Maren as wisdom, courage, moderation and justice, all which

Maren Hale

Ms. Kerr

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01/15/2018

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            The Greek word for
“virtue,” arete refers to “excellence of any kind”, and did
not originally have any moral associations. 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. Human
virtues developed the connection to morality because it refers to the types of
lives that human beings are inherently apt to lead. Contemporary philosophers
tend to consider Aristotle and Plato, both classical Greek philosophers, to be
“virtue ethicists” – the branch which focuses on character and its
role in morality and ethics. When looking at virtue, both Plato and Aristotle
start by focusing on characteristics which were considered virtues in Greek
society, such as wisdom, courage, moderation and justice, all which were foundational
to the way of life in Classical Greek. From there, they focused on three main questions
within virtue ethics; How do we become
virtuous? Are the virtues unified? and
Are happiness and virtue connected?

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 outcome. This is
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 does believe that practicing virtue on one’s
own volition is what makes humans good; to truly be virtuous one must accustom themselves to
virtue. I agree with Aristotle because simply knowing about good doesn’t mean
you are a good person. People can know that they are making a poor choice and
do it anyway. They know it is wrong and proceed to do it anyway, this doesn’t make
them good. Also, 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.

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.

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 sufficient for
happiness — if one is kind and morally correct then happiness is a guarantee.
Aristotle, on the other hand, thought that although virtue is necessary to the good
life, virtue alone is insufficient. One can be virtuous but still unhappy. He penned
that to achieve true happiness, a person needed to be surrounded by good,
fellow citizens. Society as a whole, needs to 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,

 

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