Moral virtue is the disposition to act right, which we acquire through habit. We’re not given virtues through birth, but nature does give us the capacity to learn and perfect them. We become virtuous by acting virtuously. So the question is what do we mean by virtue?
Virtue is the mean between the extremes, the vices. The extremes of excess and deficiency in our actions impairs our moral qualities in the same way that physical fitness is destroyed by too much and too little exercise or health is ruined by eating and drinking too much or too little. And as we develop the habit of acting according to this mean, the experience of acting virtuously becomes pleasant. This is the one way we know that we possess the virtue – we experience pleasure in it. The best education teaches us to take pleasure in what is good and pain in what is bad.
A virtuous action is not a quality, but a disposition. The doer must be in a certain frame of mind to act virtuously, for which there are three conditions. First, we must know what we’re doing. Second, we must “will” it and will it for its own sake. And, third, we must do it from a firm, clear disposition. Given these, we become virtuous by performing virtuous acts.
But to understand virtue we must know what class or genus of thing it is. We are conditioned in three ways by feelings, capacities and dispositions. Virtue cannot be feelings (states attended by pleasure or pain). We’re not praised or blamed for the feelings we have, because we can’t help them. Virtues are an expression of our wills – we choose them. But neither are virtues capacities. What capacities we have, we have by nature, but it’s not nature that makes us good or bad. So virtues must be dispositions.
But if this is true, how do we distinguish virtue from other dispositions? It is that disposition that enables a thing to perform its function well. So the virtue of a man is the habit, the disposition, which enables him to become good and to perform his function well. We perform our function well when we avoid the extremes and choose the mean in our feelings and actions. A person must avoid both excess and deficiency. Some actions, however, are simply evil in themselves, like maliciousness, adultery, theft, envy and murder. For these the rule cannot be used: whatever we do when we act according to these is wrong.
Still, it is not easy to be a virtuous man – to find the middle point between the two extremes. It’s easy to express our passionate feelings, but to be angry with the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right object – this is not easy. There are three rules of guidance that will help. First, when you aim at the mean avoid the extreme which is most contrary and opposed to the mean. In other words, if you can’t hit the mean, choose the least of the evils. Second, be aware of those vices to which we are personally most susceptible – our natural biases should be given the widest of berths. Third, particularly be on your guard against pleasure, because we always find it difficult to judge something we get pleasure from.
At first sight the doctrine of the mean may seem very simple, even simplistic, but it is more sophisticated than it might seem. Aristotle argues that a good person has developed a moral character that will avoid extreme reactions in situations: not excessive and not deficient. There is an intermediate way of reacting that avoids the extremes. This involves the right feelings at the right times on the right grounds towards the right people for the right motive and in the right way.
As you can see, this involves a calculation that is far from simple. Aristotle is advocating a mean that is relative to a particular individual: that is right for that person in the circumstances she finds herself in. Although virtue lies between the two vices and we can be blamed for acting according to the extremes and praised for acting according to the mean, Aristotle doesn’t mean that virtue can be found exactly in the middle between the two vices. Different points should be chosen in different situations and knowing exactly where they should be along the continuum calls for a long moral training.
If somebody, driving recklessly at high speed, were to miss knocking you off your bike by a fraction of an inch, you would be justified in reacting close to extreme anger (irascibility) than to indifference (lack of spirit). As a good man you would be right to be angry. But if somebody were to bump your supermarket cart as you were shopping, the virtuous response would be close to indifference.
To make the right choices in all these situations involves developing the right habits, those of someone who is leading a virtuous and, therefore, a happy life. For many, particularly the young, developing these habits may call for more than the individual’s own resources. So Aristotle considers the role that the law and education can play in making citizens virtuous. Although he accepts that there are dangers in allowing the state to pass laws to encourage citizens to act virtuously, something that should be left to parental influence, he accepts that the law does have a part to play. By forcing us to act in this way we become aware of the pleasure that is experienced in virtuous acts and of their intrinsic moral value.
Still, more is needed than just obeying the law for fear of the consequences; otherwise we might just be acting as though we were moral without actually doing so. Virtue means that we must learn to perform virtuous acts for their own sake, for their own intrinsic worth. Even so, once the law has started the process of instilling virtuous behavior, education can then teach people the reasons why acting virtuously is good in itself. After all, by its nature the law is a universal prescription, therefore it cannot help us find the mean that is appropriate for the particular situation we find ourselves in. For this we need to begin to act virtuously as we tackle the experiences of our own life.