A History of Virtue as a Philosophy since the Ancient World
In philosophy, the notion of virtue played a central role in ethical theory up until the Enlightenment.
Curated/Reviewed by Matthew A. McIntosh
A virtue is a trait or disposition of character that leads to good behavior, for example, wisdom, courage, modesty, generosity, and self-control. There are also public virtues that characterize the spirit of a nation, such as justice, honor, and peace. Every culture has its lists of virtues, such as the biblical “fruits of the Spirit:” Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23), or the Japanese bushidō code: Gi (義; rectitude), yū (勇; courage), jin (仁; benevolence), rei (礼; respect), makoto (誠; honesty), meiyo (名誉; honor), and chū (忠; loyalty). These define what people regard as most valuable in a human being.
Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle dealt with virtues in terms of character traits of the soul. They held that virtues are conducive to personal and social happiness (eudaimonia), while lack of virtue leads to suffering and downfall. The world’s religions universally encourage people to cultivate virtues, and attribute their source to ultimate reality (dharma, Brahman, Dao, Heaven, or God). Plato likewise rooted virtue in a higher reality, the Forms. Every culture on earth is grounded in teachings and practices that cultivate personal virtue in order to promote social and moral responsibility, so that people may be able to live peacefully on earth and beyond.
In philosophy, the notion of virtue played a central role in ethical theory up until the Enlightenment. However, virtues took something of a back seat after the emergence of Kantianism and utilitarianism, as philosophers focused less on dispositions of character and more on the rightness or wrongness of actions. Recent years have seen a revival of what is called virtue ethics, following the Greek tradition of Plato and Aristotle.
Virtues in World Religions
All religions in the world recognize the importance of morality in our lives, and all cultivate a self-discipline and social and moral responsibility, for the sake of happiness and peaceful living on earth and beyond.
Hinduism regards dharma (the path of righteousness) as the first chief aim of human life, encouraging us to cultivate virtues and do good deeds in order for us to be liberated from the chain of karma. So, the Bhagavad Gita teaches: “O Arjuna there never exists destruction for one in this life nor in the next life; since dear friend anyone who is engaged in virtuous acts never comes to evil.” Although the actions of humans are usually caused by mixtures of the three different qualities of sattva (purity), rajas (vitality), and tamas (darkness), one is encouraged to increase the quality of sattva by cultivating virtues and doing good deeds. Virtues are modes of sattva, and they include altruism, moderation, honesty, cleanliness, protection of the earth, universality, peace, non-violence, and reverence for elders.
The Eightfold Path of Buddhism, consisting of right understanding, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration, is a course on virtuous living on the path of righteousness, which would lead to the cessation of dukkha (suffering) and the achievement of bodhi (enlightenment). Buddhism has a few other ways of classifying virtues. It has the four Brahmavihāras (abodes of Brahma), known also as the four “immeasurables” (apramāṇa in Sanskrit), which are maitrī/mettā (loving-kindness or benevolence), karuṇā (compassion), mudita (sympathetic joy), and upekṣā/upekkhā (equanimity); and they may be more properly regarded as virtues in the European sense. Theravada Buddhism has developed the Ten Perfections (dasapāramiyo in Pāli; singular: Pāramī in Pāli; pāramitā in Sanskrit), shown in the second chapter of the Buddhavamsa, part of its Pali Canon, and they are dāna pāramī (generosity), sīla pāramī (good conduct), nekkhamma pāramī (renunciation), paññā pāramī (wisdom), vīrya pāramī (diligence), khanti pāramī (patience), sacca pāramī (truthfulness), adhiṭṭhāna pāramī (determination), mettā pāramī (loving-kindness or benevolence), and upekkhā pāramī (equanimity). A stress on the importance of such virtues can be seen in the following passage in the Dhammapada, part of the Pali Canon: “Sandal-wood or Tagara, a lotus-flower, or a Vassikî, among these sorts of perfumes, the perfume of virtue is unsurpassed.” Mahayana Buddhism lists the Six Perfections (şaţpāramitā in Sanskrit) in the Lotus Sutra, and they are dāna pāramitā (generosity), śīla pāramitā (good conduct), kṣanti pāramitā (patience), vīrya pāramitā (diligence), dhyāna pāramitā (one-pointed concentration), and prajñā pāramitā (wisdom). Four more Perfections are listed in Mahayana Buddhism’s Dasabhumika Sutra:Upaya pāramitā (skillful means), praṇidhāna pāramitā (determination), bala pāramitā(spiritual power), and jñāna pāramitā (knowledge).
