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Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics
Aristotle in his virtue ethics states that a virtuous individual is someone with ideal traits. These characteristic traits normally come from an individual’s innate tendency but should be cultivated. After they are cultivated, these character traits supposedly become stable in an individual.
Moral consequentilaists and deontologists are normally concerned with universal doctrines that can be utilized in any situation that requires moral interpretation. Unlike these theorists, Aristotle’s virtue ethics are concerned with the general questions such as “what is a good life”, “what are proper social and family values”, and “how should one live” (Bejczy 32).
Aristotle developed his virtue ethics based on three central principles; eudaimonia, ethics of care, and agent based theories. Eudaimonia stipulates that virtues can be seen in the way an individual flourishes; flourishing under this concept refers to one’s ability to perform their functions with distinct accuracy (Bejczy 33).
The distinct function of humans according to Aristotle is reasoning, and a worthy life is characterized by good reasoning. The agent based theory places emphasis on the fact that virtues are determined by common institutions people use to label traits in other people as admirable.
According to Aristotle’s virtue ethics, a virtue like honesty does not necessarily refer to the tendency of people acting honestly, or the classification of the virtue as a desirable trait. Instead, Aristotle purports that the virtue of honesty is predisposed and entrenched in an individual (Bejczy 34). In virtue ethics, therefore, an individual cannot be labeled as honest since he is not cheating, or by observing the honesty in one’s dealings.
In addition, if an individual acts honestly because he/she is afraid of being caught, or because he/she thinks it is good to do so rather than recognizing that engaging in a contrary behavior will be dishonest, such as an individual cannot be labeled as honest (Bejczy 35).
The choices made by an honest individual will always reflect the views the individual has regarding truth and honesty. Aristotle’s virtue ethics is mainly concerned with the questions of “what is a good life”, “what are proper social and family values”, and “how should one live”.
An honest individual values honesty and in most cases will choose to have honest friends, raise his/her children to embrace honesty, and work with honest people. Aristotle’s virtue ethics also differentiates between continence and perfect virtue (Bejczy 36). Perfect virtue implies that people who are fully virtuous will perform tasks, which they are supposed to be done without experiencing conflict with contrary desires.
On the other hand, people who are continent will struggle to control the temptation of engaging in behaviors that compromise virtue. Another reason Aristotle says can make an individual not attain full virtue is lack of practical or moral wisdom or phronesis.
Practical wisdom enables an individual to effectively secure real benefits and those who possess it will never hide the truth from people who need to be informed even if the truth hurts (Bejczy 37).
Aristotle’s virtue ethics maintain that people with practical wisdom, understand what is truly advantageous in life, truly worthwhile, and truly important; hence, they have a good life that enables them to experience eudaimonia. For one to experience eudaimonia, he/she must live a life in accordance with virtue.
Eudaimonia has been defined as happiness, flourishing, and at times well-being. However, in the Aristotle’s virtue ethics, eudaimonia does not imply happiness derived from acquisition of wealth or physical pleasures, as these are signs of a wasted life. According to Aristotle, a good life is characterized by eudaimonia, and possession of virtues enables humans to experience it.
This is because virtues are basically character traits that shield their possessor from bad lack (Bejczy 38). Aristotle’s virtue ethics is based on the premise that individuals should achieve a perfect character for them to be able to experience happiness that he called eudaimonia.
Moral virtue or excellent character is determined by what an individual performs voluntarily, as opposed to what people do because they have been coerced to (Bejczy 39).
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Kant’s Deontological Ethics
Kant’s theory of morality is referred to as deontological for various reasons; firstly, Kant maintains that acting in a morally upright way requires that people’s actions should be based on duty. Kant also maintains that it is not the consequences of actions that essentially determine whether they are right or wrong, but the motives of the actor (Wike 149).
Kant starts his deontological argument by claiming that the highest good should be that without qualification and good in itself. What Kant defines as good in itself is something that is fundamentally good and therefore, the concept of good without qualification implies that when something else is introduced to a situation, it does not make it ethically worse (Wike 150).
Kant also dismisses things such as courage, pleasure, happiness and understanding, which are popularly thought to be good because according to him, these things are not in line with the concepts of “good without qualification” and intrinsically good.
This is because these things have the potential of being turned into bad acts; for example, the terrorists who carried out 9/11 attacks used courage but in a bad way and their actions harmed innocent people. In addition, committing crimes like murder requires courage; for example, a thief may be happy while stealing and understanding can be used negatively to corrupt the way other people think (Wike 149).
Kant defines what good will is through examples, and one of the instances he gives is that involving a foreigner who goes to a shop with a bag of coins. The foreigner does not understand the shopkeeper’s language and hands him a bag of coins. The shopkeeper in this case had an option of picking extra coins but he did not.
Kant argues that determining whether the shopkeeper’s behavior was good depends on some factors (Wike 151). If the shopkeeper did not take extra coins so that the foreigner goes back, or recommends his friends, then the shopkeeper is honest but his motives are not good and hence his behavior is not good. The good will according to Kant requires that we act from good motives, duty, or from a sense of law (Wike 152).
Kant then concludes that there is one thing that meets the qualifications to be labeled as truly good, and that is the good will. According to him, nothing in this world humans can think of can be labeled as good without qualification, except good will.
