Virtue (n)

[This year, for the first time in my teaching career, I am co-teaching a senior English Language Arts class. Our first mission is to help students produce a college application essay. I’m making up a worksheet for students to use in attending to the implications of this quote for composing this essay.]

“A virtue is a trait of character that is to be admired: one rendering its possessor better, either morally, or intellectually, or in the conduct of specific affairs. Both Plato and Aristotle devote much time to the unity of the virtues, or the way in which possession of one in the right way requires possession of the others; another central concern is the way in which possession of virtue, which might seem to stand in the way of self-interest, in fact makes possible the achievement of self-interest properly understood, or eudaimonia. But different conceptions of moral virtue and its relation to other virtue characterize Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Christian, Enlightenment, Romantic, and 20th-century ethical writing. These divisions reflect central preoccupations of their time and needs of the cultures in which they gain predominance: the humility, charity, patience, and chastity of Christianity would have been unintelligible as ethical virtues to classical Greeks, whereas the ‘magnanimity‘ of the great-souled man of Aristotle is hard for us to read as an unqualified good, Syntheses of Christian and Greek conceptions are attempted by many, including Aquinas, but a resolute return to an Aristotelian conception has been impossible since the emergence of generalized benevolence as a leading virtue. For Hume a virtue is a trait of character with the power of producing love or esteem of others, or pride in oneself, by being ‘useful or agreeable’ to its possessors and those affected by them. In Kant, virtue is purely a trait that can act as a handmaiden to the doing of duty, having no independent, ethical value, and in utilitarianism, virtues are traits of character that further pursuit of the general happiness.”

Excerpted from: Blackburn, Simon. The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

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