“Virtue,” translated from Chinese de (德), is an important concept in Chinese religions, particularly Daoism and Confucianism. De originally meant normative “virtue” in the sense of “personal character, inner strength, or integrity,” but semantically changed to moral “virtue, kindness, or morality.” Note the semantic parallel for English “virtue,” with an archaic meaning of “inner potency or divine power” (as in “by virtue of”) and a modern one of “moral excellence or goodness.” In Daoism, the concept of de is rather subtle, referring to the lifestyle of wu-wei (無為; non-action) that an individual is expected to realize, in order that he may return to nature and allow the Dao (“The Way”) to unfold in the manner that it is meant to unfold. This non-action is reflected in the three basic virtues called sanbao (三寶; three jewels) in the 67th chapter of Dao De Jing: ci (慈; compassion), jian (儉; frugality), and bugan wei tianxia xian (不敢為天下先; not daring to be ahead of all under heaven, or humility in a concise form).
Confucianism played a key role by presenting its teaching of virtues to Far Eastern countries such as Korea and Japan beside China as they built their social systems. Confucian moral manifestations of virtue include ren (仁; humaneness or benevolence), xiao (孝; filial piety), and zhong (忠; loyalty). Originally, ren had the archaic meaning of “virility” in the Confucian Book of Poems and then progressively took on shades of ethical meaning. In any case, Confucius considers these virtues to be connected with the ming (命; “ordinances of Heaven”), without whose knowledge one cannot become a superior man. One important normative value in much of Chinese thinking is that one’s social status should result from the amount of virtue that one demonstrates rather than from one’s birth.
The Hebrew Bible contains 613 commandments including the Ten Commandments. But, Judaism is not simply about following rules. When teaching these commandments, it actually aims at fostering moral virtues in the hearts of people, so that human relationships may become more harmonious for the betterment of the world. So, one striking virtue taught in Judaism is compassion, resembling the compassionate God. It is indicated in the repeated injunctions in the Hebrew Bible that the widow, the orphan, and the stranger shall be protected. Kindness to the poor is another example, and it is considered to be repaid by God (Proverbs 19:17). In the teaching that “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18), “neighbor” can be a stranger and does not mean an Israelite exclusively (Leviticus 19:34). Justice and impartiality are stressed (Leviticus 19:15, 36; Exodus 23:3). Jewish family ethics involves virtues such as reverence for parents (Exodus 20:12) and chastity (Leviticus 18:18-20).
A classic articulation of the Golden Rule came from the first century Rabbi Hillel the Elder. Renowned in the Jewish tradition as a sage and a scholar, he is associated with the development of the Mishnah and the Talmud and, as such, one of the most important figures in Jewish history. Asked for a summary of the Jewish religion in the most concise terms, Hillel replied (reputedly while standing on one leg): “What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor: That is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary thereof; go and learn it.”
In the Islamic tradition, the Qur’an is, as the word of God, the great repository of all virtues in earthly form, and the Prophet, particularly via his hadith or reported sayings, is the exemplar of virtue in human form. The very name of Islam, meaning “acceptance,” proclaims the virtue of submission to the will of God, the acceptance of the way things are. Foremost among God’s attributes are mercy and compassion or, in the canonical language of Arabic, rahman and rahim. Each of the 114 chapters of the Qur’an, with one exception, begins with the verse, “In the name of God the Compassionate, the Merciful.” A good Muslim is to commence each day, each prayer, and each significant action by invoking God the Merciful and Compassionate, that is, by reciting Bi Ism-i-Allah al-Rahman al-Rahim. The Muslim scriptures urge compassion towards captives as well as to widows, orphans and the poor. Traditionally, zakat, a toll tax to help the poor and needy, was obligatory upon all Muslims (Qur’an 9:60). One of the practical purposes of fasting or sawm during the month of Ramadan is to help one empathize with the hunger pangs of those less fortunate, to enhance sensitivity to the suffering of others and develop compassion for the poor and destitute. The list of Muslim virtues is a long one: prayer, repentance, honesty, loyalty, sincerity, frugality, prudence, moderation, self-restraint, discipline, perseverance, patience, hope, dignity, courage, justice, tolerance, wisdom, good speech, respect, purity, courtesy, kindness, gratitude, generosity, and contentment.
