- Aristotle, "The Nicomachean Ethics" (selections)
Our major moral normative theories--Utilitarianism (in all its forms), Kantian Ethical Theory (also known as deontology), and Social Contract Theory presuppose that the point of developing moral normative theory is to provide a kind of moral calculus which can sort actions into morally obligatory, morally permissible, and morally impermissible categories.
Yet it is agents--persons, that is--who act. Perhaps in focusing on their actions to the exclusion of them we get started down the wrong track. Instead we should be looking at the character of the agent and seeking to understand what makes for a person's having a good character versus a bad character.
Aristotle took precisely this position and it is to him we turn to understand the importance of being good as opposed to merely doing good.
Aristotle's first question, given his teleological stance, is to wonder about the final cause (purpose, 'telos', or 'ergon--function) of man. Aristotle's answer is that the sole intrinsic good, that for the sake of which we all strive, is happiness.
Understanding what Aristotle means by 'eudaimonia', which is usually translated as happiness, in terms of a psychological state seems facile. (To see this, consider the challenges posed by the Case of the Happy Clam and the Experience Machine.) Happiness construed as a psychological state is surely not what Aristotle had in mind. Noting that he also uses the phrase 'eu zen', or 'living well', in place of 'eudaimonia' suggests a less common translation of 'eudaimonia': human flourishing.
What, then, is human flourshing? For Aristotle it comes down to the activity of the soul in accordance with 'arete', which has been variously translated as virtue or excellence. Much of the Nicomachean Ethics is devoted to understanding these virtues or excellences.
In the analytically methodical way Aristotle approaches almost every topic, virtues can be either intellectual or moral. Where intellectual virtues are taught, however, we must habituate ourselves to the moral virtues. They are dispositions, that is, to react in the right way given circumstances. where the 'right way' is understood as a mean between vices of deficiency and excess.
For example, the courageous man is disposed to act with courage--that is, neither with cowardice (deficiency) nor rashly (its excess)--where what counts as the golden mean between these extremes is a matter of context. That is, it can sometimes be courageous to run away, just as it can also be courageous, sometimes, to push forward.
In some respects Virtue Ethics is an intuitively compelling position. It helps us answer the problem of moral motivation (why should we be moral even once we figure out what it is to be moral?) because we all seek to flourish. It also helps us understand the relationship of emotion to morality, since in many respects being of good character is to have the appropriate response (in action) to one's emotions. Thus the man of courage is still fearful, yet is able to overcome his fear.
There are also problems for Virtue Ethics. The biggest problem is that circularity threatens. If we ask, "what is the right course of action", then we are told, "we should act according to the best of our intellectual and moral virtue." What is the best of our intellectual and moral virtue, though? It can only be that we are therewith disposed to the right course of action, which gets us right back where we started.
As a result, most (but certainly not all) philosophers conclude that Virtue Ethics supplements, but is otherwise seriously incomplete without, a moral normative theory of the sorts we have been considering.
In any case, I submit that Virtue Ethics can help illuminate moral dilemmas by asking us to think carefully about the persons involved and the reasons for their actions.