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Given that it relies on claims about human nature, has Aristotelian virtue ethics (henceforth AVE) been undermined by evolutionary biology? There are at least four objections which are offered in support of the claim that this is so, and I argue that they all fail. The first two (Part 1) maintain that contemporary AVE relies on a concept of human nature which evolutionary biology has undercut and I show this is not so. In Part 2, I try to make it clear that Foot's Aristotelian ethical naturalism, often construed as purporting to provide virtue ethics with a foundation, is not foundationalist and is not attempting to derive ethics from biology. In Part 3, I consider the other two objections. These do not make a misguided assumption about Aristotelian ethical naturalism's foundational aspirations, nor question AVE's use of the concept of human nature, but maintain that some of AVE's empirical assumptions about human nature may well be false, given the facts of our evolution. With respect to these, I argue that, as attempts to undermine AVE specifically, they fail, though they raise significant challenges to our ethical thought quite generally.
For the Aristotelian phronimos the practically wise man has phronesis, which is a form of knowledge, and it is this that enables him (characteristically) to make correct decisions about what he should do. Phronesis, excellence in practical reasoning, moral knowledge, can be acquired only by habitually engaging in virtuous action, not, for example, just by learning a written code of conduct. There is no short cut to what the phronimos knows. Nothing but the acquisition of personal virtue will yield it. When we bring this feature of phronesis right to the surface, it clearly suppresses a significant amount of the pretensions of contemporary normative ethical theory. Aristotelian anti-generalism still carries a nasty sting, for it entails that, unless the theorists have phronesis and hence virtue themselves, their "shorter ways" may well make it harder, rather than easier, to acquire virtue.
In On Virtue Ethics I offered a criterion for a character trait's being a virtue according to which a virtuous character trait must conduce to, or at least not be inimical to, four ends, one of which is the continuance of the human species. I argue here that this does not commit me to homosexuality's being a vice, since homosexuality is not a character trait and hence not up for assessment as a virtue or a vice. Vegetarianism is not up for such assessment either, for the same reason, but, as a practice, may well be required by the virtue of compassion, and sacrificing one's life for an animal or alien may be required by courage. The clause about the continuance of the human species in my criterion does not specify a foundational value, because, following McDowell, I reject foundationalism.
When I first read Intention as a student it seemed misnamed, since, I thought, it gave an account of intentional action all right, but left me still wondering what an intention was. It was only with years of rereading that I came to see that one beauty of the account was that it eliminated the need to ask.
Aristotle (384–322 BC) was born in Stagira, Macedonia. He went to Athens and entered Plato's Academy when he was eighteen. He remained there until Plato's death in about 347 BC, when he left Athens to spend the next five years at Assos in Asia Minor and at Mytilene on the island of Lesbos, working on philosophy and biology. In 343 he was invited to return to Macedonia to tutor the son of Philip II of Macedonia, the future Alexander the Great. This lasted three or four years. After a further period at Stagira, Aristotle returned to Athens where he opened a philosophical school at the Lyceum or Peripatos. On the death of Alexander in 323 there was anti-Macedonian feeling in Athens, and to avoid the same fate as Socrates, Aristotle took refuge in Chalcis on the island of Euboea, leaving the school in the charge of his pupil Theophrastus. He died the following year.
Our understanding of the moral philosophy of Aristotle is hampered by a number of modern assumptions we make about the subject. For a start, we are accustomed to thinking about ethics or moral philosophy as being concerned with theoretical questions about actions—what makes an action right or wrong? Modern moral philosophy gives two different sorts of answers to this question. One is in terms of a substantial ethical theory—what makes an action right or wrong is whether it promotes the greatest happiness, or whether it is in accordance with or violates a moral rule, or whether it promotes or violates a moral right. The other sort gives a meta-ethical answer—rightness and wrongness are not really properties of actions, but in describing actions as right or wrong we commend or object to them, express our approval or disapproval or our emotions concerning them. But the ancient Greeks start with a totally different question. Ethics is supposed to answer, for each one of us, the question ‘How am I to live well?’ What this question means calls for some discussion.
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