Virtue Ethics

Our hobby business, Fjellheim Institute ANS existed for many years mainly as the publisher of the Norwegian edition of The Virtues Guide (1996). Information about this enterprise is found in Keywords 023 Excellence.

Mary Rosalind Hursthouse (1943 – ) explains the concept of a virtue in her entry for Virtue Ethics in the 2013 edition of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “A virtue such as honesty or generosity is not just a tendency to do what is honest or generous, nor is it to be helpfully specified as a “desirable” or “morally valuable” character trait. It is, indeed a character trait—that is, a disposition which is well entrenched in its possessor, something that, as we say “goes all the way down”, unlike a habit such as being a tea-drinker—but the disposition in question, far from being a single track disposition to do honest actions, or even honest actions for certain reasons, is multi-track. It is concerned with many other actions as well, with emotions and emotional reactions, choices, values, desires, perceptions, attitudes, interests, expectations and sensibilities. To possess a virtue is to be a certain sort of person with a certain complex mindset. (Hence the extreme recklessness of attributing a virtue on the basis of a single action.)”

While Virtue Ethics can be said to begin with Socrates (ca. 470 – 399 BC), it is Aristotle (384 – 322 BC) who puts the field on the map, in Nicomachean Ethics, where he discusses about 11 moral virtues. Each virtue was suspended between two vices, one excessive, the other deficient. Thus, a person was to aim for moderation, a position somewhere between the two extremes.

At this point, we will ease our way into modern Virtue Ethics, by noting Alasdair Macintyre’s (1929 – ) demand in After Virtue (1981/ 1984/ 2007) that virtues have to be a community project. Ethics implies ethos, that each and every virtues has to be grounded in a particular time and place. If I look at my own upbringing, the society I grew up in was racist, discriminated against women, refused to tolerate either abortion or homosexuality, allowed parents to use physical punishment, encouraged smoking and drinking, and punished people who advocated socialist principles.

Each and every individual has to address emerging social issues, and to make a decision as to how to behave in the world. The list of moral virtues has to be applied to countless areas.

In addition to the 11 moral virtues, Aristotle also comments on seven other intellectual virtues. Of these it is especially Techne, translated as art or craftsmanship, that is of overwhelming interest for me, and many others in contemporary society. Here, I am particularly interested in miniaturization, manufacturing techniques – especially those that can be implemented locally, robotics and other forms of physical computing using sensors and activators. Naturally, I hope that there will be many others who are concerned about other challenging areas, such as health and nutrition/ agriculture.

One of the works that has impacted me the most is David Harvey’s (1935 – ) Social Justice and the City (1973), which I read almost as soon as it came out. The book is divided into three parts, of which the first two are most important. When I finished the first part, I felt I had understood the problem of urbanization. Then, as I read the second part I began to realize, that the proposed solutions simply created new problems. People fail to understand the consequences of their actions.

In my mind, I am often comparing Harvey’s work, with A Theory of Justice (1971) by John Rawls (1921 – 2002). The libertarian solutions proposed by Rawls, mirror those in the first part of Harvey’s book. I continually fear that Rawls does not appreciate how much needless damage libertarianism extracts from society. For MacIntyre, morals and virtues can only be understood in relation to the community in which they come from. Harvey expresses the same, but uses different words. Rawls wants people to consider justice as some sort of abstract ideal.

The Virtues Guide (1990/ 1993/ 1995), written by Linda Kavelin Popov and Dan Popov, and illustrated by John Kavelin, consisted of 52 different virtues, one for each week of the year. In our kitchen we also have 100 Virtues Cards. We choose one to focus on each week. Unfortunately, many of them do not feel like virtues.

I am contemplating a new approach, focusing on Aristotle’s original 11 moral virtues, one at a time. First, there has to be an understanding of the social context of each virtue. What does it mean, anno 2020? Second, there will have to be an understanding of how that virtue prepares a person for their ultimate destiny. Third, one must look at how a deficit of that virtue will affect a person. Fourth, a similar approach must be undertaken to understand what excess means, in terms of that virtue.

2 Replies to “Virtue Ethics”

  1. Thank you for an interesting perspective on Virtues, Brock. Each week we randomly pick a “virtue” for the week, something that encourages positive behaviour, though a virtue can be interpreted in many ways. For those that are interesting in seeing what some of these virtues are, I am also writing a blog and once a week I will be publishing something about the virtue that we have chosen that week, based on The Virtues Project. My blog can be accessed at: http://trish.mclellan.no/2020/01/12/virtue-of-the-week-patience/

  2. Very good introduction to the idea of “the virtues” Brock. A definition from the Stanford Encyclopedia, a look at Aristotle and then a mention of a well-known twentieth century exponent. The problem from the point of view of moral philosophy is that you can’t build a moral system out of virtues. The Donald Trump’s of the world come along and take advantage of people with good will. I like to see the “moral” situation as how to preserve and protect common resources: social order, good will, and cooperation. For that you need collective adherence and enforcement of a common set of rules. I explain in more detail in the following post: https://philosopherjustice.blogspot.com/2019/11/the-meaning-of-hobbes-sword-part-i.html .

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