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The Ethics of Dilemma
Would you push the fat man
from the bridge?
Would you tell lie
to the murderer, to
save the victim?
Would you pull the lever
to save 5?
Would you blow up the
ferry of prisoners?
Virtue Ethics rejects Ethics of Dilemma
‘The image that I came up with for myself,
as I marvelled at my weakness, was that I was
a rider on the back of an elephant.
I’m holding the reins in my hands,
and by pulling one way or the other
I can tell the elephant to turn, to stop, or to go.
I can direct things, but only when the
elephant doesn’t have desires of his own.
When the elephant really wants to do something, I’m
no match for him.’
Jonathan Haidt – The Happiness Hypothesis
Most of us are too familiar with situations in which
our Elephant overpowers our Rider. You’ve
experienced this if you’ve ever slept in, overeaten,
dialed up your ex at midnight, procrastinated, tried
to quit smoking and failed, skipped the gym, gotten
angry and said something you regretted, abandoned
your Spanish or piano lessons, refused to speak up in
a meeting because you were scared, and so on.
Dan Heath & Chip Heath - Switch
The Rider and Ethics
I should act rationally …
Maybe I’ll consider the
maxim by which I’m
acting, universalise it, and
see if I reach a
But hang on, let’s think
about this … surely it just
makes sense to act in a
way which makes most
The Elephant and Ethics
What do you think will happen to all
the Rider’s good ideas?
When do I eat next?
I’m tired …
*wink* Hey good lookin
Screw you! You want
some of this tusk, eh?!
Geez I’m scared – run
(Not Act Centered)
We are not concerned
to know what goodness
is but how to become
good people, since
otherwise our enquiry
would be useless.
The ethical condition is
not the condition of
having a certain right
theory; rather the ethical
condition is having a
(Alasdair MacIntryre, After
In your own words, what is each author saying? How might
you relate this to the Rider and the Elephant?
Arete:translates from the Greek as “excellence,” or
The Excellence of …
… to fly
… to be brave
… to hold liquid
How do you think you could become
“excellent” at being human?
• Humanity has an essence or function
• Arete: The function of human beings is to use
their reason in pursuit of the good life (virtue)
• Moral virtues are different from intellectual ones:
they require practice! (training the elephant)
• By living well, we acquire the right habits
• These habits are the virtues
• A virtuous life is a happy life
The Nature of Virtue Ethics
• Virtue Ethics claims that it is important to not
only do the right thing, but also to have the
correct disposition, motivation, and emotion in
being good and doing right
• Virtue Ethics is not only about actions, but having
a “moral character” – one which feels the right
thing at the right time, and acts accordingly
• Practice: Virtues don’t come “built in” – they
must be practiced again and again.
Groundhog Day … Again.
Phil gets a lot of time to practice living through
one day … what does he choose to get better at?
Groundhog Day … Again.
And where does it get him in the end?
A Virtuous Character
• We are judged by our character, not specific
• An individual who has developed excellent
character traits (virtues) is judged as a morally
• An individual who has developed poor
character traits (vices) is judged as a morally
• Virtue is about the whole person.