1. In what ways did the historical context from which virtue ethics emerged shape its basic principles?Presocratics, regarded as the first philosophers, brought the term logos to philosophy (literal translation: ‘word’; also denotes ‘logic’, ‘argument’, ‘reason’. Aristotle’s concept of Virtue Ethics regards humans as rational animals, implying that ‘logos’ is purely a human trait. Known as Plato’s most gifted student, Aristotle disagreed with his teacher’s view that the “essence of reality lies in some abstract world of Forms or Ideas” (Brannigan, 2005:60). Aristotle’s point of view directly contrasts his teacher’s, stating that the “source of meaning comes from concrete, physical reality” (Brannigan, 2005:60). This direct contrast with Plato leads to Aristotle opening his own school, which he called the Lyceum.
Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics is his literary formation of his ethical theories.Aristotle believes that ethics originate from real world experiences, that there is not a set of rules to apply to life that will mold us into ethical beings, but rather the “individual exists in relationship with others” (Brannigan, 2005:61). Thus, ethics is based upon how the individuals relate to each other and the cultivation of good character. How do we cultivate good character? Aristotle states we must fulfill our human nature.
He tells us that all things existing in nature have their own specific end purpose, which he refers to as telos (Greek term for specific end). For example, an apple seed’s telos would be to grow into an apple tree and produce apples. Aristotle tells us that only humans are capable of using logos as a form of thought, and that all humans are, by nature, rational animals. Therefore, the human’s end purpose is to “fulfill our human nature as rational animals by properly exercising our reason” and he also asserts that, “only in this way can we be genuinely happy” (Brannigan, 2005:62).Furthermore, Aristotle states that all humans have one end goal – eudaimonia (Greek for happiness), and that happiness is an “intrinsic good”. Intrinsic good means that we seek happiness for the sake of being happy, and we do not seek happiness to obtain something else.
In contrast, instrumental good are steps we take to achieve this intrinsic and ultimate good of happiness. For example, students take college courses to fulfill a requirement, gain understanding, and so on. Regardless of the reason, ultimately students take courses to achieve something, with another goal in mind, thus making it an instrumental good. All goods are instrumental, except happiness. Human excellence and telos can be acquired, “only when we realize our true natures as rational animals, when we properly exercise our reason throughout our lives” (Brannigan, 2005:62).Aristotle terms human excellence with a new name – virtue; genuine happiness is to live virtuously, and only by living virtuously can we attain happiness, and living virtuously requires making a habit of practicing virtue to cultivate good character.
Therefore only those with good character can be truly happy. To live virtuously, we must avoid extremes and maintain a balance, which Aristotle terms as the “golden mean”. The “golden mean” is the balance between the extremes, and we must use rational thinking and reasoning in a balanced fashion.He distinguished two types of virtues: intellectual and moral. Intellectual virtues require us to use out reason in two ways, one practical and one philosophical. First, “we reason in order to live practically in our day-to-day lives, which requires us to live sensibly through practical reason” (Brannigan, 2005:64), which Aristotle terms phronesis.
Second, “we reason for the purpose of discovering higher truths… so that we may contemplate higher, more theoretical truths and principles such as the idea of the Good” (Brannigan, 2005:64). Moral virtues (which Aristotle termed ethike) focus on our behavior and how we live our lives, and are the focus of Aristotle’s ethics. Aristotle’s belief was that moral virtues only came about with habitual practice, the Greek word for habit is ethos, which shows the link with ethics.In conclusion, a summary of Aristotle’s ethical beliefs: the goal/aim is to cultivate good character, which can be achieved only through habitual practice of virtue (intellectual and moral), which will create the condition of virtue, thus making us virtuous persons. Repeated actions lead to a condition, which makes an action distinct from a condition, therefore meaning one virtuous act does not make a person virtuous. Rather, acts of virtue must be an ethos(or habit), so that virtuous acts become a sort of second-nature.
