As consequentialism treats consequence-based reasoning as the fundamental form of moral reasoning and deontology treats obligation-based reasoning as the fundamental form of moral reasoning, so virtue ethics treats character-based reasoning as the fundamental form of reasoning. If you think of actions as proceeding from a person according to a standard so as to have a result, the virtue ethicist takes us back to the source of the action, not immediately diving into the question of whether the action is right or wrong but first asking, "What kind of person should one be, living what kind of life?"
We run into an immediate problem in attempting to understand virtue ethics: it is a truly vast field. There are many kinds of virtue ethics, some of which are millenia old and have a vast number of branches. The vocabulary is sometimes not standardized because the general approach has been accepted across so many different cultures. In addition, virtue ethics by its nature is going to be concerned with details. One might even say that a fully developed virtue ethics is a pack or deck of different ethical systems. For instance, in Confucian ethics a central idea is that of the five constant virtues: benevolence/humaneness (ren), righteousness (yi), propriety (li), wisdom (zhi), and sincerity (xin). But each of these has an independent foundation and each works in its own way. They are integrated, but in a sense each is its own ethical system. To work in a virtue ethics is in a way to work in multiple ethical systems simultaneously, coordinating their results.
However, virtue ethics must in some way, somehow, give us an answer to the question of how we know what is good for a person to be. Thus while I do not know if it is the best way to classify different kind of virtue ethics, one way that seems to be common, or is at least implied by how many people talk about virtue ethics, is based on the question: How do we sort good character traits from bad character traits?
Perhaps there are other answers, but two major answers are easy to find. According to one answer, we sort good from bad character traits because we have something like a sensation, sentiment, or feeling that has this very function -- a moral sense, perhaps, or perhaps it is a normal feeling or sentiment that also under the right conditions gives us a distinction between good and bad with regard to persons. This form of virtue ethics is generally called sentimentalism. The most influential sentimentalist virtue ethicist in the Western world is David Hume (1711-1776). Hume held that our ability to recognize good and bad character traits is based on a specifically and distinctively moral feeling of approval and disapproval. When we see someone acting a certain way, we have this feeling of approval or disapproval of them for having the trait that leads them to act this way. The reason for this is what Hume calls sympathy (we feel with the people around us), so seeing someone do something brings us to have a sort of feeling-with what we think led to that action, which we either like or don't. If there are any victims, we might feel with them, as well. So, for instance, if we see someone kick a puppy, we would feel bad for the puppy and be repulsed by what we imagine someone must be in order to do that. By sympathy we also coordinate our feelings with each other and eventually develop general moral rules for judging actions. Other people argue that perhaps we develop morality from other kinds of feeling; one of the most popular today is the feeling of caring.
The dominant form of virtue ethics in the West, however, has given a different kind of answer to the question of how we sort good character traits from bad character traits: we do this by reasoning. There is no standard name for this group, but we could call it 'rationalism'. There are several major kinds of rationalist virtue ethics -- Platonic, Aristotelian, and Stoic are the most obvious and long-lasting -- but when people think of a virtue ethics of this kind, the version they almost always discuss is that of Aristotle, which we will discuss here.
While sometimes it gives us clear, definite families of approaches, this classification in terms of sentimentalism versus rationalism probably has a number of limitations. For instance, by our definition, Confucianism is certainly a form of virtue ethics. Is it sentimentalist or rationalist, or perhaps some other third kind? It's hard to say, and depends on how you see the virtues as related to the 'shoots', i.e., the first beginnings of them in human nature, how you understand those shoots, and how you understand moral cultivation. Now, Confucianism is one of the major forms of virtue ethics and a classification that leaves us unclear about how it is to be classified is not really acceptable for understanding virtue ethics as a whole. Certainly more work needs to be done on this. But the sentimentalist/rationalist distinction is still useful for our particular purposes here, namely, ethics and reasoning, because rationalist virtue ethics, by its nature, has a lot to say about reasoning.
With this we turn to Aristotle (384 BC - 322 BC) and Aristotelian virtue ethics.
