A Primer on Virtue
Imagine someone who is perfectly balanced. They can always cool down tense situations and they’re able to deliver even the worst news gracefully. They’re incredibly confident without breeching into arrogance, they’re always brave but never reckless, and they’re known for their generosity but never accused of being extravagant. This is someone who you and others want to be like — not for shallow reasons, but because this person has seemed to master the art of, well, being a person.
Ever meeting this kind of person might sound improbable, and becoming this kind of person yourself might seem impossible. According to Aristotle, the Ancient Greek philosopher, you’re probably right on the former but wrong on the latter. According to Aristotle, these kinds of people are rare, yes, but they do exist and we can all aspire to be what they are: virtuous.
There is an ancient and rich moral theory built upon this Aristotelian idea of virtue. Unlike most moral theories though, virtue ethics aren’t meant to tell you what to do or not to do. There is no Kantian categorical imperative or utilitarian principle of greatest good for the greatest number. No, rather than present a rule or rules, virtue ethics is entirely based on the concept of character. Aristotle did not teach his students to do A, B, and C and avoid X, Y, and Z in order to be good people. Instead, he taught that if we focus on becoming good people, then A, B, and C will effortlessly follow and X, Y, and Z will be naturally repelled. In other words, become a good person by being virtuous and you will do good things.
So, how can you be a good person?
Aristotelian virtue ethics are a result of Aristotle’s belief that humans have a fixed nature, a natural essence. This is the telos of human beings, the end that we aspire to. In order to flourish as human beings we must adhere to that essence and strive for that telos. Aristotle called this idea “proper functioning”, claiming that everything has a function and goodness is found in the extent that functions are fulfilled.
Think of this concept in terms of objects that we can create. For example, the telos (or function) of a knife is to cut. Therefore, a sharp knife is a good knife and a dull knife is a bad knife. The telos of a tomato plant is to grow and bear fruit. Therefore a tomato plant that is stunted or bears bad fruit is a bad plant. In Aristotelian thought, this applies to humans as well. Human beings are animals, so the standard things that apply to proper functioning animals apply to us as well; we need to grow, be healthy, and survive. Of course, human beings are also rationale and political (i.e., social) animals, so our telos also includes using our sense of reason and creating healthy, strong polis, or community.
Now, if you are familiar with traditional and/or Catholic theology, this likely is reminding you of Natural Law Theory and Thomas Aquinas’s teaching that God made humans with the inherent ability to know good and wrong. It makes sense if you are being reminded of that because Aquinas (like many early Christians) was heavily influenced by Aristotelian thought and including many aspects of Aristotle’s theory of virtue in his theory of natural law. Oof course, for Aristotle this idea of a human telos had nothing to do with God or gods, it was just nature, a sort of metaphysical biology. Aristotle believed that by nature we all have a built-in desire to be virtuous in the same way that butterflies have a built-in desire to migrate and acorns have a built-in desire to turn into oak trees.
To do good things, you must be a good person. To be a good person, you must strive to fulfill your telos. To fulfill your telos, you must be virtuous.
But how do you become virtuous?
The Golden Mean
According to Aristotle, being virtuous essentially amounted to doing the right thing at the right time in the right way in the right amount and for the right people. If you thin that this sounds like a bunch of nothing, you’re not entirely wrong; this is supposed to be vague — it’s not about a set of rules to follow, remember?
According to Aristotle, specificity is unnecessary because virtuous people know what the right thing is, when the right time is, and so on. A virtuous person knows how to be. Remember, according to Aristotle all of this knowledge of “what’s right?” is inherent to our telos, and in order to know it we just have to strive for that proper function, that end. Virtue is a continual practice of robust character traits that lead to better and better behavior the more and more they’re developed.
Now, to clarify the idea of what virtues are a little bit, you can think of a virtue as the just right midpoint between two extremes (Aristotle called these extremes “vices”). Virtue is the perfect spot between the vice of deficiency and the vice of excess. Aristotle called this spot “the golden mean”.
There are several different schools of thought even within the Western. Aristotelian schools of thought about how many virtues there are and what they are. I’m not going to go into that debate here, but I do want to look closer at some commonly accepted virtues in order to better understand this “golden mean” concept. Let’s start with courage.
