A virtue-based ethical system is one that focuses, not on what types of actions we ought to perform, but rather on what types of people we ought to become.[i] One of the earliest and most influential virtue-based systems was formulated by the great Greek philosopher, Aristotle (384-322 BC). In the following paper, I provide a brief overview of Aristotle’s ethical system, and then discuss both its strengths and weaknesses.
Aristotle’s Ethical Theory
Aristotle believes that everything in the universe has a telos, or an end or goal. These natural ends, he holds, are good. Therefore, the closer a thing is to achieving its end, the better that thing is. And the best thing, God, is that thing which has fully achieved its end.[ii] Given these metaphysical beliefs, it follows that Aristotle attempts to formulate his ethics by finding the human end. For by finding the human end, Aristotle believes he can determine what type of humans are good.
Aristotle believes that the human end can be found by observing what it is that humans ultimately strive after. Although all people are constantly striving to obtain different ends, Aristotle observes that humans strive to obtain most of these ends for the sake of obtaining other, better ends. For example, I work at my job to obtain money, but I desire to obtain money so that I can obtain such things as shelter and food. Ultimately, Aristotle writes, there must be an end that we seek for its own sake and not for the sake of obtaining other ends. This must be so because we cannot go on seeking ends for the sake of other ends infinitely. For if we did so, then all of our desires would be “empty and futile.”[iii]
The ultimate end that humans seek, Aristotle notices, is eudaimonea—often translated “happiness,” but better rendered “flourishing.” Eudaimonea, Garrett Thomson and Marshall Missner write, is that state in which “someone is using all of their powers to their fullest extent, and things are going as well as they could.”[iv] Humans, Aristotle writes, seek to flourish for its own sake, as they consider life to be “choiceworthy and lacking nothing” when they have it.[v]
But of what exactly does human flourishing consist? In order to answer this question, Aristotle believes we must determine the proper function of humans. All things, he believes, have a proper function and all things must perform their proper function with arete, excellence or virtue, in order to achieve their end. An eye, for example, has the proper function of seeing and an eye must see excellently if it is to achieve its end. Aristotle believes we can find the human proper function by finding what it is that humans alone are capable of doing.
Like all living organisms, Aristotle notes that the human soul has a nutritive part, which enables humans to live lives of “nutrition and growth.” Like all animals, Aristotle notes that the human soul has an appetitive part, which enables humans to live lives of “sensation and movement.” [vi] What sets humans apart from all other living organisms, Aristotle observes, is that the human soul has a rational part, a part which enables humans to live lives in accordance with reason, logos. The proper function of humans, then, is living in accordance with reason. Living in accordance with reason, and doing it with excellence, then, is what humans must do to achieve their end, to flourish.
Although living in accordance with reason is necessary for a life of flourishing, it is not sufficient. In addition to living a life of reason, one must also possess certain “external goods,” among which are “good birth, good children, and beauty.”[vii] These external goods are necessary “since we cannot, or cannot easily, do fine actions if we lack the resources.”[viii]
In order to achieve their end, living in accordance with reason excellently, Aristotle believes that humans must possess certain virtues. Simply put, virtues are qualities that enable things to perform their proper functions excellently and thus achieve their ends. Human virtues, then, are qualities that enable humans to live in accordance with reason excellently and thus flourish.[ix] We should note four things about Aristotle’s conception of human virtues.
First, Aristotle believes that there are two types of virtues: intellectual virtues and moral virtues. Intellectual virtues enable people to live in accordance with reason excellently by disciplining the rational part of their souls. Examples of intellectual virtues are “theoretical wisdom, the discipline of mind which helps us reason our way to truth while avoiding error” and “practical wisdom, the discipline of mind which helps us reason our way to good choices while avoiding evil.”[x] Moral virtues enable people to live in accordance with reason excellently by disciplining the appetitive part of their souls, which includes their feelings and actions, and bringing this part of their souls under the control of the rational part. Examples of moral virtues are courage, justice, self-control, and friendliness.
Second, Aristotle believes that, while people acquire intellectual virtues through teaching, people acquire moral virtues through such means as practicing those virtues and observing others who are more proficient at those virtues than they are.[xi] Moral virtues, he holds, are acquired gradually, through a process that spans one’s entire life.[xii]
Third, Aristotle believes that moral virtues must be accompanied by good motives. For example, if one acts courageously to impress his or her friends or to avoid being shamed, Aristotle would say that that person is not really courageous. In order to be courageous, one must both perform courageous actions and perform those actions with the right motives.[xiii]
Fourth, Aristotle believes that, like all good things, virtues lie in a mean between two extremes—a deficient extreme and an excessive extreme. For example, this Doctrine of the Mean tells us that courage lies between the extremes of cowardice and rashness. If one is so fearless that he or she never refuses to take a risk, we do not say that that person is courageous, but rash. And if one is so fearful that he or she is never willing to take a risk, we say that that person is cowardly. Courage, then, is responding to fear in just the right way—not having too much fear and not having too little.
