Virtue ethics, happiness, and the good life
In its earliest versions, virtue ethics began not with the question “What is the right thing to do?” but with the question “What is the best way to live?” The first is a question for ethical reasoning specifically, while the second is for practical reasoning about one's life more broadly: it concerns what to do with one's life and how to make it a happy one. Answering these questions involves, among other things, reflecting on what sort of person to be and what sort of character to develop. And it is here that practical reasoning leads to thought about the virtues, excellences of character that consist in both caring about the right sorts of things and having the wisdom and practical skills to judge and act successfully with respect to those things. It seems appropriate, then, to open this volume on virtue ethics with an overview of this traditional approach to the virtues.
This approach is called “eudaimonism,” from the Greek word ‘eudaimonia,’ the ancient Greek philosophers’ term for a good human life, or more succinctly, happiness. By “happiness” here we do not mean a mood or a feeling but a life that is rich and fulfilling for the one living it. Specifically, ‘eudaimonism’ can refer to theories about practical reasoning, or about the nature of happiness, or about the virtues – or, more usually, to a theory of the relation between these three. Eudaimonism of this latter sort is the focus of this chapter: eudaimonism is the idea that we grasp which character traits are the virtues by understanding what traits practical reasoning recommends as essential to living a fulfilling human life.