Pluralistic Virtue Ethics

Authored by: Christine Swanton

The Routledge Companion to Virtue Ethics

Print publication date:  February  2015
Online publication date:  February  2015

Print ISBN: 9780415659338
eBook ISBN: 9780203071755
Adobe ISBN: 9781135096694


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Modernity has seen the domination of two broad types of moral theory: utilitarianism and rights-based. The twin poles of the latter, the ‘ethics’ of entitlement, standing on one’s rights, and the duty of respecting rights, have been particularly instrumental in rendering invisible the rich language of virtue and vice that was once so central in ethical thought. One thinks not only of ancient and medieval philosophy but the writings of philosophers as apparently far apart as Hume and Nietzsche. This thinning of the language of ethics has spawned a rebellion marked by a revival of the concerns of those philosophers, and the development of modern virtue ethics. The revival is characterized by the following view. The fundamental ethical concept is living well, and at the core of living well is the possession and exercise of virtue. To live well, however, is a relatively thin concept which can be thickened in several different ways, resulting in many types of virtue ethics. For Hume, to live well is basically to live a humane life characterized by exhibiting a very broad range of virtues useful and agreeable to self and others: virtues that would be approved by those having a refined and educated ‘moral sense.’ In the eudaimonist tradition inherited from the ancient Greeks, living well is understood as leading a life where you yourself are flourishing, so living well is good for you. On this view of living well it is harder to link living well with possessing and exercising the virtues. As Hursthouse (1999) shows, eudaimonistic virtue ethics is characterized by the attempt to yoke together the good understood in terms of excellence as a human being, and the good for the agent. The result is (we hope) a unified conception of what it is to live well and thereby virtuously. 1 Another option is the view that living well is living a life that is meaningful to one (Wolf 2010). For Nietzsche that is a life exhibiting the ‘life affirming’ virtues of cultivating what is personal to one. At the heart of the good life for Nietzsche is a life of virtuous creativity exhibiting discipline, hardness, lack of resentment, and originality (making one’s standards one’s own). The idea of a meaningful life of creativity is not a feature in Aristotelian virtue ethics, a feature which probably reflects a basic Aristotelian distinction between poesis (roughly creative production) and praxis (action): where the latter but not the former is seen as the subject of ethics. By contrast Nietzsche and Heidegger place poesis properly understood at the heart of the life ‘well lived.’

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