Professor Jeremy Bell
Aristotle’s Interpretation of Ethical Virtues
“An ethical virtue is a habit, disposed towards action, by deliberate choice, being at the mean relative to us, and defined by reason and as a prudent man would define it” (The Nicomachean Ethics, Book Beta, 1107a). Book Beta of The Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle revolves around the central concept of virtue, in particular, ethical virtue. An ethical virtue is comprised of several components, the first of which is habit. He believes that ethical virtues are acquired by habituation; they can neither be taught, nor are they innate or existent by nature. For example, we have the ability to see because we possess the power of vision (sensation); on the other hand, we are incapable of being just (virtue) unless we practice just deeds until performing them becomes a habit. Unlike sensations – which are innate powers that are utilized after we come to possess them – ethical virtues are acquired as a result of practice. For instance, the only way to become a builder or a lyre-player is to practice building and playing the lyre respectively. An individual may possess the talent for these activities, but he/she cannot possibly be proficient at them without continual practice. Initially, virtuous deeds/actions are the result of conscious decision-making, but by performing them recurrently, they transform into good habits and become a part of the individual’s personality. Once these habits have been formed, he/she does not have to volitionally make an effort to do good deeds, it is now an involuntary occurrence. The attainment of ethical virtues by habituation can thus be explained in the form of a sequence – repeatedly performing good actions inevitably causes the development of good habits, which further result in the formation of our virtues. It is only after the complete development of these good habits that one can be called a good person. This further leads to the claim that virtues are habits, which Aristotle arrives at by the process of elimination. In an attempt to define what a virtue is Aristotle states that a virtue could be one of three possible things – a feeling, a power or a habit. Since we are judged on the basis of our virtues and not our feelings, feelings are the first to be ruled out. Moreover, feelings occur unintentionally, whereas a virtue develops as a result of performing certain actions, which are undoubtedly intentional. Thus, virtues cannot be feelings. Next, he considers the possibility of virtues being a power. A power is the capability of feeling, and is possessed by nature. This is instantaneously ruled out as well since it has been established that virtues do not occur by nature, and because one cannot be judged on the basis of a capability. Thus, it is fair to arrive at the conclusion that virtues are habits. In addition, to further explain the concept of a virtue, Aristotle states, “every virtue (a) makes that of which it is the virtue be well disposed and (b) makes it perform its function well” (The Nicomachean Ethics, Book Beta, 1106a). For instance, the virtue of an eye is that it makes the eye good, and makes the eye perform its function, sight, well. Similarly, the virtue of a human being is an acquired habit that makes him ethical and good. Further, Aristotle speaks of yet another characteristic of an ethical virtue – “I am speaking here of ethical virtue, for it is this which is concerned with feelings and actions, in which there is excess, deficiency, and moderation” (The Nicomachean Ethics, Book Beta, 1106b). He claims that all ethical virtues are destroyed by excesses and deficiencies, and are preserved by moderation or the mean. To comprehend this concept, we must first understand the two kinds of means - objective and subjective means. Objectively, the mean of the numbers two and ten is six, and that is a universally accepted fact. Thus, the former type of mean – objective mean - is standard...
Cited: Aristotle, H. Rackham. The Nicomachean Ethics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1934. Print.
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