PHI208 W4 Discussion 1 & Discussion 2

Table of Contents

Discussion 1 & Discussion 2

Ashford University | PHI208 SYMPOSIUM

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Discussion 1 & Discussion 2

As mentioned in the week 1 video, weeks 2, 3, and 4 will have a symposium discussion. The word “symposium” is

a Greek word that refers to a banquet held after a meal, an after-party of sorts that usually included drinking,

dancing, recitals, and engaging conversations on the topics of the day. The word also happens to be the title of

the classic text by Plato, whose work you read last week. As you can probably guess, that work features a group

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of men who take the idea of engaging conversation to a whole new level and practically compete against one

another in a sport of wit and words.

For our purposes in this course, the symposium discussions will not involve dancing, recitals, or a banquet, but

Discussion 1 & Discussion 2

they will provide food for thought on current ethical issues and direct application of the ethical theory discussed in

each of these weeks. It is impossible these days to turn on the news or log on to social media without

encountering a controversy that cries out for ethical discussion. For these symposiums, your instructor will choose

a topic of current ethical interest and any resources associated with it. Your task is to consider how the ethical

theory of the week might be used to examine, understand, or evaluate the issue.

 Discussion 1

This week our main discussion will focus on explaining and evaluating  the theory of virtue ethics as discussed in Chapter 5 of the textbook.  Your instructor will be choosing the discussion question and posting it  as the first post in the main discussion forum. The requirements for the  discussion this week include the following:

  • You must begin posting by Day 3 (Thursday).
  • You must post a minimum of four separate posts on at least three  separate days (e.g., Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, or Thursday,  Friday, and Sunday, or Thursday, Saturday, and Monday, etc.).
  • The total combined word count for all of your posts, counted together, should be at least 600 words, not including references.
  • You must answer all the questions in the prompt and show evidence of  having read the resources that are required to complete the discussion  properly (such as by using quotes, referring to specific points made in  the text, etc.).

Discussion: The Experience Machine

Discussion 1 & Discussion 2

To ensure that your initial post starts its own unique thread, do not  reply to this post. Instead, please click the “Reply” link above this  post.

Please read the general discussion requirements above, as well as the  announcements explaining the discussion requirements and answering the  most frequently asked questions. If you are still unsure about how to  proceed with the discussion, please reply to one of those announcements  or contact your instructor.

Please carefully read and think about the entire prompt before  composing your first post. This discussion will require you to have  carefully read Chapter 5 of the textbook, as well as the assigned  portions of Aristotle’s (1931) Nicomachean Ethics.

If you recall from Week 2/Chapter 3, John Stuart Mill (2008) defines  happiness as the experience of pleasure and the avoidance of pain, which  means that happiness is very much a matter of how I feel “on the  inside”. However, Aristotle (1931) holds a rather different view of  happiness (or in his terms, “eudaimonia”).

One way that we think about this difference is to conduct a “thought  experiment” in which we imagine that we have certain “inner”  experiences, but outwardly things are quite different. One such thought  experiment is provided by the philosopher Robert Nozick in his  description of the “experience machine”:

“Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any  experience you desired. Superduper neuropsychologists could stimulate  your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great  novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time  you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your  brain…Of course, while in the tank you won’t know that you’re there;  you’ll think it’s actually happening…Would you plug in? What else can  matter to us, other than how our lives feel from the inside?” (Nozick,  1974, p. 43)

In the course of the week’s discussion, you will need to do the following (not necessarily in this order):

1. Engage with the text:

Using at least one quote from the assigned texts, explain Aristotle’s  notion of eudaimonia. Then, discuss whether Aristotle would consider  someone hooked

up to the experience machine to be “happy” in the sense captured by that notion of eudaimonia.

2. Reflect on yourself:

If you had the chance to be permanently hooked up to the experience  machine, would you do it? Explain your choice. For example, if you would  not hook up, you may discuss the kinds of goods or aims that would be  lost by hooking up, or you may discuss the core, essential features of  your life (or of human life in general) that are undermined by being in  such a state.

3. Reflect on human life:

Based on your response, do you think that we can describe aspects of a  telos (in Aristotle’s sense) that applies to humanity in general, or at  least most people? Correspondingly, could there be a difference between  feeling happy and being happy? Do you think that people can be wrong  about happiness? (Notice that this isn’t asking whether there are  different ways in which people can find happiness; it’s asking whether  some of those ways could be mistaken.)

Discussion 2

Discussion 1 & Discussion 2

In the Ancient Greek world (the world of Socrates, Plato, and  Aristotle, often regarded as the birthplace of philosophy) a “symposium”  was a banquet held after a meal, an “after party” of sorts that usually  included drinking, dancing, recitals and engaging conversations on the  topics of the day.

For our purposes in this course, the Symposium discussions will not  involve dancing, recitals or a banquet, but they will provide food for  thought on current ethical issues and direct application of the ethical  theory discussed in each of these weeks.

It is almost impossible these days to turn on the news or log onto  social media without encountering a controversy that cries out for  ethical discussion. For these Symposium discussions, your instructor  will choose a topic of current ethical interest and a resource  associated with it for you to read or watch. Your task is to consider  how the ethical theory of the week might be used to examine, understand  or evaluate the issue.

This week, you will consider how virtue ethics applies to a  controversy, dilemma, event, or scenario selected by your instructor. It  is a chance for you to discuss together the ethical issues and  questions that it raises, your own response to those, and whether that  aligns with or does not align with a virtue ethics approach. The aim is  not to simply assert your own view or to denigrate other views, but to  identify, evaluate, and discuss the moral reasoning involved in  addressing the chosen issue.

Your posts should remain focused on the ethical considerations, and  at some point in your contribution you must specifically address the way  a virtue ethicist would approach this issue by explaining and  evaluating that approach.

If you have a position, you should strive to provide reasons in defense of that position.

o ensure that your initial post starts its own unique thread, do not  reply to this post. Instead, please click the “Reply” link above this  post.

Please read the description above and/or watch the video explaining  the symposium and its requirements. If you are still unsure about how to  proceed with the discussion, please contact your instructor.

This week, we will consider how virtue ethics applies to the entertainment industry (broadly speaking).

Please watch or review your  favorite movie.  How is virtue displayed in any of the characters?  Many  movies often have an element of revenge woven into the story line.  Is  revenge a virtue or a vice? 

Your approach to this symposium discussion can be a bit more  open-ended than the main discussion, remembering that our main goal is  to work together to identify the main ethical questions and  considerations, evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the reasons for  different positions one might hold, and come to a better understanding  of virtue ethics.

 You must post on at least two separate days, must include at least one  substantial reply to a peer or to your instructor, and your posts should  add up to at least 400 words. 

5 Virtue Ethics: Being a Good Person

Hero Images Inc./Hero Images/SuperStock

Learning Objectives

After reading this chapter, you should be able to:

• Explain the core features of a virtue-based moral theory.

• Describe the notion of a telos and how that informs how people should act in particular situations.

• Explain the Aristotelian concept of happiness and what makes it unique.

• Identify and explain the core features of a virtue as defined by Aristotle.

• Identify Aristotle’s cardinal virtues and explain their importance in a flourishing life.

• Discuss objections that claim that virtue ethics is self-centered, doesn’t provide adequate guidance, and reinforces prejudices.

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Section 5.1 Introduction

Whatever you are, be a good one.


5.1 Introduction In Chapter 1 we described ethics as the act of seek- ing answers to the question “How should one live?” The answers examined in the previous two chap- ters focused almost exclusively on accounts of what one should do. Utilitarianism holds that one should do those actions that have the best overall conse- quences relative to the alternatives and refrain from those that do not. Deontological ethics holds that one should do those actions that are right in themselves and refrain from those that are wrong in themselves, regardless of the consequences. In other words, we have a duty to do or not do certain actions. Yet surely there is much more to living well than merely doing right things and avoiding wrong ones.

In fact, we may find ourselves thinking that the rea- son we ought to do certain things and avoid others is because this is integral to something more fun- damental—namely, being a good person. The quote that launched this chapter seems to capture this idea. Our lives are varied and complex. We occupy many different roles and have a multitude of inter- ests and commitments. We are beings that don’t simply make choices but have emotions, instincts, and desires. We aren’t simply minds; we are also animals and bodies. We aren’t merely individu- als, but members of families, communities, teams, clubs, cultures, traditions, and religions. Whatever it is that characterizes our lives in these multifac- eted ways, we want to be good.

But is this merely a matter of doing the right thing, or is it more a matter of being a certain way, as the phrase “We want to be good” suggests? If so, then we might be inclined to think of ethics—the search for answers regarding how one should live—as per- taining more to the kinds of people we ought to be than simply what we ought to do, and in particular to what constitutes good character. This is one of the fundamental ideas behind virtue ethics.

Allegory of the Virtues, c. 1529, Coreggio; 4X5 Collection/Superstock

Allegory of the Virtues by Antonio da Correggio (1489–1534). In the middle sits Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom. The figure on the lower left is surrounded by symbols of the four cardinal virtues: the snake in her hair symbolizes practical wisdom, the sword in her right hand symbolizes justice, the reins in her left hand symbolize temperance, and the lion skin symbolizes courage. The figure to the right is often interpreted as representing intellectual virtue.

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Section 5.2 What Is Virtue Ethics?

5.2 What Is Virtue Ethics? Let’s review the way that we distinguished ethical theories in Chapter 1. We can regard human actions as consisting of three parts:

1. The nature and character of the person performing the action. 2. The nature of the action itself 3. The consequences of the action

The main difference between moral theories has to do with which part they believe to be most important when thinking about ethics. The three moral theories can thus be distin- guished in this way:

1. Virtue ethics focuses on the nature and character of the person performing the action. 2. Deontological ethics focuses on the action itself. 3. Consequentialism focuses on the consequences of the action.

Virtue ethics maintains that the most important consideration for morality is first and fore- most what it means to be a good person, which is described in terms of possessing certain character traits that enable us to live well. These character traits are called virtues.

Generally, when we say that someone or something is good or doing well, we have some idea of what that person or thing is supposed to do; in other words, we understand its function or purpose. For instance, if we call something a good car, then it must be running well, by which we mean that the engine is humming, it drives smoothly, it can get you from point A to point B without trouble, and so on. This is because the purpose of the car is to be a reliable form of transportation. If the tires aren’t aligned or the radiator leaks, then the car as a whole won’t be running well and we won’t say that it’s a good car. If the car is used for racing, then a good car must also be fast and have good handling. If the car is used for transporting children, then

it must have certain safety features. If one’s car is a status symbol, then it may need to be flashy, unique, or expensive. Whatever the purpose, a good car has to have its parts working in harmony, doing what they are supposed to be doing, each contributing to how the whole functions.

Similarly, when we say that a student is doing well in school, we mean he or she is learning concepts and skills, behaving in appropriate ways, earning good grades, and so on. If the student is learning but not getting good grades, getting good grades but misbehaving, or getting good grades but not learning much, then we would be reluctant to say the student is doing well in school. To succeed in school and to be a good student, one must have the discipline needed to complete the required work,

be able to internalize and process the information that is given, have the commitment to per- severe when things are difficult, and maintain an open mind when confronted with new and challenging ideas. Otherwise, he or she will be unable to succeed as a student.

Transtock/SuperStock While the virtues of this car might make it well-suited to racing, it would certainly not be a good choice for a family with young children.

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Section 5.3 Virtues and Moral Reasoning

What does this have to do with ethics? If ethics is concerned with how one should live, the conception of what it means to live well will be concerned with more than simply the kind of world I should strive to bring about or the actions I should or should not do. For a car to run well, it needs certain qualities that enable it to fulfill its function in the ways described. Simi- larly, for students to do well in school, they need certain qualities that enable them to fulfill their goals. These would be the virtues of a car and of a student, respectively. In the same way, we might speak of the qualities that enable a person to live well as a whole and to flour- ish as a human being. These qualities are what we call the moral virtues. So virtue ethics is concerned with two questions: What does it mean for a person to live well and to flourish? and What are the virtues needed for this?

These ideas should be familiar. We often speak of the courage of someone fighting a disease, and we are impressed by the kindness of a neighbor or the generosity of a relative, the patience of a schoolteacher and the sense of justice of an activist, the self-control that a former addict has developed after years of struggle, or the wisdom of a rabbi. Moreover, we can easily see how these qualities are connected to an idea of living well, whether in light of the function or purpose of particular roles like neighbor, teacher, and rabbi, or in light of a sense of overall health and well-being.

Virtue ethics begins with the fact that we seem to have ideas about what a well-lived life involves, what kinds of qualities are admirable, and what sort of behavior people with these qualities will exhibit. The task of ethics, on this view, is to help us refine these ideas, resolve conflicts among them, and explore their implications.

Our source for these ideas will be the Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BCE), particularly his book, Nicomachean Ethics, in which he declared that the aim of studying eth- ics is not to gain knowledge but to become better people (Aristotle, 1931, 1103b). But before considering his ideas, let’s first get a broad sense of what moral reasoning looks like accord- ing to virtue ethics.

5.3 Virtues and Moral Reasoning Virtue ethics does not involve the straightforward process of applying an independent prin- ciple to determine the right action in a given circumstance, as we might find in utilitarianism or deontology. Rather, it emphasizes the qualities of character that we need in order to make good choices in each specific situation, which means that the process of making such choices cannot be reduced to an abstract procedure or recipe. For this reason, some people have dif- ficulty understanding how it applies to concrete problems. Moreover, there are many differ- ent forms of virtue ethics, just as there are many different forms of consequentialist ethics and deontological ethics. However, by focusing on Aristotelian virtue ethics, we can identify a general feature of its approach to moral reasoning—namely, its teleological form.

