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Exploring Ethics (Cahn): Aristotle--Virtue

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This Powerpoint discusses ethics as character development towards the mean action.

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ethical theory overview1
Ethical Theory Overview

Aristotle: Good is in the excellence of one’s character as determined by their moderate action.

Aquinas: Good is in the natural law prescribed by God as found in our natural inclinations.

Kant: Good is in a “good will” of a rational being satisfying the duty of the greatest maxim: to only act as if my action were to be made a universal law.

Mill: Good is the maximization of pleasure (happiness) and the minimization of pain.

where does the good reside
Where does the “good” reside?

Aquinas: Good is in the natural law prescribed by God as found in our natural inclinations.

Objection 1: The law’s eternality prevents finite rational beings from knowing it.

Objection 2: Good as God’s good fails to provide objectivity to the good.

where does the good reside1
Where does the “good” reside?

Mill: Good is the maximization of pleasure (happiness) and the minimization of pain.

Mill: Good is the maximization of rational qualitative pleasure (happiness) and the minimization of rational qualitative pain.

Further Objection1: Pleasure gain and pain avoidance is not a legitimate end.

Further Objection 2: Pleasures are not quantifiable, and thus not maximizable, because they admit of different incomparable kinds and types (e.g. rational, physical, aesthetic, spiritual, etc.)

Further Objection 3: Leads to seemingly inhumane claims, like aborting/killing severally disabled infants.

where does the good reside2
Where does the “good” reside?

Kant: Good is in a “good will” of a rational being satisfying the duty of the greatest maxim: to only act as if my action were to be made a universal law.

Objection 1: Universalizing actions is a God-like infinite ability, needing a God-like infinite knowledge. We lack infinite knowledge.

Objection 2: Just because we “ought” to do something does not mean we “can”.

where does the good reside3
Where does the “good” reside?

Aristotle: Good is in one’s skill for being disposed toward excellence: to select the mean between extremes.

“Virue, then, is (a) a state that decides, (b) [consisting] in a mean, c) the mean relative to us, (d) which is defined by reference to reason, (e) i.e., to the reason by reference to which the intelligent person would define it.”

what good is relative c
What? Good is Relative? (c)

“Men lead…three prominent types of life—[the vulgar], the political, and the contemplative.”

“The good seems different in different actions and arts: it is different in medicine, in strategy, and in the other arts likewise. What then is the good of each? (…) In medicine it is health, in strategy victory, in architecture a house, in any other sphere something else, and in every action and choice the end; for it is for the sake of this that all men do whatever else they do.”

w here does good come from not will or body but character
Where does good come from?Not will or body, but character!
  • If something is by nature X, habituation cannot make it Y.
  • Habituation affects one’s good. (“A state [of character] arises from [the repetition of] similar activities.”)
  • So, good is not naturally given.

SUM: Each habit has its own good or ‘character.’

“Every craft and every investigation, and likewise every action and decision, seems to aim at some good; hence the good has been well described as that at which everything aims.”

the good
The Good

Problem: The good seems relative to one’s vocation, but must also be something intrinsic to one’s way of being, which is not relative at all.

  • Either the good is relative or absolute.
  • If it is relative then there is no one good which makes one’s individual way of being good.
  • If absolute, then there is only one good and no way individual way to be good.
  • So, either there is no way for one’s individual way of being good or only one individual way to be good.

“As far as its name goes, most people virtually agree [about what the good is], since both the many and the cultivated call it happiness, and suppose that living well and doing well are the same as being happy. But they disagree about what happiness is, and the many do not give the same answer as the wise.”

there is an absolute good
There is an Absolute Good

“[The absolute good is] some end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake (everything else being desired for the sake of this), and if we do not choose everything for the sake of something else…”

“that which is desirable for itself and never for the sake of something else.”


THOUGHT EXPERIMENT: If you had no possessions and were all alone, what would you need to be happy?

