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Virtues And Vices

  To the philosopher, a virtue is an ethically desirable character trait, such as honesty, courage, generosity or kindness. A vice is an ethically undesirable character trait, such as cruelty, cowardice or selfishness. To have a virtue is not to follow or apply any kind of rule. A generous person will constantly ponder what generosity requires, but will simply behave in a generous manner. Indeed, if someone gives money away because he or she thinks that this is what generous people do, the action is not done out of generosity. A truly generous person simply sees someone who needs something and feels inclined to satisfy this need, if possible. In general, the virtuous person is someone who has certain emotional reactions to various situations, reactions which lead him or her to behave in a virtuous fashion.

An ethical system based on the cultivation of virtue can be contrasted with a system of deontological ethics. In deontology it is a set of rules which defines right and wrong, and the good person is one who consults them and acts in accordance with them. It doesn\'t matter whether this person feels naturally inclined to obey the rules—what matters is that he or she actually does obey them. Indeed, one deontologist, Kant, argued that someone who is tempted to behave badly, but resists temptation, is morally better than someone who feels no temptation at all, but naturally does the right thing. By contrast, someone who feels inclined to be selfish is not fully generous and therefore does not have the virtue of generosity, however well he or she may behave. So a system of ethics or virtue disagrees with Kant on this point.

Furthermore, virtue theorists are sceptical about whether the behaviour characteristic of a virtuous person can be captured by any set of rules. What rule could describe the behaviour of a generous person? Presumably the rule would have to mention things such as responding to human need, so that anyone capable of applying the rule would have to be sensitive to human need (something which is characteristic of a generous person). So a rule prescribing generous behaviour could be applied only by someone who already had part of that virtue. Hence ethical knowledge cannot be captured in a set of rules. AJ

Further reading P. Foot, Virtues and Vices; , A. Rorty, Essays on Aristotle\'s Ethics.



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