To call moral reasoning “teleological” means it draws on a notion of the human telos—the end, purpose, or function of a person’s life, or what kind of person one should be. It is in terms of the human telos that we understand what a good human life is, and this understanding

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Section 5.3 Virtues and Moral Reasoning

informs an account of the virtues and choices a good person would make in particular circumstances.

This notion of the telos may be tied to a social role, expressing what it means to be a parent, doctor, friend, and so on. It may also reference the ideals and ends specific to a particular person, such as aspirations, religious or spiritual commitments, or loves and passions. It also frequently draws on deeper ideas about human nature—what it means to be a rational agent, a finite being, one who forms communities and relationships, is dependent and vulnerable, and so forth. All of these qualities factor into a sense of what it means to be fulfilled, whole, and living well.

In light of understanding the telos we can reason about the virtues that are needed to live well, such as the trustworthiness one needs to be a good friend or the courage one needs to be a good soldier. We can then reason about the choices one should make if one is to be a trustworthy friend or a courageous soldier. While certain rules and principles may inform our reasoning, doing the right thing—that is, doing what a trustworthy friend or courageous soldier would do—is not a mere matter of following rules and principles. Rather, it involves reasoning about the goods of friendship, military service, and human life itself and how best to live those out.

Virtues and Skills

It is often helpful to understand the teleological account of moral reasoning by comparing it with the exercise of practical skills, like mathematics, playing an instrument or a sport, or cooking, especially considering the development of expertise.

Someone learning a new skill will start by following certain procedures, such as the rules for multiplying two numbers or how to hold a tennis racket. The point of these rules is to enable us do math or play tennis well, so we also begin to develop a sense of what it is that gives those rules their point; that is, the ends and goods of that activity. In time, these rules become second nature. Participating in this activity no longer involves thinking about such details, but focusing on more advanced ones. Things that the beginner has to consciously think about become second nature to the expert, and this must be the case if one is to grow and develop. Moreover, the expert may even come to recognize when some of those rules need to be broken or modified in order to fulfill the ends of that activity. Thus, the expert’s choices can be rational even when she isn’t thinking about them or even when she contravenes certain rules or procedures, and this is because of how her choices relate to the ends and goods of that activity. This is what makes the rationality of these activities teleological.

Ethical reasoning works much the same way. Moral rules and principles have an important place in helping us live a good human life and become the sort of people we ought to be, which gives them their rationality. But following rules is insufficient; one must strive to see the goods at which they aim and to develop the virtuous character needed to fulfill those goods. Virtue ethics tries to uncover and explain how this sense of purpose can factor into a rational conception of how to live, including whether and to what extent we can reason about how anyone should live.

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Section 5.3 Virtues and Moral Reasoning

Think about the various features of your life. You may be a father, mother, husband, or wife. Perhaps you are in the military, in sales or management, work with kids, or work in something hands-on like construction or repair. You may be involved in professions such as healthcare, social work, or religious ministry. You may have various interests or hobbies such as sports, music, or art. Since you are reading this text, you are most likely a student. What qualities do you need to be successful at each of these activities?

Even if you are not personally involved in certain activities, you might be interested in many of them as a consumer or as someone affected by the choices of others. You go to doctors, you follow sports, you are impacted by what our military is doing, you vote for politicians, you call plumbers or electricians, or you attend a church. What qualities do you expect of those who are engaged in activities that affect your life?

For instance, to be a good soldier one needs courage, loyalty, and integrity. To be a good parent one needs patience and care. To be a good student one needs discipline and open- mindedness. To be a good friend, one needs honesty and faithfulness. To be a good nurse, one needs sensitivity and empathy.The list could go on and on.

The character traits in red are the virtues needed to be a good soldier, parent, and so on. What kinds of actions do these virtues call for in various circumstances?

What does courage mean on the battlefield versus in the barracks? How do we balance loyalty and integrity when they conflict? Does having patience as a parent mean we never get angry at our children, or are there appropriate times and ways to express anger? Does caring for the sick mean doctors or nurses limit themselves to the activity of healing, or must they respect the patient’s wishes when that may conflict with healing? How does the dedication and dis- cipline needed to be a good student weigh against the care and thoughtfulness needed to be a good spouse, especially with limited hours in the day? If these activities involve a balance between different aims, what is that balance?

Most people would agree that there are no hard and fast rules or principles that can answer all of the questions we and others encounter in the course of trying to be the best parent, soldier, student, or healthcare worker one can be. However, we can still provide reasons why certain virtues are important and what a virtuous person would do in certain situations.

For instance, we noted earlier that a good student needs virtues like discipline and an open mind to achieve the goods of education. In light of the fact that a good student aims not just to get a good grade but to gain knowledge and understanding, we could add the virtue of hon- esty to that list, for without it one cannot fulfill that aim. When faced with a situation in which one can successfully cheat, the honest student will recognize that this may result in a higher grade but will undermine the goods of knowledge and understanding. Based on this reason- ing, he or she will recognize that the ethical choice is to not cheat.

It is important to note that we are not starting from scratch in trying to understand what virtue is or by articulating what kinds of decisions virtuous people would make in particular circumstances. We already have a basic understanding of these ideas before we start think- ing about them at a deep, philosophical level. Philosophical inquiry can help us clarify these ideas; it can help us expose and work through weaknesses and inconsistencies. It enables

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Section 5.4 The Nicomachean Ethics

us to address challenges that arise from alternative views, difficult questions, and dilemmas, and helps us resist the power that mere personal desire, tra- ditional or established assumptions, or prevailing cultural trends can have over our own sense of how one should live.

As we mentioned previously, our main source for such philosophical investigations into virtue is the Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. Although he lived and wrote almost 2,500 years ago, his ideas remain familiar and relevant to us today. We now turn to his text.

5.4 The Nicomachean Ethics Start by reading Book I of Nichomachean Ethics in the Primary Sources section at the end of the chap- ter and come back to this point in the chapter.

Book I: The Human Telos Aristotle starts his discussion of ethics not with an account of right and wrong, but by describ- ing what we aim at in living our everyday lives. Think for a moment about various decisions you made today. Why did you choose to do one thing over another? You may have chosen to get up at a certain time, eat certain things for breakfast, do certain chores, take a certain route to work, and at some point you decided to sit down and read this book.

Aristotle’s first observation is that when we make choices, we have some reason for doing so. Whatever our reasons, there is something all of our decisions seem to have in common: we consider them to be, in some way, good.

Now, you may be thinking, “I’ve made lots of bad choices, including some that I knew were bad when I made them. So Aristotle can’t be right.” But perhaps the “bad” choice was intended to bring you immediate gratification or to avoid some pain, even if you knew that it was only momentary and would lead to more problems later. Or perhaps you simply misjudged a situ- ation and made a choice that turned out worse than you hoped. In either case, though, wasn’t there some sense in which your choice was aimed at something good? If we think it was a bad choice, then it may be because it seemed good but wasn’t actually good, or it wasn’t good overall.

If this is correct, then it suggests that when we make choices, we are, indeed, aiming at some- thing good. This reflection leads us to a further question: what is good? What should we be aiming at when we make choices?

PanosKarapanagiotis/iStock/Thinkstock Aristotle, an ancient Greek philosopher.

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Section 5.4 The Nicomachean Ethics

As we discussed previously, we often aim at a good connected to some sort of identity, role, or function; sometimes it has to do with one’s private and personal life, such as one’s interests and hobbies; and sometimes it connects to an overall sense of health and well-being. In such cases, the good choice is the one that helps us to be a good parent or friend, fulfill God’s will for us, promote justice, live healthy, and so on, while the bad choice is one that hinders this goal.

However, two difficulties arise. First, how do we know whether our aims, especially those associated with a particular role or personal commitment, are genuinely good? We know that one can be really good in a certain role yet be a thoroughly rotten person. Take the example of Adolf Eichmann, a man who was fantastically good at his job, had all of the qualities needed to do well, and was admired and praised by his colleagues and superiors. His role? To round up and exterminate Jews in Nazi Germany (Arendt, 1963).

Ethics FYI

Aristotle Aristotle was a student of Plato and went on to become one of the most important figures in Western history. Aristotle invented the study of logic, made contributions to the natural sciences (especially physics and biology) that dominated scientific studies for nearly 2,000 years, and his metaphysical views had a tremendous impact on the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic religious traditions. He also tutored the famous Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great and established an important school in Athens call the Lyceum.

Aristotle’s influence on the ancient world was tremendous, and most of the philosophical debates in the centuries following his death had to contend with his ideas, either by showing how certain views were consistent with his or by attempting to refute him. However, for reasons we don’t entirely know, a great many of his writings were lost in the early part of the Common Era. What survived were, for the most part, not Aristotle’s own writings themselves, but notes and summaries that his students took of his lectures at the Lyceum. For hundreds of years, these were preserved mostly in eastern Europe and the Middle East until they were rediscovered by Western Europeans around the 12th century as the period known as the Dark Ages was drawing to a close.

The Nicomachean Ethics is not the only work containing Aristotle’s ethical teaching, but it is certainly the most well-known and influential. Aristotle had a son named Nicomachus, and historians speculate that the Nicomachean Ethics was probably either compiled by his son or dedicated to him. Either way, the legacy of this work, as with much of his thought, cannot be overstated. However, it is also important to note that virtue ethics is not to be strictly identified with Aristotle’s ethics, any more than utilitarianism should be identified with John Stuart Mill’s ideas or deontology with Immanuel Kant’s. For one thing, utilitarians like Mill, deontologists like Kant, and many others who depart from Aristotle’s views in important ways have nevertheless recognized the importance of virtue and incorporated it into their broader ethical systems. Second, Aristotle held views that many people today find objectionable, particularly regarding women and slavery. For this and many other reasons, even those who have been heavily influenced by Aristotle end up going beyond him.

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Section 5.4 The Nicomachean Ethics

Second, many of us often find it difficult to balance our various roles and ambitions, even when there is no question as to whether they are worthwhile. How should we decide whether to prioritize our responsibilities as a student or a parent when the two conflict? Similarly, within a society there are many different roles and occupations, not to mention cultures, com- mitments, backgrounds, and preferences. Is there some overall aim, or telos, in terms of which we can evaluate the merits of particular aims, balance the goods in our own lives, and recog- nize ethical standards that we all have in common?

Aristotle says yes: we all aim for happiness.

Happiness: More Than a Feeling Aristotle (1931) poses the following observation and question:

If . . . there 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 (for at that rate the process would go on to infinity, so that our desire would be empty and vain), clearly this must be the good and the chief good. Will not the knowledge of it, then, have a great influence on life? Shall we not, like archers who have a mark to aim at, be more likely to hit upon what is right? . . . Most people] say that it is happiness, and identify living well and faring well with being happy. (1094a, 1095a)

Aristotle describes happiness as the chief good at which all of our activities aim and proposes that understanding what happiness is will allow us to “hit the mark” when seeking to make good choices. However, his final remark that “being happy” is identified with “living well and faring well” presents a contrast to what this term often means to us today.

Think about what springs to mind when you hear the word happiness. You may think of hap- piness as a good feeling, like that which we get when we hear good news, when we’re with people we love, or are doing something we enjoy. It may conjure up the kind of personal sat- isfaction or contentment that we strive for by reading self-help books, going to therapists, or attending an uplifting religious service. You may think of it in the way it is meant when we say things like, “I don’t personally agree with her choices, but if it makes her happy, who am I to say there’s anything wrong with it?”

In this sense, “happiness” would mean something internal and very personal, having to do with pleasure, inner peace, or the satisfaction of inner desires and goals. While Aristotle would acknowledge that this is important, it is not quite what he means by the term. Rather, if we carefully consider the idea that happiness is the ultimate aim of human life (or “chief end,” as Aristotle calls it), we realize that it has to be more than simply how someone feels about their life. What we all want, says Aristotle, is a life that is truly flourishing, which in Greek is called eudaimonia. This is far more than feeling good, far more than satisfying our personal desires or goals, and even more than achieving a sense of satisfaction and contentment, for we could have all these things and not have a life that one could truly say was going well.

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Section 5.4 The Nicomachean Ethics

To get a sense of the difference between Aristotle’s notion of eudaimonia and the common notion of happiness as merely an inner feeling or sense of personal satisfaction, imagine a life of little more than such experiences and consider whether that life could be called truly well lived. For instance, drug addicts are known to be willing to give up anything and every- thing for their next high, sacrificing family, career, and health to attain that blissful, feel-good moment as often and as long as possible. If happiness really is just a matter of feeling good or experiencing what you happen to consider pleasant and enjoyable, then it would stand to reason that someone who is able to experience a constant state of drug-induced high would be the happiest person around; yet we would generally say quite the opposite about such a person, especially when that state involves complete oblivion to the world around them, such as the ravaging of his or her body or the suffering of his or her family as a result of such a condition. Is this what we would consider to be human flourishing? Is that permanent state of bliss what we have in mind when we think of what we all strive for?

Instead, what Aristotle has in mind is that we aim to be the sort of person about whom others would ultimately say, “this person lived a good life.” Maybe you have had a grandmother like

Ethics and Politics

Aristotle describes the study of ethics and the well-lived life as “politics” or “political science” (Aristotle, 1931, 1094b). This may initially sound strange to us, since we often think of politics as concerned with how governments should function, what laws should be in place, and so on. We often think that politics should be kept separate from the “private” sphere in which we pursue the things that make us happy. Indeed, on many contemporary accounts the main function of government is to ensure people as much freedom as possible to discover and pursue their own personal vision of the good life. Aristotle’s use of the term politics to describe the way we form and revise an understanding of what the good life actually is would seem to be quite different than our modern conception.

