Are Aristotelian Virtue Ethics Relevant in the 21st Century?
Following a general disappearance from Anglo-American philosophy during the 19th Century, virtue ethics have experienced a broad re-emergence since the 1950s. Whilst most modern ethical theories, most notably deontology and consequentialism, focus upon the morality of actions, virtue ethics, in the words of philosopher Julias Annas, is ‘agent focused’. Similarly, whilst the most influential proponents of deontology and consequentialism are the products of modern philosophical thought, the root of virtue ethics is much older. It stems from Aristotle, in ancient Athens.
Aristotle was born in 384 B.C. in Stagira, a region of Northern Greece. At the age of seventeen, he was sent to Athens, where he enrolled in Plato’s Academy. Over the next twenty or so years, he acted as both a student and teacher there. He emerged with a great deal of respect and recognition. Following Plato’s death, Aristotle moved on from the academy. In the ensuing years, he acted as a tutor to Alexander the Great and then founded the Lyceum, a fortress of Greek philosophy of great proportions akin to the Academy. Unfortunately, most of the literature of Aristotle has been lost. It is thought that what does survive might merely be lecture notes. Cicero is noted as having said ‘If Plato’s prose was silver, Aristotle’s was a flowing river of gold’. Tragically, this flowing river of gold appears to have dried up in the archives of history.
Yet despite the loss of many of his writings, the surviving works of Aristotle remain wildly influential on modern philosophy. Aristotle believed that the purpose, or telos, of humanity, was to cultivate virtue to live the good life – or achieve the fullness of human potential and flourishing. For him, virtue is best described as taking the appropriate attitude towards pain and pleasure and finding a balance between excess and deficiency of a particular attribute. For instance, if we act overly brave, we will act rashly and irresponsibly. However, if we do not act bravely enough, we will be cowardly, which is equally undesirable. To him, virtue is finding the ‘golden mean’ of moral attributes.
He believed that, to cultivate virtue within ourselves, we must actively practice it. Just as the flute player who practices playing the flute will be better at playing the flute than a novice, the person who actively spends time using and practising his moral sensibilities will become a greater and better moral person. Aristotle additionally believed that, just as a practised flute player can teach novices how to play the flute, a person practised in civic virtue will be able to share it with others. They will therefore turn into ‘magnanimous old men’ to teach juniors about the cultivation of virtue.
Aristotle’s philosophy is tied very closely to the remarkable form of direct democracy within ancient Athens. In Athens, nearly all citizens participated in the political process. To Aristotle, this was of the ultimate importance. He thought that the best way to practice virtue was through civic involvement. To him, all citizens should actively engage in politics so that they can live out the good life. Politics could help to develop ‘practical wisdom’ and ‘civic virtue’, two of the most desirable attributes in any citizen.
Aristotelian ideas have some limitations as a moral roadmap for modern society. While other ethical schools of thought such as utilitarianism or deontology actively prescribe which actions are the most moral, virtue ethics merely states that agents should cultivate virtue and prescribes some types of favourable moral traits. This leads to a general vagueness and subjectivity which can at times be debilitating.
Aristotelian virtue ethics, furthermore, is especially prone to devolution into general self-serving ends. The subjectivity of interpretation of a statement such as ‘Be temperate’, or ‘Be courageous’ means that an individual is far more able to choose an interpretation of morality, either consciously or subconsciously, which serves their own interests than in competing ethical schools.
Additionally, virtue ethics’ lack of a grounding in objective first principles means that it cannot combat incorrect moral tenets of a misguided society. Taking an admittedly somewhat extreme example, within Nazi Germany, participation within the political process and cultivation looking to others might develop hate, bigotry and antisemitism within an individual under the guise of ‘Virtue’. Virtue ethics does not give the tools to differentiate between a just and unjust society.
Both of these criticisms highlight the potential limitations of virtue ethics. However, they do not necessitate a complete exclusion of virtue ethics from modern society. Virtue ethics simultaneously have some strong benefits which allow it to circumvent the problems faced by other moral frameworks.
Traditional modern moral theories, namely consequentialism and deontology specifically, in pursuit of clearly defined moral laws, very narrowly their first principles. This in turn generally limits their ethics to the following of a certain principle, which limits their implementation of morality to a universally applicable baseline Aristotelian virtue ethics, by contrast, allows greater flexibility and for us to reach the situational ‘supererogatory heights’ of morality.
Moreover, the mechanism of cultivation is itself extremely beneficial for the development of morality. An issue facing nearly all non-virtue-based modern schools of ethics is they prescribe a moral course of action without giving any clear way to follow this. Aristotelian virtue ethics, conversely provide the mechanism of cultivation to ensure that people do follow what they believe is moral and just, therefore mitigating this issue.
There are some clear limitations to the application of the Aristotelian system of virtue ethics in modern society. Aristotle only applied his system of virtue to men. This is deeply sexist and would have to change. We also need a mechanism for cultivation other than politics, as very few individuals can get actively involved within the political decision-making process. Virtue ethics additionally probably needs to be anchored by some other form(s) of moral reasoning (e.g. utilitarianism), as doing so would resolve the most acute issues with the concept of Aristotelian virtue ethics. However, the key idea within Aristotle’s virtue ethics about the cultivation of certain issues within the individual through practice and looking to the advice of other cultivated individuals for guidance is as relevant now as it has ever been.