Virtue Ethics is a moral philosophy commonly attributed to Plato and Aristotle. The meaning of the word "virtue" for both was that of excellence. Although there are differences in their individual schools of thought, their outlook on morality is more or less the same.
Both these philosophers came upon their understanding of ethics and morality while attempting to answer some fundamental question. For Plato, the question was, "what is the good life?" And for Aristotle this was, "what do men fundamentally desire?"
In their individual attempts to answer these questions we find their theories of ethics.
Plato described four cardinal virtues in his works. They were: Wisdom, Courage, Temperance and Justice, referring respectively to the following faculties of the human soul: Reason, Spirits, Appetites and justice being the correct balance of the first three, which according to him was the subservience of spirits and appetites to the faculty of reason. These virtues when properly exercised would lead to the development of an organized, well-balanced and hence virtuous individual. This well-balanced individual would be a happy person.
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So, Plato hypothesizes that it is a happy person who is leading a good life (hence, a good life is a happy life). He is happy because he is morally virtuous, morally virtuous because he is guided by reason and reason is knowledge.
We now understand the first part of Plato's theory that to be happy one must be morally virtuous. This leads to the second part of his theory that reason or that ultimate knowledge which is needed for morality comes from the Idea of Good. It is this Idea of Good which exists in the realm of Ideas, of immutable, unchanging Form which is the source and the final goal of all morality. And this Idea of Good is accessible only to the philosophers.
Aristotle differs from the Platonic view over the concept of "Forms" and that knowledge of morality is a priori. According to him, moral principles are to be discovered through the study of man's life and his experiences and not from some obscure, formless world of ideals.
In his search for the answer to what men fundamentally desire, Aristotle more or less comes to the same conclusion as Plato, which is the attainment of Eudaimonia, a term used by Aristotle and translated commonly as Happiness. As with Plato, Aristotle also believes that leading a virtuous life will lead to happiness. A virtuous life is one which is governed by reason.
Reason in man has two functions. First is the use of reason (or the rational part of the soul) to control the irrational (appetitive, for e.g. emotions and vegetative, for e.g. breathing) part of the soul. The second is to use reason for the sake of deep analysis to come up with knowledge which in turn yields laws and principles to govern everyday life.
He further states that virtue in man corresponds to these two functions of reason respectively: moral virtues and intellectual virtues. These moral and intellectual virtues are the mean between two vices. That is these virtues exist as the middle ground between two extremes.
Moral virtues are those which based on rationality are ingrained in a man as his nature and are practiced by him out of habit. Examples of the moral virtues are courage and prudence etc.
On the other hand, the intellectual virtues are those of exercising the rational part of the soul purely for the sake of reasoning, an example of which is wisdom.
The former (moral virtues) are within reach of the ordinary man while the intellectual virtues fall in the domain of a few divinely blessed only.
Finally, according to Aristotle it is the state of character of a person which makes him morally virtuous. This state of character is one of the three components of a man's personality. The other two being: the passions (e.g. anger or fear) and the faculties (e.g. ability to feel anger).
It is the state of character which propels a man to choose between two extremes. Hence moral virtue is the state of character of a man which leads him to choose the "golden mean". Let us take an example, proper pride is the mean between empty vanity and undue humility.
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To sum up Aristotle's philosophy of ethics is that it is the character of man within which lies the power to choose. Hence it is not the act but the choice made between different forms of that act that morality is evident.
William Lille, An Introduction to Ethics, (London: Methuen & Co Ltd, 1971), 272.
Ethel M. Albert, Theodore C. Denise and Sheldon P. Peterfreund, Great Traditions in Ethics, (New York: D. Van Nostrand Company, 1980), 11.
Lille, An Introduction, 274, 277.
Ethel M. Albert and others, Great, 11.