Virtue, according to Aristotle

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Virtue,according to Aristotle

Variousconcepts and doctrines have been developed throughout human historyin an attempt to define and characterize peaceful and satisfyingcoexistence in the society. Virtue is one of the concepts that havebeen debated for many years, with the main focus on its definition,scope, and significance in enhancing ethics in the society andhelping people live more fulfilling lives. Aristotle is one of thescientists and a philosopher who advanced and studied the concepts ofvirtue in details. Aristotle gave a simple definition of virtue bystating that it refers to the point between an excess and adeficiency of a given trait (Aristotle 1). This definition coveredthe two types of virtue, namely intellectual and moral virtues.Aristotle adds that virtue manifest in the form of actions and habitsthat define a good life of mindless customs. This means that the mainobjective of Aristotle when studying the concepts of virtue was toemphasize on the significance of habit in determining human conduct.This paper will address the key preconditions required for virtue,extremes of each type of virtue, and consideration of the particularsituation in determining the subjectivity of virtue. Aristotle is oneof the earliest philosophers who studied the concept of virtue indetails and identified its relevance in the society.

Preconditionsrequired for virtue

Thevoluntary or involuntary nature of an action serves as the primarypreconditions used as a determinant of whether it is virtuous or not.Aristotle made some effort to distinguish between actions that can beregarded as voluntary and those that are considered to be involuntaryin the context of virtue. In the case of voluntary actions, the agentcan be blamed or praised, while the agent of involuntary actions isheld immune from any form of moral assessment (Kemerling 1). This isbecause involuntary actions are determined by some external pressuresand the agent makes no contribution to their performance. Involuntaryactions can be performed out of ignorance or force. However,Aristotle exempted actions committed out of fear of being harmed bystating that threats (such as a threat to harm one’s family) cannotconstitute the use of force as a precondition for assessment ofvirtuous actions (Kemerling 1). Although ignorance is used to assessthe virtuousness of an action, the evaluation should only be based onlack of awareness of some particulars, but not ignorant about themoral rules that determine whether it is wrong or right to dosomething. For example, striking someone during an exercise can beexcused if the offered did it in ignorance of the presence of theoffended person, but a claim that one did not know whether it iswrong to strike another person during an exercise cannot be regardedas involuntary.

Friendsas a precondition for virtue

Friendshipis one the most important objective preconditions of virtue becauseit depicts the significance of human relationships and the keyelements of a good life. Aristotle stated that without friends noperson would choose to live even if he had all other things of goods(Kemerling 1). Friendship in the context of virtue can be classifiedinto three categories. First, a friendship that is established forpleasure occurs when people realize that they have some commoninterest in a given activity (such as playing tennis) and cometogether to pursue it. Secondly, a type of friendship that is basedon utility comes into existence when people realize that they canbenefit by taking part in some coordinated activities. This type offriendship lasts until mutual utility ends. Lastly, there are somepeople who establish friendships with the objectives of enhancing theoverall goodness of each of the parties to that friendship. This isthe best type of friendship that would be expected to last foreverbecause the goodness in life is never wholly obtained. Thesignificance of friendship in the society is founded on the notionthat happiness is regarded as a public affair as opposed to a privateaffair and peoples that one share that happiness in life matters alot.

Wealthas precondition for virtue

Wealthis of the preconditions required for virtue that is accepted by allpeople to be good and worth looking for. Although Aristotleacknowledges that fact that some people define goodness as wealth,knowledge, or power, he makes a distinct definition that goes beyondwealth. Aristotle states that goodness is mainly determined by what agive action is aimed at (Scott 1). This means that the intention oftaking an action is more important than the action itself indetermining the goodness of that action. For example, a virtuousperson with characteristic traits of generosity accumulates wealthfrom the sources that are right with the objective of acquiringsomething to give to those who are in need (The Saylor Foundation 2).Virtuous people cannot neglect their wealth because they intend togive it to the right people, but the right time. From these examples,the main objective of a virtuous person who accumulates wealth is toassist the right people and that the intention of assisting others isuniversally good.

Educationand the spiral effect

Humanknowledge and information about what constitutes temperate orintemperate generous or miserly, is a product of the surroundings orthe type of education that one acquires in a lifetime. Thesignificance of education in determining and supporting virtuouspractices in the society applies to the second type of virtue, whichis the intellectual virtue. According to Aristotle, intellectualvirtue constitutes artistic, scientific, technical, practical,philosophical wisdom, and intuitive reasoning that can be acquiredthrough a process of learning (Kemerling 1). The main point argumentis whether people can be shown how to do well. Aristotle made itclear that virtue cannot be taught in a classroom situation, but orthrough arguments, but the contribution of education in advancingvirtue is to explain to people what is considered to be good, reasonsfor its consideration a good thing, and ways of building institutionsand societies that inculcates this type of goodness (Aristotle 1). People learn and distinguish the good from bad as their increase thelevel of education and their tendency to do virtuous actionsincreases with the level of education as determined by the spiraleffect model. Given the significance of education in advancingvirtuous actions in the society, legislators have a primary duty ofensuring that education of the young people is one of the key goalsto be pursued by the leadership. This can be achieved by makingeducation public and common to all members of the society.

