Aristotle (384–322 BC)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-A022-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved October 16, 2018, from

23. Virtue, practical reason and incontinence

A virtuous person makes a decision (prohairesis) to do the virtuous action for its own sake. The correct decision requires deliberation; the virtue of intellect that ensures good deliberation is prudence (or ‘wisdom’, phronēsis; Nicomachean Ethics VI 4–5); hence the mean in which a virtue lies must be determined by the sort of reason by which the prudent person would determine it (1107a1–2). Virtue of character is, therefore, inseparable from prudence. Each virtue is subject to the direction of prudence because each virtue aims at what is best, as identified by prudence.

In claiming that prudence involves deliberation, Aristotle also emphasizes the importance of its grasping the relevant features of a particular situation; we need to grasp the right particulars if deliberation is to result in a correct decision about what to do here and now. The right moral choice requires experience of particular situations, since general rules cannot be applied mechanically. Aristotle describes the relevant aspect of prudence as a sort of perception or intuitive understanding of the right aspects of particular situations (Nicomachean Ethics VI 8, 11).

These aspects of prudence distinguish the virtuous person from ‘continent’ and ‘incontinent’ people (Nicomachean Ethics VII 1–10). Aristotle accepts the reality of incontinent action (akrasia), rejecting Socrates’ view that only ignorance of what is better and worse underlies apparent incontinence (see Socrates §6; Akrasia §1). He argues that incontinents make the right decision, but act contrary to it. Their failure to stick to their decision is the result of strong non-rational desires, not simply of cognitive error. Still, Aristotle agrees with Socrates in believing that ignorance is an important component of a correct explanation of incontinence, because no one can act contrary to a correct decision fully accepted at the very moment of incontinent action.

The error of incontinents lies in their failure to harmonize the demands of their appetites with the requirements of virtue; their strong appetites cause them to lose part of the reasoning that formed their decision. When they act, they fail to see clearly how their general principles apply to their present situation. If their failure results from an error in deliberation, it is clear why Aristotle insists that incontinent people lack prudence.

Citing this article:
Irwin, T.H.. Virtue, practical reason and incontinence. Aristotle (384–322 BC), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-A022-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2018 Routledge.

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