mean between two extremes which are vices

         a.      One of excess and the other a deficiency

         b.      Courage is a mean between extremes of foolhardiness (an excess) cowardice (a deficiency) and in the face of danger


8.      Virtues used for evil ends?

         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

         d.      Is it good for a terrorist to be courageous?

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

                  ii.     A reason for thinking courage is not a possible virtue for a terrorist

9.      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)

         b.      How much generosity is enough?

         c.      Jesus: Give all we have to help the poor; possessing riches while poor starve is unacceptable

         d.      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

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

         f.      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.     Give away 10%?

         g.      Problem of generosity of the super rich

                  i.      For the super rich, their 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?

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

                  i.      Worries:

                           (1)    Bill Gates can’t display the virtue of generosity?

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

                           (3)    Warren Buffett’s Philanthropic Pledge

10.    Honesty

         a.      Is honesty a mean between two extremes also?

                  i.      Between deception and telling the truth too much?

                  ii.     Can one tell the truth too much?

                           (1)    Blabber mouths

                           (2)    Sometimes wrong to tell the truth

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

                                    (b)    To murderers

         b.      Will an honest person never lie or deceive?

                  i.      E.g., would an honest person tell the truth to a murderer about where his victim is hiding?

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

                  iii.    If we say no, then an honest person can sometimes lie (when there are compelling reasons):

                           (1)    So an honest person should sometimes be dishonest?

                  iv.    Rachels response:

                           (1)    Dishonesty is wrong as it is a violation of (deserved?) trust

                           (2)    Put murderers don’t deserve trust

                           (3)    Lying to them is not wrong

                           (4)    But is it still dishonesty?

                  v.      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

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

                  i.      E.g. I ask you if you came to class on Tuesday and you say “Yes” (but you came to class and borrowed $5 from a friend and left); Would this be any less wrong than if you had never left the dorm?

                  ii.     People do this all the time; think it less wrong (or not wrong?) to tell the truth as a way of deceiving

                  iii.    Rachels argues there is no moral difference between lying and deceiving in other ways

                           (1)    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

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

                           (3)    Is this plausible?


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

         a.      Aristotle: They are qualities needed for successful human living (e.g., flourishing as a human)

         b.      The virtuous person will fare better in life

         c.      Is this true? Are there vicious people who have led flourishing lives? (There clearly are evil people who are super rich and powerful and die at a ripe old age.....)

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

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

                  ii.     Perhaps better to answer the question why be virtuous with the view that it is intrinsically better.


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

13.    Rachels answer:

         a.      Some virtues are the same for all and some are not

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

         a.      There is not only one sort of good person, as if all people come from same mold

         b.      People live various different kinds of lives, requiring different virtues

         c.      Examples:

                  i.      Car mechanic: skillful, honest and conscientious

                  ii.     Teacher: knowledgeable, articulate, and patient

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

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

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

         e.      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?

15.    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 or particular social roles, but by facts about the common human condition

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

                  i.      Virtues that are good for everyone to have


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

         a.      Example: Hospital visit to friend out of duty

                  i.      Consider if person 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

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

                  iii.    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

17.    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 (and self?) 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) require partiality and some require impartiality (general beneficence toward people)


18.    Rachels thinks that moral philosophy needs virtue ethics

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

19.    Rachels thinks should combine the best features of ethics of right action with the insights drawn from virtue ethics


20.    Rachels rejects Radical Virtue Ethics

         a.      RVE is the idea that virtue ethics is complete in itself and ethics does not need a theory of right action in addition

         b.      Tells us to 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

21.    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

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

23.    Rachels criticizes 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?

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

Rachels, Ch 12: The Ethics of Virtue

1.      Explain how virtue ethics is different from an ethics of duty or right action. What does virtue ethics focus on that is different from traditional ethics (e.g., utilitarianism and Kantian non-consequentialism)?

2.      Define what a virtue is and give examples of virtues (and opposing vices).

3.      Using courage as an example, explain what Aristotle means when he says virtue is a mean between two extremes which are vices.

4.      How might one answer the question, why be virtuous? How does Aristotle answer it?

5.      Does Rachels think the virtues are the same for everyone or does he think virtues are culturally or socially relative? Give examples.

6.      Using the example of visiting a friend in the hospital, explain why Rachels thinks that virtue ethics handles moral motivation better than does either utilitarian ethics or Kant’s universalizability ethics.

7.      How will a defender of virtue ethics answer the question about how we should act? In other word, for virtue ethics right action is__________________?

8.      What is “radical virtue ethics” and why does Rachels object to it? Does Rachels reject virtue ethics entirely?