Strengths and weaknesses of Virtue Ethics

Here is a table of the strengths and weaknesses of Virtue Ethics
Holistic view of human nature. Reason is applied through phronesis or practical wisdom, but unlike Kant, the emotions are not ignored, as virtue ethics is holistic (includes emotion in the building of character).
To Aristotle,  personal and social flourishing (eudaimonia) is the final rational goal, and reason tames and moralises the desires and appetites of the irrational part of our soul.
Relativistic – we cannot agree what the key virtues are, which differ from culture to culture eg Al Qaeda thinks it is virtuous to be a suicide bomber. One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter and hero – so goodness must depend on something else. Perhaps we can escape this problem by defining what, for me or for my society, are the virtues which will make me (or us) flourish.
“Aristotle saw pride as a special virtue, Christians see it as a master vice”. Rachels (2007:166)
Character-based – Habits of character are central, developed through training – we need heroes who are moral role models as well as “virtuous = skilful” footballers.
The present age is “instrumental” in the sense of things being a means to an end, and pragmatic, in that we tend to “bend the rules”.
Behind action lies character – it may be legal for an MP to claim expenses for a duck house, but is it honest?
Morality as a social construct – Virtue Ethics sees morality as grounded in a view a. of human nature (to Aristotle the rational and irrational sides in conflict) and b. the social concept of the “good life” (the life fulfilled) which differs from society to society (see relativism weakness).
Modern Philosophers have placed too much emphasis on action and reason without emphasizing socially agreed virtues, also too much stress on the language of morals: what do we mean by saying “stealing is wrong”?
Partiality –  Both Kant and Mill require impartiality for their ethical viewpoints, for example, Mill says “utilitaranism requires the moral agent to be strictly impartial, as a disinterested and benevolent spectator”. James Rachels comments: “it may be doubted whether impartiality is really such an important feature of the moral life … some virtues are partial and some are not. Love and friendship involve partiality towards loved ones and friends; beneficence towards people in general is also a virtue … what is needed is not some general requirement of impartiality, but an understanding of how the different virtues relate to each other” (2007:173-4)
Bourgeois – Bertrand Russell argued that Aristotle’s virtues were bourgeois virtues ie Victorian suspicion of extreme passion and emotion (doctrine of the mean = be sensible, child) and “there is a complete absence of benevolence and philanthropy” ie desire to sacrifice yourself for others.
Decisions are difficult – “It is not obvious how we should go about deciding what to do” Rachels (2007:176) Anscombe argues we should get rid of the idea of “right action” altogether and just use virtue words eg “unjust”, “dishonest”. William Frankena has argued “virtues without principles are blind”. Rachels argues that virtue ethics is incomplete because it can’t account for the fact that “being honest” implies a rule, so “it’s hard to see what honesty consists in if it is not the disposition to follow such rules”, Rachels (2007:177).
Conflicting virtues – What happens when virtues conflict, for example, when honesty and kindness conflict, or honesty and loyalty to one’s friends? “It only leaves you wondering which virtue takes precedence”, concludes Rachels. Pojman comments “virtue ethics has the problem of application: it doesn’t tell us what to do in particular instances in which we most need direction” (2006:166).







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