In Christianity, there are three theological virtues: faith, hope, and love/charity, among which the greatest is love (1 Corinthians 13:13). The “theological” virtues are so named because their immediate object is God. The Bible also lists several virtues as the “fruit” of the Holy Spirit: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).
These biblical lists of virtues are accepted to all Christians. Catholic theology calls them “supernatural” virtues, and additionally comes up with what it calls “natural” virtues, which include the four Platonic virtues of prudence (wisdom), justice, fortitude (courage), and temperance, as adopted by theologians such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. These four virtues from Plato are called “cardinal” virtues (cardo in Latin, “hinge”). The three theological virtues and the four cardinal virtues together constitute the so-called “seven virtues” of Catholic theology. These seven virtues, however, are to be distinguished from the seven holy virtues (chastity, abstinence, generosity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility), which the poet Prudentius (348-c.410 C.E.) in his descriptions of battles between the virtues and vices contrasted with the corresponding seven deadly sins (lust, gluttony, avarice, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride).
According to Catholic theology, the supernatural virtues differ from all other virtues, that is, natural virtues, in that they can be obtained only by being supernaturally “infused” through divine grace and not by human effort. According to Thomas Aquinas, non-Christian people can not display the supernatural virtues, although they can manifest the other, natural virtues such as fortitude. However, Aquinas seems to hold that all the natural virtues are subordinate and grounded in the virtue called charity, which is the supernatural queen of the virtues.
Virtues in Community
Although often influenced by religion, specific lists of virtues became influential in various cultures and communities. Among the best-known:
The Roman virtues, were the heart of the Via Romana (the Roman Way). They gave the citizens of the Roman Empire the moral strength to conquer and civilize the world. Private virtues, aspired to by individuals, included: auctoritas (spiritual authority), comitas (humor), constantinum (perseverance), clementia (mercy), dignitas (dignity), disciplinae (discipline), firmitas (tenacity), frugalitas (frugalness), gravitas (gravity), honestas (respectability), humanitas (humanity), industria (industriousness), pietas (dutifulness), prudentia (prudence), salubritas (wholesomeness), severitas (sternness), and veritas (truthfulness). Distinguished from personal virtues were public virtues to be shared by all of society in common, and they included abundantia (abundance), aequitas (equity), concordia (concord), iustitia (justice), libertas (freedom), pax (peace), and salus (safety). Many of the public virtues were personified as deities.
Chinese Martial Morality
Traditional schools of Chinese martial arts, such as Shaolin Kung Fu, base martial arts on a system of ethics called wu-de (武德; martial morality), where wu (武) means martial and de (德) means virtue or morality. Wu-de has two aspects: the morality of deed, which concerns human relationships, and the morality of mind, which is meant to cultivate inner harmony within oneself, and whose ultimate goal is to reach wu-ji (無極; no extremity), closely related to the Daoist concept of wu-wei (無為; non-action). This martial morality spread to Korea and Japan. The morality of deed includes virtues such as qian-xu (謙虛; humility), zhong-cheng (忠誠; loyalty), zun-jing (尊敬; respect), zheng-yi (正義; righteousness), and xin-yong (信用; trust). The morality of mind includes yong-gan (勇敢; courage), ren-nai (忍耐; endurance), heng-xin (恆心; patience), yi-li (毅力; perseverance), and yi-zhi (意志; will).
