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Virtues, Perfectionism, And The Good Life

The moral virtues might be characterized, roughly, as those qualities apt to be productive of moral good. Yet there is an important difference between consequentialist and virtue ethics. This pertains not only to the split between teleology and consequentialism just described but also to two factors distinctive of virtue ethics and going back to Aristotle. First, virtue ethics rejects the supposed distinction between the strictly "moral" in a Kantian sense and what is more broadly of personal value. The four cardinal virtues of Greek thought (courage, wisdom, temperance, justice) illustrate this, as only the last of these is "moral" in a Kantian sense. The second difference is that virtue ethics tends to focus on qualities of an agent as opposed to those of an act. Thus the right act is seen in terms of what the best sort of person (the virtuous agent) would do.

These features of virtue ethics, carried far enough, may lead to quite a different moral conception in which the good is understood in terms of the achievements of those relatively few truly good (or "great") individuals. In modern philosophy, this tendency is perhaps most clearly realized in Friedrich Nietzsche's (1844–1900) figure in Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883–1891) of the Übermensch ("overman," or superman), whose self-mastery, creativity, and other virtues transcend the mediocrity of the common run of humankind. It is also presaged in Aristotle's conception of the "great-souled man"—who "thinks he deserves and actually does deserve great things" (Nicomachean Ethics, book 4). More broadly, a perfectionist conception of the good understands value in terms of an individual's realization of such qualities, talents, and skills as might represent "the best in him or her." Hence, like the novelist Ayn Rand (The Fountainhead, 1943), the perfectionist upholds the value of individuality and stands in extreme opposition to what is termed communitarianism in contemporary political philosophy.

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James A. Montmarquet

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Glucagon to HabitatGood - Moral Versus Nonmoral Good, Intrinsic And Merely Instrumental Good, Teleological Versus Consequentialist Views Of The Good