Virtue Isn’t Something You Know — It’s a Feeling or Disposition.

2 girls holding hands

Aristotle was right: your actions should be guided by emotions and experiences, not a set of rules.

Aristotle. Philosopher, Political theorist, and Scientist. A great empirical thinker who, having attended Plato’s Academy — founded his own School of Philosophy; where he mentored the likes of Alexander the Great, Neleus and other great thinkers.

And when asked by a student how they are to perform actions that are morally right, Aristotle thought he had it all figured out.

“Just do what’s virtuous”, he claims.

He was so confident in this proposal, that it became the main focal points of his influential 340BC book Nichomachean Ethics — one of many works that earned Aristotle the name we know today.

I must admit, this claim does have it’s benefits. In her 1999 paper, Right Action, Rosalind Hurtshouse points out that this process of decision-making is beneficial for three reasons:

  1. It’s agent-centred, rather than act-centred. It doesn’t leave us, as people, out of our moral calculation — because the main focus of what’s right is based on the agent themselves, not just actions.
  2. It’s concerned with being rather than doing. Acting virtuously requires more than doing something which you could do by chance. It requires you to internalise what’s right.
  3. Because of this, it successfully answers the question — “what sort of person should I be?” Rather than merely “what sort of actions should I perform?”

It’s for these reasons that Aristotle’s student’s accepted his claim.

Let’s join them in accepting this for a short-while. The next question we must ask is how do we know what the virtuous action is? And how are we to perform it?

This question, it will turn out, is much harder to answer than Aristotle was prepared to let on…

“… the good for man is an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue, or if there are more kinds of virtue than one, in accordance with the best and most perfect kind.” — Nichomachean Ethics (Page 16, 1098a).

Aristotle on Virtue.

Nichomachean Ethics is an insightful work, but it’s account of what virtues are is largely left open to interpretation — and modern-day Philosophers have been grappling with a coherent account of virtues for years.

The most evident account in Aristotle’s work claims, put simply, that Virtue’s are a mean (ie. middle) between two extremes: these extremes being vices at either end of the spectrum.

“Virtue is a mean between two vices: that which depends on excess and that which depends on defect. Virtue both finds and chooses that which is intermediate.” — Nichomachean Ethics (Page 12, lines 5–7).

To give an example: Courage is the mean between cowardice and rashness.So a virtuous agent would recognise that in order to be courageous — they should show bravery in certain situations, but they shouldn’t be neurotic and run into a burning building for no reason.

This gives us at least some characteristics of what virtuous actions are — and it can be used to perform right actions when it’s obvious that a certain action is a vice.

But we still can’t identify them in harder cases: because we have no way of knowing what a vice is. Is stealing to feed your family a vice? What about pirating a movie?

So, it seems we’re back at the beginning: but instead of asking what a virtue is we are now left with the question of what a vice is.

Because of this, some modern-day Philosophers (Annas, and Kraus, to name a few) decided to interpret Aristotle from a different angle.

They postulate— maybe there’s just an objective list we can formulate, characterising things into virtue or vice — to which we can just follow. Rather intuitively, this view is called objective list virtue ethics.It characterises things based on intuition:

Courage, honesty, compassion are virtues.

Vulgarity, rashness, cowardice are vices.

On this account, it’s really that simple. To do what’s right, just means following the list.

But modern Philosopher’s have pointed out that this can’t work, either.

Virtues are context-dependent. Whether a character trait is a virtue or vice depends on the situation. An objective list theory puts stealing in the category of vice. But it’s not always. Stealing could even be considered a virtue when stealing out of love and compassion to feed for one’s starving family.

So it’s clear, objective lists of virtue just don’t work. Sometimes, following what’s objectively a virtue, in one circumstance, might be a vice in another. So blindly following the list, seems to collapse into a form of rule worship — with no consideration for the real, context-dependent world.

So it seems Aristotle was unable to properly find a conclusion to the question: what are virtues?

Rosalind Hurtshouse.

In her 1999 paper, Ethicist Rosalind Hurtshouse saw these problems, and tasked herself with saving Virtue Ethics from complete triviality.

But before completely redefining Aristotle’s ethics, she insisted on giving his theory one last chance at success. She considers one final, charitable, account of virtues.

On this final account: an action is virtuous if and only if, a virtuous agent would have performed that action, in that setting. (See page 28 Right Action, for this formulation in full).

This account has some appeal to it. It tells us that when faced with a moral dilemma, we should look around, find someone who is wiser than us, ask what they would do and just copy their behaviour. Perhaps that’s all there is to virtue.

But again, this can’t work. This definition is trivial, or circular at best — because it doesn’t really tell us anything.

How do we identify a virtuous agent? Simple, they are those that perform virtuous actions.

But how do we identify virtuous actions? Simple, they are those which the virtuous agent performs.

See the problem? We’re left in a vicious circle, to which there is no solution.

Worse still, this account faces an even deeper problem.