Samurai virtues were developed as the code of the samurai in the bushidō (武士道; way of the warrier) during the feudal period of history in Japan. It stressed frugality, loyalty, mastery of martial arts, and honor to the death.
The central seven virtues of the Bushido code were: gi (義; rectitude), yū (勇; courage), jin (仁; benevolence), rei (礼; respect), makoto(誠; honesty) or shin (信; honesty), meiyo (名誉; honor), and chū (忠; loyalty). Others that were sometimes added to these were kō (孝; filial piety), chi (智; wisdom), and tei (悌; care for the aged).
Virtues According to Benjamin Franklin
Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) taught thirteen virtues, which he called “moral perfection.” He kept a checklist in a notebook to measure each day how he lived up to them. They became known through his autobiography and inspired many people all around the world. Authors and speakers in the self-help movement report being influenced by him. For example, Anthony Robbins based a part of his “Date with Destiny” seminar on Franklin’s concept. Franklin’s list is as follows:
- Temperance. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
- Silence. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
- Order. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
- Resolution. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
- Frugality. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.
- Industry. Lose no Time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
- Sincerity. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
- Justice. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
- Moderation. Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
- Cleanliness. Tolerate no uncleanness in body, clothes, or habitation.
- Tranquility. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
- Chastity. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
- Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
The Virtues Project
In civil society, there are a number of non-governmental organizations that promote virtues for the betterment of society. For example, The Virtues Project, founded in 1991 based on the conviction that “virtues such as courage, honor, justice, and love are the common elements of character and spirituality universally valued by all cultures,” is a worldwide organization with some inter-religious flavor, which has developed educational programs for religious and non-religious individuals, families, schools, health care agencies, corporations, and so on, so that they may be helped “to live more reverent, purposeful lives, to raise children of integrity and compassion, develop a culture of character in our schools, and inspire excellence and service in the workplace.” It has identified at least fifty-three virtues.
Virtue as a Concept in Philosophical Ethics
Virtue (aretê) is, along with well-being (eudaimonia), one of the two central concepts in ancient Greek ethics. In Greek ethical thinking, virtues (aretai) are character states of the soul (psyche). They include courage, temperance, etc. Each virtue ensures that its possessor acts in the correct ways pertaining to a situation that he or she might encounter over a life. Possessing the virtues ensures that one practices good (agathon) and fine (kalon) courses of action.
Socrates as he appears in Plato’s writings was the first in the Western intellectual tradition to make a serious investigation into the subject matter of virtue. What is known of Socrates’ philosophy is almost entirely derived from Plato’s Socratic dialogues. Scholars typically divide Plato’s works into three periods: the early, middle, and late periods. They tend to agree also that Plato’s earliest works quite faithfully represent the teachings of Socrates, and that Plato’s own views, which go beyond those of Socrates, appear for the first time in the middle works such as Phaedo and Republic.
Socrates challenged the Sophists, professional rhetoricians who promoted moral relativism, skepticism, and secular, materialistic lifestyles. Protagoras, one of the major Sophists, argued that good and evil are a matter of interpretation. Some Sophists even held a Machiavellian view of value, arguing that good and evil are determined by a winner. Thus, the Sophists generally promoted a view of value based upon power, wealth, and honor. For Socrates, however, the foundation of morality consists in the world of eternal truth beyond the world of everyday reality. It transcends human interpretations. Eternal truth is both transcendent of and immanent in the soul at the same time because people cannot really grasp it, while they are aware of it. The soul is not some kind of ghostly substance at all but rather the the structure of personality that has the capacity for intelligence and character. The soul, which is at least aware of eternal truth, needs to be cultivated, so that it may have true knowledge of eternal truth. Virtue indeed consists in the cultivation of the soul in this sense. Therefore, virtue means knowledge of eternal truth on the part of the soul. Conversely, vice means ignorance. Ultimately, virtue relates to the form of the Good; to truly be good and not just act with “right opinion,” one must come to know the unchanging Good in itself.