While it may be the case that we have good reason to limit the extent to which governments get involved in legislating around particular views of happiness, the idea behind Aristotle’s word choice is that living a human life and living it well is shaped through our relations with others. Before we begin to think reflectively about our individual lives, we have already been formed and shaped by our families and communities. Our identities depend in part on how we relate to others. We are never merely individuals but are also mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, friends, neighbors, citizens, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, Republicans, Democrats, and so on. We are dependent on others and vice versa. We work together, strive toward common goals, and experience each other’s suffering and joy.

If this is true, then any account of what it means to live a flourishing life cannot be simply a private matter. Just as it initially emerges through our relations with others, it must continually be developed and refined through them. So when Aristotle talks about the inquiry into happiness and living well as “political science,” he means that, as social beings (Aristotle, 1931, 1097b), we are inquiring into the flourishing of a life that is lived out in common with others, that the most important goods that we pursue are common goods, and thus we need to deliberate with others about what it means to live well.

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Section 5.4 The Nicomachean Ethics

that, or you might be thinking of a community or religious leader, or someone you have read about in a history class. Often in such cases the person has decidedly not lived a life of bliss; in fact, it is typically the way in which they overcame hardships and persevered in the pursuit of some noble purpose outside of themselves that leads us to hold them up as examples of well- lived lives. So Aristotle urges us to move beyond the immediate ideas we might have about happiness and examine more deeply what it means to talk about “a life lived well,” especially in light of examples of those we admire. How might we characterize such a life?

The Flourishing Life It is important to point out that Aristotle recognizes a limit to how specific and concrete an account of eudaimonia can be; the best we can do, as he says repeatedly, is to provide an account “roughly and in outline” (Aristotle, 1931, 1094b). Having said that, we remember first that Aristotle identified happiness as the ultimate telos, and to understand the telos of something like a wolf, student, parent, athlete, or human being we must identify its charac- teristic activity. In other words, to flourish as a human being—to be truly happy—is to be performing well those activities characteristic of humans (as distinguished from other kinds of creatures). So what is this characteristic activity of human lives? What is it that most deeply captures our humanness?

Let’s look at a passage in which Aristotle (1931) describes what this function or characteristic activity of human life involves:

Life seems to be common even to plants, but we are seeking what is peculiar to man. Let us exclude, therefore, the life of nutrition and growth. Next there would be a life of perception, but it also seems to be common even to the horse, the ox, and every animal. There remains, then, an active life of the ele- ment that has a rational principle. . . . Now if the function of man is an activity of soul which follows or implies a rational principle . . . and the function of a good man to be the good and noble performance of these, and if any action is well performed when it is performed in accordance with the appropriate excellence: if this is the case, human good turns out to be activity of soul in accordance with virtue, and if there are more than one virtue, in accor- dance with the best and most complete. But we must add ‘in a complete life.’ For one swallow does not make a summer, nor does one day; and so too one day, or a short time, does not make a man blessed and happy. (1098a)

There are a few key points that we should take away from this passage.

First, happiness is an activity. Sometimes, especially when we associate happiness too strongly with a positive inner feeling, we like to think that happiness is something like loung- ing on the beach and doing nothing. But if we compare the flourishing of a human life to flour- ishing in particular roles, we recognize the importance of activity. We wouldn’t say a running back is flourishing if he is just sitting on the sidelines or that a musician is flourishing if she never picks up an instrument. Similarly, a flourishing, happy life is one in which a person is actively living in a way that fulfills his or her potential. In this sense, when we are striving for

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Section 5.4 The Nicomachean Ethics

happiness we aren’t striving after some sort of condition whereby we attain it and then stop. Rather, Aristotle’s view of happiness is that of a continuous, ongoing activity.

Second, happiness is an activity of “soul which follows or implies a rational principle.” Unlike non-human animals whose behavior is largely a matter of instinct and reaction to stimuli, humans have the capacity to consciously reflect on who we are and what we are doing, to take a stand on what we believe to be good and true, and to base our lives and decisions on that. Therefore, exercising that capacity by living a reflective life that continually seeks to orient itself toward the good is superior to a life that is unreflective or concerned only with enjoy- ment or the satisfaction of desires.

Are there other characteristic functions of human life that we could include as part of a general definition of happiness? Some possibilities suggested by philosophers have included living in community, forming relationships, aesthetic appreciation, creativity and play, justice and fair- ness, authenticity, and spirituality. Whatever account we give of the human telos, happiness will require nurturing and developing the kinds of characteristics needed for these areas of our lives to flourish. That is, happiness is not simply a matter of doing certain things, but being a certain way, which brings us to the last part of Aristotle’s definition of happiness—living “in accordance with virtue.” So we now turn to look more closely at the virtues themselves.

Book II: The Virtues Read Book II of Nichomachean Ethics in the Primary Sources section at the end of the chapter and come back to this point in the chapter.

Early in Chapter 6, Aristotle (1931) provides a general account of what a virtue is that should be familiar to us by now:

every virtue or excellence both brings into good condition the thing of which it is the excellence and makes the work of that thing be done well . . . There- fore, if this is true in every case, the virtue of man also will be the state of character which makes a man good and which makes him do his own work well. (1106a)

As we have seen from examples like a good car, student, athlete, musician, parent, and so on, we start by describing the telos of an entity or being (its role, function, or characteris- tic activity) and then uncover the qualities it needs to fulfill its telos well. We can think of the moral virtues as the qualities and characteristics that are essential to eudaimonia, or an overall happy and flourishing life of the sort we discussed earlier. That’s not to say that the moral virtues are independent of the virtues specific to being a good soldier, athlete, and so on. Indeed, to truly flourish in any of these roles and activities, one will need the moral virtues in addition to the virtues specific to that particular practice. So what are these moral virtues?

Aristotle lists four cardinal virtues, or those that are most important to a flourishing human life: courage, temperance, justice, and practical wisdom. There are many others that we may add, including honesty, generosity, benevolence, hope, love, patience, friendliness, and many that we might have an idea of without necessarily having the right words to describe.

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Section 5.4 The Nicomachean Ethics

We can observe, for instance, the importance that courage has in all areas of life. Obviously it is a highly important virtue to being a good member of the military. But good parents often need courage to face an unruly child, to stand up at a parent–teacher meeting, and so on. Being a good manager often requires courage to confront an employee or boss or to give a presentation at a meeting. People need courage to face illness, talk to the cute guy or girl at a party, try the strange dish one’s friend has lovingly prepared, or to risk one’s life to help a stranger in trouble.

Similar things can be said of how all of the other cardinal virtues are crucial for flourishing in particular roles and activities as well as in one’s life as a whole. As we said before, Aristotle (1931) believes there is a limit to how specific or precise one can be about the ultimate telos of human life, and so there is a corresponding limit to how precisely we can define or specify moral virtues. However, according to Aristotle, we can still say a lot of general things about those virtues. Let’s first look at how he defines virtue at the end of Chapter 6, after which we will break it down:

Virtue . . . is a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean, i.e. the mean relative to us, this being determined by a rational principle, and by that principle by which the man of practical wisdom would determine it. (Aristo- tle, 1931, 1107a)

A State of Character The first thing to be said of a virtue is that it is a “state of character,” or as Aristotle says in Chapter 1, a habit.

What do we usually mean when we describe something as a habit? Think about a habit in your own life, now or in the past. You might think of smoking, overeating, procrastinating, lying, checking social media, or cracking one’s knuckles. These behaviors are acquired over time by repeating similar kinds of action. In doing something repeatedly, it eventually becomes ingrained to the point that it feels like second nature; indeed, we often feel in some sense

controlled by our habits—they strongly effect our behavior, and breaking the habit involves a great deal of effort and discom- fort. For this reason, we are used to thinking of habits as bad things.

But habits can also be good things. Think of how teachers talk of developing good study habits. When a basketball player shoots free throws over and over again, he or she is try- ing to develop certain habits needed to play well. When people join the military, they have to go through basic training, which is essentially an attempt to replace bad hab- its with ones that are needed to be a good soldier. Students, athletes, and military per- sonnel need to have certain things ingrained

Wavebreakmedia Ltd/Wavebreak Media/Thinkstock Just as it’s important for children to develop healthy eating habits, it’s important for them to develop the good emotional and behavioral habits we call virtues.

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Section 5.4 The Nicomachean Ethics

in them to perform well and would be greatly hindered if they had to constantly struggle to perform their characteristic actions.

Similarly, in Aristotle’s view, not only can habits be good, but a well-lived life requires good habits, since that is what virtues are, while vices are bad habits. Honesty is a habit, and dis- honesty is as well. Generosity, courage, and all the other moral qualities that we admire in people are habits.

For instance, consider the following two cases:

1. On his way home after a night of heavy drinking, Bill spots someone trying to rob an old man on the street and risks his life to confront the robber and defend the old man. Later he barely remembers that and reckons that the whiskey and beer must have inhibited his usual sense of fear and caution, since he would never have been so bold otherwise.

2. On his way home after a night of studying, Brian spots someone trying to rob an old man on the street and risks his life to confront the robber and defend the old man. As a veteran of multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan with the Marines, Brian is no stranger to life-threatening situations and would not hesitate to do the same thing again.

While both of these people performed the same action, in the first case the action wasn’t natural; it did not flow from a deeply rooted characteristic in the way it did for the person in the second example.

If virtues are good habits, then we should expect that good behavior will normally feel good and bad behavior will normally feel bad, which is exactly how Aristotle describes things. The generous person enjoys giving to others, the honest person is pained at the thought of telling a lie, and the courageous person wants to aid her fellow soldier in trouble. The mark of a vir- tuous person is that his or her feelings are in harmony with his or her actions, and he or she gains pleasure through virtuous activity.

Moreover, as with any habit, becoming virtuous requires practice, repeatedly doing similar kinds of things until it becomes second nature. To become a good athlete or musician, one has to practice. Similarly, to become an honest student, a patient parent, a faithful spouse, or generous friend, one has to repeatedly make the same choices a virtuous person would make.

Lying in a Mean Aristotle defined virtue as “a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean, i.e. the mean relative to us” (Aristotle, 1931, 1107a). Aristotle meant that the states of character or habits that we call virtues exhibit some kind of quality, but neither too much nor too little of that quality. A virtue is thus an intermediate between two extremes—excess and defect—and virtuous action will express this kind of intermediate between extremes, sometimes called the golden mean. The best way to understand this is to consider some examples that focus on two of the cardinal virtues that Aristotle recognized: courage and temperance.

1. Courage Consider a quality like respect for potential harms and dangers, perhaps on the battlefield.

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Section 5.4 The Nicomachean Ethics

Too much fear of harm is the vice of cowardice. This is a pretty familiar idea. If a sol- dier runs away from battle and abandons his fellow soldiers the moment he hears gunfire, he is letting his fear of harm get in the way of being a good soldier, which sometimes requires a willingness to sacrifice life and limb. His overabundance of fear may also lead him to misjudge a situation and regard it as more dangerous than it really is.

But there is another side to this as well: Too little respect for harm and danger is also a vice. This is less familiar and doesn’t have a single term associated with it, but we can still recognize it. A soldier who runs into a firefight without any good reason, needlessly putting his life, the life of his fellow soldiers, and the mission at risk, is not displaying courage. We would call his behavior something like rashness or reckless- ness. Similarly, someone who fails to appreciate the risks and dangers of a situation isn’t courageous but rather exercising poor judgment.

Just the right amount of respect for potential harms and dangers is the true virtue of courage. Knowing when it is appropriate to put oneself at risk and how much risk to take is the exercise of that virtue. Moreover, we can see how essential this “right amount” is to fulfilling the telos of a good soldier.

2. Temperance Consider another characteristic of human life like one’s physical desires; let’s focus on eating habits as an example.

When one’s desire for food is too strong and one eats too much—especially the kinds of things that aren’t good to eat—we call this the vice of gluttony or overindulgence.

On the other hand, when one’s desire for food is too weak and one eats less than is healthy or too few of the kinds of foods that are important to health, we also recognize that there is a problem (though we don’t really have a proper term for this vice). Many children (and adults), for example, lack a desire for vegetables and do not eat enough of them to be healthy; people who eat too little overall may be anorexic.

Just the right amount with respect to what we eat and how much is called the virtue of temperance or moderation; or, simply, good eating habits (a term that reinforces the connection between virtue and habit). As we know, and as Aristotle himself acknowl- edges, our desires strongly affect our behavior (Aristotle, 1931). So it is important for us not to simply eat the right amounts of the right things, but for our desires to align with that. This is why many parents insist that children eat their vegetables and don’t indulge them every time they want a candy bar; the hope is that they will come to enjoy vegetables and crave sugar less often. We can also see how crucial temperance is to the flourishing and happiness of our lives as a whole, given the importance of bodily well-being.

Of course, our physical desires (and lack thereof) also extend to exercise, drugs, alco- hol, and sex. Accordingly, we should be able to talk about the ways in which too much or too little desire for such things, or desires that are oriented toward the wrong objects, can be detrimental to one’s health, relationships, community, career, and so on, while the right amount of these—the virtue of temperance—is essential to flour- ishing in these particular areas and in one’s life as a whole.

