The ethics in the midst of the

The Greek word “?????” or “arete” translates to the English word “virtue,” and is
defined as “excellence of any kind”. In simple terms, it means something does
what it’s supposed to do, and does it well. For example, a house’s
“virtues” would embody things like shelter, warmth and safety. The
word did not gain possession of any moral or ethical connotations until
Socrates began his study of ethics in the midst of the 4th century
BCE, which was continued by Plato, and was subsequently established, in full, as
a distinct philosophical discipline by Aristotle. This discipline is termed Virtue
Ethics, and refers to the types of lives that human beings are inherently designed
to lead. The branch focuses on character and its role in morality and ethics.
In relation to the house analogy, a person’s virtues could be kindness, respect
and generosity.  When looking at virtue,
both Plato and Aristotle began by focusing on characteristics which were
considered most intrinsically valuable within Greek society at the time. The
four most vital qualities were wisdom, courage, moderation and justice, and were
foundational to life in Classical Greece. Keeping these key societal and
humanistic components at the forefront of their investigations, they strived to
answer three main questions within virtue ethics; How do we become virtuous? Are the virtues unified? and Are happiness and virtue connected? These
questions prove that right and wrong is not as easy to define and practice as
it seems.

How do we become virtuous? In Plato’s
opinion, knowledge is virtue; an idea learnt from his teacher, Socrates. In
basic terms, to know good is to do
good. This is made explicitly clear in the Protagoras, a famed Socratic dialogue. The argument begins with the
foundational idea that people desire what they believe to be good. He claims
that when a person does something wrong, it is not because they want to do it,
knowing it is bad, but rather they want to do it, and trust it to be a good
choice. What separates virtuous from un-virtuous people is not a longing for
what is good, but instead the knowledge of what the good truly is. Plato’s ideology
of human virtue is condensed into knowing what is good, and possessing the
ability correctly select the actions that have the greatest positive result.
This was opposite for Aristotle; knowing the good wasn’t good enough.  He
believed that in order to be good, one had to practice good, consistently. Although
Aristotle did not necessarily have a concept of a free will, as it is a more
modern, largely Christian notion, he did believe that practicing virtue on
one’s own volition is what makes humans good. To truly be virtuous one
must accustom themselves
to virtue, practice it regularly and be virtuous intentionally. I agree with
Aristotle because simply knowing about good doesn’t mean you are a good person.
People can be mindful their poor choices and not be an ethical person. They
know their actions are harmful yet proceed to do it anyway- in accordance to
Plato’s theory, this is a morally correct person simply because they are aware
that what they are doing is wrong.

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Another dilemma frequently
addressed was the question of Are the
virtues unified? Plato believed that knowledge is virtue, therefore, all
the virtues are linked to wisdom. If someone is wise, all the other virtues
will fall into place after it. He believed in the unity of the virtues and that “the virtues
are a distinct part of a whole.” Oppositely, Aristotle felt that although
wisdom is the uppermost form of virtue, it is not an all-encompassing umbrella
that possesses all other virtues. One can be wise and knowledgeable about
the world but not be virtuous or moral. In other words, Aristotle denies the
unity of the virtues. Again, I am in agreeance with Aristotle that wisdom is
not synonymous with morality. What is practiced or known to be good is
different for each individual and is influenced by a number of factors,
including environment and genetic inheritances. Morality is not that black and
white.

Both philosophers spent much of
their time concerning themselves with the question of how one should to live in
order to achieve ‘the good life’. The goal was to develop behaviours and
character traits that would prompt the pursuit of activities that yielded
pleasure. Both felt virtue was central to living the good life, but in
different ways. Plato believed that virtue was all that was needed for one to achieve happiness — if a person practiced kindness and
moral correctness then happiness was a guarantee. Plato discounted the notion
that good people could be unhappy, which was contradictory to Aristotle’s
theory which suggested that although virtue is necessary to the good life, virtue alone is insufficient.
One can be virtuous but still unhappy. He penned in one of this dialogues that
to achieve true happiness, a person needed to live among fellow upstanding citizens.
Society as a whole must be virtuous.
            While
overall, I agree with Aristotle’s views, Plato drew on many notable points as
well. My largest opposition to both philosophers though, is their assumption
that the human condition starts with a blank canvas- this position is
incorrect. Modern science has proven the role of genetics and environment in
character and disposition. Hereditary influences go back to the beginning of
our species. For example, a dog that learns a new trick transfers its knowledge
to its succeeding kin. Environment is an even larger factor, conditioned by ancestry,
race, religion, education, social status as well as a multitude of other
factors. A human is therefore heavily conditioned by factors not in their
control. In relation to practicing or knowing good, what is believed to be good
is influenced by uncontrollable factors and varies between people. In
connection to unified virtues, they again are influenced by what any given
individual believes to be most important. These points also apply to what is
considered ‘the good life’ as it also differs person to person. Both Plato and
Aristotle’s theories are very finite. Throughout their lives, both Plato and
Aristotle spent a substantial measure of time looking at how virtue plays a
role in the lives of people and their moral compass. They looked at how people
can become virtuous, how virtues are linked to one another and also how they
are linked to overall quality of life. Interestingly, Aristotle’s views on all
these points epitomised the more conventional views of Greek society, while
Plato’s were more radical and far fetched. In conclusion, while the difference
between right and wrong seem like a clear, concise division, Aristotle and
Plato prove that there are many considerations to be made when contemplating
ethics and virtues and the role they play, not only in society, but in the
lives of the individuals within it.

 

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