Before moving on, three brief comments should be made about the Doctrine of the Mean. First, Aristotle believes that means can be discovered through reason.[xiv] Second, he believes that means are relative to the individual. The means “may vary from person to person, given the varying needs and circumstances of the individual.”[xv] Third, unlike many over the years have claimed, the Doctrine of the Mean does not claim that people should always strive to “feel neither too much nor too little but rather the moderate amount.” Rather, means are feelings people have “at the right times, about the right things, towards the right people, for the right end, and in the right way.”[xvi] Given this, “reason might well determine that on specific occasions the mean relative to the agent requires [such feelings as] extreme confidence, great pity, or great anger.”[xvii]
As many Christians throughout the ages have realized, there is much truth in Aristotle’s ethical theory. For instance, his belief in ends can be reconciled, at least to an extent, to Christian teaching. God made humans for a purpose and humans can be said to be good when they achieve their God-ordained purpose. Similarly, Aristotle’s emphasis on cultivating good character and his belief that moral actions must be accompanied by good motives also adheres to Christian teaching. Despite these and other truths in Aristotle’s theory, however, his theory is inadequate and can be criticized for at least the following five reasons.
First, Aristotle’s method for determining the human end is flawed. Unlike he believes, we cannot determine the human end by observing what it is that humans strive after because, since the Fall, every facet of humanity has been corrupted by sin. Therefore, humans often desire and try to attain things that are sinful and that God did not intend them to desire and attain. For this reason, it is futile to hope to discover the human end by observing what it is that humans seek after. We know from Scripture that the human end is not flourishing, at least not as Aristotle conceives it, but rather glorifying God.
Second, Aristotle is mistaken in singling out the ability to reason as the proper function of humans. Yes, the ability to reason is distinctive to humans, but, as J. Budziszewski points out, the ability to love is also distinctive to humans. Therefore, it seems that humans have at least two proper functions—reasoning, which “employs the reason,” and loving, which “employs the will.”[xviii] Given this fact, it follows that, unlike Aristotle believes, humans cannot achieve their end if, along with reasoning, they do not also love.
Third, Aristotle’s ethical theory does not do justice to morality. Morality assumes the existence of a moral law, and claims that people are morally good if their traits and actions conform to that law and morally bad if their traits and actions break that law. Aristotle, of course, does not acknowledge the existence of a moral law and, therefore, means something completely different by “good” and “bad” than have the majority of moral philosophers throughout western history. As Stephen Darwall writes,
To put the point in Nietzschean terms, Aristotle’s is an ethics of good and bad rather than of good and evil. Its contraries are those of noble and base rather than of right and wrong. What is ignoble and base gives cause for shame, not guilt. Shame is the feeling we have when we see ourselves as worthy of disdain, scorn, or ridicule, whereas guilt is what we feel when we see what we have done as culpable or blameworthy.[xix]Fourth, and related to the third point, Aristotle’s system denies the intrinsic goodness of virtues and the intrinsic badness of vices. According to his theory, the goodness and badness of a trait depends upon that trait’s ability to help humans achieve their end and live a life of reason. But it seems that virtues would be good even if they did not help us live lives of reason and that vices would be bad even if they helped us live lives of reason. For example, it seems that courage would be good even if it had no positive effect on one’s intellectual life and that cowardice would be bad even if it had no negative effect on one’s intellectual life.
Fifth, and also related to the third point, under Aristotle’s system, a morally wicked person who lives a life of reason and possesses numerous external goods would be considered a better person than a morally righteous person who has poor reasoning skills and possesses few external goods. There is clearly a problem with this, however. We all know that people can be good even if their reasoning abilities are below-average and their external goods meager. And, conversely, we all know that people can be bad even if their reasoning abilities are above-average and their external goods plentiful.
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Arrington, Robert L. Western Ethics. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1998.
Budziszewski, J. Written on the Heart. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997.
Darwall, Stephen. Philosophical Ethics. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998.
Holmes, Arthur F. Fact, Value, and God. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1997.
Pojman, Louis. Moral Philosophy. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1998.
Thomson, Garrett, and Marshall Missner. On Aristotle. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2000.
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[i] Louis Pojman, Moral Philosophy, (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1998), 247.
[ii] Arthur F. Holmes, Fact, Value, and God, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1997), 24-25.
[iii] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, quoted in Pojman, Moral Philosophy, 250.
[iv] Garrett Thomson and Marshall Missner, On Aristotle, (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2000), 68.
[v] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, quoted in Pojman, Moral Philosophy, 251.
[vi] Holmes, Fact, Value, and God, 27.
[vii] Robert L. Arrington, Western Ethics, (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1998), 71.
[viii] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, quoted in Arrington, Western Ethics, 71.
[ix] J. Budziszewski, Written on the Heart, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 26.
[x] Ibid., 27.
[xi] Thomson and Missner, On Aristotle, 80-81.
[xii] Arrington, Western Ethics, 71.
[xiii] Thomson and Missner, On Aristotle, 78-79.
[xiv] Arrington, Western Ethics, 77.
[xv] Ibid., 74.
[xvi] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, quoted in Arrington, Western Ethics, 75.
[xvii] Arrington, Western Ethics, 75.
[xviii] Budziszewski, Written on the Heart, 23-24.
[xix] Stephen Darwall, Philosophical Ethics, (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998), 206.