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Virtue and austerity

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Abstract:

Abstract

Virtue ethics is often proposed as a third way in health‐care ethics, that while consequentialism and deontology focus on action guidelines, virtue focuses on character; all three aim to help agents discern morally right action although virtue seems to have least to contribute to political issues, such as austerity. I claim: (1) This is a bad way to characterize virtue ethics. The 20th century renaissance of virtue ethics was first proposed as a response to the difficulty of making sense of ‘moral rightness’ outside a religious context. For Aristotle the right action is that which is practically best; that means best for the agent in order to live a flourishing life. There are no moral considerations besides this. (2) Properly characterized, virtue ethics can contribute to discussion of austerity. A criticism of virtue ethics is that fixed characteristics seem a bad idea in ever‐changing environments; perhaps we should be generous in prosperity, selfish in austerity. Furthermore, empirical evidence suggests that people indeed do change with their environment. However, I argue that virtues concern fixed values not fixed behaviour; the values underlying virtue allow for different behaviour in different circumstances: in austerity, virtues still give the agent the best chance of flourishing. Two questions arise. (a) In austere environments might not injustice help an individual flourish by, say, obtaining material goods? No, because unjust acts undermine the type of society the agent needs for flourishing. (b) What good is virtue to those lacking the other means to flourish? The notion of degrees of flourishing shows that most people would benefit somewhat from virtue. However, in extreme circumstances virtue might harm rather than benefit the agent: such circumstances are to be avoided; virtue ethics thus has a political agenda to enable flourishing. This requires justice, a fortiori when in austerity.

Document Type: Research Article

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1466-769X.2012.00550.x

Affiliations: Principal Research Fellow, Health and Social Care Research Centre, Sheffield Hallam University, Sheffield, UK

Publication date: January 1, 2013

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