B368 ethical theories

Kluwer Academic Publishers, c Description Book — xviii, p. Plan of the Book. Objections to the Relevance or Importance of the Thesis.

B368 ethical theories

Introduction In their moral theories, the ancient philosophers depended on several important notions. These include virtue and the virtues, happiness eudaimoniaand the soul. We can begin with virtue.

Ethical Theories

There is the excellence of a horse and the excellence of a knife. Then, of course, there is human excellence. Conceptions of human excellence include such disparate figures as the Homeric warrior chieftain and the Athenian statesman of the period of its imperial expansion.

Plato's character Meno sums up one important strain of thought when he says that excellence for a man is managing the business of the city so that he benefits his friends, harms his enemies, and comes to no harm himself Meno 71e.

B368 ethical theories

From this description we can see that some versions of human excellence have a problematic relation to the moral virtues. In the ancient world, courage, moderation, and justice were prime species of moral virtue. A virtue is a settled disposition to act in a certain way; justice, for instance, is the settled disposition to act, let's say, so that each one receives their due.

This settled disposition includes a practical knowledge about how to bring it about, in each situation, that each receives their due. It also includes a strong positive attitude toward bringing it about that each B368 ethical theories their due.

Just people, then, are not ones who occasionally act justly, or even who regularly act justly but do so out of some other motive; rather they are people who reliably act that way because they place a positive, high intrinsic value on rendering to each their due and they are good at it.

Courage is a settled disposition that allows one to act reliably to pursue right ends in fearful situations, because one values so acting intrinsically. Moderation is the virtue that deals similarly with one's appetites and emotions.

Human excellence can be conceived in ways that do not include the moral virtues. For instance, someone thought of as excellent for benefiting friends and harming enemies can be cruel, arbitrary, rapacious, and ravenous of appetite.

Most ancient philosophers, however, argue that human excellence must include the moral virtues and that the excellent human will be, above all, courageous, moderate, and just. This argument depends on making a link between the moral virtues and happiness.

While most ancient philosophers hold that happiness is the proper goal or end of human life, the notion is both simple and complicated, as Aristotle points out.

It seems simple to say everyone wants to be happy; it is complicated to say what happiness is.

Associated Data

We can approach the problem by discussing, first, the relation of happiness to human excellence and, then, the relation of human excellence to the moral virtues. It is significant that synonyms for eudaimonia are living well and doing well.

These phrases imply certain activities associated with human living. Ancient philosophers argued that whatever activities constitute human living — e.

One can feel fear and react to dangerous situations sometimes appropriately and sometimes inappropriately; or one might always act shamefully and dishonorably. However, to carry out the activities that constitute human living well over a whole lifetime, or long stretches of it, is living well or doing well.

At this point the relation of happiness to human excellence should be clear. Human excellence is the psychological basis for carrying out the activities of a human life well; to that extent human excellence is also happiness. While the unhappy person deals with a vital and dynamic emotion like fear in an inept way, the happy person handles fear skillfully, and thereby exhibits human excellence.

So described, human excellence is general and covers many activities of a human life. However, one can see how human excellence might at least include the moral virtues. The moral virtue relevant to fear, for instance, is courage. Courage is a reliable disposition to react to fear in an appropriate way.

What counts as appropriate entails harnessing fear for good or honorable ends. Such ends are not confined to one's own welfare but include, e.

In this way, moral virtues become the kind of human excellence that is other-regarding. The moral virtues, then, are excellent qualities of character — intrinsically valuable for the one who has them; but they are also valuable for others.


In rough outline, we can see one important way ancient moral theory tries to link happiness to moral virtue by way of human excellence.

Happiness derives from human excellence; human excellence includes the moral virtues, which are implicitly or explicitly other-regarding. · Theories of the right, which locate ethical conduct largely in the will or intention of the actor.

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