Virtue ethics

Why should anyone want to live an ethical life?  Why not pursue pleasure, or wealth, or honor instead?  Are not these simpler pleasures enough to satisfy a human being?   It even seems that the ethical life is contrary to human nature, which is often said to be inherently selfish and concerned only with avoiding pain and pursuing pleasure.  The virtues might seem impediments, therefore, or useless to living in a way that comes naturally.

For the classical philosophers of virtue ethics, Plato and Aristotle, (5th and 4th centuries BCE), namely, the ethical life is not contrary to human nature.  Rather, it is the only life by which a human being can fulfill or realize the potentials of his/her life to the fullest.   Therefore, it is in our interest to live an ethical, virtuous life.  It is prudent to do so.  We are better off because of it.   Pleasure, money, honors are certainly goods, and they have their place in ethical life, but they are not the highest Good.  They are good instrumentally; they are a means to something better and more fulfilling.  Beyond these, there is the pursuit of the Good itself, a Good without limitations or qualification, a Good that is intrinsically good, being an end in itself, the Good as a consciously pursued Ideal.  Virtue ethics, in its classical Greek form, calls this Good the goal, the end or the purpose of a human life.  The virtues are intrinsically related to it as the means by which the Good can be realized. 

But what is this Good for a human life and how can it be realized in the course of a human life?  If the virtues are necessary in order to realize the Good, how does one acquire the virtues?  What are the roles culture and education (Paideia, in Greek) play in the acquisition of the virtues?  How do the virtues relate to the human soul, or to human nature?  These are some of the basic questions that Greek thinkers returned to over and over again through their writings on ethics. It is indeed miraculous that many of these works have survived twenty-five centuries of historical tumult and been passed down us, to our modern world, from the classical Greek world (5th and 4th centuries BCE).  However ancient these texts are, however they are particularly identified with the glory of Athens and the brief century and a half that was the lifespan of the Greek classical age, the ethical ideals of Plato and Aristotle have had an enduring influence on modern, global culture today, being found in however modified forms throughout contemporary perspectives on ethics, whether voiced from government, education, medicine, or business.

I.  Let’s begin with a very brief sketch of Plato’s treatment of the virtues.  First, the English word ‘virtue’ is only a partial if not specious translation of the Greek word, Areté.  The Greek Areté meant ‘excellence in performance.’  Hence, one could speak of the Areté, the ‘virtue’, of a kitchen knife or of a horse.  When a knife does its job well, when it does the sorts of things knives are supposed to do, such as cutting, when it performs its function in an excellent manner, one would say that is the ‘virtue’ of the knife.   When a horse does what horses are supposed to do best, running and jumping, one could speak of the virtues of a horse.  So, what is the Good for a human being?  What is the function, what are the virtues of a human life?   This is Plato’s question through many of his key dialogues, such as The Republic, where the philosopher Socrates is the star performer among a group of men, both young and old, who spend an entire night discussing and examining their opinions on the question of Justice and its relation to the Good. 

