For both Mill and Kant the character of a moral agent, the sort of person he
is, is secondary (this is especially clear in Kant, for whom a reluctant agent who
nevertheless does the right thing fully satisfies morality). They propose
an impersonal form of morality, based on the acceptance of certain rules of
conduct (PU and CI). In general, they seem concerned with answering the
question: “What should I do?” To some, this type of ethical system seems
narrow and impersonal, and some ethicists have re-proposed a type of ethical
theory which dominated much of the ethical discussion in the classical world,
namely virtue ethics (character ethics
would be a more appropriate term). Instead of asking “What shall I do?”
character ethics primarily asks “What kind of person should I be?” and assumes
that appropriate action will typically follow.
Before looking at Aristotle, some general remarks on Greek ethics may help.
- Greek ethics centers on two main notions, eudaimonia
(flourishing) and arête (virtue/excellence).
- Flourishing is not
a subjective feeling of contentment. Rather it consists in the
possession of what's desirable and incidentally produces
- The list of excellencies humans can have extends beyond
what today we would qualify as moral; for example, ready wit is an
excellence for Aristotle.
- The fundamental moral question for the Greeks is a
self-interested one: “How should one
live in order to flourish?”
1) For A., every action aims at some good;
- There must be a final good, otherwise our
desire would be empty and vain.
NOTE: Aristotle’s argument
here is not very convincing.
- The final good is flourishing [eudaimonia] as all agree.
- Everything else is sought at least in part for the
sake of flourishing. For example, honor is sought both for its
own sake and for the flourishing is brings.
- Flourishing is not sought for the sake of
What is flourishing?
a. We know it is something
- self sufficient
- the goal of action
NOTE: these are to some extent overlapping qualities (e.g., finality and
self-sufficiency). What Aristotle seems to mean is that flourishing
is both the end of action and is final and complete in the
sense that the addition of some other good to it would not make it better
(perhaps because already it contains all good things; perhaps because it
so exceeds all other goods that they are not comparable to it)
We also know that flourishing is the
chief good for man. Hence, by finding out what the good for man
is, we'll find out what flourishing consists in. This is accomplished
by what later philosophers have dubbed ‘the function argument.’
c. The function argument.
The basic idea of the function argument is that in order to determine what the
good of X is, one has to know what sort of thing X is and what it
does (Aristotle couches this in terms of determining the function of
For example, to determine the good of a leopard, one has to find out
what sort of being it is and what activity is peculiar to it, what sets it
apart from other animals. Since it’s
a carnivore that kills such and such type of prey by stealth, it needs to have
good teeth, agility to climb trees, good eyesight and in general do well what a
leopard is constructed to do. We can
apply the same procedure to human beings.
- Man is a rational
animal, and what's peculiar to it is an activity of the soul
in accordance with rational principles.
NOTE: Aristotle's notion of soul is thoroughly naturalistic, without any
of the religious connotations it has today. For him, it's a
- The good of a thing is
to do what's peculiar to it well, i.e., in accordance
with virtue/excellence [arete]
- Hence, the good of man is an activity of the soul in
accordance with rational principles and the appropriate excellence
(or excellencies if there are more than one).
NOTE: So, for Aristotle,
flourishing is not a state but an activity.
To determine more precisely which activity of the soul is relevant to the good
of man, we must look at the soul more closely. For Aristotle, the
soul of man has three parts or functions:
- The nutritive principle, which is responsible
for basic biological functions (e.g., thermal regulation of the body,
transformation of food into flesh and bones, etc). It is
a-rational because it is not subject to reason at all.
- The appetitive principle, which is responsible
for our passions and emotions. It is partly irrational and
partly rational because our emotions and how we feel about them can
be influenced by reason.
- The intellectual
which is intrinsically rational and is most clearly manifested in
Hence, there are two types of excellence which are typically human and
constitute the good of man:
- Intellectual excellence, which primarily
manifests itself in theoretical knowledge
deals with the rule over the passions and emotions through the
molding of one's character.
3) Moral/character excellence:
- It is a child of
habit: by doing good things we become good, bad things bad:
by doing courageous things we become courageous. The situation is
similar to that involving artistic skill, e.g., lyre playing.
NOTE: this is a consequence of Aristotle's belief that moral/character
excellence is not primarily theoretical because it involves
the molding of one's character, and it also highlights the importance
of right upbringing.
- It is neither
produced in us by nature (one doesn't acquire moral/character excellence
just like that, without training), nor against nature
(moral/character excellence is not a straight-jacket which negates our
- It is a state of
character since passions or faculties per se are
not blameworthy or praiseworthy.
For example, anger per se is neither praiseworthy nor blameworthy.
What is praiseworthy is being angry in the right set of
circumstances, in the right amount, for the right reason, and against the
right persons; what is blameworthy is being angry in the wrong set of
circumstances, or in the wrong amount, etc.
Excess and deficiency destroy moral excellence.
Hence, moral/character excellence is the mean between two excesses determined
by a rational principle which a man of practical wisdom would
follow. For example, bravery is the mean between cowardice (too
little daring) and foolhardiness (too much daring).
- prodigality - liberality
– meanness (management
of personal property regarding others)
- vulgarity - magnificence
– niggardliness (management
of personal property regarding oneself)
- empty vanity - pride –
to one’s own worth)
- irascibility - good
temperedness - un-irascibility (attitude
to slights and harms)
- foolhardiness - courage
– cowardice (fear
of significant harm; death)
- buffoonery - ready wit –
association of playful nature)
- The idea of the mean should not be taken
literally. It merely points to a structural feature of excellence,
being in-between opposite vices.
