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This week we explore final ethical theory in this unit: Aristotle’s virtue theory. Hank explains the Golden Mean, and how it exists as the midpoint between vices of excess and deficiency. We’ll also discuss moral exemplars, and introduce the concept of “eudaimonia.”


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Imagine a person who:
  • Always knows what to say, who
  • Can diffuse a tense situation
  • Deliver tough news gracefully,
  • Is confident without being arrogant
  • Brave but not reckless
  • Generous but never extravagant.
This is the type of person that everybody wants to be around, and to be like: someone who seems to have mastered the art of being a person.

This may sound like an impossible feat, but Aristotle believed that, while rare, these people do exist and they are what we all should aspire to be virtuous. And there's a whole moral theory based on this idea of virtue.

But unlike most of the moral theories we’ve discussed, virtue theory doesn’t spend a lot of time telling you what to do. There’s no categorical imperative or principle of utility. Instead, virtue theory is all about character. Rather than saying, “follow these rules so that you can be a good person,” Aristotle and other virtue theorists reasoned that, if we can just focus on being good people,
the right actions will follow, effortlessly.
 
Become a good person, and you will do good things. No rulebook needed. So, why should you be a virtuous person? Because eudaimonia.

Virtue theory reflects the ancient assumption that humans have a fixed nature – an essence – and that the way we flourish is by adhering to that nature. Aristotle described this in terms of what he called proper functioning. Everything has a function, and a thing is good to the extent that it fulfills its function, and bad to the extent that it doesn’t.

This is easy to see in objects created by humans. A function of a knife is to cut; so, a dull knife is a bad knife. And a function of a flower is to grow and reproduce; so, a flower that doesn’t grow is just bad at being a flower. And, the same goes for humans – we’re animals – so all the stuff that would indicate proper functioning for an animal holds true for us as well – we need to grow and be healthy and fertile.
 
But, we’re also “the rational animal,” and a social animal, so our function also involves using reason and getting along with our pack.
 
Now you might notice that some of this sounds a lot like parts of natural law theory, Aquinas' theory that God made us with the tools we need to know what’s good. Well, Aristotle had a strong influence on Thomas Aquinas, so part of Aristotle’s thoughts on virtue ended up in natural law theory. But for Aristotle, this isn’t about God’s plan, it’s just about nature.

Aristotle argued that nature has built into us the desire to be virtuous, in the same way that acorns are built with the drive to become oak trees. But what exactly does it mean to be virtuous? Aristotle said that having virtue just means doing the right thing,
at the right time, in the right way, in the right amount, toward the right people.
 
Which sort of sounds like Aristotle is saying exactly nothing. I mean, how vague can you be? But according to Aristotle, there's no need to be specific, because if you’re virtuous, you know what to do. All the time. You know how to handle yourself and how to get along with others. You have good judgment, you can read a room, and you know what's right and when.
 
Aristotle understood virtue as a set of robust character traits that, once developed, will lead to predictably good behavior. You can think of virtue as the midpoint between two extremes, which Aristotle called vices. Virtue is the just the right amount, the sweet spot between the extreme of excess and the extreme of deficiency. And this sweet spot is known as the Golden Mean.

So, let’s take a look at some particular virtues, starting with courage. What is courage? To take a closer look at this, let’s head to the Thought Bubble for some Flash Philosophy.

Walking home from a movie, you see a person being mugged. What is the courageous action for you to take? Your impulse might be to say that, “a courageous person would run over there and stop the mugging, because courage means putting yourself in harm's way for a good cause, right?”

Well, no. A virtuous person – in the Aristotelian sense – would first take stock of the situation. If you size up the mugger and have a good reason to believe that you could safely intervene, then that's probably the courageous choice.

But if you assess the situation and recognize that intervention is likely to mean that both you and the victim will be in danger, the courageous choice is not to intervene, but to call for help instead.
According to Aristotle, courage is the midpoint between the extremes of cowardice and recklessness. Cowardice is a deficiency of courage, while recklessness is an excess of courage ... and both are bad.

Aristotle said that you definitely can have too much of a good thing.
So, being courageous doesn’t mean rushing headlong into danger. A courageous person will assess the situation, they’ll know their own abilities, and they’ll take action that is right in the particular situation.

