Aristotelian Virtue and Its Limitations

Philosophy 69 (269):291 - 316 (1994)
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‘Virtue ethics’ is prominent, if not pre-eminent, in contemporary moral philosophy. The philosophical model for most of those urging a ‘virtues approach’ to ethics is of course Aristotle. Some features, at least, of the motivation to this renewed concern with Aristotelian ethical thought are fairly clear. Notoriously, Kant held that the only thing good without qualification is the good will; and he then made it difficult to grasp what made the will good when he denied that it could be its preoccupation with or attention to anything in the world. The idea of the good will then seems to be an idea of something which transcends the world, and therefore to be no easier to make sense of, or to believe in, than Plato′s form of the good is usually thought to be. The first obvious attraction of Aristotle′s ethics, then—at least to those of an empiricist or worldly cast of mind—is that it promises an understanding of the ethical which locates that robustly within the world. Aristotle′s virtues are real this-worldly existences. They are, moreover, qualities whose place in our lives seems to be explained readily, and attractively, in Aristotelian terms. Moral virtue is essentially connected with eudaimonia, a concept variously construed as happiness, as living well, or even as flourishing. Morality is important because of the contribution it makes to the living of a fully human life. And a ‘fully human’ life is characterizable in what modernity calls ‘humanist’, or sometimes ‘naturalistic’, terms: it requires no invocation of transcendence or other-worldliness.



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