Ethical Orientations: Axiology

Axiology is derived from the Greek to mean “value or worth,” and is primarily concerned with classifying things as good and how good they are.

Often called the theory of value, axiology is the philosophical study of goodness or the worth of something. This approach is often guided by the question, “if I were a “good” person, what would I do?” Key to this ethical orientation is the identification of ethical virtues. Aristotle, one of the earliest proponents of this orientation, identified justice, moderation, and eudemonia, or happiness, as key virtues. His ethical philosophy focused on personal character rather than on universal rules or consequences. Core virtues, such as courage, compassion, and loyalty guide ethical action and are instrumental in the art of living well. He further advocated that these virtues could only be developed through consistent practice.

Aristotle sought to identify virtue ethics through the Golden Mean. He believed every situation has two extremes of action, one extreme (vice) of defect and a vice of excess. The ethical action or the virtue ethic was the mean of the two extremes. For example, the vice defect of confidence would be cowardice, or too little confidence, while the vice excess of confidence would be rashness or too much confidence. The ethical virtue between the two would be courage, the mean between cowardice and rashness.

Aristotle further believed that the identification of the Golden Mean is based on a person’s character, or virtue, which is engrained by habitual action. For example, an honest person will not lie because telling the truth is a personal value and a personal habit. The key to virtue ethics is that the ethical action is based on the individual.

Thomas H. Bivins:
“A person of strong character developed through habitual right action will make the right decisions, most of the time. A person of weak character will not. It’s as simple as that.”

The Greeks also believed that virtue ethics were not only habitual, but consistent. A truly virtuous person would act the same publicly as in private. A person’s character and the associated values are constant and the consistency of the person’s action illuminates the person’s virtue. Based on this idea, in the opening scenario, the sports public relations director’s value of making a difference would be considered an ethical virtue if it was a personal habit and a consistent value that the director espoused in both public and private life.

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