In a 2019 conference, Philosopher Jon Robsonpresented me with an adapted version of Plato’s Euthyphro problem which illustrates that this problem goes further.

He asked me: is the action virtuous because the virtuous agent performed it? Or is the agent virtuous because they performed virtue?

Put simply, this is asking — Does virtue exist independently of the virtuous agent, or is it only virtue because it was performed by them?

On the former, we are left stuck with how to identify what virtue is. And on the latter, we are left stuck with how to identify a virtuous agent.

Aristotle has given us no clues, beyond what I have mentioned (and rejected,) as to how to identify either.

So, as Hurtshouse notes, this theory doesn’t work either. And it’s with that, which we can conclude Aristotle had no coherent account of what Virtues are.

So I ask you again. What are virtues? How do you intend to perform them when you can’t identify them?

Virtue’s Aren’t Known, but Felt.

I’m not telling you all this to trick you. You should still aim to act virtuously — and I implore you to try.

But it should be clear by now that virtues can’t be known. Rather, they are dispositions or psychological traits which you develop over time. In essence — you feel these, you don’t know them.

And this is actually something Aristotle hinted at himself. Virtues and vices are found in the soul — and they both bring with them feelings, sensations and emotions. Evident from cases like uncontrollable anger, or an overwhelming feeling of guilt.

The only difference between the feelings of vice, and virtue — is that virtue brings with it a choice. When experiencing these overwhelming feelings, you can choose whether to comply with them. You can’t do the same with vice.

In this way, virtue isn’t knowledge. It’s a state of character, as Aristotle puts it.

And there’s no secret formula for developing a good state of character. Instead, they can only be achieved through practice.

Aristotle called this Practical Wisdom. By putting ourselves in morally difficult situations, and regularly experiencing a variety of emotions — we will soon develop the right level of reasoning, along with new dispositions and traits, that lead us to perform virtuously.

“Virtue is a state of character concerned with choice, being determined by rational principle as determined by the moderate man of practical wisdom.”

Let’s consider an example.

Children might physically hit others. Now let’s suppose they do this, and as adults, we don’t intervene. We let them do it — in essence, we present them with a choice: whether to act virtuously (not to hit others,) or not.

They might continue for a short while to physically attack others. But over time, they will begin to observe the negative consequences that their actions have.

At our core, we humans are an empathetic species. It’s because of this that we are subject to reactive attitudes — we see the consequences our actions have on others: the upset they experienced, or the harm we caused. And we can’t help but be emotionally moved by it.

And it’s these emotions that are an indication of virtue.

Empirical evidence shows that, even without Adult intervention, these Children will stop hitting others and start acting virtuously — simply because it’s wrong to do so.

And, even if they continue to hit others, they still know that it’s wrong — evident from the fact that most children try and hide their wrongdoings. It’s here that they are continuing to act on vices despite virtues becoming available choices to them: and this is out of ignorance. It’s clear they should avoid such behaviour, they just choose not to.

And to recognise they are neglecting this virtuous choice relies on a level of practical wisdomthat they will only achieve through practice. It’s this reasoning that, when identifying a virtuous choice, leads us to take it.

Like children, the same applies to us.

Keep putting yourself in morally difficult situations. You might not perform what’s virtuous to begin with. But over time, through the experiences of your actions, your emotions will reveal virtues to you, giving you the opportunity to perform them. And, through sufficient practice, you will develop the practical wisdom that leads you to take that opportunity.

Following this practice, you will develop traits and dispositions, that are so entrenched in your behaviour that you will do what’s virtuous, without applying any form of practical wisdom or thinking about it.

Of course, I am not implying we should just leave children to do as they please. Practice makes perfect, so it’s our responsibility to guide other’s, through similar experiences we have had: to guarantee they gain practical wisdom, and become virtuous as quickly as possible. And in 2007 paper, Environmental Virtue Ethics, Hurtshouse implied just that.

“Is happiness to be acquired by learning, by habit, or some other form of training? It seems to come as a result of virtue and some process of learning and to be among the godlike things since its end is godlike and blessed.”

The Takeaway.

It seems that, even back in 384 BC, Aristotle was onto something when he told Alexander the Great to Act Virtuously. But, as I have shown, discovering what is virtuous is much harder than it seems.

It’s clear, however, that virtue’s aren’t known, but felt.

So when faced with a moral dilemma, I encourage you to act virtuously — not through some abstract set of rules that you must abide by. Instead, by letting your genuine emotions and feelings guide your behaviour.

By practising this, you are building practical wisdom.This being the foundation for long-lasting, genuine dispositions and traits to perform the right action — rather than just aimlessly following someone that tells you what to do.

And remember,these emotions come from the soul. Listen to them. Cherish and nurture them — when you’re acting viciously rather than virtuously, you’ll know. Don’t ignore that feeling — instead, adjust your behaviour to what feels right.

“By doing just acts the just man is produced, by doing temperate acts, the temperate man; without acting well no one can become good.”

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