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Section 5.4 The Nicomachean Ethics

A Mean Relative to Us We have been considering Aristotle’s idea that a virtue is an intermediate between too much and too little of some quality and how exercising virtue makes a difference to one’s flourishing.

This raises the question of whether this “right amount” is exactly the same for all people in all situations. Aristotle said no: a virtue, according to his definition, lies in a mean relative to us. In other words, the intermediate between the extremes will vary depending on the person and the situation.

It is important to note that this idea of the “mean relative to us” is quite different from the kind of relativism about moral value that we discussed in Chapter 2. There we defined rela- tivism as the view that moral “truth” is relative to what an individual or culture happens to believe or value. Thus, if an individual or culture regards something as having a certain moral value (good or bad, right or wrong), then other individuals or those of other cultures can neither affirm nor deny these judgments. But this is not what Aristotle means when he says that the intermediate state that defines virtue is relative. What he means is that there is an objective truth regarding the right amount, but this can vary according to certain features of the particular situation.

This is best seen by looking at some examples. Let’s revisit the eating example. Take a look at this meal plan and think about whether it would be the daily diet of someone who eats too much, too little, or the right amount.

“Phelps’ Pig Secret: He’s Boy Gorge,” New York Post, August 13, 2008 (

How would the average person feel after a day of this diet?

Breakfast Lunch Dinner

• Three fried-egg sandwiches with cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, fried onions and mayonnaise.

• An omelette — containing five eggs. • A bowl of grits. • Three slices of French toast, with powdered sugar on top.

• Three chocolate chip pancakes. • Two cups of coffee.

• Half a kilogram of enriched pasta. • Two large ham and cheese sandwiches on white bread with mayo.

• Energy drinks (about 1,000 calories).

• Half a kilo of enriched pasta. • A whole pizza. • Energy drinks (about 1,000 calories).

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Section 5.4 The Nicomachean Ethics

For most of us, this sort of diet would be far too much, and if we followed it we would be dan- gerously obese.

However, this diet was part of the actual routine of this person in 2008:

This was the diet of Michael Phelps, the great swim- mer who won 28 Olympic medals. Clearly this diet was the right amount for him, as he needed a tre- mendous number of calories to swim at the Olympic level. Moreover, a diet that would be temperate or the right amount for the rest of us would have been deficient for Phelps, failing to provide him the nec- essary energy and nutrition.

So temperance—eating the right amount of the right things—is relative in the sense that it would be different for someone like Michael Phelps than it would be for the rest of us. We can say the same thing about other situations as well: if I am trying to lose weight, then the right amount may be consid- erably different than if I am trying to regain weight after, say, cancer treatment. If I’m a Catholic monk and it is Lent (when many Catholic monks abstain from most foods), the right amount to eat will be different than if it is Easter (when they celebrate the resurrection of Christ with great feasting).

But notice that in such cases there is still an objec- tive fact as to what the right amount is, so it is not relative in the sense that any view is just as right as any other. Clearly for an Olympic-level swimmer like Phelps, eating like a monk during Lent would be bad; and if his coach were to say, “I personally believe that you should be eating more, but who am I to judge?” we would say he was a pretty bad coach.

Similarly, if an ordinary middle-aged man or woman happened to believe that subsisting on a diet like Phelps’s was good for them, we would say that they are wrong, and we would have good reasons for saying that.

We have been talking about the virtue of temperance, but we could say similar things about how the other virtues lie in an intermediate that isn’t the same for all people and all situa- tions but is relative to them. In the example of courage on the battlefield, we noted how the right amount of respect for potential harms and dangers depends on the circumstances— what one’s mission is, how important certain goals are relative to others, what the actual danger is, what role one plays, and so on. Since there is an endless number of variables that

AP Photo/David J. Phillip As an Olympic athlete, Michael Phelps had to eat a tremendous amount of food to provide his body with the fuel it needed to train and perform well.

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Section 5.4 The Nicomachean Ethics

could factor into a situation, it is impossible to anticipate everything that might happen and establish rules for all scenarios. But this doesn’t mean that there is no correct answer; there usually is a fact as to whether certain choices in battle are cowardly, rash, or expressing the intermediate state of courage.

How is the virtuous intermediate determined? Aristotle (1931) says it is “determined by a rational principle” (1107a).

Virtue Ethics and Moral Absolutes

We have distinguished virtue ethics from deontology, which is based in the notion of absolute duties. Unlike utilitarianism, according to which anything may potentially be morally justified if the consequences are good enough, the deontological view holds that certain actions should never be undertaken, no matter the consequences.

Virtue ethics emphasizes the importance of moral development and practical wisdom n dealing with the particular features of each situation rather than relying on a set of rules or principles that can be applied by anyone. Does this mean that virtue ethics is more like utilitarianism in the sense that there are no absolute duties or prohibitions, actions that would always be right or wrong to perform?

Not necessarily. While some virtue ethicists may deny that there are any absolute duties or prohibitions, others believe that there can be. Remember that a virtuous person will have reasons for what he or she chooses, and it is possible that there could never be a good enough reason for certain kinds of things. That is, some kinds of things are inherently contrary to even a minimal conception of virtue.

Aristotle, for one, thought this. He describes virtue as “hitting the mark” (Aristotle, 1931, 1106b) with respect to both feeling and action, which means that one avoids both excess and defect in choosing the intermediate. However, “not every action nor every [feeling] admits of a mean” (Aristotle, 1931, 1107a), he said. Some are bad in themselves, including feelings like spite, shamelessness, and envy, and actions like adultery, theft, and murder. “It is not possible, then, ever to be right with regard to them; one must always be wrong” (Aristotle, 1931, 1107a). There isn’t a good way to do such things distinguished from a bad way, as if we could speak of “committing adultery with the right woman, at the right time, or in the right way.” Rather, “simply to do any of them is to go wrong” (Aristotle, 1931, 1107a).

Later, the notion of the natural law developed among medieval Christian, Islamic, and Jewish thinkers, combining Aristotle’s views with the notion of divine laws and commands inherited from the religious traditions. They and their contemporary descendants argue that certain actions are inherently contrary to human nature, and, as such, are always wrong.

Determined by a Rational Principle For something to be determined by a rational principle means we should be able to account for why something was the right choice or why certain feelings and emotions are appropri- ate. On the Aristotelian view, this account will generally involve an implicit, and sometimes

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Section 5.4 The Nicomachean Ethics

explicit, reference to the relevant good or telos of the activity, role, individual, or community in question.

As we have seen, when considering what it means to be a virtuous student, friend, soldier, or neighbor, we ask, what is their characteristic activity? What goods do they aim at, charac- teristically? What would constitute excellence or flourishing in that kind of activity, role, or relationship? Asking these kinds of questions is a way of asking about the telos of someone engaged in a particular practice.

Rationally determining the right thing to do, or more broadly, what the virtuous person would do, is a matter of asking these kinds of questions and attempting to answer them. Ultimately, though, to have a virtue like courage or temperance and to be able to make the right choices that express that virtue requires another virtue, namely practical wisdom, or in Greek, phronesis.

This is like the wisdom that a good coach must have when deciding what kind of diet an Olympic-level swimmer like Michael Phelps should follow. It is like the wisdom that a military commander must possess when determining how best to lead his or her team, how to effec- tively engage and defeat the enemy, or what kinds of things are off limits even if they would be effective. Practical wisdom is what parents must possess and exercise when trying to raise children to become good practical reasoners in their own right.

Notice that the need for wisdom in these areas is partly because there are no set procedures to follow that are sufficiently comprehensive and concrete to be a good coach, military com- mander, or parent. A computer could never be programmed to completely replace these roles, no matter how many lines of code are written, because a computer program does not under- stand the goods and values that are integral to the practice of a sport, the military, or parent- ing. A computer that can only do what it has been programmed to do lacks the capacity to adapt to situations in ways that draw on a deep understanding of meaning and value, which is characteristic of people with genuine wisdom (Dreyfus, 1992).

Similarly, a parenting book can help someone become a good parent, but ultimately the par- ent has to take that advice and adapt it to the particular circumstances and particular child, which requires wisdom. Rules and codes like those found in the Constitution, the Uniform Code of Military Justice, or in religious texts like the Bible or Koran likewise require wisdom for their application, which is why we need judges, commanders, pastors, and imams.

Aristotle describes three general characteristics of those with practical wisdom. First, the wise person acts with knowledge; they choose the acts for their own sake; and their choices, actions, and emotional responses proceed from a firm and unchangeable character. Let’s briefly consider each of these.

1. The virtuous and practically wise person acts with knowledge. Virtuous action isn’t accidental, nor is it mindless. Since virtues are habits, virtuous action can be automatic; however, that is not the same as saying that the virtuous per- son doesn’t know what he or she is doing. When a virtuous person acts from practical wisdom, she has good reasons for what she does. This doesn’t necessarily mean that

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Section 5.4 The Nicomachean Ethics

she is thinking about those reasons when she acts, but if asked later she could give an account of why she made particular choices.

2. The virtuous and practically wise person chooses the acts for their own sake. Is there a difference between a person who acts bravely to win a medal and one who does it because he sees the value in the brave action itself? Do we think that some- one who tells the truth because he is afraid of getting caught is worthy of the same admiration as someone who tells the truth out of a commitment to the importance of honesty and integrity? These examples point to the idea that virtuous people make decisions because they are good in themselves, rather than merely being good for the sake of something else.

3. The virtuous and practically wise person’s choices, actions, and emotional responses proceed from a firm and unchangeable character. When someone unexpectedly and uncharacteristically does something kind or coura- geous, we rightly praise what she does. But it is another thing to praise and admire who she is and say that she is a kind or courageous person. If someone is a kind or courageous person, he will consistently act kindly or courageously, and his character will be reflected in his feelings and emotional responses.

This last point is quite important, for it touches on an important way that virtue ethics differs from deontology and utilitarianism.

Virtues, Feelings, and Pleasure When we discussed the idea that virtues are habits, we noted how this means that the notion of a virtue concerns not simply how one behaves but also how one feels. When one has a habit one feels strongly inclined toward that behavior, and vice versa. Thus we often find it difficult to break bad habits or pick up good ones, but once we do, we begin to see our feelings and desires align with the new behavior. A person with good character feels pleasure at doing good things, whereas a person who lacks good character may find the same things painful or unpleasant.

This leads us back to the point that ethics and moral reasoning, in the Aristotelian view, involves more than just what we ought to do, but how we ought to feel. By contrast, Kant’s deontological approach maintained that morality is strictly concerned with duty, which rea- son alone determines; feelings and desires have nothing to do with the moral worth of an action.

However, consider these two cases:

1. Jennifer is a wealthy businessperson, while her brother Scott works for an organiza- tion that aids disabled veterans and makes very little money. Scott’s wife is suddenly stricken with breast cancer, and though they have medical insurance, the amount they must contribute to her treatment is far more than they can afford. Scott asks Jennifer if she can help financially so his wife can get treatment. Jennifer doesn’t want to, because she was planning to buy a new vacation home, and helping her

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Section 5.4 The Nicomachean Ethics

brother would require her to put that off for a few years. Grudgingly, however, she decides that it is her duty to help out a family member in need and writes a check that Scott can use to cover his wife’s medical bills.

2. Rhonda is a wealthy businessperson, while her brother Peter works for an organiza- tion that aids disabled veterans and makes very little money. Peter’s wife is suddenly stricken with breast cancer, and though they have medical insurance, the amount they must contribute to her treatment is far more than they can afford. Peter asks Rhonda if she can help so that his wife can get treatment. Rhonda immediately takes off work and flies to her brother’s house not only to pay for the treatment but to lend emotional support, help out around the house, and ease their burdens any way she can. When Peter worries that this may cut into her business profits, Rhonda dismisses this by saying she already has more than enough and that helping a fam- ily member deal with cancer is far more important than profit.

Whose action would we consider to have greater moral value, Jennifer’s or Rhonda’s? Many people would be inclined to say that while it’s good that Jennifer did the right thing, Rhonda’s actions are more worthy of admiration and esteem given that her feelings, attitude, and personal priorities aligned with the choice that she made. In the Aristotelian view, that judgment would be justified because of the ethical signifi- cance of emotions and feelings.

The ways we interact with and treat other people in the course of everyday life involve not just actions but attitudes. Emotions can be important ways to clue us in to something of moral significance and to be a check on the misuse of reason to “justify” something that would be unethical. We often praise or blame people not just for what they do but for their responses and reactions. For instance, we admire the person who takes delight in people with physical or mental handicaps rather than being uncomfortable or repulsed by them. Conversely, if a person delights in the unjust suffering of a person of another race, we would find that mor- ally reprehensible and blameworthy, even if they never actually did anything to cause suffering. All of this requires the cultivation of our emotions such that we will feel the right way at the right times.

Stoic Virtue Ethics

There was a school of philosophy called Stoicism that emerged in Greece not long after the time of Aristotle. It also emphasized the importance of virtue to a happy life. However, the Stoics departed from Aristotle’s view in some important ways. For one thing, Aristotle maintained the importance of external goods like health, adequate resources, a good family, the avoidance of misfortune, and even good looks (Aristotle, 1931). The Stoics denied this, insisting that if one has virtue, one needs nothing else for happiness. By controlling one’s desires and emotions and cultivating a calm equanimity, one can be subjected to any kind of misfortunate and not be fazed.

But this also means that they rejected the notion that strong feelings like anger could have a place in the virtuous life. To get angry is to allow oneself to be overcome by passion, which is the root of suffering and unhappiness.

