Aristotle On the Nature of Virtue
Aristotle’s Ethical Theory Aristotle opens The Nicomachean Ethics with “Every craft and line of inquiry, and likewise every action and decision, seems to seek some good; that is why some people were right to describe the good as what everything seeks.” Aristotle’s account of ethics is a teleological account of ethics. A teleological account of ethics defines normative properties in terms of what is claimed to be the good. Aristotle’s teleological account of ethics takes its point of departure by looking for the purpose or function of human life and activity. Question: Does it follow from the fact that All craft and inquiry have some good, that there is a single good that all things seek?
Aristotle on Ethics and Politics • To profit from ethical inquiry we must resolve the debate over what is best for human beings. • Ethics is not a theoretical discipline it is a practical discipline. We seek knowledge in ethics not because we want to know the nature of what is best for human beings, but because we want to flourish. • We seek an answer to the question: What is good? In asking this question we do not wish to know which particular things are good, such as friendship or pleasure. Rather, we seek to know what the highest good is. • The highest good has three characteristics: it is desirable for itself, it is desirable for the sake of some other good, and all other goods are desirable for its sake.
Eudaimonia • Aristotle claims that what we seek is eudaimonia, happiness or living well. • ‘Eudaimonia’ does not mean raw pleasure, it may involve pleasure at times, but more properly it is to be understood as living well. • Eudaimonia is the highest end . We do not try to live well for the sake of some other goal. Rather we seek other things, in order to live well. • We seek health and wealth because they promote living well. We do not seek health and wealth as ends in themselves. • In searching for eudaimonia Aristotle sets out the question: What is the function of being human? He assumes that by discerning the function of what it is to be a human, we can discover what it is to live well.
The Function Argument • The function of being human is picked out by that property that distinguishes humans from all other species of things, such as, inanimate matter, plants, and non-human animals. • The human capacity to reason is the property that distinguishes humans from all other species of things. • Therefore, the function of being human is to deploy reason over the course of one’s life. • The function of a thing is deployed well when it is in accord with virtue. • So, for a human to live well consists in doing activities that are caused by reason and in accordance with virtue. • Questions: • Why does the function of a man determine what is moral? • Why is there only one function? • If reason were shared by other creatures, would it not still be our function? • If some other capacity, were our function, would it be the case that our energies should be focused on them? • If all the parts of a thing have a function, does it follow that the whole must have a function?
Aristotle on the Good Life • Happiness is virtuous activity. • Happiness consists in doing something, and not just being in a certain state or condition. • Happiness requires friends, wealth, and power. We need certain instrumental goods in order to live well. • A person that has no friends, no children, is without power, and ugly may not have many opportunities for virtuous activities overtheir life. • To some extent the possibility of a person living well is contingent on happenstance, and out of their control.
A problem about the virtue account of happiness • A virtue theoretic account of happiness maintains that living well is living in accordance with virtue. But for this to be informative it must specify specific virtues, such as courage and justice, which our happiness consists in when we are in accord with them. • Suppose that V denotes a set of skills called virtues, which when an agent possess they are said to be happy or living well. • Now suppose a specific set of skills, v1…vnare proposed to be in V. • How does one explain why v1…vn belong to V? • Why are courage and justice, for example, two of the virtues that are included in the set of virtues that constitute living well and being happy.
An Initial Taxonomy of Virtues • There are two kinds of virtues. Those that pertain to reason, which are called virtues of the mind or the intellect. And those that pertain to parts of the soul that can follow reason, such as ethical virtues and character traits. • The intellectual virtues can be further divided into those that pertain to theoretical reasoning and those that pertain to practical reasoning.
What is ethical virtue? • Ethical virtues are dispositions to have certain feelings. • Ethical virtues are not purely intellectual. They require having certain feelings that are appropriate to the exercise of the virtue. • An ethical virtue is a mean between excess and deficiency. To be ethically virtuous requires having a disposition that is intermediate between excess and deficiency. • Because ethical virtues are a mean between two extremes, and because they involve having appropriate emotions, it will be true that in certain circumstances strong emotions are required. The degree of emotion required, such as anger, depends on how serious the situation is.
Examples: Courage • Courage is a virtue. • It is the mean between being a coward and being rash. • The coward fears everything and can do nothing. He experiences too much fear • The rash person fears nothing and takes on too many dangers. He experiences too little fear. • The courageous person fears just enoughso as (i) to avoid those dangers that are truly not worth taking and (ii) to combat those that are worth taking on.
Examples: Generosity • Generosity is a virtue. • It is the mean between being ungenerous and wasteful. • The ungenerous person is excessive in taking and deficient in giving. • The wasteful person gives too much, is excessive in spending, and deficient in taking. • The generous person gives to the appropriate amount required by the situation.
What is ethical vice? • Ethical vices are either deficiencies or excesses. • It is important to note that there is no way to do them correctly. • Adultery is a vice, and there is no way we can do it well by being with the right person at the right time in the right way. • To commit a vice is to be in error without qualification.
Akrasia • Akrasia means incontinence “lack of mastery” • Enkrateia means continence “mastery” • An akratic person goes against reason on the basis of an emotion or feeling. • An enkratic person experiences an emotion or feeling that is contrary to reason, but does not go against reason. • There are two types of akrasia. An impetuous person is one who acts frequently from passion without deliberating adequately. A weak person is one that goes through a process of deliberation, makes a choice, and then chooses to act from the influence of passion.
Objections: • Aristotle maintains that it is impossible for an individual to possess some moral virtues and not others. For example, a person cannot be courageous, and unjust. This position is known as the unity of virtues. One question we might ask is whether or not it makes sense to say that in order to have one virtue one must have all virtues? • Aristotle maintains that virtues are dispositions or character traits. However, one might run the following argument • Virtues are stable character traits. • Empirical evidence shows that there are no stable character traits. • So, there are no virtues.