In simply assuming a set of virtues, Aristotle may not be as far from modern moral philosophers as we think. Immanuel Kant is unlike Aristotle in that he tries to build a rational foundation for his moral maxims, but the maxims he arrives at, such as “never tell a lie under any circumstances,” are maxims we might expect from a man who was raised in a strictly Lutheran family. We might argue that Kant develops arguments that justify his preheld moral beliefs rather than approaching his conclusions with an open mind.
No one can build a moral theory from the ground up, because everyone starts with some set of moral assumptions. Philosophical theorizing might lead us to revise some of our earlier moral assumptions, but it cannot proceed without acknowledging that some moral assumptions are already in place. Similarly with Aristotle: he critically examines various virtues and vices, determining, for instance, that modesty is not in fact a virtue, but he does so only after acknowledging the moral assumptions he starts with. Moral reasoning would be impossible without some prior conception of morality.
Of course, this brings us no closer to answering the question of what we are to make of Aristotle’s virtues and vices if we do not agree with them. Aristotle provides us with no compelling reasons to change our minds. We might further ask how seriously we can take Aristotle’s Ethics as a whole if we do not accept some of his virtues and vices.
There is no easy answer to these questions. Surely Aristotle’s project is not endangered as a whole if we reject his condemnation of humility, but there is some question as to how seriously we can take Aristotle’s description of the good life if we do not think of the life he describes as particularly good. Perhaps the best way to begin approaching the problem is to understand the way of life that Aristotle’s virtues represent.
Aristotle tells us that we cannot take the virtues piecemeal: we cannot consider a person to be truly virtuous unless that person possesses all the virtues. Two of the virtues, magnificence and magnanimity, apply only to people of considerable wealth and honor. This leads us to the uncomfortable conclusion that only wealthy people can be truly virtuous.
This conclusion would not have been uncomfortable for Aristotle: he was a member of the aristocratic class and lectured only to fellow aristocrats, all of whom would have agreed that only they, as aristocrats, could be truly virtuous. In his Politics, Aristotle argues that only the independently wealthy can fully enjoy the good life.
There is an obvious class bias in Aristotle’s arguments. However, we should remember that he does not distinguish sharply between moral success and happy living. It is obvious that Aristotle and his fellow aristocrats enjoyed a much higher standard of living than the working class, women, and slaves, and that they could lay claim to greater happiness. This high standard of living makes true success and happiness, or eudaimonia, possible, so only this high standard of living can be an adequate expression of all the virtues.