Do you think that getting angry at certain times and in certain ways shows a lack of virtue, as the Stoics thought, or can it be a part of virtue like Aristotle believed? More broadly, is happiness merely a matter of one’s inner condition, or does it depend in part on external goods, even ones that are outside one’s control?

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Section 5.5 Objections to Virtue Ethics

Aristotle’s view also calls into question utilitarian assumptions about feelings and desires. In the Aristotelian account, there is no such thing as pleasure in itself. Rather, pleasure is always connected with some kind of activity. Since some activities are good and others bad, some pleasures will be good and others bad, depending on what kind of activity they are associated with. This conflicts with utilitarian views that regard pleasure as something that is inher- ently good and worth maximizing through our actions.

Similar remarks could be made about desires and feelings in general. Desires can be good when they are for the kinds of things that contribute to a good life, but they can be bad when they are for things that are detrimental to living well. Thus, moral and political principles that aim to maximize desire, satisfaction, or freedom of choice are not necessarily justified, since not every desire or preference is worthy of being promoted.

5.5 Objections to Virtue Ethics There are a number of problems and objections to virtue ethics that can be raised (Solomon, 1988), and we will address the most common and challenging of these here. The first is that, by taking the notion of character and flourishing as the central concept, virtue ethics might appear to be a self-centered theory, having us focus on ourselves rather than on others. The second is that virtue ethics does not adequately help us decide which choices are moral or immoral. Finally, the third is that morality, by this account, seems to be tied too closely to fac- tors like culture and upbringing, and thus fails to provide an objective account of ethics.

The Self-Centeredness Objection Virtue ethics, especially the Aristotelian approach, starts with an account of happiness or flourishing as the ultimate end and describes virtues as the traits we should strive to culti- vate in ourselves in order to flourish. Accordingly, it is sometimes thought that the primary concern is with oneself rather than with one’s responsibilities or with the world at large, making this approach ultimately self-centered. Why should I suppose that my primary ethi- cal concern be my own character if the only reason I am concerned with that is so I can be happy? Shouldn’t the primary focus of an ethical theory instead be the actions that we should or should not perform? Or if happiness factors in, shouldn’t it be the happiness of all and not just my own that determines what is moral?

It is important to clarify that this objection is not directed at the fact that virtue ethics regards individual happiness as important, nor is it to the importance that virtue ethics places on good character. Almost all ethical theories affirm the importance of both of these, including

Going Deeper: Pleasure and Pain

Aristotle’s view calls into question certain common assumptions about pleasure and pain. For more on the difference between Aristotelian and utilitarian conceptions of pleasure and desire, see Going Deeper: Pleasure and Pain: Aristotle vs. Utilitarianism at the end of the chapter.

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Section 5.5 Objections to Virtue Ethics

utilitarianism and deontology. The difference with virtue ethics is partly a matter of the prior- ity that individual happiness and good character have relative to other ethical factors, such as good consequences or the goodness of certain actions themselves.

A deontological theory will say that good character is important to reliably carry out one’s duties, and a utilitarian theory will say that good character is important to reliably make those choices that lead to the greatest overall good. But this means that these theories begin with an account of what we ought to do and define virtue or good character in terms of those qualities that will enable us to reliably carry this out, making this account of right action independent of the happiness or flourishing of the individual agent. By contrast, Aristotelians regard the notions of a flourishing life and good character to be more fundamental than an account of what we ought to do; we have to start with what it means to be a good person, and once we have an adequate sense of that, we can talk about what a good person would do.

The worry, then, is that virtue ethics gets its priorities backward. It seems to maintain that the ultimate reason we ought to cultivate virtue isn’t so we can reliably fulfill our moral duties or bring about the greatest happiness for everyone, but so that we can attain happiness, which makes it ultimately self-centered. Yet surely, we may think, morality often demands that we sacrifice our own happiness for the sake of duty or the happiness of all.

To see how the Aristotelian virtue ethicist might respond, we should first recall the distinc- tion between the more common notions of happiness and the notion of eudaimonia (flourish- ing, living well) that Aristotle identifies as the telos of human life. Many common notions that identify happiness with a positive subjective feeling, personal satisfaction, or the fulfillment of one’s personal desires and interests do indeed tend to be much more subjective and individu- alistic. But as we saw, Aristotle considered this to be mistaken: when we think of happiness in the sense of eudaimonia or our ultimate good, particular things like desires or pleasures are sometimes good, but sometimes not, depending on how they relate to that ultimate good.

In fact, someone who is merely concerned with what he or she wants or what makes him or her satisfied, when those are taken at face value, will almost certainly not be pursuing a flourishing life. This is because living well involves the flourishing of our lives as a whole, not simply the satisfaction of particular desires or interests, and a major part of what it is to be human involves our connections to other people and to the world. Our lives are lived out in communities; we have friendships and family relationships; we participate in hobbies, sports, and artistic activities; we have careers; we are members of organizations; and so on. Thus, most of our activities and pursuits are those in which we aim at common goods, those shared by many rather than just by individuals. In these and countless other areas of life, if we simply focused on ourselves—on our own profit, success, comfort, or desires—we would miss the point of the activity and would fail to live well and flourish. This is why we can say—as we often do—that if a friend, spouse, child, coworker, or neighbor is not doing well, we are not doing well.

Given these interconnections with others, a self-centered life cannot be a flourishing or happy one; accordingly, the virtues needed to flourish will call for choices and feelings that are beyond ourselves, even while they also contribute to our personal flourishing at the same time. Moreover, if we think about what it means to be courageous, honest, or generous, we often find that the kinds of lives we admire and hold up as examples of a well-lived life

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Section 5.5 Objections to Virtue Ethics

involve a willingness to sacrifice individual well-being for a greater cause. When one is committed to some higher good like justice, one’s family or nation, or one’s God, one’s identity becomes intertwined with that cause or purpose to the extent that sacrific- ing individual well-being for its sake is a ful- fillment of one’s telos rather than opposed to it. Accordingly, the Aristotelian would argue that the self-centeredness objection relies on a misunderstanding of what it means to take happiness and character as fundamental.

The Guidance Objection The second objection is that virtue ethics does not provide us with an adequate guide for making or evaluating moral choices. When we think about the dilemmas we face or the moral debates that rage around us, we may want an ethical theory to offer us a determinate, con- crete answer, and one that has objective validity. Both deontological and utilitarian theories (at least on some accounts) seem to be able to provide this through a clear deductive argu- ment. For example:

A Simple Deontological Argument

1. Stealing is wrong. 2. X is stealing. 3. Therefore, X is wrong.

A Simple Utilitarian Argument

1. Do that which results in the greatest happiness and the least unhappiness overall. 2. X would result in more happiness and less unhappiness overall than not doing X. 3. Therefore, X is wrong.

According to these views, as long as we have the right rule or principle in place (number 1 in each argument), we can plug in the relevant features of the situation (number 2) and get our “right answer” (number 3).

By contrast, because virtue ethics doesn’t offer a straightforward rule or principle that allows us to determine exactly what is to be done in a particular situation, some people think it is not very helpful as a theory of how we ought to live. It may seem rather vague to say that one should simply act courageously or do the generous thing, especially given the Aristotelian claim that one needs to be courageous or generous to reliably determine the right thing to do in a situation. What if we’re not sure what the virtuous thing would be in a situation? What if people disagree about whether a certain choice would be virtuous or not? Is it a weakness of virtue theory that it cannot provide a straightforward answer to such dilemmas?

Going Deeper: The Situationist Critique

Another reason some philosophers have objected to virtue ethics’ focus on character is that they question the very notion of character traits in the first place, especially the sort of settled dispositions that virtues are supposed to be. This is a view called situationism. See Going Deeper: The Situationist Critique at the end of the chapter for more.

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Section 5.5 Objections to Virtue Ethics

From a virtue ethics perspective, however, this can be seen as an advantage of the theory for three reasons.

First, we might question whether ethics is really a matter of finding principles that tell us what to do in every circumstance. Many people, when they study theories like utilitarian- ism or deontology, come away with the sense that each of these theories seems right some of the time but not all the time. Indeed, in the previous chapters, we considered cases in which each theory would seem to permit or require actions that intuitively seemed wrong, such as sacrificing an innocent life for the greater good in the case of utilitarianism or forbidding us to lie to the murderous Nazi in the case of deontology. Many people are attracted to the idea that morality involves bringing about as much good as possible, as the utilitarian would say. But often it seems that there are things we should do or not do regardless of the results, as the deontologist would say.

Virtue ethics tries to make sense of these puzzles. It maintains that sometimes the right thing to do might involve bringing about the best results and sometimes it might involve sticking to one’s sense of absolute right or wrong—but the people most equipped to make that judg- ment in each situation are those with good moral character. Knowing what is right in a cir- cumstance requires wisdom beyond the straightforward application of a rule or principle, wisdom gained from experience and a life in pursuit of the good.

Second, it’s not clear that we should want a moral theory to simply tell us the answers to moral questions; this might imply that to be good moral agents, we simply need to be adept at following procedures. Much of modern life involves this kind of proceduralist activity, and in the realms of science and mathematics the validity of certain findings is typically judged on the basis of the methods that were followed. In the age of computers and artificial intel- ligence, we are often confronted with machines that do many things humans used to do; they are programmed to process inputs in certain predetermined ways in order to produce out- puts (in the form of either information or action). So it is tempting to think of moral reasoning along these lines, with a moral theory providing a strict “program” for arriving at the right result. But long before computers, Aristotle (1931) had already argued that this would be a mistaken way to think about practical rationality (reasoning about what to do):

Precision is not to be sought for alike in all discussions . . . [It] is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits; it is evidently equally foolish to accept probable reasoning from a mathematician and to demand from a rhetorician scientific proofs. (1094b)

Aristotle means that different areas of inquiry involve different kinds of reasoning with differ- ent standards depending on their subject matter. In mathematics, the subject matter is abso- lute and unchanging; the standard for correctness is proof in the strongest possible sense. The natural sciences (physics, chemistry, biology) deal with objects that can change and so they cannot be as precise as mathematics. However, by following certain methods, they can achieve a high degree of probability with respect to their claims. It is not a deficiency of scien- tific investigation that it cannot produce answers to scientific questions with the same degree of proof as mathematics; to suppose so would be to misunderstand what natural science is, how scientific investigation works, and the nature of the objects of scientific investigation.

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Section 5.5 Objections to Virtue Ethics

But in similar fashion, Aristotelian virtue ethicists maintain that it would be a misunderstand- ing of what ethics is, how ethical inquiry works, and the nature of the objects of ethical inquiry to apply to it the methods and standards appropriate to either mathematics or the natural sci- ences. Ethics is like science but unlike mathematics in that it deals with objects that change (people are born, grow up, and die, societies come and go, etc.). Therefore, expecting ethical arguments to produce proofs of the sort appropriate to mathematics would be a mistake.

But in Aristotle’s view, the objects of ethics are also not like the objects of science. Scientists must take an impartial and disinterested approach to their investigation because their aim is to uncover facts that are independent of the way things matter to us. However, the objects of ethical inquiry—human choices, human relationships, the quality of human lives—are not impersonal but are suffused with meaning and value. While it doesn’t matter to a virus whether it kills others to survive, it matters very much to a human who may choose to do something similar. A meteor doesn’t choose to crash into Earth and cause massive destruc- tion, but there is a choice as to whether to drop an atomic bomb on a city. Stars don’t care whether or not they shine, but humans care whether or not they are living a flourishing life.

Accordingly, while the scientist has to distance herself from any meaning or value she associ- ates with the objects of her inquiry, we engage in ethical inquiry precisely because of the way things matter to us and the value they have. This means that ethical inquiry cannot attain the same degree of precision and confirmation of its conclusions that scientific inquiry can—but again, this isn’t a deficiency of ethical inquiry, any more than it is a deficiency of science rela- tive to mathematics that it cannot prove its conclusions. As Aristotle says, each area of inquiry has its own methods and standards appropriate to its objects, and so we shouldn’t hold an ethical theory to the standards of mathematics or science in the way that the guidance objec- tion seems to do.

Having said all of that, the third response that the Aristotelian might give to the guidance objection is to remind us that quite a lot can be said about what kinds of choices are better or worse and which positions have more rational justification than others, especially when we remember that ethical reasoning (on this view) is teleological. When confronted with a particular ethical dilemma, we consider the relevant roles or activities involved, we discuss and debate what it means to be good, what virtue means in that context, and whether cer- tain actions or policies would support or undermine flourishing as a parent, soldier, citizen, human, and so on. Reasoning in this way can certainly provide strong justification for particu- lar conclusions.

Nevertheless, there is a component to both the self-centeredness objection and the guidance objection that may not yet have been adequately addressed: the role that our own individual or cultural biases and prejudices play in moral reasoning. The self-centeredness objection was that virtue ethics prioritizes our own happiness or flourishing, which undermines the sense we have that ethics should be about what is good or right regardless of our own flour- ishing. We countered that by describing how an individual’s flourishing is intricately tied to the flourishing of other humans, their world, and the pursuit of higher goods beyond the indi- vidual. But one could still worry that this binds ethical reasoning too closely with the values of particular communities and cultures, and may lead us to favor the flourishing of our own group at the expense of others’ well-being, or to disregard certain duties when doing so ben- efits those to whom we have close connections.

