Virtue Ethics

Virtue Ethics Defined

A premodern alternative to Utilitarianism and deontology, which are structured upon a system of absolute rights and wrongs, is Aristotle's Virtue Ethics, which focuses "on determining the virtuous character of the agent, rather than the moral worth of particular actions in themselves" (Fellenz 98). . According to Aristotle, "no choice will be right without practical wisdom and virtue. For virtue determines the end, and practical wisdom makes us do what is conducive to the end" (qtd. in Fellenz 98). Someone practicing animal cruelty, for instance, would be acting unethically not because the animal might suffer, but instead that the practice of animal cruelty would not be conducive to the person's good character (teleological end). Aristotle firmly believed that non-human animals lacked any rational capacity, categorizing them as "slaves and instruments" for the benefit of humans, and, in turn, concluded that they "cannot by nature be objects of direct moral concern" (Fellenz 99).

Lawrence Becker's Virtue Ethics Theory

Lawrence Becker, a proponent of an environmental ethic based on virtue ethics posits two integral components to living the virtuous life:

1) Reciporcity- "the disposition to make a proportional return of good for good" (qtd. in Fellenz 99).

2) Empathetic identification- "the ability and propensity to see situations from other points of view, to understand and indeed share others' experience empathetically" (qtd. in Fellenz 99).

Becker argues that "these aspects of human virtue require that one form preferences according to social distance: one typically does distribute goods to, for example, intimate friends and family before considering the comparable interests of strangers, and Berker argues that virtue dictates that this ought to be the case" (99) and, further, that the more distant one is from a moral agent (humans), the less dependent upon said moral agent (100). This would mean that we are more obliged to give moral weight to marginal cases like infants than we are animals.

The Relationship Between Teleology and Virtue in Aristotle

Teleology is a causal theory which holds that everything (human, nonhuman, living and nonliving) has a natural end which towards which everything moves (acts) (Fellenz 92). Bernard Rollin responds to Aristotle's view on animals by arguing that we should not base our moral obligations based upon what has or does not have rationality, but rather what is capable of having an interest in its own teleological end (93). It is important to note that by "having an interest" is not necessarily meant as being aware of one's end, but rather that one registers (often sentiently) when one is prevented from reaching its end through its feeling pleasure and pain. The telos of living beings is, according to Rollin, not quashed by the mechanism of modern science, but is ingrained in the biological makeup of all living beings and those that are aware (whether rationally or sentiently) of that end fall under moral protection. Rollin puts it simply: "any animal has a right to the kind of life its nature dictates" (qtd. in Fellenz 94).

Fellenz's Critique of Virtue Ethics Approaches to Environmental Ethics


An ethical theory based solely on the telos of living beings has its drawbacks. Rollin offers no solution to the problem of conflicting telic needs—that is, when the telic nature of one being interrupts the being-actualized of another being. For example, the wolf, who as a part of its biological makeup, requires the meat of other animals in order to live and reach its end, preventing its prey from reaching theirs. In addition, Fellenz seems dissatisfied with an ethical theory based solely on teleology because it only argues for rights to be given to animals, and this only "extend[s] dialectical activity [of moral reasoning] into an area from which it has been withheld, but no fundamental changes in our conceptual apparatus would be required" (qtd. in Fellenz 97).

Virtue Ethics

"By highlighting the difference between being moral and calculating what is right, both Rollin and Becker remind us that ethics must address the former even when it cannot accomplish the latter in a completely satisfying way" (102). Essentially, virtue ethics' greatest strength lies in that it "open[s] the prospect that ethics might outline an animal-inclusive way of life" (102).

A major drawback, though, lies in the dependence of virtuous people to determine what actions are virtuous. Fellenz points out that "if there were a discernible consensus among persons of character as to how we outh to behave towards nonhumans, then Becker's appeal to 'virtue rather than principle' might be viewed as a reasonable corrective to the bickering among academic ethicists. As of yet, there seems to be no such consensus" (103).

Fellenz, Mark R. The Moral Menagerie. Chicago: University of Illinois, 2007. Print. : full source reference
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