Aristotle's Virtue Ethics: Definition & Theory

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  • 0:04 Introduction to Aristotle
  • 0:24 Virtue Ethics vs.…
  • 1:36 'Nicomachean Ethics' & Virtue
  • 2:41 The Purpose of Ethics
  • 3:09 Criticisms
  • 4:13 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Dr. Douglas Hawks

Douglas has two master's degrees (MPA & MBA) and a PhD in Higher Education Administration.

Greek philosopher Aristotle introduced the idea that ethics should focus on how we act, and less on the effects of our actions or the intentions behind them. In this lesson, we'll discuss these virtue ethics and how well Aristotle's theory is accepted.

Introduction to Aristotle

Aristotle was a Greek philosopher who lived around 350 B.C.E. Along with studying philosophy, Aristotle was an astronomer, a writer, a biologist, and a geologist. He was a student of Plato and is known for his ideas on politics, government, and often most notably, ethics.

Virtue Ethics vs. Other Theories

In Aristotle's time, most philosophers were focused on one of two types of ethics. One is called deontological ethics, which judges ethics by how well a person follows the laws and rules of society. Deontologists would say, ''it doesn't matter what happens, following the rule is always the right thing to do.'' The second, teleological ethics, judges ethics based on the outcomes of a person's actions. Teleological ethicists would say, ''If what you do leads to something good, you did the right thing.'' There are flaws in both types of thinking, so Aristotle introduced a third option.

Aristotle's perspective on ethics was based on the virtue of being human; in other words, virtue ethics. There are two important distinctions between Aristotle's approach to ethics and the other predominant perspectives at the time. First, Aristotle did not consider ethics just a theoretical or philosophical topic to study. To understand ethics, Aristotle argued, you actually have to observe how people behave.

That led to the second distinction. Ethics weren't about ''what if'' situations for Aristotle; instead, he took a very practical approach and much of his ideas on ethics were based on what someone did and how their virtues impacted their actions.

Nicomachean Ethics & Virtue

Nicomachean Ethics is the name of a series of books that Aristotle wrote about ethics. In these writings, he uses logic to determine a definition and the potential impacts of ethics. He starts his presentation of ethics with a simple assumption: humans think and behave in a way to achieve happiness, which Aristotle defined as the constant consideration of truth and behavior consistent with that truth.

Aristotle defines virtue as the average, or 'mean,' between excess and deficiency. Basically, he says, the idea of virtue is ''all things in moderation.'' Humans should enjoy existence, but not be selfish. They should avoid pain and displeasure, but not expect a life completely void of them. By striving to live this virtuous life of moderation, human beings can find happiness and, therefore, be ethical.

Most importantly, going back to one of the differences between virtue ethics and other theories of ethics, morality or being ethical cannot be achieved abstractly, meaning it cannot only be based on someone's beliefs. Ethical behavior requires behavior by individuals in a social environment.

The Purpose of Ethics

Aristotle is known for his study of politics and government as well as his ideas on ethics. In many ways, he didn't separate these areas of study. He believed that the role of government and politics was to create a society where individuals could live happy lives and realize their full potential. In that way, the science of politics and governance, from Aristotle's perspective, was to allow citizens to be happy by letting them search for their truth and behave in ways consistent with that truth.

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