Virtues and vices

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L112-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 01, 2020, from

2. Beyond Aristotle: ground; content

The first systematic investigation of the virtues was made by Plato, in such works as Gorgias and the Republic, and it was extremely significant, for instance in setting the problem of the unity of the virtues (see §3). Plato also posed in a particularly challenging form questions about the value of virtues to their possessor. The classical account of the virtues, however, to which all modern treatments refer, is that of Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics) (see Aristotle §22–5). Just because of the power and the influence of this account, it is easy to underestimate the extent to which a modern theory needs to distance itself from Aristotle. A modern account is likely to agree with Aristotle that virtues are dispositions of character, acquired by ethical training, displayed not just in action but in patterns of emotional reaction. It will agree, too, that virtues are not rigid habits, but are flexible under the application of practical reason. But there are at least four matters on which it is likely to disagree with Aristotle, which may be labelled ground; content; unity; and reality.

Ground. Aristotle held that the virtues (for which the word in his language means only ‘excellences’ – see Aretē) had a teleological ground, in the sense that they represented the fullest development of a certain kind of natural creature, a nondefective male human being. No one now is going to agree with Aristotle that there are creatures who are biologically human beings but who are excluded from this full development by their nature as women or as ‘natural slaves’. Having abandoned his views about women and slaves, modern thinkers face the harder question of how far they agree with Aristotle about the natural basis of the virtues. This in turn raises the question of how strongly Aristotle’s own teleological view should be taken. On one interpretation, he had a comprehensive functional conception of the contents of the universe, with each kind of creature fitting into a discoverable overall pattern. On such a conception, substantial parts of the theory of the virtues will be discoverable by top-down systematic inquiry which will tell us what sorts of creatures human beings are, and hence what their best life will be (see Perfectionism; Teleological ethics). Other interpreters give a more moderate account of Aristotle’s enterprise, according to which his intentions will be honoured by a hermeneutical inquiry into what we, now, regard as the most basic and valuable aspects of human beings.

Content. What is undeniably lacking from Aristotle’s thought, as from that of other ancient thinkers, is an historical dimension. Some modern virtue theorists share this weakness. Aristotle’s account is in several respects different from any account of the virtues one would give now, with respect both to what it puts in and what it leaves out. He gives a particularly important place to a quality called megalopsuchia, ‘greatness of soul’, which has a lot to do with a grand social manner and which bears even less relation to a contemporary ethic than its name, in itself, might suggest. A modern person, asked for the principal virtues, might well mention kindness and fairness. Fairness bears a relation to an important Aristotelian virtue, justice, but the latter is defined to an important extent in political and civic terms, and gives a fairly restricted account of fairness as a personal characteristic. Kindness is not an Aristotelian virtue at all. Moreover, there is no account of an important modern virtue, truthfulness; what Aristotle calls the virtue of truth is (surprisingly, as it seems to us) concerned exclusively with boasting and modesty.

There has been obvious historical variation in what is seen as the content of the virtues. Aquinas, who notably developed Aristotle’s account, of course modified it to accommodate Christianity, holding in particular that besides the moral virtues, there were ‘theological’ virtues, which have God as their immediate object (see Theological virtues). The pagans were not in a position to display these, but so far as the moral virtues were concerned, they could be truly virtuous in the light of natural reason. However, there was still something imperfect about their virtue even at this level since, Aquinas held, the whole of ethical life is properly grounded in the virtue called charity, which has a divine origin (see Charity).

For Hume (1751), on the other hand, Aristotle’s account and other pagan sources served to support an ethics of the virtues that was precisely designed to discredit and exclude Christianity (see Hume, D. §4). The historical variation, both in philosophical formulations and in cultural realizations of the virtues, raises wider issues of how theories of the virtues are to be understood. The conceptions of human nature and human circumstances that underlie such theories are open to wide reinterpretation in the face of changing values, and the Aristotelian presupposition that an understanding of human nature could yield a determinate account of the virtues – even if that idea is interpreted relatively unambitiously – looks unrealistic. There are of course constants in the psychology and circumstances of human beings that make certain virtues, in some version or other, ubiquitous: in every society people need (something like) courage, (something like) self-control with regard to anger and sexual desire, and some version of prudence. These platitudes, which are stressed by those who look to a substantive universal virtue theory, severely underdetermine the content of such a theory. This is shown by the very simple consideration that the constant features of human life are indeed constant, but the virtues that have been recognized at different times and by different cultures vary considerably.

Citing this article:
Williams, Bernard. Beyond Aristotle: ground; content. Virtues and vices, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L112-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2020 Routledge.

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