Aristotle’s Moral Virtues


Born in the Macedonian city of Stagirus, a Greek philosopher and scientist, Aristotle believed firmly that a man of virtue was so because he performed the activities of being a human well. That is, a virtuous person consistently practiced being a good person. Aristotle conceived the idea of virtue being two fold, one half was of intellectual virtue, while the other was of moral virtue. With this idea, Aristotle came up with the Doctrine of the Mean, a way of placing virtues of the character between two correlative vices.

Aristotle believed that virtues are a moral state and that these excellence are twofold, one-half intellectual and the other half moral. Intellectual virtue is inborn and fostered by teachings and guidance, while moral virtue is the product of habits. For example, when it comes to intellectual virtue Aristotle states “It was not by seeing frequently or hearing frequently that we acquire the senses of seeing or hearing; on the contrary it was because we possessed the senses that we made use of them, not by making use of them that we obtained them.”

Aristotle believed a person is born with intellectual virtue as a sort of moral compass in which to direct a person in proper thinking and actions. A sense of justice, empathy, and integrity are all example of intellectual virtue. Moral virtues on the other hand, are caused by actions becoming habits, “Similarly it is by doing just acts that we become just, by doing temperate acts we become temperate, by doing courageous acts that we become courageous.” So in a sense, the more good actions an individual does, the better quality of human being they become. Likewise the more evil an individual commits, the more evil they shall become. Therefore, a virtuous life entails an individual acting in accordance with excellence.

The Doctrine of the Mean was Aristotle’s method of categorizing virtues in between two vices. These vices are excess and deficiency, meaning that an individual can have either too much of a virtue or too little of it. So for example, the excess of the virtue modesty would be shyness, and the deficiency would be shamelessness meaning an individual lacks modesty, the mean virtue. However, there are exceptions to this ideal of Aristotle’s. For instance, actions like adultery, theft, and murder have no place in the mean state, because the action in question is an extreme and there cannot be an excess of an excess or a deficiency of a deficiency.

Applying this doctrine to ones life is a lot easier said than done, primarily because it is not always easy to find the mean of something. Aristotle states “It is not everybody, but only a man of science, who can find the mean or center of a circle.” Living in the time that we do, this comparison no longer applies to us as anyone can find the mean of a circle, but the point Aristotle was making is that it can be very tricky to determine what is right or wrong in certain situations, and that it would be wiser to choose between the lesser of two evils. However if one were to always follow the mean of a virtue, then their life would be of the utmost satisfaction.

On this matter Aristotle stated, “We ought to incline at one time towards the excess and at another towards the deficiency; for this will be our easiest manner of hitting the mean, or in other words of attaining excellence.” This is then the most efficient form of living ones life. Aristotle argues that both society and the government should exist to further a virtuous life. If we are going by Aristotle’s doctrine, then that means both society and government would be aiming to hit the mean of any given virtue. Of course this would be an excellent concept for society as a whole because the entire population, save for the mentally unstable, would be striving to be morally upright and just. For instance, an individual would not be inclined to act selfish or greedy, but rather in the best interest of their neighbor.

A government acting in the best interest of its people is a hard thing to imagine. Not because they do not have the peoples best interest at heart, but because the politicians within the government do not have each others best interest at heart. Politicians are not by nature virtuous, they constantly lie to and about one another, and to the public as well, all to gain a vote of power. Humans are easily corrupted by power, money, and greed, however, if each member of the government did aim at a truly virtuous life, then the society that had such a government would be a sort of utopia with a “good will towards all” impression. Based on Aristotle’s beliefs, this type of society is of course desirable and would make a lot more sense seeing as it would lead to almost no conflict whatsoever, however, it is asking too much from people as most individuals are greedy at heart.

Aristotle’s belief that, “our desire to conform is greater than our desire for objective facts” means that someone wants to be like everybody else, even when the truth tells them the exact opposite, that they should not be like everybody else. If all of your friends are skipping school, it is morally wrong to follow suit. This seems like the opposite of what Aristotle was trying to convey through his teachings, in that Aristotle implored individuals to be morally just and honest and to not follow the crowd if the crowd is doing wrong.

With his concept of twofold virtue and the Doctrine of the Mean, Aristotle painted a grand picture of what a morally just and virtuous individual would be like and should be like. Aristotle believed that good moral behavior should be a habit to all, and always come from the heart. Aristotle gave everyone who read his works a personification of a human being to strive towards.

Opinion by Emily Browen


Feiser, James and Stumpf, Samuel E., eds. Philosophy: History and Readings. New York: McGrawHill,
2012. Print.

Photo by JieJun tan – Flickr License

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