Virtue ethics
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.

1) For A., every action aims at some good; hence:

  1.  There must be a final good, otherwise our desire would be empty and vain.

NOTE: Aristotle’s argument here is not very convincing.

  1.  The final good is flourishing [eudaimonia] as all agree.


2) What is flourishing? 
a. We know it is something

b. 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 X).
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.

  1. 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 biological concept.
  2. The good of a thing is to do what's peculiar to it well, i.e., in accordance with virtue/excellence [arete]
  3. 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.


d. 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:

e. Hence, there are two types of excellence which are typically human and constitute the good of man:

  1. Intellectual excellence, which primarily manifests itself in theoretical knowledge
  2. Moral/character excellence, which deals with the rule over the passions and emotions through the molding of one's character.

3) Moral/character excellence:

4) 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).


  1. The idea of the mean should not be taken literally.  It merely points to a structural feature of excellence, being in-between opposite vices.
  2. 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.

Thought Questions:

·         What other excellence in what areas of human experience would you add?  How about feeling empathy?

·         Think of 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?

·         What is 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:

  1. The agent must know what he's doing.
  2. The agent must choose the action for its own sake.
  3. The action must stem from a fixed and unchangeable character disposition.
  4. 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 circumstances

·         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.


7) 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; however,

8) Aristotle distinguishes among four types of agents on the basis of their character:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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:

However, Aristotle is clear on the second issue: he argues that intellectual excellence is better because:

    1.    More temporally extended than other virtues because we can “contemplate the truth” at length
    2.    Most pleasurable
    3.    Most self-sufficient (little need of others)
    4.    Most 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 excellence.

10) 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 life.

  1. The 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

b)      the humble man thinks he's less worthy than he really is.

  1. Magnanimity requires, among other things,
    1. greatness in every virtue
      NOTE: to this extent, then, it seems to embody Aristotle's notion of the good man
    2. goods of fortune, because they are needed to perform great things.
    3. conferring benefits on others but being ashamed to receive them, because the former is the mark of the superior and makes other debtors
    4. being dignified towards the powerful but unassuming towards the common people
    5. acting only when great deeds are involved
    6. being open in hate, love, and in speaking one's mind, because concealing them is cowardly
    7. being self-sufficient, not bear grudges, not be gossipy, not be a flatterer
    8. 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 and excitement.

 NOTE:  Magnanimity

a)      is directly opposed to Christian humility

b)      involves 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!).

c)      crystallizes 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 esthetic sense)  

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?