What Is Ethical Virtue?October 8, 2018
Aristotle defines ethical virtue as “a habit, disposed toward action by deliberate choice, being at the mean relative to us, and defined by reason and as a prudent man would define it”.
Recall that habits are learned only through the deliberate practicing of them, so once ethical virtues are acquired, they become dispositions that are possessed at all times. Ethical virtues are means between deficiency and excess, or vices.
Aristotle warns that we should avoid these vices and focus on the mean, or virtue, which “is such as right reason declares it to be”. But it is important to recognize that Aristotle says “mean relative to us,” so there is no precise “mean” that people should follow. Aristotle gives a clearer picture of what this looks like by using the example of a trainer working with athletes. He hypothesizes that if ten pounds of food for an athlete is too much and two pounds for the same athlete is too few, then the mean would be six. But this same formula does not apply to a trainer’s coaching methods consistently across a range of athletes. Ten pounds could be too much for one particular athlete but the right amount for one that needs more food in his diet.
Recall that ethical virtue is defined by reason and as a prudent person would define it, so we must explore what Aristotle means by a prudent person. By Aristotle’s definition, virtue is part of the soul, 12 so Aristotle introduces the discussion about the intellectual virtues through the examination of prudence. For Aristotle, a prudent person “is thought to be one who is able to deliberate well concerning what is good and expedient for [the person…and the kinds of things which are good and expedient for living well”.
A person who demonstrates prudence possesses the ability to distinguish what is good and bad for the person to live well. Aristotle believes that deliberation comes from the “estimative part” of the soul “which has reason”, so in order to deliberate well, reason must guide it. It is here that Aristotle sums up ethical virtue and reason: “since ethical virtue is a habit through intention while intention is desire through deliberation, reason should, because of these, be true and desire should be right, if indeed intention is to be good, and what reason asserts desire should pursue”.
As mentioned before, in order to live the best life, reason must be associated with ethical virtues, which means that actions must also be under the guidance of reason as well. These deliberate actions are chosen by the person voluntarily, or with intention
What does Aristotle mean when he mentions intention and deliberation, both of which are ambiguous terms? It is helpful to understand that intention connects to the idea of ethical virtue “since ethical virtue is a habit through intention while intention is desire through deliberation”.
It is already known that ethical virtues are practiced habits and that these habits develop through intention, but how? Intention is a source of motion – that is, it is similar to thought in that it does not create movement but that it provides a foundation “for the sake of something”. So far we know that ethical virtue occurs when the person has the thought or idea of it plus the desire through deliberation. Moreover, we can deliberate about “the things which he can do by himself […] things which are possible […] whose outcome is not clear […] which there is something indeterminate”. Here Aristotle hones in on the objects or phenomena that we try to solve.
One idea about which we can deliberate is what Aristotle calls gymnastics, a term that most nearly means “athletics” in a modern context. Imagine that in today’s society there is a coach and a high school track and field athlete who intends to become a triple jumper with the ultimate goal of competing at the state meet. The coach must deliberate, or think through various ways in which the coach can help the athlete realizes these goals.
The coach puts the athlete through a conditioning program which includes running, abdominal, and strength exercises to get the athlete into shape. The athlete pursues this for a period of time and then the coach sees how the athlete responds. If the athlete is not getting into shape or if the athlete continues to get hurt, the coach must try and find another way to help the athlete reach the goals. If the training works, then the coach can move to more advanced skill-based training. The coach uses various drills to try to get the athlete faster, to become more attune with the body, and to understand how to triple jump correctly. If the drills work, then the coach continues to use them. However, if the athlete cannot perform them, the coach must find other ways to help the athlete carry out these drills effectively. During this time, the coach takes the athlete to various competitions to see how the athlete performs in response to the training.
The coach evaluates the athlete and then deliberates about how to get the athlete to improve areas that need improvement so that the athlete performs better. This example shows how deliberation is used to think through events whose outcome is not certain. The deliberation shows through in the coach’s ability to change workouts that best fit the athlete. Intention is necessary because it is that source of motion that motivates a person to take action.
Merging all of these concepts together, we see that Aristotle defines ethical virtue (bravery, e.g.) as a habit (a carried out action) through intention (a thought that provides the foundation or reason for motion) while intention is desire through deliberation (thinking through various techniques to determine a reasonable conclusion).
