Source: Image of Socrates, Creative Commons, http://bit.ly/29ZntMM
Hello. I'm Glenn. And in this ethics tutorial, we will be looking at some advantages and shortcomings of virtue-based ethics. Things to keep in mind will be the definition of virtue-based ethics, the understanding of both virtues and vices, and also that, given virtue-based ethics, we will be focusing on character rather than actions and we always ask ourselves, what kind of person would I like to be, rather than, what should I do?
In this tutorial, we'll be focusing on some of the advantages of virtue-based ethics, on how it focuses on the function, how it focuses also on the person, how it reveals ethics as a lifelong project, and how it's also systematic. Some of the shortcomings we'll also be considering are how virtue-based ethics can be seen as self-centered, how it's sometimes vague, how it leaves a lot to interpretation regarding specific virtues and vices, and also, without knowing a character trait, how it's sometimes hard to determine whether the action is actually right or wrong.
There are four distinct advantages that come from virtue-based ethics. One is its focus on function. We have a natural insight-- and this comes from Aristotle-- into virtue through what things and people do. We get an insight into what virtue is valuable based upon what something does, on its function.
A good tool serves its function well. A good teacher teaches well. An apple does not make a good jack for a car. We get an insight into what something's natural virtues are based upon what it does well.
We also have a focus on a person or personality and how that informs or, as we said before, how it reveals character. A nice way of looking at this is that I often think that I don't need someone to tell me what kind of a person they are. And actually, I kind of tune out sometimes when someone says the line, well, I'm the kind of person that does this. And I'm the kind of person who does that.
You don't have to tell me what kind of person you are. All I need to do is to be around you for a while to watch how you behave, to watch how you talk, to have dinner with you, and then I can tell what kind of character traits you have. I can tell what your virtues and vices are.
Go on a road trip with someone. Travel a little bit. You learn a lot about their character.
Virtue-based ethics also offers us a lifelong learning process. Clearly, we change, and we grow, and we develop. And this happens over our lifetime. Virtue-based ethics appeals to this natural changing in our lives. And so it has a definite advantage to fitting the way our lives actually go and to allowing for change.
Clearly, at the moment I'm recording this, I'm 46 years old. And I'm not the same person I was when I was 20. Although there is a resemblance of me physically, there are different character traits that I have now.
And then virtue-based ethics is systematic. It provides a generally objective, consistent set of standards for evaluation. We ask ourselves, what kind of a person would be like this? What kind of a person do I want to be? And is that indicative of a virtue or of a vice? So we have this good general set of objective standards to abide by.
Now, as with other ethical theories that we have considered, virtue-based ethics is not without its shortcomings. One glaring one that we may not want to consider is that, since we focus on ourselves in what kind of a person I want to be, it does seem that virtue-based ethics is self-centered. When I focus on my actions, I'm really thinking about, not just who I want to be but who I want to be perceived as being. So I'm also worried about how my actions are perceived by others. And so there is a selfishness and self-centeredness to virtue-based ethics.
Also there's a vagueness determining what actions to do. Virtues are not always clear, and they're not always easy to interpret. How much honesty should I engage in a particular situation?
How truthful should I be? How generous should I be? It's not clear.
And this also means another condition is that there's a lot of interpretation that is involved in understanding virtues and vices. It's up to us to determine what character traits are even virtues. For some person, greed might actually be seen as a virtue.
Aristotle didn't think so, but for some person it might be. And if that person wants to cultivate greed, they may think it's a virtue when I think it's a vice. There's interpretation involved.
And then lastly, we need to know what character trait is involved in order to determine whether the action is right or wrong. And if we don't know, then we can't figure it out. Another way of stating this is that, unlike utilitarianism, we can't just look at the consequences of the action, and we can't just look at the action itself.
Virtue-based ethics really asks us to jump into the mind of someone else and think, OK, what is the character trait within them that is being cultivated. And this requires a lot of powers of intuition that might not be there. So knowing the mind of another person, obviously, is not easy to do. And these, therefore, are some of the shortcomings that do arise from virtue-based ethics.
And in this tutorial, we have therefore looked at several of the advantages and the shortcomings for virtue-based ethics. They are both compelling and very serious things that we need to consider.