Tuesday, August 23, 2005
First Aired: 
Tuesday, June 15, 2004

What Is It

What is virtue? Is virtue the key human happiness and flourishing, as the ancients held, or a quaint notion of at best secondary interest for ethics, as many modern theorists hold? Does the return of virtue ethics to contemporary philosophy mark an advance in our thinking about morality or is it just a nostalgia for morally simpler times? John and Ken sing the praises of Julia Driver from Dartmouth College, author of Uneasy Virtue.

Listening Notes

What is virtue? A virtue is thought to be a good character trait. Aristotle thought that virtue was crucial for a well-lived life. He thought virtue was skill at living. Aristotle's doctrine of the golden mean said that for every virtue there was two vices, one for both extremes. Ken introduces Julia Driver, professor at Dartmouth. Would Aristotle say that suicide bombers are virtuous? Aristotle thought you had to act for good ends in order to be virtuous. Virtue ethicists think that there is no need for moral rules. Driver thinks that virtues are character traits that result in good consequences, which is a unique position. 

Ken points out that we blame people most for things that reveal their character. Do we care more about characters or actions? Driver thinks that Aristotle's view of virtue has too many psychological requirements. Aristotle thought that pride was a virtue. A lot of people think that to act virtuously, the agent must deliberate and exercise self-control. Driver thinks this idea is mistaken. Ken says that it does not seem like being virtuous is all there is to being good. Modern ethics tends to assume that there is a single right answer to the question of “what should I do?” in each circumstance. All ethical theorists will agree that it is difficult to know what to do. 

How does virtue ethics help us think about situations like war? What is the function of virtue in moral reasoning? What is the connection between weakness of the will and virtue? What is the most important virtue? Aristotle thought that there were womanly virtues and manly virtues. Driver thinks this was a bad idea since it was presumed that women were less perfect than men.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 04:40): Amy Standen talks to John Langan, Jesuit priest and philosopher at Georgetown University, about virtue and reflects on virtue as it appears in the movie Lawrence of Arabia.
  • Sixty Second Philosopher (Seek to 49:56): Ian Shoales surveys the history of virtue from Aristotelian arête to the culture wars.