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Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics and Its Probes on Torture

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Let’s confront a case in an end/means dilemma: In September 2002, the son of a prominent German banker was abducted. The family readily agreed to pay the ransom. During the hand-off, police were able to identify the suspect. When the boy was still not released after a couple of days, the police made the arrest. Acting on the chance that the boy might still be alive, the police officer questioning the kidnapper did everything he could just to make the suspect talk, even if it caused so much pain to him. As it turned out, the threat of violence was enough to make the suspect plead guilty, confess, and expose the truth: the boy was already dead.

Now in this specific situation, is the resort to torture morally acceptable? Is it morally justified to do something “bad” in order to have a “good” outcome? And the truest question here is, does the end justify the means?

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But before we directly answer these questions, let’s first analyze and dissect Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics and how it characterizes moral qualities in the light of the most controversial virtue in this case, justice, and then we will see how this normative theory responds to the questions I have posed in this paper.

On Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics

This is the very premise of Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics. It highlights the role of character and virtue in moral philosophy. In contrary to deontology and consequentialism, virtue ethics begs broader questions such as “How should I live?”, “What is the good life?” and “What kind of man should I be?” It is not principally concerned with identifying universal principles that can be applied in all moral dilemma. It is a pursuit, an activity, and a disposition. 

Virtue ethics has much more to offer. It encompasses profound and large concepts that need to be understood and experienced.

One of these concepts is arete. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle puts premium to this Greek word which means virtue or excellence where he also introduces two kinds of virtues: the intellectual virtues (dianoetike) which are gained and cultivated through instruction, and moral virtues (ethike arete) which are gained through habits.[footnoteRef:4] “Aristotle says plainly and repeatedly what it is that moral virtue is for the sake of, but the translators are afraid to give it to you straight. Most of them say it is the noble. One of them says it is the fine.”

He recognizes that actions are not futile because they have a goal, a purpose, an aim. Every action aims at some good. For example, an ethics professor aims at his students’ gain and practice of knowledge, a student varsity from UP Baguio works on his service so that his team can win the BBEAL, a young writer puts effort on his literary piece aiming a place in Palanca, and so on. Furthermore, some actions are done for the sake of other things (means to other ends) while some things are done just for their own sake (ends in themselves). Here, Aristotle says that all the things that are ends in themselves also contribute to a wider end, an end that is the greatest good of all, and that good is eudaimonia. Eudaimonia is happiness, contentment, and fulfillment; it is the name of the best kind of life, which is an end in itself and a means to live and fare well. It aims a kind of happiness that lasts longer and has more depths than mere pleasure. The eu- prefix means “good”; and daimonia is related to the Greek word for “spirit” or “soul.” Hence, his idea is that virtue produces the happiness of having a good soul or spirit, which realizes essential human purposes.

Aristotle outlines a variety of particular virtues that include courage, temperance, pride, magnanimity, and justice, where he puts into emphasis the golden mean amongst everything in which it is the holistic framework for understanding virtue in general, as a mean between extremes. [footnoteRef:7] Highlighting the virtue of justice here, “[it] seems to be not only a moral virtue, but in some pre-eminent way the moral virtue. And Aristotle says that there is a sense of the word in which the one we call ‘just’ is the person who has all moral virtue, insofar as it affects other people… Justice concerns itself with the right distribution of rewards and punishments within a community.”[footnoteRef:8] [7: See Sachs, J. “Aristotle: Ethics” in Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved:] [8: Taken from]

Given these characterizations of Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics, let’s now discuss why these concepts (arete, eudaimonia, justice) are important in response to our moral dilemma in this paper: does the end justify the means?

On Its Probes on Torture

The question is very easy to answer if you are a deontologist or a consequentialist. Surely for deontologists, they would simply say the pain given to the suspect is unacceptable because simply to inflict pain to anyone is inherently bad and is never our moral duty. Consequentialists on the other hand would justify the brutal means by just explaining how this equates to its good outcomes. Though the specific case here is a different one especially if it is seen though the lens of virtue ethics.

If you take the easier way out, Aristotle will tell you right in your face that you know too well you are not virtuous (or excellent) enough, not eudaimon enough, not just enough, and above all not human enough to assess the situation and to find worthier resolves.

I will discuss this statement further as I will layer down my three arguments here:

(1) Resorting to bad means (torture in this case) to get good outcomes you think you deserve is not an excellent choice because in the first place, it is not virtuous.

