Sunday, 11 March 2012

Ye Olde Virtues

I love Virtue Theory. This is a brute fact that I will not deny. Learning about the Virtue Theories of Aristotle and Plato have completely shifted my perspective when it comes to ethics. Since having learnt about it, my preconceptions that the basis for ethical decision making rests either on the action itself or upon the consequences of the action have been dismissed. For me, it makes perfect sense to have the foundation upon which we ethically judge actions instead placed upon the character of the individual and their motivations for action.

In my previous entries, I have already outlined the basic concepts of Virtue Theory and therefore I don’t plan to do so again. However, I will repeat one thing about this ethical theory: We are unsure as to what the virtues are or how to determine them.

From what we do know, Aristotle and other thinkers of Ancient Greek proposed a short list of virtues, probably intended to be examples upon which we should base other virtues. The most well known example of these proposed virtues is Courage. Courage is bravery in moderation. Following on Aristotle’s ideas about the Golden Mean, we can say that Courage, like all virtues, lies between two separate extremes. The virtue of Courage is having bravery enough to do what is necessary, thus avoiding the extreme of cowardice, but not being too quick to act, thus avoiding the alternative extreme of rashness.

So we have the Ancient Greek idea of a virtue as being something which lies between two extremes: one of over action and one of under action.

Now let’s contrast this with a slightly more modern (I say this because it was some years later but remains plenty of years ago) view of the concept of virtue. More specially, let us regard the Seven Heavenly Virtues, which is a Christian take on the concept of Virtue Theory. As presented by Aurelius Prudentius, the Seven Heavenly Virtues are as follows: chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility.

Upon first glance I can see that all but two of these virtues are passive as in they encourage abstinence from specific actions. The only two which could within them include any form of proactive action are charity and kindness, which could easily be rolled together into one virtue. Surely kindness begets Charitable action?

As is evident, the Christian view on virtue is a far more passive one, more concerned with what we shouldn’t do than with what we should. This is a negative way in which to live, focusing more on blocking off human action than reflecting on what people are able to do. Morality should not be so strict about what it denies and what it permits. To use Virtue Theory, some people are more virtuous than others, but not all people have the ability or desire to become as virtuous as they can. Does this make them morally wrong or somehow abhorrent?

Of course it doesn’t. Humanity is a highly varied species and I think that diversity should be celebrated in all areas of our life, including our morality. This is not to say that I don’t believe in a system of morality or that such a system is always wrong, it is just to say moral systems should be more flexible. Hard and fast rules don’t seem to work without causing problems, therefore a system such as virtue ethics, which allows morality to be more widely considered, is far more helpful to us.


I apologise for having produced such a short entry this time and I understand that this entry may seem rather jumbled.

I shall attempt to produce some more…coherent as soon as time is given me.


  1. I liked it. I read this one all the way through, and though it's more stream-of-consciousness than the others, I found it easier to read that way. I really liked it. :)

    1. Thanks. I'm trying to write them less formally, but still convey a message :)