5 Virtue Ethics

Annette Holba

A virtue ethic suggests a behavior is based upon one’s character and having an understanding of what a “virtuous” person would do in a given situation. Therefore, we ask questions such as: “what would another person do” if we believe that person to be virtuous. This does not mean that virtue ethics is ONLY about doing. Rather, a virtue ethic underscores being which is tied to character. Here is a short tutorial on virtue ethics. So, in a discussion about virtue ethics, you will find people listing qualities of a human being related to the kind of person they see as being virtuous, good, ideal, or someone who is perceived to be this way. Throughout history, many people published lists of qualities that make up a good character. From Plato and Aristotle, through the great Roman orators, and onward through each historical period. Neher and Sandin (2007) provide examples of these lists including one from Benjamin Franklin:

  • Temperance
  • Silence
  • Order (to be organized)
  • Resolution (fulfill obligations)
  • Frugality (not wasteful)
  • Industrious
  • Sincerity
  • Justice
  • Moderation
  • Cleanliness
  • Tranquility
  • Chastity
  • Humility

Many other lists have been developed over time but in general, they are similar or they use different language to mean the same or similar things as in Franklin’s list above.

Aristotle (384BC-322BC) is one of the most famous students of Plato. If you have read Boxing Plato’s Shadow,  (Dues & Brown, 2003), you might recall that Plato detested rhetoric and was suspicious of everyone who used, taught, or endorsed the usage of rhetoric. If you haven’t read this book and want to learn more about Plato and Aristotle’s thoughts on rhetoric and communication, you might consider reading it on your own. It is a short book that provides a history of the communication/rhetoric discipline and a description of the communication industry today. Of course, Plato believed there was only one truth, therefore, using language that stretched the truth or made other truths possible was at the heart of his discontent with rhetoric. Aristotle believed in multiple truths and that rhetorical language could help one to see, learn, understand these multiple positions of truth in a constructive way. Examples of the distinction between between “Truth” and “truths” might be a simple as the example of Plato believing in one God, or one Good, (yes, he was monotheistic, here is a discussion of Plato’s understanding of God vs. gods) and Aristotle believing in multiple gods (he was polytheistic, like most Greeks at the time). Relative to communication, Plato believed the best way to communicate was by telling absolute truth, without using exaggeration, emphasis, or anything other than the most concise language possible. Aristotle believed that sometimes words need help to get one’s point across. So Aristotle believed it was ok to use tools like, ethos, pathos, and logos to tell a truth that can mean different things to different people. Plato believed that a lie is a lie, a distortion of the one truth of your message. Aristotle believed distortion could sometimes be a constructive tool to be effectively persuasive. Though, Aristotle recognized the reality that Plato saw too, people lie, mislead, and manipulate to get what they want at the expense of others. However, this understanding did not stop Aristotle from arguing rhetoric wasn’t all bad and that rhetoric as an art is a necessary component of Greek political life.

Aristotle wrote the book, The Rhetoric, which is a book about the art of persuasion. In it he identified the modes of proof (ethos, pathos, and logos), the enthymeme (an incomplete syllogism that harbors unstated assumptions necessary for persuasion), an early theory of signs (semiotics), a discussion on practical reasons vs. logical reasons, and an emphasis on character and virtues as a necessary part of teaching the art of rhetoric. This is his way of linking rhetoric and ethics together and the beginning of developing a model for ethical rhetoric.

Aristotle also wrote the book, Nicomachean Ethics, which was a book that was compiled from his lectures he gave at the Lyceum (his school). There is speculation about to whom he named this after, either his son or his father, both named Nicomachus. This book focuses on how people should live. According to Neher and Sandin (2007), the following is a list of virtues that he proposed people (mostly geared toward men) abide by:

  • Courage
  • Self-control
  • Generosity
  • Magnificence (difficult to translate, maybe means public-spirited)
  • High-mindedness (having a sense of honor)
  • Appropriate desires (ambition)
  • Gentleness
  • Friendliness
  • Truthfulness
  • Wittiness and Tact
  • Humility
  • Sense of justice, honesty, righteousness (around others)

Imagine yourself, what makes a good person, good? What qualities exemplify an authentic and genuine moral compass? We encourage you to make your own list. What do you value in a person? How do you want people to think about you? Spending some time thinking about these questions can assist you with determining what you believe is the mark of a virtuous person. Since people will have different responses to these questions, it can be difficult to have a universal understanding of what makes a person virtuous.   Since people have differing belief systems and preferences, virtue ethics becomes very personal to each individual person. This is one reason why it is difficult to apply in a collective sense. Regardless of this challenge, thinking and reasoning through a virtue ethics lens will be very personal and individualized. This can make it difficult to gain agreement among numbers of people.


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