Academic journal article Global Virtue Ethics Review

Virtue Ethics, Public Administration, and Telos

Academic journal article Global Virtue Ethics Review

Virtue Ethics, Public Administration, and Telos

Article excerpt


Aristotle developed virtue ethics as normative ethical theory and it remained influential for centuries but lost favor in the modernist and post-modernist era of today. One reason for that falling out of favor was the philosophic argument that disagreed with Aristotle's telos (meaning end purpose) that is a critical foundation concept in his theory. The modern counter argument challenges that critical assumption of virtue ethics by saying that there is no proof of an end purpose for humans.

Agreeing with George Frederickson, this article argues a profession, such as public administration, does have a telos and thus disagrees with contemporary arguments that virtue ethics is logical foolishness at least when used in the context of a profession. This article builds on the contemporary work of Alastyre MacIntyre and his concept that every "practice" has an aim or end purpose. Thus, for public administration, virtue ethics is relevant because its professional purpose is the benevolent pursuit of the public interest. Those in public administration can and should use and develop virtues such as justice, courage, and truthfulness to help them counter the common institutional temptations that drive lesser ethical people to seek wealth, fame, and power instead of advancing the public interest.


Virtue Ethics is properly associated with Aristotle (284 - 322 BCE) but in our times it is also properly associated with Alastyre MacIntyre, who currently is a Senior Research Professor at the University of Norte Dame. For many centuries, it was the primary approach to ethics; but with the influence of modernism and post modernism in the twentieth century, virtue ethics fell out of favor. One of the corner stones of virtue ethics is the concept of telos (end purpose), which this article explores in the context of the professional practice of public administration.

The organization of this article is divided into several parts. After this brief introduction, the next section presents a description of Aristotle's virtue ethics with an explanation of the importance of telos in virtue ethics. Next, the article examines the modernism and post modernism critique of ethics and then the direct challenge to telos itself. The article then addresses Maclntyre's concept of practice. Next, the article explains the interrelationship of practice and profession. And finally, some conclusions are offered.

Essentially, this article argues that Maclntyre's philosophic contribution to virtue ethics means that virtue ethics is again quite relevant to professions such as public administration. This relevance is applicable to those who not only reject the extremes of modernism and post modernism but also even to those who embrace them.


Over two thousand years ago, Aristotle approached ethics with a keen awareness of the then and now popular philosophical reasoning of hedonism and the thinking of both his teacher Plato and Plato's teacher Socrates. To Aristotle, ethics was not merely the study and practices of right and wrong behavior but it was also living the good life. He dismissed and opposed hedonism by taking the perspective that the good life was more than merely living a life of maximizing pleasure. He believed life and indeed the meaning of life has a purpose beyond pleasure maximizing as understood by the hedonists.

He saw everything in terms of causes: material, efficient, formal, and final. Material causes are the elements out of which a person or persons create an object. For example, with a bronze statue, the material cause is the bronze itself. The efficient cause is the means by which someone creates the object. In the bronze statue example, it is the creative mind and skilled hands of the sculptor that is the efficient cause. The formal cause is the expression of what it is. For the statue, it is in particular the sculptor's but also the viewers' idea of the completed statute. …

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