Virtue Ethics – A Breif Introduction

It is practically impossible to summarize virtue ethics in a few paragraphs so I will focus on the function argument and the notion of happiness in Virtue ethics.

Virtue ethics is one of the oldest moral theories, introduced by Aristotle, Plato and Socrates in ancient Greece. It focuses on the notion of being the right type of person rather than doing the right act. Virtue ethics suggests that our actions should reflect the actions of a good character. Bernard Mayo, a supporter of virtue ethics, suggests that role models are people who we look up to because they have qualities which make them good. Role models can be Jesus, mother Teresa, Gandhi, etc who are regarded as having the best moral characters. These people believed in a cause without any benefit to them and sacrificed their whole lives in pursuit of that cause. This is not to say that those people lacked the capacity to experience other types of happiness, it is to say that following their principles was the most important part of their lives.

I will explain the role of happiness in virtue ethics to tie it with utilitarianism and deontology. Aristotle argues on the basis of the chief good that human function is to reason.

Chief good

Aristotle suggests that every action is in pursuit of a goal and that goal is the chief good because whatever action we take is always aimed at it. It doesn’t matter if the action we take is good or evil, it is always aimed at something. That something is happiness; we will always take any step necessary to be happy but we will never give up our happiness for misery. It doesn’t make much sense which is why Aristotle provides the function argument.

Function Argument

-Everything that has an activity has a function, for example, a calculator performs calculations

-How good it is depends on how well it performs that function, e.g., a functional or a defective calculator.

-Human beings have activity, so they must have some functions.

-If doing calculation is a function which can be regarded as the function of a calculator then it is because that function is distinct to calculators only.

-So, a human being’s function must be one which is only performed by human beings.

-It can’t be nutrition and growth since plants also engage in that function

-It can’t be perception because animals also have the function of perception

-So, it must be the function of reason because none of the other species have this capability.

-Human function is to reason and if humans reason they will be happy. By being happy, they are being virtuous because happiness is a virtue.

Aristotle divides virtues into two categories, intellectual and moral. Intellectual virtues can be gained through knowledge and education, for example, creativity, intelligence, art can be intellectual virtues. Moral virtues are based on doing just acts. If a person adopts the habit of doing just acts then he will eventually become just because he will constantly be doing good acts. However, nobody understands from birth what the difference between right and wrong is and it takes a great amount of observation to see the difference. Aristotle takes this point into consideration when he says that a child has no virtues. Some examples of moral virtues are: benevolence, wisdom, and forgiveness.

Moral virtues comes about as the result of habit – Aristotle

It should be noted that there is still some debate on whether a virtue is intellectual or moral.


-Takes personal qualities into consideration

-Each member of the society is responsible for being virtuous.

-Based on human nature.


-Function argument is one of the weakest arguments made by Aristotle because he relies on too many assumptions to make his argument.

-the definition of chief good is not very persuasive; critics may not agree that human chief good is happiness.

-Aristotle is not very clear about why he chose the function of reason to be the only function which makes people happy. Some may prefer to be happy without engaging in much reasoning.

Overall, I would say that I agree more with virtue ethics than utilitarianism and deontology because it takes personal matters/qualities into account. Society is always evolving and changing, it seems absurd to believe into capital punishment one day and stand against it the next day. If a person makes the habit of doing just acts, then he will be just which is a lot better than wondering whether you have produced the most utility or if your action adhered to a universal law.

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