Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics vs Bentham’s Utilitarianism

‘Ethics’, as a general term, refers to the role that moral discourse plays in an individual’s life. The term ‘legal ethics’ refers to the rules the legal profession abides by. In this article, I’ll discuss Aristotle’s view of legal ethics as virtue ethics. I’ll also discuss Bentham’s Utilitarianism viewpoint. I’ll look at how these two philosophers’ views are good for judging the ethical basis of legal conduct today. In addition, I’ll look at the challenges and difficulties surrounding each of these approaches.


Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics


Aristotle was of the opinion that to be virtuous and ethical you needed to participate in public life. This is because it was only, he felt, through this practice that it was possible to develop the courage and strength of mind necessary of a virtuous person.


However, Aristotle felt that that only Greek men had the wherewithal to participate in public life. Other sectors of the population – such as women and slaves – he felt were not fit to be able to take on these roles.


Klosko – in The Development of Plato’s Political Theory – says Aristotle’s apparent sexist attitudes were not peculiar to him. These were the norm adopted at the time in Greece:


“… most [Greek] cities placed women in positions of decided inferioroity. It is widely known that Greeks regarded slaves as naturally inferior.”


The strength of Aristotle’s ethical viewpoint is that he describes the person you should become if you want to live a virtuous and moral life. He gives clear guidelines as to how it is possible to attain a moral and ethical standard in your life. However by expressly excluding the majority of the population in his ‘preachings’ he is denying the population – especially the legal fraternity – the benefits that other individuals such as women may bring to the table.


Bentham’s Utilitarianism Ethics


Bentham felt that ethical rules should be formulated in to do the greatest good for the greatest number of people. The strength of this viewpoint is that if legal rules are formulated to be acceptable to the greatest percentage of the population, there is less chance of mass action – such as strikes and the like – cropping up.


However, philosopher David Pearce highlights the following problem with Bentham’s views:


“Another objection to Utilitarianism is that the prevention or elimination of suffering should take precedence over any alternative act that would only increase the happiness of someone already happy. Some recent Utilitarians have modified their theory to require this focus or even to limit moral obligation to the prevention or elimination of suffering—a view labelled “negative” Utilitarianism.”


Both Aristotle’s and Bentham’s views of legal ethics have strong points. However, taken as a whole they are not applicable to South African society today.