To what extent do modern versions of Virtue Ethics address the weaknesses of Aristotle’s teachings on virtue? Aristotle’s idea of Virtue Ethics was influenced by his belief that all things and all humans have a purpose (a telos). For him a complete explanation of something has to include its final cause or purpose which essentially is to realise its potential. Virtue Ethics itself is concerned with the characteristics of a person rather than how a person behaves and it is this he outlined in his book Nicomachean Ethics. A ‘’virtue’’ are qualities that lead to a good life e. . courage and honesty. Aristotle explains for a person to adopt these qualities into their own lives is to maximise their potential to achieve a happy life and he goes on to explain Eudaimonia as being a quality of this happiness. However Aristotle then explains that a person should not act virtuously just to achieve a particular end because he believes this to be a subordinate aim. A person that acts in a way to achieve goodness Aristotle explains is a superior aim and it is these people that act ‘’good’’ because it is the right way to act not because they ought to.
Following on from this Aristotle goes on to explain the key to goodness and virtue is to follow the ‘’golden mean’’. This is when as a person we act between two extreme vices for example the midpoint between shamelessness and shyness is modesty, this therefore is the golden mean. Aristotle also distinguished between two types of virtue, moral virtues and intellectual virtues. The first being those cultivated through habit whilst intellectual virtues are those cultivated through instruction. In the later twentieth century Virtue Ethics suffered a revival.
It was questioned whether Aristotle’s teachings on Virtue Ethics had any weaknesses and some modern perspectives on Virtue Theory can be seen to highlight these flaws. Although not to a great extent, I do believe some modern versions of Virtue Ethics address the weaknesses of Aristotle’s teachings and my view is shared by many scholars who have criticised Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics for being too ‘’relative, vague and self-centred’’. Elizabeth Anscombe believed that ethical codes laying stress on moral absolute laws are outdated in a society where effectively a belief in God has been abandoned by the majority.
She believed that we need to return to a morality which is based on human flourishing. However Anscombe did believe a return to achieving Eudaimonia was required and working from the basis of Aristotle’s work she believed morality is best based on a person (agent) rather than an act or outcome. Similarly Philippa Foot argued that although virtues cannot guarantee happiness, they can go some way to achieving it and she too uses Aristotle’s roots but updates them accordingly.
She explains that virtues can only be virtuous when used in the correct way; she used the example of courage when applied to somebody robbing a bank, in this instance courage is therefore not a virtue and cannot be seen as virtuous. Alasdair MacIntyre encourages a return to the basis of Aristotle’s understanding of virtue and encourages the development of virtues that are relevant to contemporary times. He believed when compared to other ethical theories Virtue Ethics are more realistic and applicable to peoples everyday situations.
I would agree with MacIntyre here that a virtue-approach is more suitable in our society. Naturalistic theories of ethics are time consuming and overly complexed and therefore difficult to apply, Virtue Ethics however is not. For MacIntyre morality should be focused on developing your telos, this echoing Aristotle’s teachings. When referring back to the question, to what extent do modern versions of virtue ethics address the weakness of Aristotle’s teachings, Macintyre’s work can be used to show that Modern versions of virtue ethics can do the exact opposite.
Aristotle’s teachings are seen throughout Macintyre’s work so how therefore can Aristotle’s work be criticized for having weaknesses? However not all modern philosophers use Aristotle’s work in their own and many would argue against my view that it is without weakness. J. L Mackie, Louden and Sidgewick have criticized Aristotle’s teachings for being too vague for any application and Sidgewick went on to say it only indicates the whereabouts of a virtue. The belief that is doesn’t provide accurate guidance can also be seen in Rosalind Hursthouse’s work.
She believes Aristotle’s work on Virtue Ethics doesn’t explain how a person would or should act but only how a virtuous person would think about the dilemma. However she like Foot and Anscombe is a supporter of Aristotle’s approach to morality using his work but adapting it to suit a modern society. When looking at Aristotle’s teachings, they can be seen as very cultural dependent. The change in culture in our society today can be seen as a barrier for reviving this ethical theory. During the time of Aristotle communities were consistent in what they believed and this made virtues applicable to all.
However in relation to our own communities today is there this consistency? In my opinion I do not believe so. For this reason I would argue that Aristotle’s idea of Eudaimonia in today’s society would be interpreted differently by many and one virtue for somebody may be a vice for another. From modern scholars such as Anscombe, Foot and MacIntyre we can see that Aristotle’s ideas are still prevalent in their own and it is for this reason that I disagree modern versions of virtue ethics addresses the weaknesses of Aristotle’s teachings to a large extent.
Whilst using his ‘roots’ but changing it to suit a modern society may be seen ,by some, to be a weakness in my opinion this is a strength. Aristotle’s teachings have stood the test of time and are still predominantly used in this century with only a few appropriate changes. The counter argument however would be that Aristotle’s teachings are outdated for the community we live in now. The difference in community now compared with that of Aristotle’s provide a weakness in his theory and I understand that to a small extent weaknesses can be found, using modern versions of Virtue Ethics, in Aristotle’s teachings.