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.
See Important Quotations Explained
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
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
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
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