Theimportance of practicing virtue

Practicingvirtue is important because it benefits both the person doingvirtuous actions and the entire society. Virtue, viewed as a moralhabit, helps individuals in maintaining their own values. Aristotlestated that human values are founded on moral standards that in turndefine the life of an individual (Landauer 1). This implies thatvirtues can be considered as pre-thought out approaches of achievingindividual values and the acquisition of rational values helps anindividual in acting virtuously, which in turn results in asuccessful and a happy life. Acting virtuous benefits the society byrestoring habits that respect human dignity, free will, and intellectin the society. This reduces the significance of the concepts ofutilitarianism that creates a perception that people can use otherssolely for personal gains. This is achieved by showing the societyactions that can constitute the mean of the extremes of all habits.

Extremesof virtues

Overdoingand under-doing

Thedoctrine of means as advanced by Aristotle holds that virtuousactions exist as an average between two extremes, namely deficiencyand excess of something (Aristotle 1). This means that overdoingsomething or doing it below the average goes against the principlesof virtues. For example, courage can be defined as an average betweencowardice and rashness. In this case rashness is the high extreme ofcourage, while cowardice is the lower extreme of courage and theyboth violate the rules of virtue. Similarly, generosity can beregarded as an average between greed and wastefulness. This meansthat virtue is a principle of moderation and temperance, which isachieved by finding the mean between the vice of two extremes of eattype of virtue. Aristotle stated that too little and too much of anyaction is wrong and the right action should lie between too much andtoo little (the two extremes) (Kemerling 1).

Althoughthe doctrine of mean gained popularity among philosophers andscientist, it has received a few criticisms. For example, someauthors have expressed their doubts on whether feeling or doingsomething as one would be expected to can generate the concept of toolittle or too much (Koehn 256). An example given to explain thiscritique is that there is a possibility for a wicked person to enjoywrong things without deficiency or excessive positions. This impliesthat the description of an action as either deficiency or an excessis accidental. However, Aristotle had already addressed this issue bystating that the average of an action does not necessarily imply thatit stands exactly at the in between its extremes, but its positionmay differ from one person to another (Aristotle 1). This means thatdoing too little or too much is against the basic principles ofvirtue, by the definition of what constitutes the mean betweenextremes depends on an individual.

Theeffect of inclining towards one extreme

AlthoughAristotle does suggest that an average action is not necessarilysituated in the middle of the two extremes, failure by individualstake the perceived mean position forces them to take either of theextremes. For example, an individual who is not generous is eitherwasteful or greed (Scott 1). However, an individual has the capacityto adjust and orient towards the other extreme or orient theirthinking towards the average actions. This is because virtues arehabits of dispositions or acting in certain ways, but the habits canbe acquired if a person engages in proper conduct on certainoccasions. This requires one to think about actions that one does insome specific ways. This is consistent with the concept ofdeliberative choice, which holds that people have the capacity toconsider the degree to which each of the actions can contributetowards the achievement of some goal (Kemerling 1). This implies thatpeople have deliberative choices to orient their thinking towards theother extremes whenever they feel inclined towards one extreme. Forexample, wasteful people can orient their thinking towards the otherextreme and arrive at generosity, which is a virtuous action.

Considerationof particulars of a situation

AlthoughAristotle emphasizes on the significance of considering the extremesof actions, he acknowledged that fact that the doctrine of meancannot be regarded as a precise formulation to be applied by allindividuals. Aristotle states that there are no general rules orfixed formulations in the field of ethics (Aristotle 1). This meansthat actions all actions should be assessed case by case in order todetermine whether they are virtuous or not. Early philosophers(including Aristotle and Confucius) did not give much attention tothe issue of universality or subjectivity of virtues. This is becausethey did not believe that virtues could be considered to be directlyuniversal to all existing minds (Liao 217). This is based onAristotle’s notion that the possible objectivity of virtue isbetter understood in terms of the ideal state of the mind, which isin turn explained in terms of the ideal state of activity. However,modern philosophers, especially the western philosophers, tend tobelieve that virtue is a mere expression of individualistic orsubjective attitudes and emotions (Liao 218). This implies that thejudgment of actions that should be considered to be virtuous variesfrom one person to another and from one situation to another.

Developinghabits to cultivate one’s practice into virtuous activity

Virtueis a habit that requires one to make an intentional choice at thebeginning. According to Aristotle, the type of habit that constitutevirtue is not yet developed at the beginning, but one becomesinclined to behaving virtuously and eventually adopts the habit ofbehaving virtuously without the need to make choices (Driver 5). Thismeans that virtue as a habit become part of the people practicing itand influences their actions. In this context, virtues are viewed tobe instilled habits that influence people to act in certain wayswithout the need to use their practical knowledge and wisdom.However, Aristotle’s view of virtue as a habit does not refer to amechanical procedure that has a limited connection the practicalwisdom. Aristotle tries to imply that the development of a giventrait requires an individual to take actions that depictcharacteristic of that trait. This is consistent with Aristotle’sdefinition of virtue as a habit, which states that virtues ofcharacter are regarded as dispositions to take actions in response tosituations that are similar (Greenan 1). Therefore virtues are habitsthat help people lead easy lives by helping them take virtuousactions without the need to make choices.


Aristotleis one of the earliest philosophers who studied the concept ofvirtues in details. Aristotle managed to identify some objectivepreconditions for virtue, including friendship, wealth, andeducation. Although virtues cannot be taught in a classroomsituation, education plays a key role in enhancing the practice ofvirtues in the society by helping people to determine whatconstitutes virtuous actions. In addition, Aristotle asserted thateach type of virtue has two extremes, namely too little or too much.This implies that overdoing something or doing it below the normallimit violates the key principles of virtues. Although virtues havesome objective preconditions, modern philosophers have suggested thatvirtue is a mere expression of subjective feelings or emotions.


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