Aristotle on Virtue


Aristotle holds the view that moral virtues are states of character lying at the mean between extremes of excess and deficiency.  Moral virtues, for Aristotle, are to be distinguished from intellectual virtues.  Moral virtue has to do with feeling, choosing, and acting well.  Intellectual virtue is identified as a kind of wisdom acquired by teaching.  Here we are concerned only with moral virtue.  In holding that moral virtues are states of character, Aristotle gives us a view of what sorts of things virtues are.  But not all states of character are virtues.  Many more states of character are vices.  Aristotle's view that virtues lie at the mean between two extremes, sometimes called 'the doctrine of the mean', is intended to help us identify which states of character are the virtuous ones.  Here I will explain Aristotle's reasons for holding that moral virtues are states of character and I will explain and illustrate how Aristotle's doctrine of the mean marks the distinction between virtuous and vicious states of character.

It is taken for granted that virtues belong to the soul.  Aristotle's notion of the soul is perhaps closer to our notion of the mind.  His view of the soul is not a view of some non-material thing that exists independent of our bodies.  On Aristotle's view, the soul has three sorts of components.  These are our passions, our faculties and our states of character.  Our passions are our feelings, our desires, fears, ambitions etc.  Our faculties are our natural capacities for feeling and acting in the various ways that we can.  Our states of character can be thought of as complex tendencies or dispositions to act and feel in certain ways under certain circumstances.  Given this view of what the soul consists of, moral virtues must be identified with one of these three.  Aristotle rules out the first two possibilities and is left with the view that virtues are states of character.

Virtues can not be passions, Aristotle claims, because we are not praised or blamed for the way we feel, but we are praised or blamed for our virtues.  We are not praised or blamed for our feelings because they arise more or less involuntarily in response to circumstances.  Aristotle's reason for denying that virtues are faculties is similar.  Part of a persons faculties consist of his or her ability to feel anger.  Be we do not praise or blame people for having the ability to feel anger.  Rather, we praise people for tending to manifest their ability to feel anger when, and only when, the circumstances call for it.  So virtues are not to be identified with our capacities either.  Virtues must, therefore, be states of character.

Not all states of character are virtuous.  Lustfulness, for instance, is a state of character.  It is a tendency to feel sexual desire too much and seek sexual pleasures too much.  But this state of character is not a virtuous one.  Having reached the conclusion that virtues are states of character, Aristotle's account of moral virtue remains incomplete until he tells us something about which states of character are the virtues.  Here Aristotle appeals to his doctrine of the mean.  The virtues are those states of character that lie at the mean between excess and deficiency.  The virtuous state of character will be a tendency to feel and react to circumstances in the appropriate way and to the appropriate degree.  This, as opposed to over-reacting on the one hand or under-reacting on the other. 

Consider again the case of lustfulness.  Lust is not a virtue because it is a tendency to feel too much sexual desire and to respond to it too indiscriminately.  Lust lies at the extreme of excess.  At the other extreme is the state of character we sometimes call frigidity which consists in a tendency to feel too little sexual desire or to react too little to it.  Sexual virtue, will lie at the mean between these extremes on Aristotle's view.  Sexual virtue will consist in feeling and responding to sexual desire under the right circumstances and to the appropriate degree. 

Aristotle's doctrine of the mean does not tell us just what circumstances warrant what degree of passion with respect to sexual virtue or other virtues.  But, as Aristotle remarks near the beginning of his discussion of virtue and the good life, "our discussion will be adequate if it has as much clearness as the subject matter admits of."  A more narrowly focused investigation into the nature of specific virtues would involve a more detailed discussion of what degree of passion or action is appropriate under what circumstances.



W. Russ Payne