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Virtue Ethics

The Rise Of Modern Virtue Ethics, Virtue Ethics's Criticisms Of Prevailing Orthodoxy, Current Debates About Virtue Ethics

Virtue ethics is one of the three major ethical approaches in modern moral philosophy, the other two being utilitarianism and deontology. Unlike the latter two, it focuses on the virtues. In the Western tradition of philosophy, virtue ethics begins with the ethical writings of Plato and Aristotle, but in the Eastern tradition its origins are even earlier. Confucius discussed in detail what might be regarded from a Western perspective as the virtuous character traits of charity, righteousness (the virtue pertaining to public affairs), propriety, wisdom, and sincerity and subscribed to something like Aristotle's doctrine of the mean regarding virtue. Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, recognized such virtues—perfections of character—as patience, self-restraint, contentment, sympathy, mildness, courage, meditation, and knowledge. All the ancient ethical writers, from East and West, shared the view that there is an answer to the question "How should a human being live?" and that the answer is "virtuously."

The later Greek and Christian writers continued to emphasize the central importance of the virtues in human life, Augustine being the first Christian writer to place the theological virtues of the New Testament—faith, hope, and charity (caritas, or love)—beside Plato's four "cardinal" virtues—courage, temperance, justice, and wisdom. Aquinas took more from Aristotle than from Plato, in particular Aristotle's view that our emotions and appetites can, through habituation, be brought into harmony with our reason. The striking consequence of this view is that, if perfect virtue is acquired, the agent does what is right, as reason directs, without inner conflict.

In Aquinas, and in later Christian writers, discussion of the virtues ran alongside discussions of God's, or "natural," law, but the rise of natural law jurisprudence in the seventeenth century saw this increasingly replaced by discussion of rules or principles intended to identify right—and in particular, just—acts, regardless of the motive or character from which they sprang. This trend was rejected by Hume, who insisted that all right actions derive their merit only from virtuous motives and devoted most of his second Enquiry to a discussion of the virtues.

The real break with the virtue ethics tradition came with the emergence of the theoretical alternatives, deontology and utilitarianism, offered by Immanuel Kant and then John Stuart Mill. Although the tradition continued to some extent among Continental philosophers, it disappeared from Anglo-American moral philosophy for about a hundred years.

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