Aristotle had a theory of ethics that focused on what is called virtues. His virtues included courage, benevolence, and temperance. Within this theory was a theory of the mean. The basic idea is that each virtue is a mean (or halfway point) on a continuum. One example is bravery. It is situated between cowardice and fool-hardiness.
His ethics start with the concept of eudaimonia. This Greek word can be translated as flourishing. This is a concept that Sam Harris bases his whole view of ethics on.¹ While it cannot be claimed that this is derived from science (I never did figure out if he claimed this), you can use science to determine what would allow humans and by his lights other conscious animals to flourish.
One issue with this approach is how do you determine what flourishing means to individuals. If individuals, you face the dilemma of having one person’s flourishing diminishing another’s. If it is the most people possible than how do calculate it. This is a big problem with what is called utilitarianism. Utilitarianism claims that it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number of persons that ultimately counts. How this is determined no philosopher (or anyone) to my knowledge has solved. The first to investigate this approach to ethics was Jeremy Bentham, followed by John Stuart Mill.²
One way out of this problem is to only do things that would contibute to another’s flourishing. But, unless you can actually determine that, you are stuck. Not totally though because somethings are obvious. Harris’ whole scheme is future oriented because the science to determine human flourishing is not advanced enough yet, and it may be sometime before it is, if ever. As a neuroscientist he sees this coming to fruition, but actually when he never really says.
So, what is Aristotle’s idea of eudaimonia. To begin with it is within a community of people. I think he defines this community as politics, which is more than the notion we have of it in modern times. Today, politics leaves a bad taste in some people’s mouth—mine at least. It is consider to be about elections and legislation and the influence of people to and from. One thing wrong about Aristotle’s view on politics is that it excludes woman, slaves, and peasants.
Being a part of a community is shown in positive psychology (the psychology of happiness) studies to contribute to a sense of happiness or well-being. Well-being would be closest in Aristotle’s sense. However, one cannot put to much stock in these studies. While they may have a certain validity to them, it does not mean that someone who lacks a sense of community is unhappy. Apparently, there are perfectly happy hermits.
Considering that community is important in Aristotle’s theory, most of his virtues are related to how you behave in this community. Of course, most ethical virtues have an impact on others, but some are more important than others. Benevolence is a big virtue in Aristotle’s range of virtues, and it is directly related to how you interact with others.
There is also an ethical view called communitarianism. It is the view that your obligations to your community (however defined) is the focus of moral action. As I see it, Aristotle could have bought into this view on a partial basis. Only partially because the center to his ethics is personal virtues whether directly contributable to your political environs or not.
Now is maybe the time to bring up the fact that I do not feel that ethical views (or theories or systems) are mutually exclusive. It is just that individual systems have different emphases. So, in the above case having a virtue ethics view is not directly in conflict with a communitarianism view.
Let us get back to Aristotle’s virtue ethics. The whole point of practicing virtues is that as you become proficient in a virtue it becomes second nature to act with that virtue, so that when you are in a situation that calls for that virtue you display that virtue, and so act morally correct. So if you act courageously on a consistent basis, the more likely it is that you are to act bravely in a new situation that calls for it.
It has been awhile since I read Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, so I do not recall all the virtues that he mentions in this book. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy mentions justice that I have not already mention. The article goes on to state his intellectual virtues, among which is intuitive understanding and practical and theoretical wisdom. It also points out several areas in which virtues are important such as friendship and pleasure. In addition not mentioned is integrity and consistency as other intellectual virtues.³ The article points out much more, but here I am really interested in the theory of the mean of the continuum on which the virtues are situated.
My attraction to Aristotle’s virtue ethics is not in any particular virtue. My concern is with knowing where a particular virtue lies on the continuum and the practice of these virtues in order for them to become central to a person’s life—mine in particular.
I feel it is necessary for each individual to determine which virtues are important to her or him. While not everyone will have the same virtues on their list of virtues, I feel that most of us share a lot of our virtues with one another. Each person having his or hers own set of virtues is the price of moral subjectivism.
Moral subjectivism is the view that what is good or bad (I hesitate to use evil because of its link with religion) is not found in the world around us, or any other source, such as god. In other words the world does not come with labels good and bad. It is us—humans—that label things or events in the world as good or bad.4 This does not leave us plague to nihilism or hedonism. It does not necessarily lead to nihilism because, while nothing prevents someone acting only in his or hers own interest, most people have regard for others. Evolution has seen to this. The world would not run even close to smoothly if everyone was out only for themselves. It does not necessarily lead to hedonism because most people have at least some self-constraint.
