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Virtue ethics began in the 300s BCE with Aristotle's teaching, but the importance of virtues have been stressed by many scholars such as Aquinas who described a virtue as “a disposition to act well”. Aristotle wrote Nicomachean Ethics, which is comprised in ten books that form a significant part of his ethical theory. Aristotle argued that it was of extreme important to behave virtuously and in doing so to develop a virtuous character. He believed that the virtuous person is more likely to recognise the most virtuous course of action. Nonetheless, he also argued that a young person is not fit to attend a lecture on ethics because they will not be able to turn what is said to them into positive and virtuous action and because we are not born moral, but moral virtues are acquired by a process of habituation. In his theory, Aristotle goes through what may be the goals of human life such as pleasure, wealth or honour, but he concludes that these goals are simply goals you pursue for the sake of another end. Similarly to utilitarians, Aristotle did argue that the fundamental goal we pursue is happiness because the happy person succeeds at being a human being. From the aim of happiness, Aristotle goes on to argue that human happiness involves living according to reason, a human being who reason well is set apart from those humans who do not and our appetite and our desires may be responsive to reason because we can be educated and we can become increasingly responsive to life circumstances. He believed that character traits, such as being virtuous are increased by continued performance of them but it is difficult to achieve virtuosity because there will usually be a slight deficiency in being virtuous. He developed the doctrine of the mean, which suggests that each virtue is closely related to a vice on either side of it. For example, a deficiency of being brave is being a coward and being too brave could be seen as being rash.
To simplify Aristotle's argument, he believed that from concentrating on what sort of person you would like to be, your choices and actions will flow from your character and if your character is virtuous then you can place more importance on your decisions than if your character is not virtuous.
The most important attraction to virtue ethics is that it is an account of moral motivation with the emphasis on who I should be rather than what I should do. This could make people aspire to greater heights of virtuosity and reason. Another positive of the virtue theory is that in some moral theories based on duty for example, it is possible that a person could obey every moral rule where they would be like a robot, whereas we need to know what the person is like, how they feel about things and what effects them, not just that they are focused on duty.
Stanley Hauerwas is a modern example of a virtue ethicist who believes that character is more important than many other things such as rules, so we should be asking what sort of community we should be, not what we should do. Hauerwas is a Christian and dedicated the Blackwell Companion To Christian Ethics, a book he edited, to his local parish church in Norwich. Greg Pence says, “Questions about personal character clearly occupy a central place in ethics.” This shows that virtue ethicists are right to place importance on the character of a person. Virtue theory has been ignored of recent times in favour of deontology and consequentialism but they too place central importance on the personal character of the person making the decision. In consequentialism, the personal character has to be able to decide which action will bring about the best consequences and in deontology, the personal character has to know its duty.
Hauerwas believes that we should use Christ's life as an example for how we should live our own lives. Hence in his text, “pacifism: some philosophical considerations”, he argues, “Pacifism follows from our understanding of God which we believe has been most decisively revealed in the cross of Jesus Christ.” He believes that the church's community comes from the understanding of Jesus' story and suggests that the story becomes our story because moral identities are formed by it. He believes that Christian ethics should allow us as individuals to live in an entirely Christian manner. Hauerwas's pacifism comes from his belief in virtue ethics because virtue ethics promotes non-violence as a character trait; only people with good personal characters can make important ethical decisions.
Pence argues that we have to apply Aristotle's arguments to modern times because they did not live in democracies and were idealizing the behaviour of their times, not giving descriptions of it.
A criticism of virtue ethics is the question of whether we can base an entire theory on somebody's personal character. Another criticism is that generally most scholars agree that people can corrupt and shape their own characters and characters like this should not be trusted to make ethical decisions. If bad characters can change into good characters then surely good characters can also turn into bad characters if life throws at them a particularly nasty set of circumstances. Pence argues that virtue ethics does not pay enough attention on the area of life that form our characters such as our childhoods, where we live, what job we have and who we marry.
A criticism of Hauerwas's idea of virtue ethics is that it leaves non-Christians completely out of the frame and implies that they cannot be virtuous because they do not believe in the story of Christ.
Nevertheless, virtue is an ancient concept and a great deal of thought is being put into it at the moment and Pence thinks that this will continue throughout the century. Scholars are thinking about traditional vices such as greed and lust and considering the extent to which we are responsible for our characters or how they are shaped by outside influences.