Plato’s Republic argues

1.)   Virtue means excellence of performance, not just for kitchen knives or horses, but for the human ‘soul’, (the ‘soul’ being that by which we are said to be alive, or ‘animated’, (from the Greek anima, soul as principle of life).  Greek ethics were strongly supported by a psychology, a theory about or concerning the human soul, its parts, functions, and capacities.   First, the soul is the principle of life.  Thus, all living things have ‘souls’.  But the human soul has more dimensions and capacities than other living beings.  Now every living soul, whether it is the soul of a plant, an animal, or a human being, empowers growth, and the biological functions, nutrition, for example.  This capacity of soul is common to all forms of life.  Animal and human souls, but not those of plants, furthermore empower the appetites and desires.  The human soul is also, for Plato, the seat of courage and fear.  But the highest function of a human soul is the capacity for thinking.   The human virtues are defined as the excellent performance of these functions of the human soul.  Thus, moderation, (neither too much and nor too little), is the virtuous exercise of the appetites.  Courage is proper management of fear, and wisdom is the best exercise of the intellect.   For Plato, Justice is also a virtue.  Justice is more than a conventional legal term.  It also names an all embracing “virtue’, the unity and integrity of a human life.   It is the unity of all the virtues, courage, moderation, and wisdom.  The Just life presupposes, in other words, that one is moderate, courageous, and intelligent in the living of life.  This unity of the virtues manifest in the Just life, is a musical harmony of all the parts of the soul.  This is the integrity of the human soul.  The virtues bring about a ‘well-tuned’ and harmonious life.  When each part of the soul does its job in an excellent way, when the appetites are moderated, when the heart is courageous, and the mind is truthful and wise, a harmony, an unbreakable integrity of soul results that is a thing of beauty.  The Just Life is the highest and most excellent fulfillment of the potential of a human being.  It is the life ‘well-lived’. The Just Life, a life of complete virtue, ethical integrity, is beautiful, something to be admired and praised.   Thus, Plato speaks of the kalos kagathos, a beautiful gentleman whose good character, whose integrity of soul, is manifest in his outward appearance. 

2.)    But to be virtuous, to attain any of the virtues implies knowledge.  Virtuous people are not just born virtuous.  Through the proper education, they become virtuous.  Education is called ‘Paidea’ in Greek. Paidea was not education in the vocations, but meant the formation, cultivation, or shaping of the character of a human soul. This is a main theme in Plato’s Republic: how to bring about Justice in the human soul.  Thus, Plato, and Aristotle after him, both argue that virtue is, in so many ways, a form or way of knowledge that is instilled in the human soul through education.  Virtue requires knowledge; virtue is knowledge.   So, the acquisition of the virtues is essentially linked to the acquisition of a special kind of knowledge, knowledge of the Virtues. Such education must be carefully considered.  Plato’s Meno dialogue even asks whether or not the virtues can be taught.  Is education enough to acquire the virtues?  Do virtuous men always have virtuous children?  Do they teach the virtues to their children?  Do they pass them on?  This is not always or even usually the case.  Nonetheless, for Plato, being Just requires that one know, or at least have correct, justifiable opinions about the true nature or essence of Justice. One must know True Justice, which Plato calls the “Form” or “Idea” (Eidos) of Justice.  Education in True Justice is important not only for doing Just acts but also because the universal Form of Justice is the standard or measuring rod by which all particular acts of justice are to be measured and evaluated. There is a universal – particular distinction in Virtue Ethics: True Virtue is the universal model, the paradigm, the pattern, whereas particular acts are but the copies of this Ideal, mere reflections of True Justice, participating in it but not being identical with it.  Particular acts of justice are evaluated according to how well they emulate this Ideal, reflect it, or participate in it.  But particular acts of justice are identical with True Justice itself, no more than Miss Universe is more than just a particular beautiful woman but universal Beauty itself.  If she were, Beauty as such would die with the passing of this particular beauty, Miss Universe. ‘True Justice’, Justice as ‘Perfect Justice’, ‘Ideal Justice’, the Form of Justice, for Plato, these all name something that must be seen by the intellect (Eidos is thus a ‘sight word’).  Education thus takes the human soul on an upward journey of enlightenment out of the cave of prevailing opinions and the shadows of idle chatter about Justice into the intellectual sunlight where it can glimpse the over powering radiance of True Justice, the universal and everlasting Form of Justice.   This educational path is difficult and fraught with resistance.   But the crucial part of this journey really commences once the enlightened soul that has seen True Justice must turn back, downward once again, and return to the shadow-filled hurdy-gurdy of everyday life and educate others in Justice.  Where education in Justice necessarily entails the critical questioning of more limited and conventional opinions about Justice, opinions that masquerade as knowledge of Justice, opinions that are sometimes important to the rich and powerful members of a society, this can be a vocation fraught with danger, as the untimely death of Socrates in 399 B.C. testifies.   Ironically, he was charged with not believing in the gods of the city and corrupting the youth of the city of Athens.