Imagine you are walking back to your car from a restaurant and you see a person being mugged in an alley — what is the courageous action? What would a virtuous person do? Your gut feeling might be to conclude that a courageous person would run to the mugger and stop the mugging with verbal or physical means, because courage means being willing to put yourself in danger for the right reason. Well, according to Aristotle that’s not quite right. To him, a virtuous person would first evaluate the situation, take stock of what was going on. If you size up the mugger and reasonably believe that you can successfully intervene, then intervening is probably the courageous, the virtuous, choice. But, if after assessing the situation you reasonably conclude that intervening is likely to be unsuccessful and only increase the danger you and the muggee are in, then the courageous thing to do might be to call loudly for help, find a police officer, etc.
Going back to the golden mean concept, Aristotle said that the virtue of courage was the midpoint between the vices or cowardice (a deficiency) and recklessness (an excess); both vices are bad and not a part of human telos. So in a way, the Aristotelian position would support the idea that you really can have too much of a good thing. Having courage doesn’t mean rushing headfirst into dangerous situations, consequences be damned; no, a courageous person will honestly assess the situation, they’ll be mindful of their own abilities and limitations, and they’ll take the best action for that particular situation. A courageous person knows when it is best to step in, and when it is best to find a high authority — be that a cop, a parent, etc. — to take care f a situation that is beyond your capabilities alone. Some of the time, in fact probably most of the time, having courage means being willing and ready to do a right thing even if it terrifies you — but not all of the time.
Aristotle believed that all virtues and vices abided by this golden mean principle. Aristotelian virtue ethics are not dealign in absolutes, they are not an all-or-nothing philosophy, not even with seemingly simple virtues like honesty. For Aristotelians, honesty is the golden mean between obnoxiously brutal honesty and failing to say what needs to be said. No one needs to tell me that my clothes are wrinkled and mismatched, I probably already know and was just having a rushed morning. Telling me that would be the vice of obnoxious, brutal honesty. Likewise, failing to tell me that my pants had ripped and I was exposed would be the vice of failing to say what needed to be said. Having the virtue of honesty means that you know what needs to be said and what to be quiet about, and speaking up or shutting up respectively. An honest person will deliver hard news gracefully, difficult truths with gentleness, and offer critique to construct rather than crush.
Generosity is another commonly agreed upon virtue and it works the same way. Generous people aren’t stingy but they also shy away from excessive or flashy giving. Giving drugs to a person struggling with addiction isn’t generous, buying a round of shots for your friends when you barely have enough for your upcoming rent isn’t generous, and flaunting the check you give to the community food pantry isn’t generous. But it could be generous to pay for an addict’s treatment, to buy your friends a drink when you have the money to spare and want to show appreciation, or to privately and quietly support a food bank. Generosity includes giving and giving and giving, but being generous also means realizing when you cannot or should not give. It’s balance.
I completely recognize that these scenarios are simplistic and could (and should) be parsed with more nuance. But hopefully these examples have helped to demonstrate why Aristotle’s concept of virtue is so vague, but also why that vagueness is a strength to this ethical system rather than a weakness. Remember, it’s not about a set list of rules; the golden mean, the virtuous action, is always dependent on the particular situation.
Of course, the challenge of this is that it means you constantly have to be discerning what is or isn’t virtuous in any given situation, and if that’s what virtue ethics require of you then how can you ever learn to be virtuous? Again, to beat a dead horse, Aristotle did not see virtue as a set of rules and because of that he did not view virtue as something that could be learned from books or lectures. In Aristotelian thought, being virtuous is a practice, a way of living, and you can only become virtuous through experience. Virtue is a practical wisdom, a hands-on trial-and-error learning endeavor. Now book or set of rules can tell you exactly how to fulfill your telos, and you’re not going to fulfill it overnight either.
All facets of virtue ethics are a struggle: discerning what virtue is, assessing how to act virtuously in a given situation, and living the practice of virtue are all tremendous challenges. The good news is that you don’t have to face these challenges aline.