- Not all actions and passions admit of mean. For
example, spite, envy, theft, murder, or adultery do not admit of a
mean because they are by nature extremes.
other excellence in what areas of human experience would you add? How about feeling empathy?
the leopard; to flourish, it needs more that excellence in sight, stealth, etc;
it also needs other things such as appropriate environment, land, and
prey. How about humans?
the role of luck in flourishing? A.
distinguishes flourishing from blessedness (flourishing plus the right
externalities). Does this satisfy you?
5) Merely performing
virtuous acts does not amount to having moral/character excellence. In
order to achieve character excellence, the following must be the case:
- The agent must know what
- The agent must choose
the action for its own sake.
- The action must stem
from a fixed and unchangeable character disposition.
- The agent must take
pleasure in performing the virtuous activity.
6) One may be praised or blamed for doing X only if X
is done voluntarily, namely
X is not done under compulsion
X is not done under ignorance of the relevant
X is caused by the agent
Since we acquire excellence or not
by what we do, we are responsible for the type of character we have, and
therefore can be praised or blamed for it.
Moral excellence involves choosing the right course of action for its own
sake. But how does one know what to choose and, even more basically,
what kind of person to be?
Aristotle tells us that character
excellence is the mean between two excesses determined by a rational
principle which a man of practical wisdom would follow.
But what is practical wisdom? Aristotle is not forthcoming on this;
- It involves a kind of
cleverness or instrumental rationality (knowing how to achieve ends),
but it it's not reducible to it because it involves being
capable to choose the right
- It doesn't involve a set
of rules (e.g., PU or CI); rather, it's some sort of perception or
insight about what to do. So, if
you have the right character, you’ll know what to do in most cases without
having to apply any rules like PU or CI.
This does not rule out
Aristotle distinguishes among four types of agents on the basis of their
- The wicked, who
doesn't even know what the right action is and, even worse, confuses
virtue (moral/character excellence) with vice. He may
think, for example, that prodigality is a virtue.
- The weak willed,
who knows what the human excellencies are, but fails to perform the right
action either because his moral perception fails him, or because he
is moved by contrary passions.
It's fair to say that all of us have experienced this state.
- The strong willed,
who knows what to do and what kind of person to be and acts correctly
without, however, feeling any pleasure in it. He brings himself to
do it, as it were, like Kant’s misanthrope who, however,
conscientiously performs his duty towards humanity.
- The virtuous, who
knows what to do, what kind person to be, and being that
kind of person feels pleasure in acting virtuously.
9) Since Aristotle has identified two types of human excellence, moral
and theoretical, two issues arises, what their relation is, and which of
the two is better.
Aristotle is not forthcoming on the first issue; there seem to be two options:
- Moral excellence is
somehow a necessary condition of intellectual excellence and a part of it,
so that moral excellence is possible without theoretical excellence but
not vice versa.
- They are separate types
However, Aristotle is clear on the second issue: he argues
that intellectual excellence is better because:
- The intellect is the
best thing in us, and consequently the excellence most associated with it
is the best.
- Intellectual excellence
temporally extended than other virtues because we can
“contemplate the truth” at length
self-sufficient (little need of others)
associated with leisure, as flourishing should be.
NOTE: this seems to favor the view that moral excellence is
a part of intellectual excellence, otherwise one would be justified in
cultivating a bad character if that were necessary to pursue intellectual
The proud (magnanimous, i.e., great-soul, literally) man seems to embody all
that we find appealing (and offensive) about the Aristotelian view of the good
magnanimous man is worthy of great things and knows it. He's
concerned with honor (due recognition from other magnanimous men),
which is the greatest of the external goods and is bestowed on those
who perform great deeds.
The two related vices are vainglory and humility:
a) the vain man thinks he's more
worthy than he really is
humble man thinks he's less worthy than he really is.
- Magnanimity requires, among other things,
- greatness in every virtue
NOTE: to this extent, then, it seems to embody Aristotle's notion of the
- goods of fortune,
because they are needed to perform great things.
- conferring benefits on
others but being ashamed to receive them, because the former is the
mark of the superior and makes other debtors
- being dignified towards
the powerful but unassuming towards the common people
- acting only when great
deeds are involved
- being open in hate,
love, and in speaking one's mind, because concealing them
- being self-sufficient,
not bear grudges, not be gossipy, not be a flatterer
- having a slow step and
a deep voice, because the man who takes few things seriously is not
likely to be hurried, and a shrill voice is sign of hurry
a) is directly opposed to
a great deal of “moral luck”: one must have the capacity (financial and
otherwise) to act on a grand scale (in addition to a deep voice!).
an aristocratic ideal which opposes the modern sense of equality.
Hence, only a few can be truly excellent human beings, i.e., achieve the good
for man, and even fewer can achieve blessedness, which requires the
presence of favorable circumstances (on the rack one cannot be
blessed). However, for Aristotle, character excellence is recommended by
reason, not by some moral law in the modern sense. (Compare this to Kant’s view
of universal moral obligation and his related attempts, through his
doctrine of the Good Will, to free morality from “moral luck”). So,
it is hard to point at the great-soul man as a contemporary moral ideal;
and yet, it's also hard to deny that such a man is admirable (perhaps in an
Thought Question: Being ‘great-souled’ is
clearly culturally relative to the experience of a man belonging to the ruling
class in ancient Greece. Do you think
that virtue ethics is relativist by nature?
Could one say that while there are experiences, problems, situations,
and spheres of life that are trans-cultural such as facing harm, relations with
others, or distribution of goods, different cultures provide different
understandings of how one ought to behave in them?