Growth as a Moral Framework
Updated: Nov 20, 2019
A while back I took an intro to philosophy class for fun. I know, I'm too cool. We touched on quite a few western philosophical theories, my personal favorite being Virtue Ethics.
Here are a couple of important terms:
Virtue= excellence, not personality traits
Ethics= The study of right and wrong, good and bad, thoughts and actions
The general study of the right actions and goodness itself
Vice= an immoral habit or practice
Akrasia= Lack of self-control. Acting against one's better judgment due to being weak-willed
Virtue Ethics was invented primarily by Aristotle. The main text outlining this theory being Nicomachean Ethics, which I will tell you right now I haven't read. The idea behind Virtue Ethics is the development of character.
Virtue Ethics' strengths go hand in hand with the weaknesses. There is no overarching definition of "good". There are moral exemplars, people who the majority of society agree are good, but that's about it. It's easy to get swept up in the semantics of how goodness works. I personally like that it is such a flexible theory because I find human morality to be very elastic.
How it works
Throughout one's life, an individual will use rationality to gain practical wisdom on what is right and wrong. You can find what the best thing to do is through experience. This decision-making process will lead to virtuous outcomes.
The coolest part of Virtue Ethics, to me, is the golden mean. The golden mean is the middle ground between vices and virtues. Most of the time we think of the good thing being the opposite of the bad, but this is a different approach. For example, courage would not be the opposite of cowardice, recklessness would. Cowardice and recklessness are opposite vices being in a state of excess or deficiency, courage is the golden mean of the two. For one to act outside of the golden mean is due to underdevelopment, akrasia, or irrationality.
Most ethical theories work off the assumption that people are rational. With this idea, people who do bad things are either in a perpetual state of irrationality, or are still growing. They are not bad, they just have not yet gained the practical wisdom they need to be virtuous. Virtue is a skill that must be developed.
The proper function of people is to be virtuous. There are many aspects to this as humans are rational souls. Our virtue is not the same as would be for a plant, animal, etc. A knife's virtue is to be sharp. Ours is to be good. It recognizes that people are forever growing and gives the flexibility to do that. Repetition and practice of these virtuous acts will make it effortless.
There is always room for growth. A life of effort and aspirations is considered the pinnacle of humanity.
Virtue ethics is criticized for its lack of rules, is impractical for complex decisions, and has an antiquated view of human nature. I do agree that implementing on a large scale it's hard to think of something as a moral framework, but for personal use it only makes sense. Everyone has their own set of morals regardless, this just gives it direction. I find most ethical theories have pitfalls when it comes to complex decision making, this being no exception. In a utilitarian view, if you could either save two strangers from dying or one person you love, you pick the two, and things are never so simple. Human nature is tricky.
Human nature is like that of animal nature in part, basic survival, but past that it's hazy. Is it to find a meaning to life? Is it to live out a meaning that's already been prescribed? Is it to be good? I'm not claiming to know the nature of people. I would say most people probably don't know, so I don't think this is a fair criticism.
I personally like Virtue Ethics because of the way it views virtue, sees the best in people, and gives people the ability to grow and be good.