Thursday, October 22, 2015

Moral & Intellectual Virtues

Moral Virtues

This is the case with the other moral qualities.  They are, in the main, means or point of balance between two extremes, each extreme being a vice either of excess or defect.  Modesty is thus the mean between pride (resulting from too much vanity) and humility (resulting from too little); ambition, between greed (excess) and sloth (defect); and so forth. 

It is in the nature of moral qualities that they are destroyed by deficiency and excess, just as we can see (since we have to use the evidence of visible facts to throw light on what is invisible) in the case of bodil health and strength.  For both excessive and insufficient exercise destroy one's health, and both eating and drinking too much or too little destroy health, whereas the right quanitiy produces, increases and preserves it.  So it is the same with temperance, courage and the other virtues.  The man who shuns and fears everything and stands up to nothing becomes a coward; the man who is afraid of nothing at all, but marches up to every danger, becomes foolhardy.  Similarly, the man who indulges in every pleasure and refrains from none becomes licentious; but if a man behaves like a boor and turns his back on every pleasure, he is a case of insensibility.  Thus temperance and courage are destroyed by excess and deficiency and preserved by the mean. (Book II, ii)

We have now said enough to show that moral virtue is a mean, and in what sense it is so: that it is a mean between two vices, one of excess and the other of deficiency, and that it is such because it aims at hitting the mean point in feelings and actions.  For this reason it is a difficult business to be good; because in any given case it is difficult to find the mid-point--for instance, not everyone can find the center of a circle; only the man who knows how. So too it is easy to get angry--anyone can do that--or to give and spend money; but to feel or act towards the right person to the right extent at the right time for the right reason in the right way-- that is NOT easy, and it is not everyone that can do it.  Hence to do these things well is a rare, laudable and fine achievement. (Book II, ix). --Aristotle (Ethics).   

Although much of the Nicomachean Ethics is dvoted to the analysis of this docrine of the "golden mean" (as it has come to be called), Aristotle's most memorable illustration of it is to be found not in the Nicomachean Ethics but in his Rhetoric, in the description of the three main stages of life as represented in the Youthful Man, The Man in His Prime, and the Elderly Man.  In terms of major virtues, the Youthful Man represents excess, The Main in His Prime represents the mean, and the Elderly Man the defect. 

Intellectual Virtues

If the mean is a relative thing that differs for different people (and even for the same people in different situations), so that no precise rules can be laid down as to what it might be at any one time, how does one go about determining it? Aristotle replies that it requires knowledge and wisdom, and thus to attain happiness we need to attend not only to the moral virtues but to the intellectual virtues (prudence, foresight, wisdom).

However, what Aristotle now says about the attainment of these intellectual virtues is discouraging, for it soon becomes apparent that if he is right, only few of us can hope to achieve true happiness.  For the perfection of the intellectual virtues, although indispensable in keeping the passions in check, is described as having a value and purpose all its own. The goodness of intellect that makes possible the goodness of character, which brings happiness, is itself, intrinsically finer and higher than anything else available to us. 

*Does this mean the "good life" is only available to the very few? (those who have intellect, health, family, wealth)
*Does this mean there is only one true road to happiness?
*Doesn't a carpenter, a reformer, a teacher, a clerk, a farmer deserve to attain true happiness?

Apparently, the happiness the virtuous man is to seek is not anyone else's but his own.  I am obliged, says Aristotle, to look after only myself.  Aristotle does indeed instruct us in altruistic virtues such as honesty, generosity, friendship, etc. but their justification is not that they will increase the general happiness but that these things are desirable for the individual to have.

Yet we can see that if it is true that in order to attain happiness one must cultivate and realize certain potentialities, then such happiness can only be obtained by attending to oneself.  And if such happiness if realized, society could not help but benefit.

Whose good ought I choose in case of conflict?

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