Socrates seems to have maintained that there is strictly only one virtue, which is knowledge of eternal truth. This is sometimes called his doctrine of the unity of the virtues. In Plato’s dialogue, Protagoras, Protagoras defends the view that virtues are distinct traits so that a person can possess one virtue without possessing the others (329d-e). For example, some people are courageous without being wise, and some are wise without being courageous. Socrates argues against this, maintaining that apparently separate virtues such as wisdom, courage, self-control, and justice are in some way one and the same thing. His view seems to be that the distinction between virtues is nothing other than the distinction between different spheres of application of the same state of knowledge. Given this unity of the virtues, it follows that a person cannot possess one virtue independently of the others: If he possesses one, he must possess them all.
Plato’s view of virtue may be understood as a development of Socrates’. In his greatest work, Republic, Plato shows his tripartite conception of the soul as having reason, spirit, and appetite, which he developed from common experience of internal confusion and conflict within the soul. Reason seeks the true goal of human life in view of eternal truth, of the Forms, and spirit is the drive that is neutral at first but responds to the direction of reason. But, appetite is the desire for the things of the body. The soul can achieve order and peace only if the rational part is in control of the irrational parts of spirit and appetite. But, after the soul enters the body, the body stimulates the irrational parts to defeat the rulership of reason. Hence disorder happens, and the soul’s former knowledge of eternal truth is lost. Plato calls the regaining of this knowledge “recollection” (anamnesis) and relates it to the regaining of reason’s control over spirit and appetite. So, like Socrates, Plato believes that knowledge is virtue.
Corresponding to the three parts of the soul, however, there are three distinguishable virtues: Wisdom, courage, and temperance. The virtue of wisdom is achieved, when reason remains undisturbed by the irrational parts of the soul to see eternal truth in the Forms, especially the Good. The virtue of courage is achieved, when the energy of will, coming from spirit, follows the direction of reason aggressively yet defensively even in situations of trial, avoiding headlong or rash action. The virtue of temperance is attained, when appetite is kept within limits and in its measure, avoiding excesses in pleasures and desires so that they may not dominate the other parts of the soul. Plato also talks about a fourth virtue, which is justice. The virtue of justice is attained, when each part of the soul fulfills its function. For justice means giving to each part its own due. The attainment of justice, then, means that the soul achieves not only inner harmony but also happiness or well-being (eudaimonia).
Aristotle’s account of the virtues, as presented in the Nicomachean Ethics is by far the most influential of the ancient accounts of the virtues. The fact that many modern thinkers consider themselves to be “neo-Aristotelians” is testimony to this fact. Unlike Plato, Aristotle believed that eternal truth is embedded in human beings, not separated from them, so that it can not only be known by studying human nature but also be attained through practice. According to Aristotle, the human soul as the form of the human self has three parts: the rational (which is distinctively human), the appetitive (which is shared with animals), and the vegetative (which is shared with plants). What is pertinent to human morality is the relationship between the rational and appetitive parts of the soul. Although the appetitive part in and by itself is irrational, being shared with animals, nevertheless it is also rational as long as it is under the control of the rational, that is, as long as there is the rational ability of the soul to control appetitive desires. Indeed, moral virtues consist in various forms of the rational ability of the soul in this sense. So, “in the continent man it [i.e., the appetitive part] obeys the rational principle and presumably in the temperate and brave man it is still more obedient.” These moral virtues are each not instinctive but learned through teaching and practice to become a habit (ethos), a slight linguistic variation of which has given rise to the word “ethics” (ethike). Unlike Plato’s idea that virtue is basically knowledge alone, therefore, Aristotle’s understanding is that each virtue involves the self-control of the soul in addition to rational knowledge. Aristotle considers many more moral virtues than Plato, and includes virtues such as magnificence, liberality, friendship, sincerity, and self-respect. As habits, moral virtues are character traits. Most moral virtues are to be understood as falling at the mean between two vices, that is, the two extremes of defect and excess. For example, the virtue of courage is the mean between cowardice (defect) and rashness (excess). This is called the doctrine of the mean.
Aristotle posits virtues of another kind, which consist in purely rational abilities of the soul unrelated to controlling the appetitive part. They are intellectual virtues, and they include “philosophical wisdom” of first principles (sophia) and “practical wisdom” of the good (phronêsis). While the moral virtues can lead us to happiness, the intellectual virtues constitute even higher forms of happiness.
