Aristotle and Virtue

(This lecture draws heavily from Lawrence Hinman, Ethics: A Pluralistic Approach to Moral Theory (2nd ed.), pp. 321-359, and Mr. Hinman’s website at


1. Many of the theories of ethics that we have looked at so far have focused on the question of "What should I do in this situation?" These systems provide rules for conduct.

2. Virtue Ethics asks instead "What kind of person should I be?" It thus in intended more to provide the general wisdom necessary for applying rules in particular cases.

3. Virtue looks at:

4. The main philosopher to explain the ethics of virtue was the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, who studied under Plato.

5. Aristotle taught that virtue is not something that simply happens. While people may have particular strengths or weaknesses of character, all sane humans can learned and cultivate virtue. It is a habit that is practiced and strengthened with use. Aristotle thus felt that moral education should first seek to control unruly desires through rules and habit (as with children, or with new students). Ultimately, the goal is to form rightly ordered desires, so that people desire what is truly good for them.

6. Aristotle felt that one of the most important aspects of virtue was to find the correct balance between extremes of excess and deficiency. The goal here is not mediocrity, but balance and harmony.

7. (see the example sheet)

8. For Aristotle, there were five particular social virtues:

9. He also felt that virtues are linked: one really could not have one in full measure without having the others as well.

10. With courage, for example, one must also have good judgement, or else danger and risk cannot be accurately gauged. Without perseverance and patience, courage is too short-lived. Courage without a good sense of ones own abilities may be foolhardy.

11. Aristotle typically was very methodical in his analysis of pretty much everything. In the case of courage, he pointed out that proper courage had three major elements:

12. Note that TOO LITTLE FEAR could be as great a problem as TOO MUCH FEAR. Rashness could endanger both self and others as much as cowardice.

13. Also, a brave person is not fearless, but one who can balance risk wisely.

14. The goal, then, is the mean between the two extremes. Also, the brave person knows what goals are worthy of pursuit!! Some things are not worth bothering with.

15. While Aristotle tends to cast his argument in terms of physical danger, there are other forms of courage as well. There is courage to, say, ask somebody out on a date, or to show vulnerability, or to try something new—such as enrolling in college. These, too, require courage—and the ability to accurately weigh risk and reward, and evaluate one’s own strengths and weaknesses.

16. Compassion was another essential virtue. This must be distinguished from pity. Pity tends to look down on another person; thus, people do not generally wish to be the object of pity.

17. Compassion instead sees the suffering of the other person as if it were something that could happen to us. Therefore, compassion is generally welcome when we are suffering.

18. The excess of compassion is being a "bleeding heart," where one may see only suffering, or where one sees the suffering of others without seeing one’s own.

19. The deficiency of compassion is callousness. ("Just suck it up!")

20. More than Egoist, Utilitarian, Duty, or Rights-based ethics, Virtue-based compassion has both intellectual and emotional components. The emotional aspect is needed to recognize the suffering of others, and allows others to know that we really care.

21. Self-love is not generally regarded as a virtue. However, with Aristotle, it is one. When we love another person we show tenderness, care, appreciation, and respect for that person. We also really know that person (unlike with infatuation, where we may not really have knowledge of the other). Finally, we act to promote the interests of the other person.

22. For Aristotle, self-love allows us to better love, respect, and care for others. It also helps us to truly know and recognize ourselves—both the good parts and the bad parts. Finally, it also allows us to act rationally in our own best self-interest or, better, one’s own flourishing.

23. At the extreme, too little self-love can result in self-loathing. A less-extreme case would result in self-deprecation, in which one does not act to pursue one’s own goals, or does not act to ensure one’s own well-being (abusive relationships, dangerous habits and vices, etc.). It can also result in one being unable to clearly be aware of one’s own motivations and feelings.

24. Too much self-love can result in selfishness (too much acting for self), arrogance, conceit, self-centeredness (too much valuing of self), vanity, and narcissism (too much self-knowledge).

25. Aristotle also thought a lot about friendship. Note that—unlike some egoists—he felt that there is not necessarily a conflict between self-interest and concern for others. "Even rich men and those in possession of office and of power are thought to need friends most of all!"

26. Aristotle thought of friendship more or less like we do: where we "wish for them good things, not for your sake but for theirs… and to be inclined, as much as possible, to bring these good things about… [They] share your pleasure in what is good and your pain in what is bad, for your sake and no other reason."

27. He also realized that friendship could have three possible aims:

28. Aristotle also noted that forgiveness is essential for human flourishing. In any serious long-term relationship, each person will do things that require others to forgive them. People who cannot forgive, or be forgiven, cannot continue in long-term relationships.

29. The excess here again may undervalue the self, or may undervalue the offense.

30. The deficiency may result in a person who undervalues their own worth, and may result in a life of bitterness and anger.

31. Virtues give us the strength of character needed for us (and those around us) to flourish. It also include the practical wisdom to know when and how best to apply moral knowledge. It also moves away from a world in which individual rights are constantly pitted against each other, and acknowledges a place for feeling and emotion.

32. The main drawback is that virtue ethics may not always tell us how much is too much or too little, or how best to deal with people who have value systems drastically different from our own.