Roman copy in marble of a Greek bronze bust of Aristotle by Lysippos, c. 330 BC, with modern alabaster mantle
Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics begins with the widely recognized truth that in skill, inquiry, and action generally, we aim at some good; the goods we aim at are various, but Aristotle argues that there is a something that, by nature, organizes them all. He calls it politics, the knowledge concerned with the good of the city or (alternatively) of civilized life. We are rational and social, and thus the kind of knowledge that deals with human good is the kind that concerns rational society. If we ask what is the human good that politics considers, Aristotle answers that it is eudaimonia. Eudaimonia is often translated as 'happiness', sometimes as 'flourishing', but the important thing to grasp is that it is not subjective like 'happiness' in the sense utilitarians mean -- it is not a mere feeling, or a satisfaction of preferences. It is the complete good of a human life, chosen by human beings for its own sake and not for something further; it is to live and do well, not in a specific and derivative way, like living and doing well as a flute-player, but living and doing well as a human being. Virtues are human excellences contributing to our having eudaimonia; they aim at this in some way. There are virtue ethicists who hold that virtue is all that is required for eudaimonia or something like it (this is a position usually associated with Stoic virtue ethics), but Aristotle doesn't think this is the case. In addition to virtue we need other things, like friends, resources, leisure. But our control over these things is sometimes limited; virtue, however, we may develop.
The kinds of virtues we develop Aristotle divides into two groups, intellectual virtues and moral virtues. Intellectual virtues are things like wisdom, knowledge, skill. Moral virtues are what we primarily mean by 'virtue'. Nobody has moral virtue by nature; nature gives us the ability to have moral virtue, but virtue has to be cultivated. It requires training; in a paradoxical way, you gain virtue by exercising the virtue. A virtue arises from doing the actions appropriate to the virtue until you have the virtue. Aristotle gives a famous definition of virtue that captures its essential features, as he sees them. Virtue is
(1) a habit (in the sense of an acquired disposition or kind of second nature)
(2) concerned with choice (the word could also mean either decision or preference),
(3) consisting in a mean (or middle) relative to us
(4) as determined by reason
(5) in the way someone with prudence (or practical thoughtfulness) would determine it.
A habit (hexis, habitus) is not quite a 'habit' in the usual sense of the term; the best way to think of it is as a kind of second nature. First nature, of course, is what you have from birth: by first nature, you breathe, sense, think, etc. But everyone over time has some things that they do so often that they become as if they were natural. People don't come out of the womb walking, speaking, reading, writing, driving, etc., but these are things they do so often that (eventually) it's almost as if they did. The ability to do these things is learned but, once fully learned, is stable and consistent; this acquired ability doesn't absolutely guarantee that you'll do the right things, but it does mean that doing the right things will come easily to you, and keep coming easily to you.
The most obvious kind of second nature (hexis) is skill, but since moral virtues aren't skills (at least in the ordinary sense), we need to identify the difference. Aristotle says that the distinguishing feature is that virtue is a hexis prohairetike. Prohairesis, the root word here, is difficult to translate. It is often translated as 'choice', which usually works very well as long as you don't make too many assumptions about what choice requires; Aristotle describes it as desire involving deliberation and as the cause of actions. Skills don't structure what you desire; they will structure your action if you desire something. Virtues, however, structure your very desiring. Virtuous people don't generally want to do bad things, intend to do bad things, or commit to do bad things; as if it were natural, they want, intend, and commit to do good things.
But we need a little more, because vices also structure desire in this way, just for bad actions. So what is it about virtue that makes it good-directed? The rest of the definition concerns this, and also gives us one of the most famous ideas in ethics: the doctrine of the mean, also known as the golden mean. The doctrine of the mean can be stated easily enough: Every virtue consists in a mean between at least one vice of excess and at least one vice of defect. (The 'at least' in each case is important because there are sometimes several ways to go to an extreme -- for instance, you could let anger guide you in the wrong situations, or let anger shape your actions in the wrong ways, etc., and there may be good reason to distinguish these sometimes.) 'Mean' technically means a kind of middle. We have to be careful here in a number of ways, though. First, while there is a sense in which virtue is a 'just right' point between 'too much' and 'too little', we have to understand this in a way that doesn't lose sight of the fact that virtue is concerned with choosing; thus courage is 'just right' not in the sense that the courageous person has just the right amount of fear (which might not be possible to control) but that for the courageous person, fear plays a role in their deliberate desire and action that is just right. Likewise, a coward is not a coward because he experiences too much fear, but because he chooses in a way that makes (in some way) fear play too big a role in his choices. It's tempting to think of the relation between mean and extreme as purely quantitative, but Aristotle thinks it's actually not about weighing things out exactly but about finding a sort of balance appropriate to a function.
Second, the mean is rarely if ever going to be the exact midpoint between two extremes. In most cases, the virtue is going to be 'farther' from one side than the other. This is often obvious. If people think of the opposite of courage, they almost always think immediately of cowardice, because cowardice (the vice of excess with regard to fear) is more obviously opposed to courage than recklessness (the vice of defect with regard to fear). Courage and recklessness, in fact, will often look alike; courage and cowardice rarely do, although courage will occasionally look like cowardice to reckless people, who because of their recklessness have an extreme perspective.