Kantianism and Utilitarianism
Since the time of the Enlightenment, moral theorizing has shifted its focus from the issue of what sort of person one should be to that of what one ought to do. Thus, the main questions to be addressed have become: What actions should one perform, and which actions are right and which ones wrong? Questions such as: Which traits of character ought one to develop? and, Which traits of character are virtues, and which ones vices?, have been ignored. For instance, according to classical utilitarians such as as Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), one ought to do actions that promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. The principle of utility is a criterion of rightness, and one’s motive in acting has nothing to do with the rightness of an action. Similarly, for Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), one ought to act only on maxims that can consistently be willed as universal laws. Kant, of course, does give motivation a central place in his theory of morality, according to which the morally virtuous person is someone who is disposed to act from the motive of duty. But this idea, of someone who always does the right thing from the desire to do the right thing, may not be an accurate picture of the virtues of the moral agent’s character. This trend after the Enlightenment continued until the middle of the twentieth century.
Twentieth Century: Virtue Ethics
Interest in the concept of virtue and ancient ethical theory more generally has enjoyed a tremendous revival in the twentieth century. This is largely as a result of Elizabeth Anscombe’s 1958 article, “Modern Moral Philosophy,” which argues that duty-based conceptions of morality are incoherent because they are based on the idea of a law but without a lawgiver. Her point is roughly that a system of morality conceived along the lines of the Ten Commandments, as a system of rules for action, depends on someone having actually made these rules. However, in the modern climate, which is unwilling to accept that morality depends on God in this way, a rule-based conception of morality is stripped of its metaphysical foundation. Anscombe recommends a return to the virtue ethical theories of the ancients, particularly Aristotle, which ground morality in eudaimonia, that is, the interests and well-being of human moral agents, and can do so without appeal to any questionable metaphysics. The primary focus of this virtue ethics is not discrete actions but rather: What sort of person should one be, try to be, or want to be? The focus is the agent’s character.
Many philosophers today follow ancient ethical thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle, in situating virtue at the centre of their ethical theories. They criticize utilitarianism and Kantian ethics, by stating that both neglect the importance of moral motivation, or provide a distorted conception of moral motivation. As a result, virtue ethics has come to be recognized as a promising alternative to utilitarianism and Kantianism in the sphere of normative theory.
The Nature of Virtue
Contemporary virtue ethics shares much in common with Aristotle. Most modern thinkers adopt Aristotle’s view that virtues are flexible traits of character, which are displayed in specific types of actions, as well as cognitive and emotional reactions. This conception of virtues may be explained by considering its various components in turn.
Firstly, virtues are states of a person’s character. Judging someone to be courageous or wise, for example, is to make a judgment targeted at the character of a person rather than specific actions. One calls actions right and wrong, but when one says that a person is generous, one is making a claim about the moral worth of the person concerned. One is saying that he or she possesses a certain virtuous trait of character.
Secondly, a virtue is a disposition of a person’s character. A disposition is a tendency to have certain responses in particular situations: Responses such as emotions, perceptions, and actions. It is important to notice that the idea of a disposition is made out in terms of the situations in which certain characteristics would be displayed. To say that a person is a generous man is to say more than he has behaved generously in the past. If he has the virtue of generosity, then he will very likely behave generously in situations in which generosity is called for. This, then, has something to do with enduring patterns of response, which characterize a person when he or she is in situations of a given type.
Thirdly, the possession of a virtue entails a wide range of responses including actions, perceptions, attitudes and emotions. In this vein, Rosalind Hursthouse helpfully characterizes virtues as multi-track dispositions. She says: “A virtue is not merely a tendency to do what is morally desirable or required. Rather, it is to have a complex mindset. This includes emotions, choices, desires, attitudes, interests, and sensibilities.” A person who fully possesses a virtue is effortlessly moved by the range of considerations pertinent to the situation in which he or she acts, and displays the emotions particular to the virtue in question. This is to recognize a distinction drawn by Aristotle between the virtuous person and the strong-willed person who acts correctly but has to control his desires and emotions, which are not properly tuned to the display of the virtue in question. The main point is that a full virtue requires a harmony between one’s actions and emotions and attitudes. Someone who does not possess this harmony may act correctly but will nonetheless fail to be (fully) virtuous.