3.)   And what is the Good?  For Plato, the Good is, a highest Idea, like the sun, the source of all light, of all truth, and all life.  The virtues, Courage, Moderation, Wisdom, and Justice all are possible only because of the Good.  Plato’s Theory of Forms and his almost mystical conception of the Good was a fundamental to the Platonic traditions on ethical, political, and religious life through the Roman Empire and well into the Italian Renaissance, (15th century).  It was also both largely adopted and yet transformed by one of his pupils, the philosopher, Aristotle. (Nicomachean Ethics).

II.  Virtue ethics in Aristotle, (Nicomachean Ethics).  Let us list some key ideas for Aristotle’s conception of virtue.

1.)  Aristotle’s Method:  Like Plato before him, and Socrates, most preeminently, the philosophical life is the testing of opinions to determine whether they are true or not, whether or not they are of the highest standards of logical consistency and value for human life.  Aristotle’s method is to listen to his predecessors and to examine and test their teachings and opinions.  His works are, thus, a valuable catalogue of ideas and quotations from his predecessors, whose texts and ideas would otherwise have been lost to posterity.  Indeed, he finds many opinions he is in accord with.  Thus, the first words of his Nichomachean Ethics reads, “it has been well said that the Good is That at which all things aims.’  (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, translated by H. Rackham, volume Twenty-Three of the Loeb Classical Library.  Cambridge, Mass:  Harvard University Press, 1926 –1975, p. 3.)

2.)  Virtue Ethics, for Aristotle, is a teleological science.  This means it is concerned with the telos, the end(s) of human life.  Is there a purpose to human life, and if so, what is the purpose of a human life?  Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics begins with the question concerning the Good, “What is the Good?”  The Good, he says, is that at which all things aim, as towards their goal, their destination, their realization.  Every art and every inquiry aims at some good.  The good of shipbuilding, Aristotle says, is to build good ships.  The good of medicine is to bring about the health of the body.  But these are only instrumental goods, good insofar as they bring about some higher end.  Is there a good that is intrinsically good, good in itself as a final goal or purpose to human life?   Among all that has been said, among all the opinions that Aristotle has encountered in answer to this question, the best one is that the good is happiness, or human well-being, (Eudaimonia, in Greek).  All human beings desire happiness.  This is the telos of human life.  Aristotle’s argues that it is the virtues that offer the best path towards the attainment and the realization of this goal.  So, the virtues are good in themselves, but they are also good insofar as they lead to or promote ‘happiness’.  Like Plato, then, Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics is based on a pursuit of the good as a highest ideal.  But for Aristotle, the good is not separate from individual lives as a remote and somewhat mystical highest Good.  Rather, it is attainable in a human life, attainable through our choices and through our actions.

3.)   The Definition and Characteristics of Happiness:  Aristotle defines happiness, (Eudaimonia), as a “certain activity of soul in conformity with perfect goodness.”  (Nichomachean Ethics, Book I, Ch. 8, p. 61, Loeb Edition.)  Happiness for Aristotle’s ethic is the well-being of a complete life, and as such, implies or requires the exercise of the virtues, moderation, courage, wisdom, and justice.  Happiness, for Aristotle, is self-sufficient, lacking nothing.  As such, it is far more than a passing psychological state.   It implies or requires a long list of attributes:  health, the exercise of moderation in matters of diet, some wealth, friendships, family, a successful public, political and public life, courage, and justice, to name the essential.  Thus, Aristotle’s account of the happiness and the virtues suggests that the good, happy life is always precarious.  It requires the “furniture of fortune,” as it is phrased, in order to be so complete, leaving nothing to be desired that could make it any better. Of course, such blessings of good fortune can each and all be lost.  Perhaps the Greek tragedian Sophocles was right:  call no man happy until he is dead.  Such happiness is often said to be aristocratic, possible only for the Athenian elite.  Yet, Aristotle’s conception does challenge the conventional views that restrict happiness, or well-being, to the status of a passing psychological state of mind or identify it with pleasure.  Happiness is pleasurable, but pleasure is not the whole of happiness.

4.)  The Virtues:  Agreements and differences between Plato and Aristotle:  

a.)   Like Plato, Aristotle also argues that the function of a human being is to live a life in accordance with the virtues, being a life directed by intelligence, with nothing taken to either excess or deficiency.

b.)   Aristotle furthermore agrees with Plato that the virtues are Forms, but he disagrees with Plato about their manner of being.  For Plato, the Form is separate.  It belongs to a Realm of Forms that is seen only by the intellect.  Aristotle thought Plato’s account of the virtues was too theoretical in nature.  He wanted something more down to earth.  The difference between their philosophies was portrayed in Rafael’s famous painting, ‘The School of Athens’ (early 16th century), which shows Plato and Aristotle walking side by side under a magnificent arch, Plato, carrying his dialogue, the Timeaus, with his free hand pointed upwards towards the Realm of Forms, and Aristotle by his side, carrying his Nicomachean Ethics, his hand gesturing downwards towards the earth.  For Aristotle, the Form is visible in human action.  It is not separate from the particular person.  Thus, if you want to see Courage, look not to Plato’s Realm of Forms.  Rather, look to the courageous man in action.  The virtues are thus ways of action, ways in which the human being is at work. 

c.)    Like Plato, Aristotle’s account of the virtues presupposes a psychology, a theory of the human soul, and a description of the functions of a human life.  The soul is what animates, or is the principle of life.  It drives nutrition and growth, is the seat of appetite and desire, and empowers intellection.  Aristotle’s psychologically based account of the virtues differs from Plato.  For Aristotle, there are two classes of virtues, the intellectual and the moral.  The intellectual concern only the exercise of intellection, or thinking, and can be taught, just as one would teach the principles of arithmetic.  The moral virtues concern the proper exercise of the appetites, or the right response to fear that finds the middle path between cowardice and rashness.  More than Plato, Aristotle shows that moral virtues are problematic because they concern the passions and emotions and cannot be taught in the way Plato suggested.  The moral virtues are directed by intelligence, but this can often fail. Like an archer trying to hit a target, trying to get the virtues right is difficult.  There is a divide at the heart of human life between the passions and the exercise of reason.  Yet, the courageous man knows fear, but confronts it and is not overcome by it.  How is this possible?  Theoretical education will not suffice.  So how can one acquire the moral virtues if they cannot be taught in the same way as the intellectual virtues?  Aristotle’s answer is “habituation.  It is from doing courageous acts, from being in situations that require courage, that a man or woman learns to be courageous.  Aristotle’s account of virtue and ethics thus stems from the ancient Greek word for ethics, Ethos, meaning habit.  When courage thus becomes embedded in one’s character through habituation and so becomes a “settled disposition,” when it becomes the characteristic way an individual responds to situations of fear and danger, then one is said to possess the virtue of courage.   The moral virtues, courage, moderation, or justice, are characteristic ways of knowing how to respond to the demands of particular situations, to know how much, in what way, and in regards to what person or action one should act.   This requires practice, just as one learns to play tennis or archery only by doing it. 

d.)   But because people differ in their constitutions, there are no general rules here.  Virtue ethics, for Aristotle, is not a topic for precision, but only for general outlines.  He strongly differs with Plato on this point.

