Virtue Theory – or Aristotalianism – identifies right actions as those that a virtuous agent would do, when acting in character.
We know what the traditional virtues are – such as courage, moderation, justice etc. – but ‘virtue theory’ identifies the virtues as those character traits that contribute to eudaimonia. ‘Eudaimonia’ is often understood as ‘flourishing’. Morality bites because of its contribution to our flourishing. We all want to flourish. What is the best way, though without guarantee, to achieving this?
Well, I think if I actively encourage myself to to acquire the ‘habits’ of courage, moderation, justice – also truthfulness, benevolence and the like – I will be halfway there.
Aristotle’s model is that of function. Humanists (like myself) deny man has a function, in the sense of being designed, just as I deny that eyeballs are designed; but we can readily recognise that there is something eyes are best at, something that is proper to them. The thought, it is suggested, may be applied to humans. It is of course questionable what human beings are best at.
I know that in the past I have excelled at deceit and jealousy. But I recognise I am more likely to flourish in some ways than others.
Most of us – to varying degrees – value truthfulness, compassion, loyalty, courage and generosity. Part of Human Flourishing is to have friends, to help people out, to be helped out, to stand up for what we believe in – and so on. We may be impressed by the entrepreneurialism and hard-work of business leaders, but if we learned that their success came at the cost of backstabbing colleagues, ignoring their children or letting their friends down then it is unlikely they will receive our admiration.
In contrast to (what I understand of) Kantian deontology, Virtue Theory holds that morally decent human beings should sometimes act from sympathy. You rush to help those that stumble, not from duty but because they are fellow people – situation: Baby’s first steps.
Being virtuous does not just require the right feelings alone, but in the right proportion and with the right beliefs.
Perfectly compassionate individuals, keen to help others, may think of vulnerable, mentally ill people (like myself) as not truly human, and so degenerate them or worse. Once this false belief is exposed – I believe – it will change. The question to ask, when uncertain about an action’s morality is: would a virtuous and wise person (e.g. Bill S. Preston or Ted Theodore Logan) perform this action?
We may know whom to ask and we may grasp the answer, even though lacking in wisdom and virtue ourselves (me).
However, morality is a hotch-potch of ideas and all of these ideas are not without gripes. For example, Aristotle’s ‘flourishing’ included owning slaves and treating women as inferior. Many see humility as essential to The Good Life, but it is not an obvious virtue for others – especially Aristotle. Aristotle sees boastfulness as a vice (something I am guilty of). However, he sees pride as a virtue.
Maybe I am seeing the wrong sort of pride on display in my own head? Pride of actions / pride of being? Quite what regards as the right extent as pride? What is acting courageously? It should not lapse into foolhardiness, yet not become so watered down it becomes cowardice.
Here end’th the sermon …. (Himself exists pulpit, left).