Part of having courage, he argued, is being able to recognize when, rather than stepping in, you need to find an authority who can handle a situation that's too big for you to tackle alone. Basically, courage is finding the right way to act. And a lot of the time – but not all of the time – that means doing a thing that you know you’re capable of, even if doing it scares the pants off of you. Thanks, Thought Bubble!

Aristotle thought all virtue works like this. The right action is always a midpoint between extremes. So, there’s no all-or-nothing in this theory, even honesty. In this view, honesty is the perfect midpoint between brutal honesty and failing to say things that need to be said. Like, no one needs to be told that they have a big zit on their face; they already know. The virtue of honesty means knowing what needs to be put out there, and what you should keep quiet about. And it also means knowing how to deliver hard truths gracefully. How to break bad news gently, or to offer criticism in a way that’s constructive, rather than soul-crushing.
 
The virtue of generosity works the same way. It avoids the obvious vice of stinginess, but also doesn’t give too much. It’s not generous to give drugs to an addict, or to buy a round of drinks for everyone in the bar when you need that money for rent. The right amount of generosity means giving when you have it to those who need it. It can mean having the disposition to give just for the heck of it, but it also means realizing when you can’t or shouldn’t give.

So now you can see why Aristotle’s definition of virtue was totally vague. Where that Golden Mean is depends on the situation. But, if you have to figure out what virtue is in every situation, how can you possibly ever learn to be virtuous?

Aristotle thought there was a lot that you could learn from books, but how to be a good person was not one of them. He said that virtue is a skill, a way of living, and that’s something that can really only be learned through experience.
 
Virtue is a kind of knowledge that he called practical wisdom. You might think of it as kind of like street smarts. And the thing about street smarts is that you gotta learn ‘em on the street. But the good news is, you don’t have to do it alone.
 
Aristotle said your character is developed through habituation – if you do a virtuous thing over and over again, eventually it will become part of your character.
 
But the way you know what the right thing to do is in the first place, is by finding someone who already knows and emulating them. These people who already possess virtue are moral exemplars. And according to this theory, we are built with the ability to recognize them, and the desire to emulate them. So you learn virtue by watching it, and then doing it.

In the beginning, it'll be hard, and maybe it’ll feel fake because you’re just copying someone who's better than you at being a good person. But over time, these actions will become an ingrained part of your character. And eventually, it becomes that robust trait that Aristotle was talking about. It'll just manifest every time you need it. That's when you know you have virtue, fully realized. It becomes effortless.

OK but, why? What's your motivation? What if you have no desire to be the guy who always says the right thing, or the lady who always finds the courage when it's needed? Virtue theory says that you should become virtuous because, if you are, then you can attain the pinnacle of humanity. It allows you to achieve what's known as eudaimonia.

This is a cool Greek word that doesn’t have a simple English translation. You might say it means “a life well lived.” It’s sometimes translated as “human flourishing.” And a life of eudaimonia is a life of striving. It’s a life of pushing yourself to your limits, and finding success. A eudaimonistic life will be full of the happiness that comes from achieving something really difficult, rather than just having it handed to you.
 
But choosing to live a eudaimonistic life means that you’re never done improving, you’re never to a point where you can just coast. You’re constantly setting new goals, and working to develop new muscles. Choosing to live life in this way also means you'll face disappointments, and failures.

Eudaimonia doesn’t mean a life of cupcakes and rainbows. It means the sweet pleasure of sinking into bed at the end of an absolutely exhausting day. It’s the satisfaction of knowing you’ve accomplished a lot, and that you’ve pushed yourself to be the very best person you could be.

This is morality, for Aristotle. It’s being the best person you can be, honing your strengths while working on your weaknesses. And, for Aristotle, the kind of person who lives like this, is the kind of person who will do good things.

Today we learned about virtue theory. We studied the Golden Mean, and how it exists as a midpoint between vices of excess and deficiency. We talked about moral exemplars and the life of eudaimonia that comes with virtuousness.

Next time, we’re going to consider a tricky little problem in ethics known as moral luck.

Crash Course Philosophy is produced in association with PBS Digital Studios. You can head over to their channel to check out a playlist of the latest episodes from shows like PBS Space Time, BBQ with Franklin, and PBS OffBook.

This episode of Crash Course was filmed in the Doctor Cheryl C. Kinney Crash Course Studio with the help of all of these awesome people and our equally fantastic graphics team is Thought Cafe.