On Virtue Ethics

On Virtue Ethics

On Virtue Ethics

On Virtue Ethics

Synopsis

Virtue ethics is perhaps the most important development within late twentieth-century moral philosophy. Rosalind Hursthouse, who has made notable contributions to this development, now presents a full exposition and defence of her neo-Aristotelian version of virtue ethics. She shows how virtue ethics can provide guidance for action, illuminate moral dilemmas, and bring out the moral significance of the emotions. Deliberately avoiding a combative stance, she finds less disagreement between Kantian and neo-Aristotelian approaches than is usual, and she offers the first account from a virtue ethics perspective of acting 'from a sense of duty'. She considers the question which character traits are virtues, and explores how answers to this question can be justified by appeal to facts about human nature. Written in a clear, engaging style which makes it accessible to non-specialists, On Virtue Ethics will appeal to anyone with an interest in moral philosophy.

Excerpt

'Virtue ethics' is a term of art, initially introduced to distinguish an approach in normative ethics which emphasizes the virtues, or moral character, in contrast to an approach which emphasizes duties or rules (deontology) or one which emphasizes the consequences of actions (utilitarianism). Imagine a case in which it is obvious that I should, say, help someone in need. A utilitarian will emphasize the fact that the consequences of doing so will maximize well-being, a deontologist will emphasize the fact that, in doing so, I will be acting in accordance with a moral rule such as 'Do unto others as you would be done by', and a virtue ethicist will emphasize the fact that helping the person would be charitable or benevolent. Virtue ethics is both an old and a new approach to ethics, old in so far as it dates back to the writings of Plato and, more particularly, Aristotle, new in that, as a revival of this ancient approach, it is a fairly recent addition to contemporary moral theory.

Up until about thirty years ago, normative ethics was dominated by just two theories: deontology, which took its inspiration from the eighteenth-century philosopher Immanuel Kant, and utilitarianism, which derives, in its modern incarnations, from the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century philosophers Jeremy Bentham and J. S. Mill. In the hundreds of books and articles on normative ethics published during the sixties and seventies, it was common to find versions of one or both of these theories outlined, discussed, amended, applied, compared, and criticized--but no mention made of any third possibility which harked back to the ancient Greeks.

Gradually, a change was observable. In some books designed as undergraduate texts in normative ethics, various articles critical of the prevailing orthodoxy were cited as calling for a recognition of the importance of the virtues, and a few paragraphs on 'what a virtue ethicist would say' inserted. At first, the mentions tended to . . .

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