These repeated acts of virtuous ethos lead to the condition of virtue, and the condition of virtue = good character, and vice versa. Since acts of virtue are not acts of virtue unless logic, reason, and rationalization are utilized to find the “golden mean” between two possible extremes, one cannot achieve their telos and/or ultimately the condition of happiness, without finding balance in every decision that presents itself and then acting upon this balanced decision. This creates the assumption of a natural link between who we are and what we do, between being and doing. However, doing the right thing simply because you are following a rule or guideline does not make a virtuous person, thus placing the emphasis of Aristotle’s ethics on being rather than doing, meaning that an honest person will tell the truth because this person’s character/being is honest.The reverse of this would be a dishonest person will be dishonest, or a dishonest person will tell the truth because societal rules/guidelines say it’s the virtuous decision – either way, a dishonest person’s being and character is still dishonest, regardless of whether this person tells the truth or not – one act of virtue does not equal a virtuous person. “Virtue then is a state of deliberate moral purpose, consisting in a mean relative to ourselves, the mean being determined by reason, or as a prudent man would determine it.” (Brannigan, 2005:88)2. What would virtue ethics suggest should be done in response to the dilemma of the school child who was made to turn his shirt inside out? Why?Virtue ethics really focuses on “the golden mean”, which is achieved through rational and logical thinking.
By avoiding extremes habitually when making decisions, “the golden mean” can be achieved, leading to a virtuous person, and ultimately happiness and telos; this is the only way to truly achieve the ultimate goal of happiness and virtue. Blindly following rules, without rationalization and an effort to avoid extremes, does not make a virtuous person or achieve “the golden mean”. Thus, being virtuous leads to virtuous and ethical actions, but not vice versa. In the case of the principal, a virtue ethicist would argue that the principal was merely following a rule, therefore the action was not virtuous. However, the principal also exhibited balance between extremes, by making the child turn the shirt inside out behind a tree; the principal could have made an extreme choice by either ignoring the child’s shirt (and the rule in place) and letting him/her wear this shirt through the rest of the school day (deficit), or by sending the child home for the day (or longer) as punishment for wearing a shirt that breaks the dress code.When you look at the parents actions and choices from a virtue ethicist’s point of view, they have missed “the golden mean” when making decisions. In regards to the choice of dressing their child in a University of Michigan shirt, a virtue ethicist would state that this decision showed ignorance (since they were provided with a student handbook, which has dress code guidelines), but only if they neglected to read rules that they were provided with.
If they simply weren’t provided with such rules, they still exhibited ignorance, but not because of being ignorant. If they read these rules and opted not to follow them because they did not agree, then they should be applauded for not blindly following rules for the sake of following them. However, the decision to send their child to school in a shirt that breaks the rules could be argued as a balanced decision. The deficit decision would be sending the child in all Oklahoma college apparel, just to stay within the guidelines; the extreme would be sending their child in a completed University of Michigan football uniform. It is clear that the parents miss finding the “golden mean” when deciding how to express their feelings about the rule, by going to the extreme and bringing it to the media’s attention (they could have met with school boards, or even the principal, to try to compromise). They also are on the extreme side of things when they accept gifts from the university (who surely appreciated the attention brought by the media).
3. Using your own personal ethical beliefs, in what ways do you agree or disagree with the decision and the reasoning used to reach the decision in the above question?I agree with the final statements brought out by taking a virtue ethical perspective, such as the principal making a balanced choice when taking action about the shirt, the parents possibly being ignorant of the rule through personal neglect or neglect from the school, and the choices the parents made following the shirt issue being extreme. However, I do not necessarily agree with how these outcomes were achieved through this view. First, I agree that there is a balance that needs to be achieved (or at least attempted to be achieved) in most of the decisions and actions we make daily, but I do not thing that non-ethical choices and actions are made because the person’s “being” is bad.I feel like good people can and do make ignorant, unethical, or bad choices; vice versa being true as well. While I believe that being and doing definitely shape each other, I do not feel that one is formed ultimately by the other.
As far as what I feel should have been done in this situation, I agree with the principal’s decision. Maybe the code needs refined a little, but your 5 year old having to turn his/her shirt inside out is a much better option than your 5 year old getting shot because the shirt holds a different meaning to a gang member. In class, it was argued that the University of Michigan’s logo held no meaning to the local gangs, but that does not eliminate the possibility of the logo being mistaken for something else, or even influencing a gang we don’t know about.The possibility that your child’s safety is in question should be plenty enough reason for the parents to, at the very least, complain to the school board instead of the media.
The fact that the parents brought the media into the situation, I feel, decreases the credibility of their complaint, especially since they ultimately prospered from the incident and the resulting media attention (game tickets, university apparel, and so on). If the principal had ignored the shirt, let the child wear it throughout the day, and then the child became the victim of gang-related violence because of his shirt, I’m sure the parents would hold a different view-point about the rule – and still end up bringing the issue to the media’s attention.