“Virtues are habits of human excellence. Moral virtues are excellences of character acquired through the formation of good habits and are necessary for happiness.”
Understanding virtue and the specific virtues that enable people to think and behave well has a real payoff: a serious chance at happiness, defined by Aristotle as a whole life, well lived. The virtue theory of ethics dominated Western moral thinking from ancient times through the middle ages. It made a major comeback in the 20th century. An understanding of what virtue and virtue ethics is all about can help people to see why they need to form good habits of choosing and acting.
Virtues are Habits of Human Excellence
Virtue refers to human excellence. In their quest to understand what a good person is and how a good life is lived, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle studied human excellences, which came to be called virtues. They concluded that virtue in general and some virtues in particular, enable a person not only to be good, but also to have a good life. People may not always feel the need to be good, but it’s a sure thing that everyone wants to have a good life. It turns out that you can’t have a good life without being good, that is, being virtuous.
In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle states there are two kinds of virtues: intellectual virtues which are excellences of the mind and moral virtues which are excellences of character.
Intellectual virtues include :-
- speculative wisdom
- practical wisdom (prudence)
- intuitive reason (understanding)
These intellectual virtues can be taught in school – some more than others.
Moral virtues, the virtues that make up good character, are numerous. But the critical ones that, once ingrained in a person, give that person the best chance of happiness are the “cardinal” virtues of:
- fortitude or courage
Prudence (practical wisdom) is a special virtue in that it is an intellectual one, but guides human choices, while the moral virtues are all about doing, or action. Unlike intellectual virtues which can be taught, moral virtues aren’t acquired through teaching. Moral virtues are formed by acting in the same way over and over again, until they become habits.
Virtues are Required for the Good Life
All people want to be happy, and it turns out that a person actually needs the cardinal virtues to achieve happiness, which means, again, a whole life well lived. The moral virtues give people the character that they need to persist through difficulties (fortitude) to achieve worthwhile things, to say no to themselves when it’s really tempting to be self-indulgent (temperance) instead of doing what ought to be done, and to treat others properly (justice).
How do people acquire these moral virtues? If extremely lucky, a person had parents who had them and were therefore role models of excellence. Otherwise it’s very hard work and success comes only after years of making tough decisions and acting responsibly, over and over. Because virtues are good habits and habits take time to form.
How will a person know when he acquires these moral virtues? By the people around him who will look up to him, go to him for help, rely totally on his word, and trust him with their lives. In addition, such a person will feel 10 feet tall, knowing that he is in control of all his appetites, and that he does what he says he’ll do, 100% of the time, even when it costs him something. That person has good moral character or just good character, because he possesses the moral virtues.
Aristotle maintained that it is not possible to achieve happiness, that is, a whole life well lived, without moral virtue. Moral virtue is necessary for happiness because otherwise people sabotage their own well being by making lots of bad choices and acting badly. But moral virtue is not sufficient for happiness as Aristotle saw it. Good fortune is also needed to the extent that a certain minimum amount of wealth and possession of important goods are outside of one’s own power. Good health also relies to some extent on good fortune.
Virtue Ethics Offers a Powerful Plan
The virtue ethics of Aristotle provides people with both amazing insight and a powerful plan to shape one’s choices and actions in ways that will increase the chance of attaining happiness. By developing the four cardinal virtues, a person can go very far down the path of a whole life, well lived and the rest is up to good fortune. But even if bad luck ruins the chance, a person of good character, by possessing the moral virtues, will be far better off than those who don’t.
Sources : Robert McKelvie – Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle.