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Virtue Ethics vs. Utilitarianism

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  • 0:04 Virtue Ethics vs.…
  • 2:17 Individual vs. Community
  • 4:06 Contemplation vs. Action
  • 5:42 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joshua Sipper

Dr. Sipper holds a PhD in Education, a Master's of Education, and a Bachelor's in English. Most of his experience is in adult and post secondary education.

The primary difference between utilitarianism and virtue ethics is the mode and means of human fulfillment. This lesson describes these two philosophical views and explores their positions on the individual versus the community and contemplation versus action.

Virtue Ethics vs Utilitarianism

Since the beginning of recorded human history, people have been obsessed with personal fulfillment. Almost as obsessive has been the argument about how to attain fulfillment and what its effects will be personally and on society. In the midst of this debate stand two opposing views: virtue ethics and utilitarianism. Both views have positive and negative components and continue to be argued and debated today.

Virtue ethics or virtue theory was originally proposed by Aristotle (384-322 BCE) to deal with the question of how humans can find and maintain happiness. Aristotle was ultimately interested in the final outcome of an activity or a person's entire life as a measure for happiness. In other words, the process of getting to something is not so much the point as is the outcome. For example, if you spend your entire life being a good person even in the face of oppression, and you're honored for your goodness and good works, in Aristotle's view, you have led a fulfilling life and attained happiness.

Utilitarianism is basically the opposite view. Instead of focusing on the final outcome, utilitarianism is about making oneself as useful as possible over the course of one's existence. This concept was developed by philosopher John Stewart Mill (1806-1873 CE). Mill's view was that fulfillment was only achieved if a person had utility or usefulness. He believed that happiness is found in how much a person can do, thereby accumulating achievements that build a person up and consequently, bring about a more developed humanity as a whole. Whether the end of the work is accepted or ignored is not the issue, what matters is the journey through a life of utility.

While both virtue ethics and utilitarianism seem like plausible philosophies, proponents debate endlessly in an effort to convince people to choose one or the other. How does one reach true and lasting fulfillment? The differences between these two philosophies are sharp and raise more than a little contention. Let's look more closely at two of the differences: individual versus community happiness and contemplation versus action.

Individual Versus Community

Where does the individual stop and the community begin? This is a question asked by many philosophers in an attempt to get to the bottom of how individual attainment and fulfillment affect society and vice versa.

In the Aristotelian virtue ethics view, the individual is the center of gravity for society. In other words, the greater virtue an individual can gather and store up, the more that virtue can be spread throughout and affect society. If individuals are able to perfect their character, this would have the effect of exemplifying to those around them how to be more virtuous, thereby causing good character and virtuous living to grow and spread.

Have you ever participated in a group activity that was meant for building character? Perhaps you were part of a club at school that focused on community service. In that common purpose, not only did you build your own character, you built up the character of the others in the group, while bettering society as a whole. This is the fundamental goal of virtue ethics.

Mill's utilitarian philosophy takes the opposite view. Society is the focus of fulfillment and ultimate good because what is good for society is good for the individual. An example of this is capital punishment. If a person murders another person, for instance, a utilitarian would advocate for the death penalty as this would put a stop to the murderer and be good for a greater number of people, since the execution would prevent greater pain and suffering for the many.

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