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In philosophy, the phrase virtue ethics refers to ethical systems that focus primarily on what sort of person one should try to be. Thus, one of the aims of virtue ethics is to offer an account of the sort of characteristics a virtuous person has.
Virtue ethics contrasted with deontology and consequentialism
Virtue ethics is explicitly contrasted with the dominant method of doing ethics in philosophy, which focuses on actions - for example, both Kantian and utilitarian systems try to provide guiding principles for actions that allow a person to decide, in any given situation, how to behave.
Virtue ethics, by contrast, focuses on what makes a good person, rather than what makes a good action. As such it is often associated with a teleological ethical system - one that seeks to define the proper telos (goal or end) of the human person.
Like much of the Western tradition, virtue ethics seems to have originated in ancient Greek philosophy. Discussion of what were known as the Four Cardinal Virtues - prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance - can be found in Plato's Symposium. The virtues also figure prominently in Aristotle's moral theory. The Greek idea of the virtues was incorporated into Christian moral theology. During the scholastic period, the most comprehensive consideration of the virtues from a theological perspective was provided by St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica and his Commentaries on the Nicomachean Ethics. The idea of virtue also plays a prominent role in the moral philosophy of David Hume.
Aristotle's theory of the virtues
In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle categorized the virtues as moral and intellectual. Aristotle identified two intellectual virtues, sophia (theoretical wisdom) and phronesis (practical wisdom). The moral virtues included courage and good temper. These two virtues illustrate Aristotle's doctrine of the mean. Aristotle argued that each of the moral virtues was a mean (see Golden Mean) between two corresponding vices. For example, the virtue of courage is a mean between the two vices of recklessness and cowardice. Courage illustrates another aspect of Aristotle's account of the moral virtues. Courage is a mean with respect to the emotion of fear. Whereas cowardice is the disposition to feel too much fear for the situation, and recklessness is the disposition to feel too little fear, courage is the mean between the two, i.e. the disposition to the amount of fear that is appropriate to situation.
Virtues ethics outside the Western tradition
Non-western moral and religious philosophies, such as Confucianism, also incorporate ideas that may appear similar to those developed by the ancient Greeks. However, Confucianism places a greater emphasis in defining virtue in terms of how people relate to each other. Chinese thought makes an explicit connection between virtue and statecraft--a characteristic that is shared by ancient Greek ethics.
Contemporary virtue ethics
Although some enlightenment philosophers (e.g. Hume) continued to emphasize the virtues, with the ascendancy of utilitarianism and deontology, virtue ethics moved to the margins of western philosophy. The contemporary revival of virtue ethics is frequently traced to the philosopher G. E. M. Anscombe's 1958 essay, Modern Moral Philosophy and to Philippa Foot, who published a collection of essays in 1978 entitled Virtues and Vices. Since the 1980s, in works like After Virtue and Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry, philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has made an interesting effort to reconstruct a virtue-based ethics in dialogue with the problems of modern and postmodern thought. Following MacIntyre, Stanley Hauerwas, American Methodist theologian, has also found the language of virtue quite helpful in his own project. More recently, Rosalind Hursthouse has published On Virtue Ethics and Roger Crisp and Michael Slote have edited a collection of important essays titled Virtue Ethics.
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