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Section 5.5 Objections to Virtue Ethics

The guidance objection was partly concerned with how we can ensure that our own biases and prejudices do not unduly influence the results of our inquiries and deliberations. The response was to show that the methods and procedures designed to eliminate the influence of values and conceptions of meaning from mathematical and scientific inquiry don’t apply to ethical inquiry, which is essentially about value and meaning. But this leaves open the con- cern that the values and meanings we bring to ethical inquiry as a result of culture, tradition, or upbringing will prejudice the conclusions we reach.

Therefore, the common concern is that virtue ethics lacks an adequate explanation of how to reduce or eliminate undue bias and prejudice from an account of how one should live. It is to that third objection which we now turn.

The Prejudices Objection Perhaps the most prevalent and difficult objection to virtue ethics is the claim that it does not adequately allow for self-critique or the overcoming of prejudices, and it does not show us how moral knowledge and judgments can be objective. There are several features of the Aristotelian approach to ethics that lead to this objection. We have discussed how our under- standing of what the virtues are and how a virtuous person would act and feel are tied to an understanding of the good or the telos of particular roles and activities, and of human life as a whole. Moreover, we discussed how virtues are habits that must be developed over time by repeating virtuous actions. Therefore, as we seek to develop virtue in ourselves, it matters a great deal what kinds of people and actions we think exemplify virtue.

Added to this is the claim that all of this significantly depends on the way we were raised, such that people who were brought up well are much more likely to have the right understanding of the good and the right kinds of dispositions to flourish than those who were not brought up well. As Aristotle (1931) puts it, “It makes no small difference, then, whether we form habits of one kind or of another from our very youth; it makes a very great difference, or rather all the difference” (1103b). Finally, moral reasoning and moral choices are not reducible to the application of rules, principles, or procedures, but are much more akin to practical skills like playing an instrument or sport well or knowing how to cook a good meal. These choices rely on a certain intuitive know-how, and while the virtuous person must be able to account for why certain choices were good, it is not necessarily the kind of account that someone without virtue and practical wisdom will be able to understand or accept.

These features lead some critics to worry that our conceptions of flourishing and well-being, our understanding of what the virtues are and how a virtuous person would act in particular circumstances, and the dispositions that enable us to live well all depend on factors such as the culture in which we are brought up, how we were raised, the experiences we happen to have had, whether we adhere to a certain religious system, and so on. We are conditioned by such factors to have certain values and beliefs, desires and drives, habits of thought and action, and to look to certain people as role models. There isn’t a perspective independent of these factors from which we can judge whether they are correct, since the ability to make such judgments depends on these very factors we want to be able to make judgments about.

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Section 5.5 Objections to Virtue Ethics

This may seem to mean that our ethical values, beliefs, and choices are little more than expres- sions of such background factors, and they cannot make a legitimate claim to be true or even better than any other. If so, critics claim, virtue ethics is either committed to relativism, which is the view that moral value and moral truth are relative to the beliefs and values of a particu- lar culture, group, or individual; or it is committed to elitism, which is the idea that there are objective moral values and truths but that only certain privileged groups or individuals have access to them. Either way, virtue ethics would seem to validate and reinforce prejudice.

The prejudices objection frequently comes from those defending a deontological or utilitar- ian approach. Recall that deontological approaches attempt to articulate the rules and prin- ciples that underlie right action as such, and Kant bases his supreme moral principle—the Categorical Imperative—on pure reason itself, abstracted from wants and desires, particular interests or views about the good, and any other factor that could be the product of prejudice and conditioning. Utilitarians attempt to identify some good that our actions should seek to bring about, something that everyone can recognize as valuable despite all of their differ- ences, such as pleasure or the satisfaction of desires. Right actions are ones that bring about the most of this good compared to other available actions. If we can identify this universal good and calculate which actions bring about the greatest good for the greatest number, then determining what is morally right depends neither on having a certain kind of character nor on what we happen to personally or culturally value. So deontologists and utilitarians may claim that their approaches can show why certain actions are right or wrong without relying on background assumptions and prejudices, and that this supposed independence and objec- tivity is an advantage compared to the virtue approach.

Virtue ethicists may reject the claim that either of these approaches offers the kind of objectiv- ity or ability to overcome prejudices that their defenders suppose. While they agree with Kant about the importance of consistency in one’s reasons and judgments—of avoiding the temp- tation to act in a way that we wouldn’t want others to act, and of treating people with dignity and respect rather than using them as mere means—they would argue that this doesn’t tell us much of substance about how one should live.

As we saw in Chapter 4, a clever person can formulate a maxim in such a way that virtu- ally any action can satisfy the “universal law” formulation of Kant’s Categorical Imperative. We noticed that the formula of humanity, which says that we must treat persons as ends-in- themselves, involves not merely using people but also adopting and promoting their ends as if they were our own. Simply claiming that we shouldn’t use people doesn’t take us very far when it comes to understanding and living out the rich and complex dimensions of a good human life, and treating people as ends in the positive sense of adopting their ends as our own requires making judgments about which ends are worth supporting, how to do so well, what to do when conflicts arise, and so forth. In short, applying the Categorical Imperative involves making the very kinds of judgments that the virtue ethicist claims require good char- acter and practical wisdom. Thus, if the prejudices objection is a problem for virtue ethics, it is a problem for an account like Kant’s as well.

While the virtue ethicist agrees with utilitarians about the importance of happiness and well- being—that we should be concerned with the well-being of others and not just the satisfaction of our own interests and desires, and that we should strive to make choices that have good consequences—they would deny that all goods and values reduce to some single, common

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Section 5.5 Objections to Virtue Ethics

thing like pleasure, and especially that happiness can be identified with pleasure. Indeed, this shows that the utilitarians who identify happiness with pleasure are relying on a very particular conception of what happiness is, one that many people reject, so they are not being as neutral or objective as they suppose. Similar remarks could be made about other ways that utilitarians try to identify the ultimate good. Moreover, they could point to the significant difficulty in reliably calculating the consequences of our actions as evidence that utilitarian reasoning may not provide the kind of objective judgment its defenders sometimes suppose.

In the case of both deontological and utilitarian views, then, the picture of human life that is presented, and the kinds of things that are judged to be most worthwhile and important when answering the question of how one should live, draw heavily on a particular cultural back- ground and set of ideals. Therefore, the virtue ethicist can respond to the prejudices objec- tion by arguing that not only do the other theories not avoid this problem, but by presenting themselves as objective and prejudice-free they are less able to recognize and reflect on the prejudices that are in fact operative in their reasoning.

Thus far we have only considered that the problems raised by the prejudices objection are ones that other theories of ethics and moral reasoning have to contend with as well. We haven’t yet considered a positive response from the virtue perspective, one that explains how we can overcome prejudices or make judgments that don’t merely reinforce how we were raised or the cultural values we happen to have. One such response might be that, in the Aristotelian view, ethical reasoning is not an isolated, solitary process; rather, it is more like a dialogue or conversation—a conversation with one’s peers; with the past; within one’s religion, society, and culture; with other religions, societies, and cultures; and even, in a sense, with the world itself. In any conversation, there will be starting points, values, beliefs, and assumptions that each participant brings to the table. As we listen to what others have to say, some of those starting points are affirmed and reinforced, but others will be called into question. This forces us to reflect on them and consider their merit, and whether there are other values, beliefs, and assumptions that make more sense of what it means to live a good human life.

If we reflect on our own lives, we will undoubtedly notice ways in which our encounters with others have been disruptive, pulling us out of a complacency with what we had taken for granted or the way things seemed to us. Such experiences leave us changed, either by giving us a deeper and more confident sense of what is good and true or leaving us with different values and beliefs. Moreover, societies, cultures, and traditions grow and develop in similar ways as a result of disruptive encounters with others. So it is contrary to our own experiences, and to the testimony of history, to suppose that without a principle or procedure that elimi- nates prejudices, biases, and other assumptions we are simply going to be in thrall to them.

Considering this objection, however, reveals other virtues that we must cultivate in order to avoid complacency and prejudice and stand a better chance at journeying toward the truth of what it means to live well, virtues like open-mindedness, humility, honesty, trust, and respect. We need to possess openness to having our assumptions challenged and revised; humility to recognize the limits of our own understanding; honesty to recognize when we are holding on to beliefs that lack merit or, on the other hand, when we are ignoring, denying, or rejecting beliefs that needs to be taken more seriously; trust in those who may guide and educate us; and respect for the values and beliefs of others, as well as for the ideas and answers that have come before.

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Section 5.5 Objections to Virtue Ethics

According to many who are inspired by Aristotle, we can never become absolutely certain about our ethical convictions, and no one will ever attain complete virtue or happiness. But that’s a far cry from saying that we cannot progress and develop toward those goals. Indeed, the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre (1984) has described the life in pursuit of virtue and eudaimonia as a “quest.” Think of the movies and stories in which the characters are on a quest to find something or get somewhere (e.g., the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Harry Potter series, and the Indiana Jones movies).

When characters like these engage in such a quest, what does that involve? A quest requires some starting point, an initial idea of what to seek, what to do, where to go, whom to trust, and so on. As the quest progresses, some of these initial ideas will be solidified and affirmed, while some will change.

Now, instead of thinking about finding the Ark of the Covenant or destroying the One Ring, think instead about seeking answers to questions like, “What’s the right way to raise a child?” “How should I treat persons of a different race/religion/gender/sexuality?” “What choices should I make given the problems of global warming/factory farming/social inequality?” “What importance should profit have when running a business?” “What kind of person should I seek to be?” and “What is happiness or the meaning of life?”

As with any quest, seeking answers to these kinds of questions begins by examining the vari- ous values, beliefs, and commitments we have inherited from our background and culture. But these will all be challenged, affirmed, revised, and solidified as we seek the answers with qualities like honesty and open-mindedness. In doing so, there’s no guarantee—but there is certainly reason to hope—that we will progress toward the goal of finding the right answers.

Going Deeper

Did something in this chapter catch your interest? Want to get a little more in depth with some of the theory, or learn about how it can be applied? Check out these features at the end of the chapter.

Pleasure and Pain: Aristotle Versus Utilitarianism

The Situationist Critique

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Conclusion & Summary

Conclusion & Summary Virtue ethics maintains that before we can justifiably say which actions we ought to per- form or avoid, or what sorts of consequences are worth bringing about, we need to have a conception of what kind of person it is good to be and the qualities of character needed for that. As we develop those qualities, we become people who think, act, and feel in ways that are essential to flourishing as the kinds of beings that we are. To live out this kind of life, there are certain actions that we will need to perform or avoid, and there are certain goods that we will recognize as worth aiming to bring about; but neither our duties nor the goods worth aiming at will be adequately understood apart from a deeper conception of a good human life.

Of the three ethical theories we have discussed, virtue ethics is the most ancient, at least among philosophers (the notion of duties would have been important to cultures and reli- gions long before the advent of philosophy). We have been focusing on the views of Aristo- tle, but as we conclude this discussion we will briefly look back at the writings of Aristotle’s teacher, Plato. In particular, let’s recall the challenge that Glaukon posed to Socrates in Plato’s dialogue the Republic, in which Glaukon told the story of the shepherd who found a ring that made him invisible and used it to commit all kinds of injustices for his own ben- efit. Glaukon wanted to argue that there was no inherent value to justice, and the best sort of life is the kind that can seek its own advantages through acts of injustice while avoiding punishment.

Perhaps we have a sense by now of how Aristotle would respond to that claim. For him, ethics and moral reasoning are concerned with what is essential to a good, flourishing life. Because we often find ourselves with desires and aims that conflict with ethical standards, it is easy to suppose that our lives would be better and happier if we could disregard those standards and do whatever we want. However, when we come to recognize that what we want is not always what is good in the sense of satisfying and fulfilling one’s telos as a human being, we can see why the kind of life that Glaukon recommends—a life that is lived for the sake of one’s own interests and satisfaction, without regard for whether those inter- ests or desires are good—is not a truly happy human life.

In Chapter 2 we compared Plato’s story about the Ring of Gyges to the contemporary movie Groundhog Day, in which the main character, Phil Connors, wakes up to the same day over and over. He realizes that in this situation, there are no consequences to his actions, and so he can do “whatever he wants.” Initially, he is thrilled, and has fun doing all of the things he would normally not be able to do, such as stealing bags of cash, gorging himself on junk food, punching people that annoy him, and seducing women. But after a while, pursuing only pleasure, enjoyment, and self-interest loses its luster; he becomes incredibly despon- dent and attempts to kill himself (unsuccessfully, of course) in various ways. It is not until he starts cultivating his talents and skills, living for the sake of others’ good instead of just his own, and striving to love others instead of getting them to love him that he describes himself as “happy.”

In Aristotle’s terms, Phil finally came to recognize and embrace what really matters in life, and this recognition came about as he began to cultivate virtue. The kinds of things he once saw as burdens that he could throw off because was “no tomorrow” came to be seen as valu- able, as things he wanted to do—things that he came to see as essential to a meaningful life.