And third, Aristotle is clear that the mean is relative to us. You and I might both be courageous, but our forms of courage could be very different, just because we are very different people with very different backgrounds. Aristotle uses the analogy of the food eaten by Milo the Wrestler. Milo was one of the greatest athletes of Classical Greece, a man who obsessively devoted his life to greater and greater athletic achievements. Given that Milo is exercising everyday on an extraordinary scale, he needs to eat the right amount -- too little and he will not have the energy and nutrition he needs to be an athlete, too much and it will slow him down and impede his search for athletic excellence. But ordinary people who are not exercising on the scale that Milo is exercising should certainly not eat the amount of food that Milo eats when he is eating the right amount: it would be far too much for them. Likewise, the ordinary amount of food most people eat when they eat the right amount will not be enough to support Milo's athletic excellence. There's a right amount of food for everyone, but what it is depends on the person. So it is with virtue. Even if two people are both courageous, a courageous soldier on the battlefield and a courageous accountant in the office won't be doing exactly the same things, and they will have to find the mean with respect to fear that is appropriate for their situation. Excellence is destroyed by extremes, but exactly where it falls with respect to the extremes will be different in different cases.
Sometimes you find the argument that the doctrine of the mean is trivial. This is gravely mistaken; the doctrine of the mean is one of the most revolutionary ideas in ethics. While apparently simple in itself, it has extensive ramifications. Just a few of them:
(1) With the doctrine of the mean you can prove that there are virtues and vices for which we have no adequate vocabulary. This makes us less likely to overlook them just because we don't have common words for them. Even if you didn't have a term for the vice of recklessness, you could still figure out in general terms what the vice of recklessness would have to be, because there has to be a vice of defect to oppose both courage and cowardice: a vice in which you do not let fear play enough of a role in your decisions. Since one of the consistent problems we face in ethical reasoning is the limitation of our vocabulary in making ethical distinctions, this is a significant advantage.
(2) We often assume that virtue has one opposing vice. So, for instance, we will assume that the opposite of courage is cowardice. That is true, but the doctrine of the mean tells us that virtue has at least two opposites. If you assume that cowardice is the only opposite of courage, you will inevitably confuse courage and recklessness.
(3) It follows from the doctrine of the mean that the fact that you are not tempted by a vice does not mean that you are virtuous. It may, but it could also mean that you have the other vice. You might not be a coward, but this could be because you are at the opposite extreme, the opposite kind of bad. Sometimes we are saved from having a vice because we have the opposite vice. People are tempted to show that they are virtuous (or at least tending toward it) by listing off vices they don't have; but the doctrine of the mean proves that this will not necessarily work, because you might be vicious in the opposite direction. You need to avoid both opposing extremes. It takes no great experience of human beings to recognize that this will often change how people even go about their attempts to be good.
(4) In a similar way, it follows directly from the doctrine of the mean that it is impossible to have all vices, because vices are not only opposed by virtues but also by other vices.
Aristotle's virtue ethics involves much more than the doctrine of the mean; but the doctrine of the mean radically affects how we reason about virtue and vice, and affects every part of moral life.
There are probably many ways in which you could identify some kind of mean, but Aristotle is clear that the mean relevant to virtue must be determined by reason. If we think of something like a skill, every skill aims at some kind of good, a well-doing, which depends on the kind of task appropriate to that skill. We could think of being human as also involving a kind of task like this, one that is distinctive to human beings. Living is certainly in some sense a task of a human being, but this is something we share even with plants; sensation is also a sort of task, but we share that with other animals. The task that defines being human will have to be a rational task, one expressing reason; so the good of being human, human excellence, will have to be defined with respect to this task expressive of reason, as the excellence of a harpist is defined with respect to harping. The activity of humaning, we might say, is an activity of reason; excellence in humaning is a matter of doing this well. But reasoning well, in practical matters, is to act as does the person who thinks through what is, in the circumstances, appropriate to eudaimonia, since appropriateness to eudaimonia is where we find the mean; the person who does this stably and consistently has the virtue of prudence.