“the self-sufficient [view of absolute good] is that which when isolated makes life desirable and lacking in nothing.”

whether relative to absolute where does good come from
Whether relative to absolute, where does good come from?
  • If something is by nature X, we first have a capacity for X and second the activity of X.
  • Good is first activity and second a capacity.
  • So, Good is something we do that we find natural to us.

What could be unique to humanity??? REASON!

We have found, then, that the human function is the soul’s activity that expresses reasonor requires reason.”

problem isn t good activity
Problem: Isn’t Good “activity”?
    • To act virtuously, one must know what virtue is.
    • To know what virtue is, one must act virtuously.
    • So, one can neither act virtuously nor know virtue.

Problem with (1): One can rely on luck or by following instructions or imitating another. (craft analogy)

  • Response for (1): Crafts, though coming about by these methods, cannot illustrate virtuous actions which require MORE than the end product of an action. Virtues also require being “in the right state” when acted on. (31)
  • “In the right state,” means:
  • “First, he must know that he is doing virtous actions; second, he must decide on them, and decide on them for themselves; and third, he must also do them from a firm and unchanging state.”

Second Problem with (1): Knowing the virtuous action counts for very little as virtue requires a virtuous person, one who does virtuous acts in a virtuous way.

how does one learn to be good
How does one learn to be good?

“Moral excellence comes about as a result of habit…From this it is also plain that none of the moral excellences arises in us by nature: for nothing exists by nature can form a habit contrary to its nature.”

“Neither by nature, then, nor contrary to nature do excellences arise in us; rather we are adapted by nature to receive them, and are made perfect by habit.”

“A state of character arises from the repetition of similar activities. (1103b22)

the good is inborn right
The good is inborn, right?

Notice that there is no philosophical theory (so far) that claims the good to be a natural part of humanity.

Kant: We reason to the good as only doing what we believe all should.

Mill: We calculate the good of maximized pleasure/minimized pain.

Aquinas: We discover the good in God.

Aristotle: We learn the good like athletic skill.

another argument for the good as learned
Another argument for the good as learned.
  • Virtuous states are ruined by excessive actions and deficient actions. (13)

E.g. the virtuous state of bravery is ruined by a deficiency in facing fears and turns to cowardice whereas an excess of facing fears turns to rashness.

  • So, the same actions cause both virtuousness and vice.
  • Thus, actions are not enough to become virtuous. (sec. 3)
  • Consequences of action (pain or pleasure) determine virtuous states.
    • E.g. if one is pained by the facing of fear itself, they are a coward and if one takes pleasure one is brave.
      • Problem! Where’s rashness here?
  • So, correct consequences of action must be learned: the right ones and the right times in the right ways, etc.
defining virtue
Defining Virtue

Virtues are more than mere feeling or capacity. They are a “state”, a capacity that is unchanging. (II. Sec. 5)

Virtues are a good state such that the possessor is able to function well. (II. Sec. 6)

  • A virtuous state is one that ‘finds the mean’, the ‘intermediate’. In particular, Virtue “pursues the mean because it is concerned with feelings and actions and these admit of excess, deficiency and an intermediate condition”. 1106b18)
    • To be in a state of virtue is to find oneself aiming at the mean for each context.
defining virtue1
Defining Virtue
  • Virtue, then, is a mean between two vices or:
    • a state that decides (judges) to remain in the mean at all times and contexts that we are in by using reasoning that is not sophistry, but deductive.
      • Note how distinct this is from Plato’s definition, a self-existing form which we participate in if we are lucky enough to receive knowledge of it from the gods.
defining virtue2
Defining Virtue
  • Furthermore, there are some vices which do not admit of a mean as they are themselves base: Adultery, Theft, Murder (among actions) Spite, Shamelessness, Envy (among feelings) (the former do seem to be vices that somehow admit of a mean.)
  • The Action/Feeling Mean by Reason Interpretation:

Feeling (e.g. Saint)

Action (e.g. boy scout)

resolution virtue in excellence
Resolution: Virtue in Excellence

The good is relative to satisfying one’s relative vocational duties with excellence. Excellence is “a disposition toward avoidance of excess and deficiency” and towards a character of moderation that is actuated in activity.