Lecture Supplement Introducing Virtue Ethics


     Copyright © 2013 Bruce W. Hauptli


Aretaic (from the Greek ‘arête’) theories of morality deal with excellence or virtue.  Their central question is:


“What sort of person should I become?” 


-Rather than “What should I do?” 


     Louis Pojman maintains that:


rather than viewing the heart of ethics to be in actions or duties, virtue-based ethical systems center in the heart of the agent—in the character and dispositions of persons.  Whereas action-oriented ethics emphasize doing, virtue- or agent-based ethics emphasize being—being a certain type of person who will no doubt manifest his or her being in actions or nonactions.”[1] 


     To fully understand the virtue ethicists’ orientation, we need to understand what they are doing that is different from those who offer an ethics of doing.  The following citation from Bernard Mayo may help: 


...according to the philosophy of moral character, there is another way of answering the fundamental question “What ought I to do?”  Instead of quoting a rule, we quote a quality of character, a virtue: we say “Be brave,” or Be patient” or “Be lenient.”  We may even say “Be a man”; if I am in doubt, say, whether to take a risk and someone says “Be a man,” meaning a morally sound man, in this case a man of sufficient courage.[2] 


In discussing this orientation, however, we need to note that a person’s character is not simply a list of traits or dispositions.  As Mayo notes,


a person’s character is not merely a list of dispositions; it has the organic unity of something that is more than the sum of its parts.[3]  


     A particular example of what it means to “quote character” may be helpful.  While Aristotle’s ethical discussion is full of examples of “means” between “extremes,” we might start with a more standard example, one he would be surely familiar with: Socrates as portrayed in Plato’s Euthyphro and Crito.[4] 


Discuss why Socrates cares about Euthyphro’s planned prosecution of his father, and why Socrates does not escape in the Crito.  Why does he continue to pursue his practice while getting his trial date, and why does he refuse to obey a law not to philosophize in the Apology?  Discuss what he “cares” about, and what would be harmed if he did escape.  In discussing this make it clear that the concept of the psyche here is not “our” concept of a soul, and that the concept of justice here is not “our” concept. 



Notes: (click on note number to return to text for the note)

[1] Louis Pojman, “Virtue-Based Ethical Systems, in Ethical Theory: Classical and Contemporary Readings (sixth edition), eds. Louis Pojman and James Fieser (Belmont: Wadsworth, 2007), pp. 3990-402, p. 399.  

[2] Bernard Mayo, “Virtue and the Moral Life,” in Ethical Theory, op. cit., pp. 440-443, p. 442.  The selection originally appeared in Mayo’s Ethics and the Moral Life (London: Macmillan, 1958). 

[3] Ibid., p. 445. 

[4] Benjamin Jowett’s translation of Plato’s Crito is available in our text, Ethical Theory: Classical and Contemporary Readings, op. cit., pp. 8-14.  I have a lecture supplement to this and also one to Plato’s Euthyphro. 

Click here to go to Lecture Supplement Introducing Aristotle's Ethics. 

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Last revised: 11/04/2013