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Conclusion & Summary

Key Terms cardinal virtues Traditionally, the central and most important virtues: courage, tem- perance or moderation, justice, and practical wisdom.

courage The virtue concerned with feel- ings of fear and confidence in the face of potential harms and dangers. Too much fear is cowardice and too little fear is rashness or recklessness.

eudaimonia The Greek term for the ulti- mate end or chief good of human life. Usu- ally translated as happiness, well-being, or flourishing.

golden mean The intermediate between excess and defect of some quality, which is characteristic of virtue.

habit A settled state of character that strongly affects our actions and feelings, developed over time by repeating similar kinds of activities.

justice The virtue concerned with treating people fairly and in accordance with what they deserve with respect to the distribution of goods and services as well as rewards and punishments.

moral virtues The virtues that are essential to a flourishing human life as a whole.

practical wisdom The virtue that makes a person good at making the right choices in particular circumstances; the capacity to recognize and assess the relevant features of a situation and determine what should be done.

situationism The view that social psy- chology experiments call into question the notion of character traits and thus virtues.

teleological A form of reasoning that con- siders the dispositions, feelings, and actions necessary to fulfill someone or something’s telos.

telos The end, purpose, or function of something.

temperance The virtue concerned with desires and pleasures, particularly those of the body like food, drink, and sex. Too much is overindulgence and too little is insensitivity.

unity of the virtues The notion that vir- tues are not discrete, independent traits, but rather the position of any virtue involves the possession and exercise of other virtues.

virtue A quality or trait essential to flour- ishing; a disposition to act and feel in the right ways, at the right time, toward the right objects, and for the right reasons.

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Conclusion & Summary

Further Reading Adams, R. M. (2006). A theory of virtue: Excellence in being for the good. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Annas, J. (2004). Being virtuous and doing the right thing. Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophi- cal Association, 78(2), 61–75.

Annas, J. (2011). Intelligent virtue. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Anscombe, G. E. (1997). Modern moral philos- ophy. In R. Crisp & M. Slote (Eds.), Virtue ethics (pp. 26–44). Oxford: Oxford University Press. (Original work published 1958)

Battaly, H. (Ed.). (2010). Special issue: Virtue and vice, moral and epistemic. Metaphilosophy, 41(1–2).

Crisp, R. (Ed.). (1996). How should one live? Essays on the virtues. Oxford: Claredon Press.

Crisp, R., & Slote, M. (Eds.). (1997). Virtue ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Foot, P. (1978). Virtues and vices. Oxford: Blackwell.

Foot, P. (2001). Natural goodness. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gardiner, S. (Ed.). (2005). Virtue ethics, old and new. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Hill, T. (1983). Ideals of human excellence and preserving natural environments. Journal of Environmental Ethics, 5(3), 211–224.

Hursthouse, R. (1991). Virtue theory and abortion. Philosophy & Public Affairs, 20(3), 223–246.

Hursthouse, R. (1999). On virtue ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Hursthouse, R. (2016): Virtue ethics. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy (Winter). Retrieved from http://plato

Kraut, R. (Ed.). (2006). The Blackwell guide to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Oxford: Blackwell.

Kruschwitz, R. B., & Roberts, R. C. (Eds.). (1987). The virtues: Contemporary essays on moral character. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

MacIntyre, A. (1984). Is patriotism a virtue? Lindley Lecture. University of Kansas, Lawrence, KS. Retrieved from Virtue-1984.pdf

MacIntyre, A. (1999). Dependent rational animals: Why human beings need the virtues. Chicago: Open Court. Miller, C. (2014). Character and moral psychology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Nussbaum, M. (1988). Non-relative virtues: An Aristotelian approach. Midwest Studies in Philosophy, 13(1), 32– 53.

Oakley, J. (2015). A virtue ethics perspective on bioethics. Bioethics Update, 1(1), 41–53.

Oakley, J., & Cocking, D. (2006). Virtue ethics and professional roles. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

O’Neill, O. (1996). Kant’s virtues. In R. Crisp (Ed.), How should one live? Essays on the virtues (pp. 77–97). Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Russell, D. C. (2013). The Cambridge companion to virtue ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sandler, R. L., & Cafaro, P. (2005). Environmental virtue ethics. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Snow, N. (Ed.). (2007). The Oxford handbook of virtue. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Solomon, R. C. (2003). Victims of circumstances? A defense of virtue ethics in business. Business Ethics Quarterly, 13(1), 43–62.

Toner, C. (2006). The self-centeredness objection to virtue ethics. Philosophy, 81, 595–617.

Van Zyl, L. (2009). Agent-based virtue ethics and the problem of action guidance. Journal of Moral Philosophy, 6(1), 50–69.

Walker, R., & Ivanhoe, P. (Eds.). (2007). Working virtue: Virtue ethics and contemporary moral problems. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Welchman, J. (Ed.). (2006). The practice of virtue: Classic and contemporary readings in virtue ethics. Indianapolis: Hackett.

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Selections from Nichomachean Ethics by Aristotle, Translated by W. D. Ross The full text can be read and/or downloaded here: machaen.html. A more contemporary translation of Chapter 1 can be read and/or down- loaded here: A more contem- porary translation of Chapter 2 is available in the Ashford Library by searching for “Nico- machean Ethics AND AU Taylor AND PT eBook” (without quotes), or using this link after signing in to the Library site: /Doc?id=10194247.

Book I 1

Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim. . . .


If, then, there 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 (for at that rate the process would go on to infinity, so that our desire would be empty and vain), clearly this must be the good and the chief good. Will not the knowledge of it, then, have a great influence on life? Shall we not, like archers who have a mark to aim at, be more likely to hit upon what is right? If so, we must try, in outline at least, to determine what it is, and of which of the sciences or capacities it is the object.


Our discussion will be adequate if it has as much clearness as the subject-matter admits of, for precision is not to be sought for alike in all discussions, any more than in all the prod- ucts of the crafts. . . . We must be content, then, in speaking of such subjects [as fine and just actions and other goods] and with such premises to indicate the truth roughly and in outline, and in speaking about things which are only for the most part true and with premises of the same kind to reach conclusions that are no better. In the same spirit, therefore, should each type of statement be received; for it is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits; it is evidently equally fool- ish to accept probable reasoning from a mathematician and to demand from a rhetorician scientific proofs.

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Now each man judges well the things he knows, and of these he is a good judge. And so the man who has been educated in a subject is a good judge of that subject, and the man who has received an all-round education is a good judge in general. Hence a young man is not a proper hearer of lectures on political science; for he is inexperienced in the actions that occur in life, but its discussions start from these and are about these; and, further, since he tends to follow his passions, his study will be vain and unprofitable, because the end aimed at is not knowledge but action. And it makes no difference whether he is young in years or youthful in character; the defect does not depend on time, but on his living, and pursuing each succes- sive object, as passion directs. For to such persons, as to the incontinent, knowledge brings no profit; but to those who desire and act in accordance with a rational principle knowledge about such matters will be of great benefit.

These remarks about the student, the sort of treatment to be expected, and the purpose of the inquiry, may be taken as our preface.


Let us resume our inquiry and state, in view of the fact that all knowledge and every pursuit aims at some good, what it is that we say political science aims at and what is the highest of all goods achievable by action. Verbally there is very general agreement; for both the general run of men and people of superior refinement say that it is happiness, and identify living well and doing well with being happy; but with regard to what happiness is they differ, and the many do not give the same account as the wise. . . .

Presumably, then, we must begin with things known to us. Hence any one who is to listen intelligently to lectures about what is noble and just, and generally, about the subjects of political science must have been brought up in good habits. For the fact is the starting-point, and if this is sufficiently plain to him, he will not at the start need the reason as well; and the man who has been well brought up has or can easily get starting points. And as for him who neither has nor can get them, let him hear the words of Hesiod:

�Far best is he who knows all things himself; �Good, he that hearkens when men counsel right; �But he who neither knows, nor lays to heart �Another’s wisdom, is a useless wight.


Let us again return to the good we are seeking, and ask what it can be. It 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? Surely that for whose sake everything else is done. In medicine this is health, in strategy victory, in architecture a house, in any other sphere something else, and in every action and pursuit the end; for it is for the sake of this that all men do whatever else they do. Therefore, if there is an end for all that we do, this will be the good achievable by action, and if there are more than one, these will be the goods achievable by action.

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So the argument has by a different course reached the same point; but we must try to state this even more clearly. Since there are evidently more than one end, and we choose some of these (e.g. wealth, flutes, and in general instruments) for the sake of something else, clearly not all ends are final ends; but the chief good is evidently something final. Therefore, if there is only one final end, this will be what we are seeking, and if there are more than one, the most final of these will be what we are seeking. Now we call that which is in itself worthy of pursuit more final than that which is worthy of pursuit for the sake of something else, and that which is never desirable for the sake of something else more final than the things that are desirable both in themselves and for the sake of that other thing, and therefore we call final without qualification that which is always desirable in itself and never for the sake of something else.

Now such a thing happiness, above all else, is held to be; for this we choose always for self and never for the sake of something else, but honour, pleasure, reason, and every virtue we choose indeed for themselves (for if nothing resulted from them we should still choose each of them), but we choose them also for the sake of happiness, judging that by means of them we shall be happy. Happiness, on the other hand, no one chooses for the sake of these, nor, in general, for anything other than itself.

From the point of view of self-sufficiency the same result seems to follow; for the final good is thought to be self-sufficient. . . . [T]he self-sufficient we now define as that which when iso- lated makes life desirable and lacking in nothing; and such we think happiness to be; and fur- ther we think it most desirable of all things, without being counted as one good thing among others—if it were so counted it would clearly be made more desirable by the addition of even the least of goods; for that which is added becomes an excess of goods, and of goods the greater is always more desirable. Happiness, then, is something final and self-sufficient, and is the end of action.

Presumably, however, to say that happiness is the chief good seems a platitude, and a clearer account of what it is still desired. This might perhaps be given, if we could first ascertain the function of man. For just as for a flute-player, a sculptor, or an artist, and, in general, for all things that have a function or activity, the good and the ‘well’ is thought to reside in the func- tion, so would it seem to be for man, if he has a function. Have the carpenter, then, and the tanner certain functions or activities, and has man none? Is he born without a function? Or as eye, hand, foot, and in general each of the parts evidently has a function, may one lay it down that man similarly has a function apart from all these? What then can this be? Life seems to be common even to plants, but we are seeking what is peculiar to man. Let us exclude, therefore, the life of nutrition and growth. Next there would be a life of perception, but it also seems to be common even to the horse, the ox, and every animal. There remains, then, an active life of the element that has a rational principle; of this, one part has such a principle in the sense of being obedient to one, the other in the sense of possessing one and exercising thought. And, as ‘life of the rational element’ also has two meanings, we must state that life in the sense of activity is what we mean; for this seems to be the more proper sense of the term. Now if the function of man is an activity of soul which follows or implies a rational principle, and if we say ‘so-and-so-and ‘a good so-and-so’ have a function which is the same in kind, e.g. a lyre, and a good lyre-player, and so without qualification in all cases, eminence in respect of goodness being added to the name of the function (for the function of a lyre-player is to play the lyre,

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and that of a good lyre-player is to do so well): if this is the case, and we state the function of man to be a certain kind of life, and this to be an activity or actions of the soul implying a ratio- nal principle, and the function of a good man to be the good and noble performance of these, and if any action is well performed when it is performed in accordance with the appropriate excellence: if this is the case, human good turns out to be activity of soul in accordance with virtue, and if there are more than one virtue, in accordance with the best and most complete.

But we must add ‘in a complete life.’ For one swallow does not make a summer, nor does one day; and so too one day, or a short time, does not make a man blessed and happy.

Book II 1

Virtue, then, being of two kinds, intellectual and moral, intellectual virtue in the main owes both its birth and its growth to teaching (for which reason it requires experience and time), while moral virtue comes about as a result of habit, whence also its name (ethike) is one that is formed by a slight variation from the word ethos (habit). . . .

[T]he virtues we get by first exercising them, as also happens in the case of the arts as well. For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them, e.g. men become builders by building and lyre players by playing the lyre; so too we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts. . . .

[B]y doing the acts that we do in our transactions with other men we become just or unjust, and by doing the acts that we do in the presence of danger, and being habituated to feel fear or confidence, we become brave or cowardly. The same is true of appetites and feelings of anger; some men become temperate and good-tempered, others self-indulgent and irascible, by behaving in one way or the other in the appropriate circumstances. Thus, in one word, states of character arise out of like activities. This is why the activities we exhibit must be of a certain kind; it is because the states of character correspond to the differences between these. It makes no small difference, then, whether we form habits of one kind or of another from our very youth; it makes a very great difference, or rather all the difference.


Since, then, the present inquiry does not aim at theoretical knowledge like the others (for we are inquiring not in order to know what virtue is, but in order to become good, since other- wise our inquiry would have been of no use), we must examine the nature of actions, namely how we ought to do them; for these determine also the nature of the states of character that are produced, as we have said. . . .

First, then, let us consider this, that it is the nature of such things to be destroyed by defect and excess , as we see in the case of strength and of health (for to gain light on things imper- ceptible we must use the evidence of sensible things); both excessive and defective exercise

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destroys the strength, and similarly drink or food which is above or below a certain amount destroys the health, while that which is proportionate both produces and increases and preserves it. So too is it, then, in the case of temperance and courage and the other virtues. For the man who flies from and fears everything and does not stand his ground against any- thing becomes a coward, and the man who fears nothing at all but goes to meet every danger becomes rash; and similarly the man who indulges in every pleasure and abstains from none becomes self-indulgent, while the man who shuns every pleasure, as boors do, becomes in a way insensible; temperance and courage, then, are destroyed by excess and defect, and pre- served by the mean. . . .


We must take as a sign of states of character the pleasure or pain that ensues on acts; for the man who abstains from bodily pleasures and delights in this very fact is temperate, while the man who is annoyed at it is self-indulgent, and he who stands his ground against things that are terrible and delights in this or at least is not pained is brave, while the man who is pained is a coward. For moral excellence is concerned with pleasures and pains; it is on account of the pleasure that we do bad things, and on account of the pain that we abstain from noble ones. Hence we ought to have been brought up in a particular way from our very youth, as Plato says, so as both to delight in and to be pained by the things that we ought; for this is the right education. . . .

