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Ethics: Where are you? part 11

July 2, 2010

Both deontological theories and utilitarian theories contribute to virtue ethics because “virtue ethics and theories of right action complement each other” but “virtue ethics emphasizes right being over right action” (Boss, 2008, p. 400). Kant explains “the importance of good will” in his Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals (p. 405). Mill believed that reflection and cultivation of a “benevolent disposition” led to virtue (p. 405).

The main points of a critique of virtue ethics are that it is incomplete so it cannot be used as a guide for moral decisions. Also, virtue ethics is criticized for not fully incorporating justice and impartiality, for “challenging us to rise above ordinary moral demands,” and that a “virtuous character is essential to the concept of the good life and the good society” ( p. 439).  I do not agree with the two critiques that I have placed in quotes. The challenge to rise above seems to be almost altruistic and that would benefit the most people so I do not believe that is bad. I feel the same way about the second quoted critique – if everyone cultivated a virtuous character I believe the world would be a different place. So many people seem to be looking out for their own self-interests no matter if someone else’s best interests become displaced – or worse.

Feminist care ethics is part of virtue ethics because feminist care ethics “emphasizes the virtue of caring within the context of actual relationships over considerations of abstract duties and universal moral principles” (p. 419). Nell Noddings believes that “sympathy and caring are the most important virtues” (p. 421).

Virtues are transcultural – it is the degree of importance that may differ from culture to culture. Some of the differences in the importance of a virtue may be relative to social status and gender within the culture (pp. 427-429).

Hume argued for both the importance of sentiment and sympathy as a virtue in the study of ethical behavior and ethical being because he felt sentiment and sympathy move us to act virtuously while “reason or reflection can only tell us what is right or wrong” (p. 416). He stated that reason and sentiment work together.

The main points about virtue that Aristotle makes in his excerpt from Nicomachean Ethics are that virtues are of two kinds: intellectual and moral (p. 407). “In a virtuous person, reason is in charge of the nonrational elements. Therefore, wisdom is the greatest virtue and ignorance is the greatest vice” (p. 439).

The importance of moral education, according to Boss, is that it helps people become virtuous. “This requires both practicing virtuous behavior and cultivating the good will” (p. 437). Aristotle and Confucian ethics argue that “virtue is not inborn but must be developed through habituation” (p. 437) which is different from the Buddhist belief on how to educate for morality which states that “to overcome suffering, we need to cultivate wisdom as well as the virtues of giving and love” (p. 409).

Confucius and Aristotle agree about the “doctrine of the mean” which states that “virtue, in general, entails moderation or seeking the middle path” (p. 440). Both Confucius and Aristotle state that the doctrine of the mean applies to virtues and “not to our positions on moral issues” (p. 412).

Human nature is virtuous in the view of Nietzsche who stated that “moral virtues are a manifestation of the will to power” (p. 430). Nietzsche used Jesus as an example of Ubermensch: “a person of integrity and self-mastery who is able to rise above the morality of the crowd and exercise the ‘will to power,’ which entails self-mastery and human nobility” (p. 430).

The public school system should include instruction on moral and ethical thinking and behavior through the development of a curriculum that includes the differences between right and wrong. Critical thinking and decision making skills should be a part of public school curriculum starting at a young age. School age children should learn the process of reflection – reviewing their actions and feelings – rather than simply following orders/rules. The importance of autonomy and self-realization should be stressed in the curriculum. Aquinas stated that moral education “is not so much a matter of cultivating children’s natural moral sense as of imposing morality upon them” (p. 434).

Aristotle believed it was never too late to begin a moral education but that “it is generally easier for people to be virtuous if their early childhood education reinforced virtuous behavior” (p. 436). Boss states that “knowledge or wisdom alone is not sufficient for moral virtue; practice or habituation is also necessary” (p. 402). Education and the greater society have a responsibility for creating and maintaining the most ethical society and individuals possible because a civilized world needs to be peopled by those who know the difference between right and wrong and the importance of right actions.

Virtue ethics is the theory that having a right essence is more important than acting right – a person must believe and know what is right, not simply follow rules/laws. Aristotle believed in two kinds of virtue: the rational and non-rational and that rational virtue was the better of the two; ignorance is a vice. Artistotle and Confucius believed that there were polar opposites to virtues and that people should strive to choose a virtue that was most beneficial/least harmful. They were not advocating a sitting on the fence type of virtue ethic.

David Hume believed that sentiments and feelings were more important to virtues than reason because actions result from feelings. Nell Noddings describes feminist care ethics as the virtues of sympathy and caring. Virtues overlap and are transcultural. The degrees of overlap differ from culture to culture and are relative to social status and gender within the culture. Virtue unites moral ethics in that virtuous people have moral integrity which they use for the benefit of all.

According to Boss (2008), many philosophers believe that the basis for virtue lies in an “emphasis rather than an either/or situation” between reason and sentiment (p. 414). Western philosophers David Hume and Immanuel Kant had opposing arguments relative to the basis of virtue. Hume “argued that sentiment is more important than reason in motivating us to act morally” (Boss, 2008, p. 415). Kant argued that reason is the foundation of morality that is universal and transcultural. Kant has the stronger position in the two arguments because without reason one would not recognize right from wrong. Compelling, logical consistency is the foundation of universal morals, while sentiment is the motivating factor for moral action.


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