Kant also states that the outcomes of an individual’s actions should not be used to determine whether he or she possesses a good will because good outcomes could emanate from actions whose motive was to inflict harm to innocent persons (Wike 153). On the other, hand, bad outcomes can emanate from actions that have good motives.
According to Kant, it can be said that an individual has a good will when his/her actions do not contradict the moral law. When an individual acts in a certain way because he/she is bound by duty to do so, then it can be said that the individual respects moral law. Hence Kant posits that for one to be good, he/she must be righteous (Wike 154).
Kant’s deontological ethics is based on the concept of categorical imperativism that states that individuals’ actions should be based on a maxim that allows these actions to become a universal law. Secondly, categorical imperativism requires that our actions be in such a way that we do not treat humans as a means, but always treat them as an end.
This first provision of categorical imperativism dictates that if our actions cannot be universalized, then they are unacceptable, while the second provision emphasizes that we should treat people with respect (Wike 154). Kant developed the principle of categorical imperativism to address some of the challenges and deadlocks in deontological ethics.
For example, Kant dismissed courage and intellect as good acts, and claimed that good actions can only be determined from good will. This makes it difficult to make moral decision especially when faced with conflicting situations (Wike 155).
Utilitarianism as a theory of ethics and morality is based on the principle that human beings have a tendency to seek pleasure while avoiding pain. This is sometimes referred to as the principle of the greatest happiness. Utility, which is the root of utilitarianism according to Bentham, implies that the usefulness of a product will determine what humans are willing to sacrifice, or give up in the course of obtaining it (Troyer 52).
The principle of litigation is concerned with the concept of utility and how it is incorporated in legislative practices. Bentham’s utilitarianism considers good actions as the ones that produce the largest amount of pleasure, while at the same time minimizing pain. Evil acts are regarded as acts, which produce the largest amount of pain that is not accompanied by any pleasures (Troyer 53).
Hedonistic calculus is a method of determining the moral standing of any action, which was developed by Jeremy Bentham. This method has seven considerations with the first four dealing with sensation. These are duration, intensity, certain/uncertainty, and propinquity. The next two considerations are concerned with means-end relationship and they are fecundity, and purity.
Fecundity means fruitfulness and in a means-end relationship, it determines whether the outcomes of a certain action result in more pleasure or pain (Troyer 54). Purity is meant to determine the quality of an action, for example, if an action results in pleasure alone, then it can be termed as pure. But if brings both pleasure and pain then it labeled impure.
The last consideration in utilitarianism is extent, this criterion requires that we consider the first six criteria and determine the extent to which they apply to the whole population (Troyer 55).
Under utilitarianism, if an action provides short-term pleasure for the majority of people while at the same time hurting one or a few persons, then it is termed as wrong. On the other hand, if the action provides long-term pleasure to most people while only hurting a few individuals, then it is said to be justified or morally right.
The challenge faced by utilitarian theorists is how to quantify pains and pleasures in this theory. Bentham argues that utilitarianism could be used to justify certain laws and policies, especially if they meet the criteria of utilitarianism (Troyer 56).
Bentham’s utilitarianism disapproves the notion held by right theorists; for example, in America there are different opinions on gun ownership. Those who argue from a utilitarian point of view maintain that guns should be regulated because if they fall in the wrong hands, they are likely to cause harm to the majority by enhancing insecurity.
Those who argue from the rights perspective maintain that owning a gun is their constitutional right. Another utilitarian theorist mentored by Bentham is John Stuart Mill. Mill disagrees with Bentham’s approach to utilitarianism based on two issues, which are the nature of pleasures and rights.
Bentham argues that humans will always seek pleasure while avoiding pain; however, Mill disputes the idea of seeking pleasures for their sake, and categorizes pleasure into two: that is, higher and lower pleasures (Troyer 57).
Higher pleasures are based on intellect, and in this regard, Mill argues that it is better to be a Socrates who is dissatisfied rather than a satisfied fool. Lower pleasures are based on appetite and Mill maintains that it is better to be a dissatisfied human being that being a satisfied being (Troyer 58).
This implies that contrary to Bentham’s opinion that humans are always seeking pleasure while avoiding pain; sometimes humans can avoid pleasure and endure pain especially if they consider such pleasures to be low end pleasures.
On rights, Mill opposes Bentham’s notion that the rights of the minority can be foregone if an action brings long-term pleasures to the majority. Mills argues that in ensuring the security of the majority, rights become the greatest good (Troyer 60).
Aristotle’s virtue ethics argue that morality should be based on an individual’s ideal traits that are internalized as opposed to observing outward actions or the consequence of his/her behavior. Kant on the contrary argues that for an individual to be considered morally upright, then his/her actions should be based on duty. Mills maintains that if an action provides long-term pleasures to the majority, then it is morally upright.
Bejczy, Istvan. Virtue ethics in the middle Ages: Commentaries on Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics”, 1200 – 1500. Leiden: Brill, 2008. Print.
Troyer, John. The Classical Utilitarians Bentham and Mill. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishers, 2003. Print.
Wike, Victoria S. Kant on Happiness in Ethics. Albany: Albany State University Press, 1994. Print.