Virtue Ethics Essay

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Virtue Ethics: The Good and the Bad About Virtue Ethics The philosophy of virtue ethics holds that being a 'good person' or what one might call 'character' is the most important determinant of moral action. Virtue ethics is considered to be one of the major philosophical orientations in the field of normative ethics, along with consequentialism and deontology (Hursthouse 2010). Many consider it to be the oldest form of ethics, harkening back to Plato and Aristotle's attempts to define what constituted a good and moral person. Virtue ethics fell out of favor for many years, but there has been a revitalization of interest in the concept, in the wake of controversies over the flaws of consequentialism and deontology. To understand the strengths (and also some of the weaknesses) of virtue ethics, it is essential to understand the ethical systems to which the modern incarnation of virtue ethics was responding. The system of virtue ethics "may, initially, be identified as the one that emphasizes the virtues, or moral character, in contrast to the approach which emphasizes duties or rules (deontology) or that which emphasizes the consequences of actions (consequentialism) (Hursthouse 2010).

Consequentialism, of which utilitarianism is one variety, stresses that the consequences of actions are the standard by which ethical actions should be evaluated. This is commensurate with Jeremy Bentham's principle of doing 'the greatest good for the greatest number.' "Consequentialists thus must specify initially the states of affairs that are intrinsically valuable -- the Good" (Alexander & Moore 2007). (Utilitarians like Bentham often had complex, almost mathematical-like formulas to determine The Good). "They [Consequentialists] then are in a position to assert that whatever choices increase the Good, that is, bring about more of it, are the choices that it is morally right to make and to execute" (Alexander & Moore 2007). "Moreover, consequentialists generally agree that the Good is "agent-neutral." (Parfit 1984; Nagel 1986) That is, valuable states of affairs are states of affairs that all...

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However, as simple as this statement sounds, there are problems with consequentialism's assertion of what is 'Good,' given that this has proven to be inherently subjective. It also raises the question if one person's Good is the same as another person's Good (for example, killing may be deemed 'against the Good' unless it saves lives, but that raises the question of which lives are deemed more valuable or which lives 'count'). Also, it seems to justify potentially abominable actions, so long as the agent acts in the name of the majority or the ends are said to justify the means.
In contrast, deontological, or principle-based ethics, holds that the intended results of actions are what are important, versus the ends. "Roughly speaking, deontologists of all stripes hold that some choices cannot be justified by their effects -- that no matter how morally good their consequences, some choices are morally forbidden. On deontological accounts of morality, agents cannot make certain wrongful choices even if by doing so the number of wrongful choices will be minimized" (Alexander & Moore 2007). Kant's famous categorical imperative stated that ethical actors should behave as if setting a precedent 'for all time' with every decision they made. The consequences of actions are impossible to predict, therefore the principles one obeys must be correct.

The problem with deontological ethics, however, is whose principles, whose rules are 'correct,' given that they vary from society to society? Deontological ethics also seems to place a tremendous emphasis on the mental state of the actor, which can be problematic to determine. Is an action good simply because a person meant to 'do good' and follow a 'good rule?' It is easy to think of many examples when a good action and a good rule did not create a good result.

Virtue ethics, however, takes a different point-of-view. Rather than focusing on discrete actions, virtue ethics focuses upon the character of the moral actor, and…

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References

Alexander, Larry & Michael Moore. (2007). Deontological ethics. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-deontological/#DeoFoiCon

Hursthouse, Rosalind. (2010). Virtue Ethics. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Retrieved: http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2010/entries/ethics-virtue


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