Earlier, I said that virtue ethics are entirely based on character and Aristotle believed that character is fostered and nurtured through habituation. If you behave virtuously today, tomorrow, the day after that, the day after that, next week, next month, and so on, then eventually virtues becomes the foundation of your character. Of course, to do that you have to know what the right thing, the virtuous thing to do is in the first place. But if you don’t have a set of rules to tell you what the right thing is, then how can you find out?
Enter exemplars. Aristotle believed that the way to know and do what was right was to find someone who already knows and practices virtue and then emulate them. Aristotle called these people “moral exemplars” and he believed that — just like we inherently know what is right and wrong due to our telos — we have the innate ability to recognize these exemplars and innate desire to act like them.
Maybe this seems a bit absurd to you, but I think even in recent years we can think of people who fit into this category of moral exemplar, people who are nearly universally believed as deeply moral who we want to copy. Fred Rogers immediately comes to mind. Pope Francis, though not quite as universally referred as Rogers, I think also fits the bill. But these exemplars don’t have to be well-known and famous (in fact, I’m inclined to believe that fame makes it harder to be an exemplar). Chances are if you think about the moral exemplars in your life, a parent or grandparent, a neighbor, a mentor from school or work, a church elder, the kind bartender down the street — people like them come to mind.
Again, according to Aristotle the best way to gain virtue is by watching exemplars be virtuous and then mimicking them. This will probably be difficult and feel extremely fake at first; this truly is often a process of faking it until you make it towards being a good person. Over time though, through the process of habituation, virtues become a key part of your character. Eventually these virtues become so ingrained in you and your virtuous character becomes so robust that you’re no longer “faking it” — the knowledge of what if right and the corresponding actions will simply flow naturally out of you. When you achieve that state of effortless virtue, you become an exemplar yourself.
One question that needs to be addressed regarding the pursuit of virtue and striving to fulfill ones telos is… why? Why should you do this? What if you have no motivation to become a virtuous person, a moral exemplar? What if you have zero desire to find the courage when it’s needed or to always know what to say and how to say it?
According to Aristotelian virtue ethics, you should become virtuous because being virtuous allows you to reach the pinnacle of human experience, a state Aristotle called eudaemonia. Eudaemonia is a Greek word that doesn’t translate simply over to English. It can be roughly understood as “a life lived well” and is often translated as “human flourishing”. A eudaemonic life is a life of striving for telos, it’s a life of pushing yourself to the limits of your abilities and ultimately finding success. Eudaemonia means a life full of the specific type of happiness and joy that results from achievement; think of that joy you feel after accomplishing something important to you that you had to work really, really hard for — that kind of joy.
Of course, the eudaemonic life is never complete, you never end that journey. You will always have room to improve — not because you are inherently bad or lacking, butt because the potential for flourishing is infinite. Fulfilling your telos and striving for eudaemonia means perpetually setting new goals, perpetually working to be better at being, perpetually building new moral muscles.
Aristotle warned that a life in pursuit of eudaemonia will be full of disappointments and failures. Eudaemonia isn’t a life of never-ending smiles and unfaltering happiness (in the more common, shallower sense). Eudaemonia isn’t the pleasure of going to bed with different strangers every night, it’s the satisfaction of sinking into your pillow at the end of a day that absolutely exhausted you because you tried your best to be a person. It’s not the happiness of eating that second donut, it’s the sense of fulfillment when you can see new muscles and move easier. To Aristotle, this is morality: be the best person you can be. Heighten your strengths and improve your weaknesses. If you live in this way, you will be a good person. And if you’re a good person, you’ll do good things.
Disclaimer: Virtue ethics have a rich and global history. Theories of virtue ethics can be found in Eastern religions, Islam, Christianity, and a variety of secular philosophies as well. In this piece, I have chosen to focus entirely on Aristotelian concept of virtue ethics not to say that it is the superior theory but largely because it is one of the theories (the other being Christian virtue ethics) that I am familiar with. Of those two theories, Aristotelian seems to me to be the most broadly applicable. Furthermore, (as I hinted at with the reference to Aquinas) I believe that Aristotelian thought heavily influenced Christian virtue theory, so it would be impossible to strongly address the latter without addressing the former anyways.