As uncanny as it may sound but I am dropping “Patience is a virtue” in this case for I believe it is the most excellent principle one must have in resolving the issue, and by patience we mean all-inclusive humane deliberation. To substantiate this, here is a text from Nicomachean Ethics: “The man who is angry at the right things and with the right people, and, further, as he ought, when he ought, and as long as he ought, is praised. This will be the good-tempered man, then, since good temper is praised. For the good-tempered man tends to be unperturbed and not to be led by passion, but to be angry in the manner, at the things, and for the length of time, that the rule dictates; but he is thought to err rather in the direction of deficiency; for the good-tempered man is not revengeful, but rather tends to make allowances.” [footnoteRef:9] [9: Taken from http://sacred]

I believe bad means will never be in line with arete and will never be the choice of a patient man to achieve his goals. He who is virtuous deliberates comprehensively, and for this case, torture will never be a virtuous man’s means. He is excellent enough to aim good ends through good means. “What kind of man should I be?” This is his character!

(2) Bad means in itself is counterintuitive to idea of eudaimonia because eudaimonia entails goodness and nothing but goodness.

Virtue Ethics converses the relationship between rightness and virtue. Let’s put this into an analogy. A utilitarian could accept the virtue of kindness only because someone with a kind disposition is likely to bring about consequences that will maximize utility. So, the virtue is only justified because of the consequences it brings about. Here in virtue ethics on the other hand, the virtues are justified because they are constitutive elements of eudaimonia which is good in itself. [footnoteRef:10] Now, tying it back to what eudaimonia constitutes, bad means is bad in itself and this this will never support a eudaimon life, for a eudaimon life in connection to my first argument has virtues—a eudaimon life has good means. [10: See Athanassoulis, N. “Virtue Ethics” in Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved:]

This is the best way to understand the active state of the soul that constitutes moral virtue and forms character. It is the condition in which all the powers of the soul are at work together, making it possible for action to engage the whole human being. The work of achieving character is long process (and one of its activities is to be consistent in utilizing good means in aiming good outcomes) that stand in the way of the ultimate essence of the soul. [footnoteRef:11] And this is how one achieve his eudaimonia: through good means, making it his habit! [11: See Sachs, J. “Aristotle: Ethics” in Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved: ]

(3) It is never just to use bad means for outcomes because this thinking is the same thinking of the perversion of the ethical and the political.

As Jeff McMahan said in an interview from The New York Times, “There are many reasons why paradigm instances of torture are objectionable: the sheer awfulness of suffering; the humiliation, terror, and dehumanization; the psychological scarring, the various forms of betrayal—of others, one’s ideals, and oneself.”[footnoteRef:12] [12: Taken from]

This context can be incorporated to what happened during the domination of the Nazi regime over the Jews. Adolf Hitler has his aims to strengthen his people’s sense of nationalism. To be fair, it was a good aim. But we have seen the Holocaust, the horrors and damages of the regime’s means in in their pursuit in achieving the goal. Is it acceptable? History says no.

In Africa, female genital mutilation is done out because it is culturally good. Philippines, extra-judicial killings are justified because it is believed to be helpful in the country’s national welfare and development. Are these acceptable? Are these justified?

“For this same reason justice, alone of the virtues, is thought to be ‘another’s good’, because it is related to our neighbor; for it does what is advantageous to another, either a ruler or a copartner. Now the worst man is he who exercises his wickedness both towards himself and towards his friends, and the best man is not he who exercises his virtue towards himself but he who exercises it towards another; for this is a difficult task.”[footnoteRef:13] [13: Taken from]

Now to conclude, Virtue Ethics mirrors the vague nature of ethics by being “flexible” and “situation-sensitive”, but it can also be “action-guiding” by observing the example of the virtuous agent. He who is virtuous has ultimately developed his moral character. He has the virtues and acts in virtue of them, and who knows what to do by example. Further, virtue ethics poses substantial emphasis on the development of moral judgment. Knowing what to do is not a matter of internalizing a principle, but a life-long pursuit of moral learning that will only provide clear answers when one reaches moral maturity.

On the questions I have posed in this paper: does the resort to torture morally acceptable? Is it morally justified to do something “bad” in order to have a “good” outcome? And the truest question here is, does the end justify the means?

Truth is, Virtue Ethics cannot give an easy, instant and direct answer. It is because these answers do not actually exist. It is impossible for them to achieve. One can never reach his moral maturity because we are all ever-maturing. And that does not mean it already ends there. Because even if it’s impossible, still, make the impossible possible for the pursuit of making the impossible possible is what makes the impossible possible in a sense.

This is virtue!


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