Virtue ethics is a term that comprises theories that explore the primary role that character plays in animating moral philosophy. This is contrary to the execution of tasks or personal responsibilities in order to attain positive outcomes. The major tenet of these theories is acting as a virtuous individual would for its own sake. Aristotle is one of philosophers who made contributions to virtue ethics.
He maintained that every action has an aim, therefore, they cannot be pointless. Actions are either ends in themselves or means to certain ends. Either way, every action contributes to a greater good, which he referred to as “eudaimonia.” This paper will explore Aristotle’s virtue theory and use its concepts to discuss euthanasia, a controversial contemporary issue. It will explore its basic tenets and use them to explain the aforementioned issue.
The Virtue Theory
As mentioned earlier, virtue ethics is a branch of philosophy developed by ancient philosophers that describes the quest to comprehend and live a life that is animated by moral character. Aristotle’s theory maintains that virtues are important foundations that should animate the purpose and functioning of every human being (Snow 104). He argued that virtue should not be simply studied as a means of gaining knowledge. However, individuals should strive to apply these virtues in their lives in order to develop positive characters. An important tenet of the theory is the means through which virtue is acquired. The philosopher opined that human beings attain virtue through rational and directed practice that is linked to one’s desire, psyche, and disposition.
Aristotle cited two forms of virtue that serve as the foundations of his theory. They include the virtues of mind or intellect and the virtues of character (Kraut). Virtues of mind comprise those that are connected to the reasoning part of the soul while the virtues of character are those that are connected to parts of the soul that even though they cannot reason, they can follow reason (Snow 108). Human beings have an innate ability to become morally virtuous through the development of proper habits and the acquisition of practical wisdom. A virtuous person acts accordingly in every situation because the skills attained by repeating ethical habits over time eliminate the counter-rational pressures that could influence them to act otherwise (Sachs). The outcome of a decision is not important as long as the action or behavior is virtuous.
Eudaimonia is a key term in the exploration of Aristotle’s virtue theory. It translates to fulfillment, happiness, and contentment; these are qualities that characterize the best kind of life. It is both an end in itself and a means to live a quality life (Sachs). This argument is important to the development of the theory because it distinguishes it from other schools of thought like utilitarianism. For example, a utilitarian could embrace the virtue of kindness because of its positive consequences that maximize utility (Leunissen 76). In that regard, kindness is a great quality because of its outcomes. On the contrary, according to Aristotle’s virtue theory, kindness is justified because it is a constituent of human fulfillment, happiness, and contentment (Kraut). In that regard, it is good in itself, and not just because it promotes positive outcomes.
Aristotle also observed that it is not important for a human being to have a function, but it was necessary to perform the function excellently. The function of an individual is not only to live, but to live well. In that regard, virtue and character are the factors that enable human beings to live well (Snow 115). Reason is a faculty that distinguished human beings from other animals. Therefore, with their function as reason, people have a responsibility to lead lives that are in accordance with reasoning well (Sachs). This can be described as Eudaimonia; a life of virtue that is in accordance with man’s primary function (reason).
Aristotle believed that happiness and fulfillment were the primary objectives of human beings. With reason as the distinctive faculty that sets human beings from animals, it is important for individuals to engage their reasoning in the development of virtue (Kraut). The brain has both rational and irrational faculties that could influence decision-making, and that allow people to identify morals and vices (Snow 123). Aristotle urged people to be between the extremes of virtue excess and deficiency. For instance, a courageous person should be able to determine which dangers are worth facing and which are not worth facing. All virtues lie between such a spectrum of excess and deficiency, and finding the mean is important (Sachs). In that regard, all virtues should be practiced within reason.
Euthanasia is a controversial issue that refers to the deliberate termination of an individual’s life, mainly in order to alleviate suffering. In many instances, physicians perform euthanasia upon requests by patients who are in a lot of pain as a result of their illnesses. The process is complex and involves a myriad of factors, including individual’s mental health status, legal implications, and personal beliefs and wishes. Euthanasia has several variations: passive or active and intentional or unintentional.
Virtue Theory in Regards to Euthanasia
Euthanasia has been discussed widely because of the moral problems that surrounds it. Many ethicists have questioned whether it is compatible with human flourishing, which is a core tenet of virtue ethics. Aristotle believed that happiness is a primary goal of life, and actions should lead to contentment and fulfillment (Sachs). Ethical virtues like courage, justice, and temperance are rational, social, and emotional skills that define a well-lived life (Kraut). An Aristotelian approach can be applied in the discussion of euthanasia as a controversial modern-day issue. The introduction of virtues, including compassion, respectfulness, and benevolence present a perspective that could be seen as a validation for euthanasia.
Compassion involves the empathetic identification of a patient’s suffering and the need for its alleviation. Benevolence promotes altruistic and helpful actions that emanate from a rational understanding of the patient’s situation (Leunissen 65).
Respectfulness involves the recognition that the patient is a self-realizing individual who has certain beliefs and wishes. A wider discussion of the concepts of “harm” and “benefit” in the medical field is based on the promotion of patient welfare. In order to gain fulfillment and contentment, it could be necessary to honor the wish of a patient to have a “good death.” The harm that could be caused by continued life could be a hindrance to the attainment of happiness. In this regard, euthanasia can be described as a respectful, benevolent, and compassionate decision that mitigates a patient’s suffering.
Unlike Kantian deontology and utilitarianism, the virtue theory is not action-based because it focuses on the development of character rather than specific actions. The theory promotes the achievement of human excellence (Sachs). In that regard, it disregards the consequences that a decision has on an individual or a society. The main concern is the performance of a virtuous action by an individual (Kraut).
Actions are a reflection of a person’s inner morality that is based on their virtues. Virtuous behavior entails actions that are morally acceptable and that are informed by traits that include compassion, sincerity, honesty, and respectfulness among others (Sachs). In regards to euthanasia, the theory would view it as ethical. A virtuous physician would use compassion to understand the patient’s suffering and respect their decision to end their life. In that regard, it would be a benevolent response to the patient’s predicament. Other physicians could possess similar virtues, but decline to conduct euthanasia based on their beliefs that it is unethical.
The virtue theory focuses on the development of a moral character in human beings as a vital component of a well-lived life. It promotes the importance of becoming a moral person through the development of positive habits and the acquisition of practical wisdom. People should strive to attain excellence through the application of virtues, both in thought and action. Unlike utilitarianism, virtue theory is not concerned with the utility or the consequences that result from an action or decision. In this regard, euthanasia could be viewed as an ethical practice. A virtuous, respectful, benevolent, and compassionate physician would conduct euthanasia upon a patient’s request in order to alleviate their suffering. The application of compassion in understanding and responding appropriately to an individual’s suffering is a demonstration of virtuous behavior. The consequences of the action are inconsequential, provided that the actions are virtuous.
Sachs, Joe. “Aristotle: Ethics.” Internet Encyclopedia of philosophy. Web.
Kraut, Richard. “Aristotle’s Ethics.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2018. Web.
Leunissen, Mariska. From Natural Character to Moral Virtue in Aristotle. Oxford University Press, 2017.
Snow, Nancy E., editor The Oxford handbook of Virtue. Oxford University Press, 2018.