So, it is up to us to define our own virtues, many of which will be shared. If values are not a natural entity, how do we come to define them? Well, one answer is that evolution has given us certain behavioral traits. While these traits are not in themselves virtues, they can lead to them. We have a natural willingness to help those that are close to us, and we can learn to expand this to do things for our community, for our society, and for strangers. Is everybody altruistic? Unfortunately, no. But, again it is widespread enough for the human world to work fairly smoothly.
Is altruism not than a natural virtue? You could say so, but everything we do is natural; we are a part of the natural world. However, I think of virtues as coming to be valued in some way. So, while we may be predisposed to be kind, through life experiences we come to value being kind. This I feel is what makes kindness into a virtue. It is valued, so it is practiced.
So, do virtues take care of all things ethical? Not at all. I feel that they are a big help in acting morally if your virtues are moral. However, there are other ways of ascertaining what may be considered ethical.
One way is from Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher from the eighteenth century. This kind of ethical theory is known as deontology. The are two main components to his ethical theory. One is more famous than the other. The famous component is to treat others (humans because I do not know if he address ethical behavior toward animals—I doubt if he did) as ends and not as means. This basically means that you should not exploit another person. Is this idea absolutely necessary to maintain ethical behavior? I do not think so. As an example, if I take a class my goal is to learn the knowledge available in the class. I am using the teacher as a mean. Granted, I should be respectful of the teacher, but I do not have to consider his or hers needs to act morally. Other examples certainly can be examined. So, if this view is only about respecting others (which I do not think Kant would agree on), than that is an admirable principle to live by.
The other component is to only act as if that action should be universal. I think one of his examples is lying. In this view I should not lie because I would not wish others to lie. A significant challenge to this is does the lie harm another. There are times when the truth actually hurts, so it is kinder to give a “white” lie. In general the world is not so black and white; there is massive amounts of gray to life, and this includes morality. Again, if these universal moral actions are used as a guide for ethical behavior than it could be consider a positive principle, but not sacrosinct.
I have already mention two other ethical views—communitarianism and utilitarianism. The other view I would like to mention is consequentialism. This is the view that what makes an act moral or not is what the outcome is. For whatever reason, if I run into someone on the sidewalk and injure that person’s arm, according to consequentialism I have done that person a moral wrong, if hurting someone is considered morally wrong (I think almost all people would agree here). If the outcome is all you have to go on, this turns into a black and white world picture. What if I stumbled through no fault of my own? The other person still sustains an injury, but I think I could hardly be held culpable.
Maybe the best way of approaching ethics is pragmatically. With pragmatism you do the best you can with whatever is available to you. Yes, respecting people is usually good; yes, not hurting others is usually good (just war maybe an exception); yes, practicing to be kind is usually good, and yes, the more people that can be made happy is usually good. Everyone of these yeses can have exceptions; ones that cannot always be anticipated.
Getting back to Aristotle. I have talked about the usefulness of practicing a set of virtues. But, what of this theory of the mean. What benefits can it offer. The way I see it (I am not so sure Aristotle saw it the same way) is by putting a virtue on a continuum, you not only practice how to act, but you also practice how not to act. I try to practice the virtue of being nice because I value the outcomes this usually has. Now niceness to me falls on a continuum. It is between being nasty and being walked all over, neither of which is usually good. So not only can I aim to be nice, I can also aim not to be nasty or not to be walked all over.
One other benefit of placing virtues on a continuum with the virtue alighting in the middle is it allows us to see the grays of life and possibly avoid the black and white that can often be so harmful. I seem to harp on black and white thinking a good bit.4 The main reason seems to be personal. In my own life as I learned to cope better with having bipolar disease, I learned how harmful black and white thinking was to my well-being. Does this mean that I have no yeses or nos, no either or? Not really. Sometimes it is good to call a spade a spade, especially if you need to shovel some shit.
So, I have come to the end of this blog, having gone here and there into ethics. My main point has been virtue ethics ala Aristotle. Is this the only way to act morally? Not at all. But, I do feel that it is a good tool to have in your moral toolkit.
¹ His book The Moral Landscape spells out his ethical views.
² Bentham’s major work on this is An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, and Mill’s is Utilitarianism
³ Susan Haack explains these two intellectual virtues in several chapters in her Putting Philosophy to Work.
4 I write about this in part in my blog – What Do You Mean?
* Image – Tear Drop 1 (Julia Set), © Steven Williams, 1991