[tl;dr: Virtue Ethics is a moral philosophy focused on character and habits, rather than rules and actions. Instead of asking “Did Tyler do the right thing?”, virtue ethics asks “Does Tyler kick ass?”]
An Introduction to Virtue Ethics
(Quick clarification: I here use the phrase “kick ass” not in the physical “I’m gonna beat your ass” sense but in the be fucking awesome sense.)
Virtue Ethics as a theory is not new. It was the dominant way that the ancient Greeks thought about morality. The thought leaders of Western civilization (Aristotle, Plato, Epicurus, Socrates, etc) argued about the specifics, but their discourse was couched in the language of virtue ethics.
Speaking of language, it’s difficult to talk about virtue ethics without using some words that aren’t in everyday language. Let’s define a few terms quickly.
A virtue is a character trait or disposition that helps one to flourish. More on this in a moment.
Telos can be thought of as an aim, goal, purpose, or end. One’s telos might be said to be their purpose in life. Note that telos can apply to more than just people. The telos of a knife is to cut things. The telos of a pen is to transfer ink to paper. The telos of a chef is to prepare food.
Arete means excellence, perhaps fulfillment.
Eudaimonia is a state of being that can best be described as human flourishing, althought lifelong happiness is another way to say it.
These words allow one to begin to grok virtue ethics. The Greeks understood eudaimonia (human flourishing) to be the ultimate purpose of life (i.e. the telos). Every person inhabits certain roles in life. Father, daughter, politician, electrician, soldier, doctor.
The means to eudaimonia is to fulfill one’s roles excellently, to execute them with arete. To kick ass. Those habits and character traits that lead people to consistently and daily fulfill their roles with arete can be thought of as virtues. Any habits or personality traits that block or hamper one from fulfilling one’s role excellently are vices.
In pure English: Discover your roles in life. Develop habits and character traits that enable you to kick ass in the fulfillment of your roles. These habits and practices of kicking ass result in a lifelong flourishing. This is what it means to live the good life, the moral life.
Okay, But How Do I Know What My Roles Are?
The challenge is to figure out what your roles actually are. This was a more obvious task to the Greeks, because their society was very explicit about this sort of thing. We moderns are a bit more angsty about roles and purpose. One way to start thinking about your roles is to apply the four-fold test:
Are you well qualified/skilled/competent for the role? Don’t volunteer for roles you suck at.
Is the role socially valuable? In other words, does it also contribute to the flourishing of society?
Is the role socially valued? Will society permit or reward you for performing the role?
Do you enjoy being in this role?
Notice the emphasis on society. To the Greeks, morality outside of the context of society – the polis was impossible. Morality, telos, eudaimonia, were meaningful only in their relationship to society. They would have thought of Robinson Crusoe as a dead man walking. Citizenship was everything.
Fine, But How to Determine Moral Acts?
No group of people have ever agreed on a definitive list of virtues. That’s actually good; societies and cultures change, and the way in which people inhabit their roles change along with the cultures.
The following four methods allow one to begin to grapple with the virtues:
Use the 4-fold test to determine one’s proper roles, and then figure out how to fulfill them excellently.
Ask yourself “What sort of person would I become by doing this if I made it a habit?”
Ask what your role model would do? Virtue ethics gives a new meaning to “role model”, doesn’t it?
Ask where the act lies on the Golden Mean. This was Aristotle’s theory that virtues could always be found to be the mean between two vices of excess and deficiency. Courage is the Golden Mean between rashness and cowardice; generousness is the Golden Mean between spendthriftness and miserliness.
What About All The Other Theories?
Most recent Western ethical theories out there revolve around rules. They’re focused on actions (this kind of action is good, this kind of action is bad). There are complicated systems of evaluating the actions based on different rules. But it becomes impossible to find a finite set of rules that cover every circumstance. Those systems that attempt to wind up begging the question.
Maybe searching for the right set of rules is the wrong way to think about ethics.
Maybe ethics should be agent-centered rather than act-centered.
Maybe instead of asking the question, “What rules should I follow?”, I should ask “What sort of person should I be?”
Whatever roles are yours to fulfill, remember: