So virtue is a purposive disposition, lying in a mean that is relative to us and determined by a rational principle, by that which a prudent man would use to determine it.
There are two kinds of virtue: intellectual and moral. We learn intellectual virtues by instruction, and we learn moral virtues by habit and constant practice. We are all born with the potential to be morally virtuous, but it is only by behaving in the right way that we train ourselves to be virtuous. As a musician learns to play an instrument, we learn virtue by practicing, not by thinking about it.
Because practical circumstances vary a great deal, there are no absolute rules of conduct to follow. Instead, we can only observe that right conduct consists of some sort of mean between the extremes of deficiency and excess. For instance, courage consists in finding a mean between the extremes of cowardice and rashness, though the appropriate amount of courage varies from one situation to another.
An appropriate attitude toward pleasure and pain is one of the most important habits to develop for moral virtue. While a glutton might feel inappropriate pleasure when presented with food and inappropriate pain when deprived of food, a temperate person will gain pleasure from abstaining from such indulgence.
Aristotle proposes three criteria to distinguish virtuous people from people who behave in the right way by accident: first, virtuous people know they are behaving in the right way; second, they choose to behave in the right way for the sake of being virtuous; and third, their behavior manifests itself as part of a fixed, virtuous disposition.
Virtue is a disposition, not a feeling or a faculty. Feelings are not the subject of praise or blame, as virtues and vices are, and while feelings move us to act in a certain way, virtues dispose us to act in a certain way. Our faculties determine our capacity for feelings, and virtue is no more a capacity for feeling than it is a feeling itself. Rather, it is a disposition to behave in the right way.
We can now define human virtue as a disposition to behave in the right manner and as a mean between extremes of deficiency and excess, which are vices. Of course, with some actions, such as murder or adultery, there is no virtuous mean, since these actions are always wrong. Aristotle lists some of the principle virtues along with their corresponding vices of excess and deficiency in a table of virtues and vices. Some extremes seem closer to the mean than others: for instance, rashness seems closer to courage than to cowardice. This is partly because courage is more like rashness than cowardice and partly because most of us are more inclined to be cowardly than rash, so we are more aware of being deficient in courage.
Aristotle suggests three practical rules of conduct: first, avoid the extreme that is farther from the mean; second, notice what errors we are particularly susceptible to and avoid them diligently; and third, be wary of pleasure, as it often impedes our judgment.
“Virtue” is the most common translation of the Greek word arete, though it is occasionally translated as “excellence.” Virtue is usually an adequate translation in the Ethics because it deals specifically with human excellence, but arete could be used to describe any kind of excellence, such as the sharpness of a knife or the fitness of an athlete. Just as a knife’s excellence rests in its sharpness, a person’s excellence rests in living according to the various moral and intellectual virtues.
Aristotle describes virtue as a disposition, distinguishing it not only from feelings and faculties, but also (less explicitly) from activities. Aristotle calls happiness an activity, or energeia, in Book I, meaning that happiness is not an emotional state but a way of life. Happiness is exhibited not in how we are but in how we act. Virtue, by contrast, is a disposition, or hexis, meaning that it is a state of being and not an activity. More precisely, virtue is the disposition to act in such a way as to lead a happy life.
Without virtue, we cannot be happy, though possessing virtue does not in itself guarantee happiness. In Book I, Chapter 8, Aristotle points out that those who win honors at the Olympic Games are not necessarily the strongest people present but rather the strongest people who actually compete. Perhaps one of the spectators is strong-er than all of the competitors, but this spectator has no right to win honors. Similarly, a person might have a virtuous disposition but will not lead a happy life unless he or she acts according to this disposition.
It may seem odd to us that Aristotle at no point argues for what dispositions should be considered virtuous and which vicious. The need for justification seems even more pressing in the modern world, where our views on virtue and vice may not entirely agree with Aristotle’s.
However, it is not Aristotle’s intention to convince us of what is virtuous, and he differs from most modern moral philosophers in placing very little emphasis on rational argument in moral development. Instead, as he argues at the beginning of Book II, learning virtue is a matter of habit and proper training. We do not become courageous by learning why courage is preferable to cowardice or rashness, but rather by being trained to be courageous. Only when we have learned to be instinctively courageous can we rightly arrive at any reasoned approval of courage. Recalling that arete may refer to any form of excellence, we might draw an analogy between learning courage and learning rock-climbing. We learn to become good rock-climbers through constant practice, not through reasoned arguments, and only when we have become good rock-climbers and appreciate firsthand the joys of rock-climbing can we properly understand why rock-climbing is a worthwhile activity.
Aristotle’s conception of virtue as something learned through habit rather than through reasoning makes a great deal of practical sense. We can generally trace unpleasantness to the circumstances in which a person grew up, and it is difficult to make an unpleasant person pleasant simply by providing reasons for behaving more pleasantly.
The virtues Aristotle lists, then, reflect the commonly held values of a properly raised, aristocratic Athenian. If we disagree with Aristotle’s choices of virtues, we are unlikely to find a compelling argument in his work to change our mind: by Aristotle’s own admission, reasoning is unlikely to teach us to appreciate virtue if we have not been raised with the right habits.
One of the most celebrated and discussed aspects of Aristotle’s Ethics is his Doctrine of the Mean, which holds that every virtue is a mean between the vicious extremes of excess and deficiency. This is not a strict rule, as Aristotle himself points out: there is no precise formula by which we can determine exactly where this mean lies, largely because the mean will vary for different people.
That there should be no fixed rule to determine where the mean lies is a direct consequence of his doctrine that virtue is something learned through habit, not through reason. If we could reason our way into virtue, we might be able to set out precise rules for how to behave in different situations. According to Aristotle’s view, however, a virtuous person is naturally inclined to choose the correct behavior in any situation without appealing to rules or maxims.
In Book I, Chapter 3, and Book II, Chapter 2, Aristotle warns us that our inquiry is at best an imprecise one. Bearing in mind that virtue for Aristotle is a set of innate dispositions, not a reasoned set of rules, we can understand these warnings to be more than simple hedges. Aristotle is not avoiding precision but saying that precision is impossible because there are no fixed rules of conduct that we can follow with confidence.
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