One of the implications of how Aristotle understands the role of reason in virtue is that ethics cannot be done wholly by rules or obligations. This is not to say that obligations are irrelevant; Aristotle, for instance, thinks laws play an important role in moral life. And Aristotle is perfectly happy to hold, for instance, that we can use rules as guidelines for action. What we cannot do is live a moral life wholly on the basis of them; they can at most give a structure or framework for moral living. It would be like trying learn archery from a book; it's not that books about archery cannot be useful but that they only become useful in a context of active exercise, practice, and, most of all, use of a bow. There is no algorithm or procedure for the good life; it is a target that can only be hit with practice. However, if we are practicing and training ourselves in virtue, we can find rules useful, either as telling us definitely what to avoid or as giving us hints about what to do. Aristotle, for instance, suggests three guidelines for our attempts to hit the mean in action: (a) Keep away from the extreme that is most opposed to the mean; (b) Learn what your own biases are and work against them; (c) Be especially wary with regard to pleasure, because it is the thing that is most likely to lead you to miss the mean. Plenty of other good advice could no doubt be given, especially for particular cases. But it is advice, one thing for reason to consider, and not the whole of moral action.
It follows from this that Aristotle's approach to living well is quite forgiving; the standards for good living are often not precise, and they can vary somewhat from person to person and time to time, so living well is largely a matter of consistently getting close enough, just as shooting well is not a matter of doing the same thing every time but of finding what makes consistent hitting of the mark possible. There is likewise room for people making somewhat different choices in the same situation and yet both being right enough.
Much of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics is discussion of a set of virtues that he treats as particularly significant.
|Defect||Mean||Excess||with respect to|
|Cowardice||Courage/Fortitude||Recklessness||fear and confidence|
|Insensibility||Moderation/Temperance||Intemperance||pleasure and pain|
|Illiberality||Liberality/Generosity||Profligacy/Wastefulness||minor giving and taking|
|Miserliness||Magnificence||Vulgarity||major giving and taking|
|Disinterest in honor||A virtue with no standard name||Honor-loving||minor seeking of honor|
|Pusillanimity||Magnanimity||Arrogance||major seeking of honor|
|A vice of defect with no standard name||A virtue such that people who have it are 'even-tempered'||Irascibility||anger|
|Belligerence||A nameless virtue that seems like friendship||Obsequiousness/Flattery||pleasing and paining others|
|Self-deprecation||A virtue that could be called truthfulness||Boastfulness||truth and falsity in word and deed|
|Boorishness||Quickness of wit||Buffoonery/Frivolousness||amusement and relaxation|
|Injustice||Justice||A vice of excess with no standard name||equality|
An obvious question is why these virtues in particular get singled out. I think the answer is obvious when one considers the point made above that Aristotle takes politics, i.e., civilized life, to be the organizing framework for goods at which we aim. All of these are matters that are especially important for the functioning of a Greek city-state. For instance, magnificence is an important virtue because it was standard practice in the ancient Greek city to expect the wealthy to contribute to the needs of the city; most of Aristotle's examples for magnificence -- outfitting a warship, leading a diplomatic delegation, supplying votive offerings and sacrifices, building a temple, funding a play -- are cases in which wealthy people would be expected or sometimes legally required to pay for something on behalf of the city, although he does also recognize examples of private magnificence -- weddings, special gift-giving occasions, furnishing one's house, feasting one's dining club. But notably even the examples of private magnificence are cases in which the giving has some benefit to the city at large. Obviously the best contributor to the city will be someone who will not skimp but will also not waste money on gaudy self-aggrandizing monstrosities, in short, the magnificent person. A similar reason is why eutrapelia, or quickness of wit, is a virtue of note; playfulness and humor are essential to the smooth functioning of the city. All of these virtues make one fit for participating in the civilized life that serves as a framework for pursuing what is good.
This also explains why one of the most extensive discussions in the Nicomachean Ethics is not about a virtue at all but about friendship (philia), which here means the relationship of mutual good regard we have with others on the basis of some mutual benefit. Aristotle thinks that there are three kinds of friendship: friendship of pleasure, friendship of use, and friendship of excellence, based on different kinds of mutual benefit. Sometimes we regard others well, and are regarded well by them, because of some pleasure we both receive from the acquaintance; sometimes we do so because of some usefulness each provides the other. Virtue is obviously relevant to maintaining these, although indirectly. Sometimes we have mutual regard with others precisely because of each other's virtue, which becomes, as it were, shared in the friendship. The latter are the best friendships, of course, although they are hard to find. But all three of these friendships make up the ties that bind the city together; without them the city stops being a city and becomes a collection of strangers and enemies. Part of what virtues do is make us fit to be friends, thus making sustainable a form of civilized life within which we can help each other pursue the complete good of a fully human life. In friendship we find, in a sense, the summary of the whole of Aristotle's virtue ethics.
Aristotle, however, is not the only Aristotelian virtue ethicist; that is, there are many other virtue ethicist who operate in the general tradition established by Aristotle, yet who often have their own positions within that tradition. Whenever Aristotelian virtue ethics is discussed, other names come up, and one comes up particularly often: Thomas Aquinas. To Aquinas we will turn when we get to the next post.