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Virtue 1: aristotle's virtue ethics

  • Eudaimonia. Happiness, for Aristotle, consists of a life spent fulfilling the intellectual and moral virtues. These modes of action are auto-telic, that is, they are self-justifying and contain their own ends. By carrying out the moral and intellectual virtues for a lifetime, we realize ourselves fully as humans. Because we are doing what we were meant to do, we are happy in this special sense of eudaimonia.
  • Arete. Arete is the Greek word we usually translate as "virtue". But arete is more faithfully translated as excellence. For Aristotle, the moral and intellectual virtues represent excellences. So the moral life is more than just staying out of trouble. Under Aristotle, it is centered in pursuing and achieving excellence for a lifetime.
  • Virtue as the Mean. Aristotle also characterizes virtue as a settled disposition to choose the mean between the extremes of excess and defect, all relative to person and situation. Courage (the virtue) is the mean between the extremes of excess (too much courage or recklessness) and defect (too little courage or cowardice). Aristotle's claim that most or all of the virtues can be specified as the mean between extremes is controversial. While the doctrine of the mean is dropped in Virtue 2 and Virtue 3, we will still use it in developing virtue tables. (See exercise 1 below.) You may not find both extremes for the virtues you have been assigned but make the effort nonetheless.
  • Ethos. "Ethos" translates as character which, for Aristotle, composes the seat of the virtues. Virtues are well settled dispositions or habits that have been incorporated into our characters. Because our characters are manifested in our actions, the patterns formed by these over time reveal who we are. This can be formulated as a decision-making test, the public identification test . Because we reveal who we are through our actions we can ask, when considering an action, whether we would care to be publicly identified with this action. "Would I want to be publicly known as the kind of person who would perform that kind of action? Would I, through my cowardly action, want to be publicly identified as a coward? Would I, through my responsible action, want to be publicly identified as a responsible person? Because actions provide others with a window into our characters, we must make sure be sure that they portray us as we want to be portrayed.
  • Aisthesis of the Phronimos. This Greek phrase, roughly translated as the perception of the morally experienced agent, reveals how important practice and experience are to Aristotle in his conception of moral development. One major difference between Aristotle and other ethicists (utilitarians and deontologists) is the emphasis that Aristotle places on developing into or becoming a moral person. For Aristotle, one becomes good by first repeatedly performing good actions. So morality is more like an acquired skill than a mechanical process. Through practice we develop sensitivities to what is morally relevant in a situation, we learn how to structure our situations to see moral problems and possibilities, and we develop the skill of "hitting" consistently on the mean between the extremes. All of these are skills that are cultivated in much the same way as a basketball player develops through practice the skill of shooting the ball through the hoop.
  • Bouleusis. This word translates as "deliberation." For Aristotle, moral skill is not the product of extensive deliberation (careful, exhaustive thinking about reasons, actions, principles, concepts, etc.) but of practice. Those who have developed the skill to find the mean can do so with very little thought and effort. Virtuous individuals, for Aristotle, are surprisingly unreflective. They act virtuously without thought because it has become second nature to them.
  • Akrasia. Ross translates this word as "incontinence" which is outmoded. A better translation is weakness of will. For Aristotle, knowing where virtue lies is not the same as doing what virtue demands. There are those who are unable to translate knowledge into resolution and then into action. Because akrasis (weakness of will) is very real for Aristotle, he also places emphasis in his theory of moral development on the cultivation of proper emotions to help motivate virtuous action. Later ethicists seek to oppose emotion and right action; Aristotle sees properly trained and cultivated emotions as strong motives to doing what virtue requires.
  • Logos Aristotle's full definition of virtue is "a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean, i.e. the mean relative to us, this being determined by a rational principle, and by that principle by which [a person] of practical wisdom would determine it." (Ross's translation in Nichomachean Ethics , 1106b, 36.) We have talked about character, the mean, and the person of practical wisdom. The last key term is "logos" which in this definition is translated by reason. This is a good translation if we take reason in its fullest sense so that it is not just the capacity to construct valid arguments but also includes the practical wisdom to assess the truth of the premises used in constructing these arguments. In this way, Aristotle expands reason beyond logic to include a fuller set of intellectual, practical, emotional, and perceptual skills that together form a practical kind of wisdom.

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Source:  OpenStax, Modules linking to computing cases. OpenStax CNX. Jul 26, 2007 Download for free at http://legacy.cnx.org/content/col10423/1.2
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