Virtue Ethics

The next theory we will consider goes by the name of virtue ethics (sometimes it’s referred to as human nature ethics), and it is well represented by the thought of Aristotle (384-322 BC).   Robert Solomon is a contemporary thinker who tries to develop a specifically ‘Aristotelian’ approach to business ethics.   Both Aristotle and Solomon present rich and somewhat complex systems of moral thought, so we will have to be a bit selective in what we consider given our time constraints.

We can start by going back to Kant and Mill, and noticing a big difference between them and Aristotle.   Both Kant and Mill focus on behavior first and foremost, providing a fundamental principle that is to guide our decision-making.   So we can understand them both to be asking: how should we act?   By contrast, Aristotle focuses on the question of character, asking what kind of persons should we be?   So his focus is on the sorts of traits or qualities of character we should aspire to have, and that we wish to see in others.   Traditionally, morally good traits—honesty, generosity, courage, self-control—are called virtues, and morally bad traits—dishonesty, greed, cowardice, intemperance—are called vices.   So put, Aristotle is trying to say what it is for something to be a virtue, and how it is that we acquire such traits.

Aristotle begins by arguing that in general a virtue is a quality that enables a thing to perform its function.   In other words, a virtue enables a thing to do well at what that thing is supposed to do.   So sharpness is a virtue in a knife because it enables a knife to cut well, which is what a knife is meant to do.   Humans don’t exactly have a ‘purpose’ in this sense, but Aristotle argues that we do have a nature, and this defines for us what it is we’re supposed to be.   Humans are, he argues, ‘rational animals’.   So basically, it is our job, so to speak, to become successful rational animals, and a virtue is any trait that helps us do this.  

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