Again, as we said but lately, every state of soul has a nature relative to and concerned with the kind of things by which it tends to be made worse or better; but it is by reason of plea- sures and pains that men become bad, by pursuing and avoiding these- either the pleasures and pains they ought not or when they ought not or as they ought not, or by going wrong in one of the other similar ways that may be distinguished. . . . We assume, then, that this kind of excellence tends to do what is best with regard to pleasures and pains, and vice does the contrary. . . .

That virtue, then, is concerned with pleasures and pains, and that by the acts from which it arises it is both increased and, if they are done differently, destroyed, and that the acts from which it arose are those in which it actualizes itself—let this be taken as said.


The question might be asked, what we mean by saying that we must become just by doing just acts, and temperate by doing temperate acts; for if men do just and temperate acts, they are already just and temperate, exactly as, if they do what is in accordance with the laws of gram- mar and of music, they are grammarians and musicians. . . .

Again, the case of the arts and that of the virtues are not similar; for the products of the arts have their goodness in themselves, so that it is enough that they should have a certain charac- ter, but if the acts that are in accordance with the virtues have themselves a certain character it does not follow that they are done justly or temperately. The agent also must be in a certain condition when he does them; in the first place he must have knowledge, secondly he must

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choose the acts, and choose them for their own sakes, and thirdly his action must proceed from a firm and unchangeable character. . . .

Actions, then, are called just and temperate when they are such as the just or the temperate man would do; but it is not the man who does these that is just and temperate, but the man who also does them as just and temperate men do them. It is well said, then, that it is by doing just acts that the just man is produced, and by doing temperate acts the temperate man; with- out doing these no one would have even a prospect of becoming good.

But most people do not do these, but take refuge in theory and think they are being philoso- phers and will become good in this way, behaving somewhat like patients who listen atten- tively to their doctors, but do none of the things they are ordered to do. As the latter will not be made well in body by such a course of treatment, the former will not be made well in soul by such a course of philosophy.


We must, however, not only describe virtue as a state of character, but also say what sort of state it is. We may remark, then, that every virtue or excellence both brings into good condi- tion the thing of which it is the excellence and makes the work of that thing be done well; e.g. the excellence of the eye makes both the eye and its work good; for it is by the excellence of the eye that we see well. Similarly the excellence of the horse makes a horse both good in itself and good at running and at carrying its rider and at awaiting the attack of the enemy. There- fore, if this is true in every case, the virtue of man also will be the state of character which makes a man good and which makes him do his own work well.

How this is to happen we have stated already, but it will be made plain also by the following consideration of the specific nature of virtue. In everything that is continuous and divisible it is possible to take more, less, or an equal amount, and that either in terms of the thing itself or relatively to us; and the equal is an intermediate between excess and defect. By the inter- mediate in the object I mean that which is equidistant from each of the extremes, which is one and the same for all men; by the intermediate relatively to us that which is neither too much nor too little- and this is not one, nor the same for all. For instance, if ten is many and two is few, six is the intermediate, taken in terms of the object; for it exceeds and is exceeded by an equal amount; this is intermediate according to arithmetical proportion. But the intermedi- ate relatively to us is not to be taken so; if ten pounds are too much for a particular person to eat and two too little, it does not follow that the trainer will order six pounds; for this also is perhaps too much for the person who is to take it, or too little- too little for Milo, too much for the beginner in athletic exercises. The same is true of running and wrestling. Thus a master of any art avoids excess and defect, but seeks the intermediate and chooses this- the intermedi- ate not in the object but relatively to us.

If it is thus, then, that every art does its work well- by looking to the intermediate and judging its works by this standard. . . . [A]nd if, further, virtue is more exact and better than any art . . ., then virtue must have the quality of aiming at the intermediate. I mean moral virtue; for it is this that is concerned with passions and actions, and in these there is excess, defect, and

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the intermediate. For instance, both fear and confidence and appetite and anger and pity and in general pleasure and pain may be felt both too much and too little, and in both cases not well; but to feel them at the right times, with reference to the right objects, towards the right people, with the right motive, and in the right way, is what is both intermediate and best, and this is characteristic of virtue. Similarly with regard to actions also there is excess, defect, and the intermediate. Now virtue is concerned with passions and actions, in which excess is a form of failure, and so is defect, while the intermediate is praised and is a form of success; and being praised and being successful are both characteristics of virtue. Therefore virtue is a kind of mean, since, as we have seen, it aims at what is intermediate.

Again, it is possible to fail in many ways . . . while to succeed is possible only in one way (for which reason also one is easy and the other difficult—to miss the mark easy, to hit it diffi- cult); for these reasons also, then, excess and defect are characteristic of vice, and the mean of virtue;

For men are good in but one way, but bad in many.

Virtue, then, is a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean, i.e. the mean rela- tive to us, this being determined by a rational principle, and by that principle by which the man of practical wisdom would determine it. Now it is a mean between two vices, that which depends on excess and that which depends on defect; and again it is a mean because the vices respectively fall short of or exceed what is right in both passions and actions, while virtue both finds and chooses that which is intermediate. Hence in respect of its substance and the definition which states its essence virtue is a mean, with regard to what is best and right an extreme.

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Going Deeper

Going Deeper

Pleasure and Pain: Aristotle Versus Utilitarianism Aristotle’s view calls into question certain common assumptions about pleasure and pain, such as the assumptions that underlie utilitarian theory. Some utilitarians, such as John Stu- art Mill and Jeremy Bentham, maintain that moral actions are those that maximize pleasure and minimize pain (see Chapter 3). This presumes that the terms pleasure and pain refer to a certain property that is the same in all situations, and it is good in itself (pleasure) or bad in itself (pain).

The Aristotelian would not agree. Pleasure, in this view, is always associated with some par- ticular sort of activity, and just as there are many different kinds of activity, there are many different kinds of pleasure. We may find pleasure in basking on the beach, getting high on drugs, or having sex, but we may find pleasure in a stimulating political conversation, mow- ing the lawn on a hot summer day, helping our child figure out a math problem, or cooking an elaborate meal for friends. While we may use the term pleasure for each of these contexts, there isn’t some independent, clearly identifiable property common to all of them. Similar things could be said about pain. However, if we cannot isolate an independent property cor- responding to each of these terms, we cannot identify pleasure as good in itself or pain as bad in itself.

In the Aristotelian view, pleasure is not good in itself; rather, pleasure is only good in the context of virtuous activity. Likewise, pain is bad only when it detracts from a flourishing life. Intuitively, this seems like an appealing idea: if someone gets pleasure from torturing cats or from raping a child, we wouldn’t say that it’s only the torturing of the cat or the raping of the child that’s bad; we would also want to say that the pleasure feelings themselves are perverse and disgusting. Or conversely, the pain we experience as part of a rigorous physical workout is often good, and if we are not experiencing pain when a friend is suffering, we might say that our lack of pain would be bad.

How would the Aristotelian view make sense of this? We start from a position in which it is not pleasure or pain themselves at which we aim, but the good, in the sense of the telos of some particular role or of human life as a whole. We observe that there are certain characteristic activities involved, and we need certain virtues to perform them well and to flourish. Virtues are habits, and habits are dispositions to act in certain ways as well as to feel certain ways, such as enjoying certain activities or feeling dissatisfaction in others. So when we aim at the kinds of things that are genuinely good and have developed the corresponding virtues, we will typically experience satisfaction or enjoyment in performing those characteristic actions. This is what Aristotle might call “true” pleasure (Annas, 1980). It is true because it is the kind of pleasure associated with activities that are “truly good.”

Therefore, someone who takes pleasure in torturing cats or raping children is either drasti- cally mistaken about the good or knows that these activities are utterly contrary to living a

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Going Deeper

good human life but is plagued by vice (i.e., bad habits). Either way, the person takes pleasure in the wrong kinds of things, and since the question of whether a certain kind of pleasure is good or bad has to do with the corresponding activities, those pleasures themselves are bad.

To sum up, the Aristotelian would deny that pleasure itself is good or that pain itself is bad. This is because, first of all, there is no such thing as “pleasure itself” or “pain itself”; rather, pleasure and pain are always connected to some particular kind of activity. Second, all activi- ties aim at some good, and some aims are truly good, while others are not. Third, whether or not we take pleasure in an activity depends on our state of character; that is, whether we are virtuous or not. Good pleasures are those that follow on virtuous activity—activity aimed at what is truly good. Bad pleasures are those that follow on vicious activity—activity aimed at what is bad.

We have been distinguishing this view from that of the utilitarians who regard all pleasures as uniform and good-in-themselves, and thus worth maximizing, and all pains as bad-in- themselves and thus worth minimizing. Now, you may recall from Chapter 3 that John Stuart Mill sought to distinguish “higher” and “lower” pleasures, in contrast to utilitarians like Jer- emy Bentham who made no such distinctions. You may thus object that it is misleading to suppose that utilitarians make no distinction between good and bad pleasures. This would certainly be a fair objection; indeed, Mill may very well have been thinking about Aristotle or other philosophers who insist that not all pleasures are equally good or pains equally bad when he made this distinction. So it is worth looking a bit more closely at Mill’s distinction between higher and lower pleasures and how it relates to Aristotle’s distinction between good and bad pleasures.

The utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham maintained that “when it comes to pleasure, push-pin is as good as poetry” (as cited in Mill, 1974, p. 123). That is, the pleasure associated with play- ing a simple child’s game like push-pin is no different in kind from the pleasure of reading good poetry; the only difference is in how much pleasure is associated with each kind of activ- ity. We have just been describing why Aristotle would reject this idea. As Julia Annas (1980) puts it, Aristotle

cannot hold that pleasure is one single independently specifiable end which everyone pursues regardless of how they set about it. For Aristotle, one can- not pursue pleasure regardless of the moral worth of the actions that are one’s means to getting it. Rather it is the other way around: it is one’s conception of the good life which determines what counts for one as being pleasant.” (p. 288, emphasis added)

Therefore, the pleasures of those whose character and activities are aimed at the right con- ception of good will be the good pleasures, and vice versa.

Mill, on the other hand, tried to ground the distinction between good and bad or higher and lower pleasures on what people happen to feel when having different experiences, and which feeling they prefer. He trusted that most people would prefer certain kinds of pleasures over others if they experienced both and that these preferred pleasures were higher pleasures.

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Going Deeper

Aristotle, by contrast, does not base the distinction between pleasures on what people happen to feel; rather, his distinction is based on what people ought to feel. Desires and feelings are good when they are the kinds that good people have; otherwise, there’s no reason to regard them as good. And so, again, our aim shouldn’t be to bring about pleasure or the satisfaction of people’s desires but to become good people and live out good lives; if we do so successfully, our feelings and desires will align.

The Situationist Critique Some philosophers object to basing an ethical theory in a conception of virtue or good char- acter because they argue that the notion of character itself is problematic. This is sometimes called the situationist critique of virtue ethics (Doris, 1998; Harmon, 2000). This critique draws on social psychological experiments showing that a person’s behavior is much more heavily influenced by certain features of particular situations than character traits like hon- esty, benevolence, and so on, leading some psychologists and philosophers to conclude that the notion of character traits that strongly influence our behavior is an illusion. For example, people who find money on the ground are much more likely to act generously afterward than people who don’t find money. Similarly, people who are told they are late for an appointment right before encountering someone in need are less likely to help that person than those who are told they are early or on time.

There are three major points virtue ethicists often make in response, which can help clarify the notion of a virtuous character and how it manifests itself in people’s lives (Kamtekar, 2004). First, since ancient times, philosophers have recognized that while we often talk about character traits in isolation from each other (honesty in isolation from courage, courage in isolation from moderation, and so on), there is much more overlap and unity among the dif- ferent virtues, since they are all oriented toward the ultimate end of living well. So while we might talk about people as honest and courageous, true honesty and true courage cannot be so readily distinguished from each other; rather, the virtuous person will tend to display all of the virtues in a kind of harmonious disposition to choose the good and respond well, whatever the situation. This is often called the unity of the virtues. Thus, experiments that attempt to discover whether people have some particular character trait in isolation aren’t really focused on virtue in the traditional sense.

Second, a character trait is not merely a disposition to spontaneously and unconsciously react, but involves practical wisdom, which is the capacity to reason well about what a par- ticular situation demands. Since this reasoning often raises different considerations relevant to different situations, choices that may appear to be inconsistent to a researcher (sometimes acting benevolently and sometimes not) may in fact reflect the exercise of wisdom across situations. We may judge that while helping a person in one situation would be the benevo- lent thing to do, helping them in a different situation might not be truly benevolent, or that some other consideration—like keeping a promise to be somewhere on time—overrides the consideration that a person needs help. Wise judgments depend on many factors, and the capacity to make the right choice given all of these varying features of a situation is a mark of a good character.

© 2018 Bridgepoint Education, Inc. All rights reserved. Not for resale or redistribution.


Going Deeper

Third, virtue is hard. It takes practice, experience, and reflection to develop a sense of what is truly good and worthwhile. Thus we should expect that most people aren’t completely virtu- ous; indeed, perhaps no one is. This needn’t prevent us from giving an account of what the virtues are and what they involve, or to recognize that some people are farther along the road to full virtue than others. Accordingly, we can admit that certain degrees of inconsistency are to be expected without undermining the idea that people can develop character that is more consistent and steadfast than it used to be or more consistent and steadfast than that of other people.

© 2018 Bridgepoint Education, Inc. All rights reserved. Not for resale or redistribution.

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