Aristotle’s claim that a soldier demonstrates bravery in a war situation helps to illustrate this idea. A brave soldier knows that a person can die at any point in battle, but the soldier enters battle looking past that fear. However, a brave soldier does not just charge recklessly into battle because doing so would certainly lead to an instant kill. Instead, the brave soldier kills people tactfully by picking people off nearby and waiting to see if it is safe to move to the next location. In this sense, the brave soldier already possesses the intent to go into battle and deliberates about the best way to kill people while still holding on to the soldier’s life. If this is the case, then does it follow that ethical virtue is likewise a debatable topic of interest? It must be the case because like the athlete and the soldier, there is no single training regime or battle tactic that fits every single person.
But for Aristotle, ethical virtue must be “defined by reason and as a prudent man would define it”. Recall that prudence relates to the intellectual virtues when you consider how Aristotle discusses the general overview of what makes a prudent person: “a prudent man is thought to be one who is able to deliberate well concerning what is good and expedient for himself […] the kinds of things which are good expedient for living well [in general]”. Aristotle highlights the importance of the prudent person’s ability to recognize and discern the things, or virtues, that are good for that person. Virtues are not ends; they are means to an end that lead to the highest, most complete good. In essence, virtues serve as the kinds of goods that help a person live a good life, and a prudent person knows what means are best and expedient for the person to follow. This is why a prudent person possesses the ability to define ethical virtue.
However, there is some confusion with respect to what Aristotle says about prudence. He mentions twice that prudence concerns one’s self, but he seems to counter those claims when he writes that “prudence, then, must be a disposition with true reason and ability for actions concerning human goods”. The text implies that a person who enacts prudence is not solely concerned with the goods for the self, but also the goods for other people. And this is exactly what Aristotle means: Aristotle believes that prudence is concerned with both goods for the self and for others. This is shown through the point Aristotle makes about Pericles, a prudent man, who has the ability to “perceive what is good for [himself and people like him] as well as for other men”.
Aristotle argues that prudence relates to the ideas of ethical and intellectual virtues. Looking back to the original definition of ethical virtue, we see that the prudent person deliberates about the things that pertain only to that prudent person. But the prudent person does not give a concrete or particular list of what qualifies as prudence and what does not. Instead, the prudent person articulates a broad range, or a universal concept, of what is good for humans, and that is where the ethical virtues become important. The prudent person lists those virtues, such as bravery, generosity, temperance, high-mindedness, etc. But prudence is also “a disposition with true reason and ability for actions concerning human goods”, and since all virtues are considered good and helpful in leading the best life, intellectual virtues associate with the ideas of prudence as well. This passage is a general overview because Aristotle does not state any specific guidelines.
While the universal conception might be helpful to understand this picture, Aristotle warns against only knowing the universal. He demonstrates this issue by example, saying that “if a man knew universally that light meats are digestible and healthy but did not know what kinds of meats are light, he would not produce health, but a man who knows that chicken is light and healthy is more likely to produce health”. Knowing both the particulars and the universals enables a person to know more about health, and the same logic applies to the virtues as well. If a person knew that living a virtuous life is the best life to live but did not know how to live according to bravery or generosity, then the person would be unable to live a virtuous life. It would be better for any given person to know how to be generous, when to demonstrate bravery, what level of temperance is acceptable, and so on.
For Aristotle, one particular moment or one particular action does not define a person; it is the acquired disposition of the virtues that determines the virtuousness of a person’s life. Both ethical and intellectual virtues take time and experience to develop. To strengthen this point, Aristotle uses an analogy to help us understand the reasoning behind the length of time: “for one swallow does not make a spring, nor does one day; and so too one day or a short time does not make a man blessed or happy”. According to Aristotle, it is also impossible to claim that the person lived a happy and fulfilling virtuous life having never demonstrated a single virtue. Therefore, when Aristotle discusses prudence and the particulars that “become familiar from experience,” he is skeptical of youth because “a young man is not experienced, for experience requires much time”.
Continuing with Aristotle’s train of thought, young people do not have time to be taught the intellectual virtues of prudence or intelligence nor can they acquire the ethical habits of temperance and generosity. In order to do so, people must do what Aristotle does throughout all of his work: look to people whom we see as brave, temperate, generous, high-minded, etc., and to know ourselves well enough to say “I am a little less courageous in some areas” and “I am a little more generous” in others. In order to see how ethical virtues apply more practically, let us take a look at how Aristotle conceives of the virtue of bravery