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Moral virtue is the disposition to act right, which we acquire through habit.

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 were 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). Were not praised or blamed for
the feelings we have, because we cant 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 its 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. Its 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 cant 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 doesnt 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 individuals 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.