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The metaphysics of virtue

Steve Odmark, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


Claims about the nature of goodness must be supported by metaphysical arguments in order for them to be justified. Therefore, I reproduce the metaphysical grounding of the virtue ethical systems of Aristotle and Aquinas and display the connection to their virtue ethical systems which I then proffer. ^ Aristotle's metaphysics is teleological throughout. Each living thing has a nature---a composite of innate capacities---and the "good" (flourishing) for each thing is the actualization of those capacities. Aristotle specifies a number of human rational capacities and explains the proper function of each, individually, and of their mutual function with other capacities. The extent to which one's rational capacities are actualized he is a virtuous, flourishing person. ^ Aquinas' teleological metaphysic is inextricably connected with the nature and being of God. God creates living things with specific capacities and their actualization reflects the being of their creator; this is their good. Aquinas specifies the capacities inherent in human nature which, when actualized, yield virtue and reflect the being of the creator. ^ Virtue ethics' main theoretical competitors, consequentialism and deontology, contain flaws that merit preferring virtue ethics over them. Consequentialism fails to supply intuitively plausible ethical principles to maximize; both intuitive and metaphysical arguments for maximizing pleasure are poor and the conclusions to these arguments require the moral agent to divorce himself from his actual goals and desires and ignore certain moral requirements. Similarly, deontology fails to supply a general principle upon which to act; 'universalization' fails as a guide for distinguishing moral actions from non-moral and its consistent application derives counterintuitive results. Virtue ethics fares better, on all counts, over these two rivals. ^ Moral agents must know what is morally good in order to act in accordance with the good. Both Aristotle and Aquinas are moral intuitionists of a Rossian sort; they claim that a plurality of general moral principles exists which are self-evidently known by our rational faculty of intuition. In the virtuous person, this intuitive faculty also makes known our particular duties in various circumstances. ^

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Recommended Citation

Odmark, Steve, "The metaphysics of virtue" (2005). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI3203637.