5.)  Aristotle’s summary definition of virtue:  Aristotle defines the moral virtues as a settled disposition, or character, of the soul, determining the choice of actions and emotions, consisting essentially in the observance of the mean, (the right amount), relative to each of us, this being determined by a rational principle, or as a prudent man would counsel.  (Ibid., Book II, Ch. 6, Loeb Edition, p. 95.)  We must keep in mind that the virtues are always actions, ways of being at work, not passively held potentialities.  The key words here are “character,” “choice,” and the “mean” that is “relative to each of us.”  If happiness is the final goal of ethical life, and so a cause promoting ethical life, then “choice” is the efficient cause of ethical life.  Choice is what brings actions about.  It is one’s actions that ultimately determine one’s character and one’s chances in life of living well, or being “happy.”  One does not ultimately dispute the ends or purposes of human life.  That health and happiness are such goods is not generally disputed.  What is disputed are the means by which these can be attained.  The right amount, the “mean,” is the right amount for each of us as individuals.  Hence, the “right amount” of food for a champion athlete would differ from the right amount of food necessary for a smaller, non-athletic individual.  Again, we cannot expect precision in Virtue Ethics.  Yet, Aristotle is not a relativist, one who allows everyone to make up his or her own mind about what is best.  For Aristotle, the right amount can be determined by an objective rational principle – by medicine, for example, in matters of health and nutrition – or by the counsels of persons who have lived good, healthy lives.  But, even where there is a lack of prudent persons to whom one could look for advice, there is still the possibility of using reason and the powers of objective thinking to determine or judge what the right amount shall be.  Having the virtues in place, as a settled disposition, then forms the foundation, the condition for the possibility of realizing the highest purposes of a human life, which is to live well, to live in “happiness.”  Aristotle thus posits the ideal unity of virtue and happiness.  The virtues are in essential accord with the human soul, not constraints imposed upon it.

Critical Questions:

1.)     Plato would argue that people are bad because they are ignorant of the Good.  Therefore, do not punish wickedness, educate.  Plato would advocate rehabilitation of wrong doers, not punishment.  Is this satisfactory?  Do bad deeds require punishment?

2.)     The social dimensions of virtue ethics was not discussed above, but think about the social dimensions that a virtuous life would certainly imply and require.  Doesn’t the Just life presuppose that one is just not only with oneself, but with others, as well?

3.)     Friendship is an important part of Aristotle’s account of virtue.  What would be your definition of a true friend?  Would a true friend be a friend of instrumental or intrinsic value?  What is the difference between treating people as having an intrinsic worth as opposed to having instrumental worth?

4.)     How is the psychology required by virtue ethics adequate or inadequate?  What has modern psychology contributed to our understanding of the human “soul” that improves upon the ancient conception?

5.)    What is the relation between virtue and desires?  Does virtue mean the negation of desire?  Does living a virtuous life necessarily result in asceticism?

6.)    Is happiness enough? Is it strong enough, determinate enough, to guide ethical life?  Or is it too general a criterion?   Does the conception of happiness waver or differ too much from one individual to another to be a guide, or “formal cause,” of ethical life?   Socrates, executed in 399 BCE, for example, might not have been thought a “happy” man, but was he therefore lacking in the virtues?   Was his life deficient in some way?

7.)    Are Greek virtue ethics useful for students in non-Western cultures?  How are the Greek ideals of ethical life uniquely Greek and so non-transferrable to other cultures? 

8.)    How strong is the role of reason in determining ethical life?  For the Greeks, reason, intellect, provided a strong, guiding role.  But is reason capable of guiding and shaping the emotions and desire?  Is training, or “habituation,” adequate?  Do we need something stronger or a different approach altogether?

9.)    Are there virtues for all ways of acting?  Could one suppose, for example, that if one tells lies “in the right amount” one would still be virtuous, a virtuous liar?

10.)         If the virtues are the excellence of the human soul, why would anyone ever be vicious?  Why wouldn’t one always be moderate, courageous, just and wise?  Why do people act in ways that are not in their best interest and only bring about illness and unhappiness?

Charles Freeland has taught philosophy for 25 years at the Mahidol University International College, Bangkok.

Last modified: Thursday, 28 November 2019, 2:11 PM