Main Differences from Aristotle’s Conception
But, the contemporary account diverges from Aristotle’s conception in a number of ways. Firstly, the scope of virtue in the contemporary account is not as broad as that in Aristotle’s conception. The Greek word arête is usually translated into English as “virtue.” One problem with this translation is that we are inclined to understand virtue in a moral sense, which is not always what the ancients had in mind. For the Greeks, arête pertains to all sorts of qualities we would not regard as relevant to ethics, such as the physical beauty of a woman and the high speed of a horse. So it is important to bear in mind that the sense of virtue operative in ancient ethics is not exclusively moral and includes more than moral states such as wisdom and courage.
Secondly, the contemporary conception is not as teleological as Aristotelian ethics. According to Aristotle, virtuous activity is to achieve well-being or happiness (eudaimonia) in our life, and for that purpose we have to have our virtue in the sense of arête function excellently. For example, rationality is peculiar to human beings, and the function (ergon) of a human being will involve the exercise of his rational capacities to the highest degree to attain well-being. The contemporary account, by contrast, is not necessarily a teleological ethics.
Thirdly, contemporary virtue theory seems to take account of the fact that what counts as a virtue is influenced by historical factors. So, it does not necessarily agree with Aristotle’s list of the virtues. A particularly conspicuous example of this is megalopsuchia (“greatness of soul”) Aristotle regards as a virtue. Contemporary theory would not accept it as a virtue. Another example is the virtue of kindness, which Aristotle does not have on his list of virtues, but which contemporary virtue theory accepts from the Christian tradition.
Fourthly, contemporary theory is more hesitant about Socrates’ doctrine of the unity of the virtues than Aristotle. Of course, Aristotle diverges from Socrates in that he recognizes the real difference of the virtues; but, he at least endorses the Socratic idea that one cannot have one virtue without having them all, based on the intellectual virtue of practical wisdom (phronêsis) he emphasizes. Aristotle thus maintains that one cannot properly possess any of the virtues unless one has developed practical wisdom. Conversely, if one has practical wisdom, then one has all the virtues. Most contemporary thinkers will not recognize the strong sort of dependency between practical wisdom and courage, for example.
Virtues have been talked about and encouraged to be practiced in almost all places and cultures, although they may have been treated in a variety of ways because of the diversity of cultures and places. Virtues have not been seen as something accidental but rather something purposeful. Major world religions have derived human virtues from some ultimate existence that provides a purpose. Indian religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism attribute virtues to dharma (the path of righteousness), which in case of Hinduism is apparently the projection of divine order from Brahman. Chinese religions find virtues to be originated ultimately from Dao (Daoism) or Heaven (Confucianism). The monotheistic religions of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity see human virtues as coming from God. All religions seem to teach that practicing virtues leads to liberation or salvation.
According to ancient Greek philosophers such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, virtues are character states of the soul in its harmony and are related to happiness or well-being (eudaimonia) as their goal, which is derived from eternal truth in the Forms. Contemporary virtue ethics, which is a revival of this Greek virtue ethics after its interruption by Kantianism and utilitarianism since the Enlightenment, is basically in agreement with this point. Various virtues developed in ordinary human life and community, such as the Roman virtues, the virtues of martial arts, and the virtues listed by Benjamin Franklin, also tend to point to something meaningful.
This kind of universal assessment of virtues, which says that they can be attributed to something ultimate, meaningful, and liberating, is unacceptable to critics such as the nihilist Friedrich Nietzsche who, rejecting conventional universal standards for virtues, believe that virtues should be invented by humans themselves. But, Alasdair MacIntyre in his highly regarded book, After Virtue, refutes this Nietzchean criticism among others.
- Bhagavad Gita, 6:40. Retrieved August 29, 2016.
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