What Is Virtue?

Virtue is like precious odours, most fragrant when they are incensed or crushed; for prosperity doth best discover vice, but adversity doth best discover virtue.

- Francis Bacon, Of Adversity

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Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the history of virtue. When Socrates asked the question ‘How should man live?’ Plato and Aristotle answered that man should live a life of virtue. Plato claimed there were four great virtues - Temperance, Justice, Prudence and Courage and the Christian Church added three more - Faith, Hope and Love. But where does the motivation for virtue come from? Do we need rules to tell us how to behave or can we rely on our feelings of compassion and empathy towards other human beings? Shakespeare’s Iago says “Virtue! A fig! ‘tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus. Our bodies are our gardens to the which our wills are gardeners. ” So is virtue a character trait possessed by some but not others? Is it derived from reason? Or does it flow from the innate sympathies of the human heart? For the last two thousand years philosophers have grappled with these ideas, but now in the twenty first century a modern reappraisal of virtue is taking the argument back to basics with Aristotle.

Listen to the In Our Time episode on Virtue

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Short Article of the Day

When we think of morally upright, virtuous citizens, do we imagine boring do-gooders? Is the idea of being virtuous out-dated and old-fashioned? Or is “being virtuous” still something we should aspire to in our contemporary society?

Prior to the notion of one Omni-God, Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BCE) claimed that being virtuous was rational and good for everyone. The father of Virtue Ethics, Aristotle’s starting point wasn’t based on reward in another life or on categorical rules, but on what makes us essentially human...

For Aristotle, the purpose of life is eudaimonia, which is often translated as happiness, but is better understood as flourishing, so as to distinguish it from hedonism. A happy or good life is not one in which we have every single thing we desire, instead, it is about being fulfilled and feeling that we’ve contributed something to the world, however small or great, through the life we have lived. According to the virtue ethicist, this goal of eudaimonia is best achieved by following the virtues, and developing a good or virtuous character.

So how do we develop good moral character, and does this mean we’ll be boring do-gooders?...

Continue reading Laura D'Olimpio's article: Happy days: virtue isn't just for sanctimonious do-gooders

Further Reading

Virtue ethics is currently one of three major approaches in normative ethics. It may, initially, be identified as the one that emphasizes the virtues, or moral character, in contrast to the approach that emphasizes duties or rules (deontology) or that emphasizes the consequences of actions (consequentialism). Suppose it is obvious that someone in need should be helped. A utilitarian will point to the fact that the consequences of doing so will maximize well-being, a deontologist to the fact that, in doing so the agent will be acting in accordance with a moral rule such as “Do unto others as you would be done by” and a virtue ethicist to the fact that helping the person would be charitable or benevolent.

This is not to say that only virtue ethicists attend to virtues, any more than it is to say that only consequentialists attend to consequences or only deontologists to rules. Each of the above-mentioned approaches can make room for virtues, consequences, and rules. Indeed, any plausible normative ethical theory will have something to say about all three. What distinguishes virtue ethics from consequentialism or deontology is the centrality of virtue within the theory (Watson 1990; Kawall 2009). Whereas consequentialists will define virtues as traits that yield good consequences and deontologists will define them as traits possessed by those who reliably fulfil their duties, virtue ethicists will resist the attempt to define virtues in terms of some other concept that is taken to be more fundamental. Rather, virtues and vices will be foundational for virtue ethical theories and other normative notions will be grounded in them...

Continue reading the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Virtue Ethics

Bonus Webcomic

Related Topics

AristotleCourageEmpathy | Ethics | The Good LifeGreed | HonestySelf-control | Wisdom

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