The virtuous person, in brief, is someone who always does the ‘right’ thing. Aristotle’s virtue theory suggests that the person who always does the right thing is in a state of eudaimonia, or flourishing. However, this is very vague and both concepts of right-action and eudaimonia are subjective. In the following I will examine Aristotle’s virtue ethics.
Firstly outline this theory. Then I will argue with Aristotle that the virtuous person is the one that flourishes, because I feel that despite the potential of facing failures, a life of consciously trying to be the best you can be in every given scenario you are faced with, is the life that brings about most personal or inner happiness. After this I will outline the contrasting view of eudaimonia held by Epicurus, he feels that eudaimonia is a life of pursuing pleasure and minimising pain, which I feel is a flawed philosophy. I will then finish with my counter-arguments to these points, and conclude that it is my belief that we need to be virtuous in order to reach eudaimonia.
A virtuous person is someone that always knows what to say, that can ease a tense situation, deliver tough news gracefully. Someone that is confident without being arrogant, brave but not reckless, generous without being extravagant. This isn’t a material habit such as being a smoker, but to “notice, expect, value, feel, desire, choose, act, and react in certain characteristic ways” (Hursthouse and Pettigrove). Aristotle believed that to achieve this we need to focus on being good people, then right action will follow effortlessly. He believed that humans have a fixed nature or essence, and flourishing comes from adhering to that nature. Now, all things that indicate proper functioning for animals hold true for humans as well – we need to grow, be healthy and fertile. However we are also ‘the rational animal’ and we are social animals too, so our function also involves using reason to make decisions, and get along with our pack.Aristotle suggested having virtue means doing the right thing, at the right time, in the right way, in the right amount, towards the right people.
This is very vague but for Aristotle there is no need to be specific, because if you’re virtuous, you know exactly what to do all the time. You know how to handle yourself and how to get along with others. You have good judgement, you can read a room and you know what’s right and when. Aristotle believed virtue to be a specific set of character traits, a ‘golden mean’ between two extremes he called vices. For instance courage is the midpoint between cowardice which is a deficiency and recklessness which is an excess. As Aristotle eloquently put in this book The Nicomachean Ethics… “virtue is a purposive disposition, lying in a mean that is relative to us” (Aristotle.
et al. chapter vi, page 42, 1107a, lines 1-5.).
Virtue is a skill, a way of living that can only really be learned through experience, it is a practical wisdom. Aristotle believed character to be developed through habituation. He believed that if you do a virtuous act over and over again eventually it will become ingrained in your character. Virtue then does not come with a rulebook, but instead involves taking care in your action, and reflecting on it.
“virtue is not merely a state in conformity with the right principle” (Aristotle. et al. chapter xiii, Pages 165-6, 1144b, lines 27-30.) but one where right principle is implied.According to Aristotle’s theory people who are virtuous are moral exemplars and built within all of us is the ability to recognise these people and try to emulate them. Virtue theory says that we should all strive to be virtuous because if we are then we can attain the pinnacle of humanity – eudaimonia.
There is no perfect definition of the Greek word eudaimonia but it loosely translates to ‘a life well lived’ or ‘human flourishing’. 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 that’s really difficult, rather than just having it handed to you. A eudaimonistic life is one of constant self-reflection and improvement, it is one where you can never sit back and coast. It is one where you are constantly setting yourself new goals to achieve.
Choosing to live this way means you may face failure and disappointments – it’s not always an easy or happy life. It involves pushing yourself to be the best you can be and achieving as much as you can each day. This is morality for Aristotle – honing your strengths while working on your weaknesses, and consciously striving to be the best you can be. Aristotle believed that the people that live this way will do good things.