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Moral Virtues - Essay Example

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Moral Virtues

In addition, when one realizes that Aristotle is attempting to inculcate good habits in people, along with a good state of character, a better context is drawn around his claims. That is, if one acts generally toward a mean of two vices, this will lead to a better outcome than acting toward vices. In modern terms, in which morality is cast as a matter of doing the right thing in various sorts of specific cases, this seems like an outdated model of conducting moral arguments. To the contrary, this idea of virtue as a mean—instead of virtue as right action—faces fewer destructive arguments than the latter perspective and is ultimately easier to defend philosophically. From an intuitive standpoint, Aristotle’s approach is appealing. Firstly, in our daily living, a moral action is one that depends on balance between two extremes. For example, the ideal middle ground between running into a burning building to saving people (stupidity) and doing nothing out of fear (cowardice) is the act of doing what you can reasonably do in order to save lives (bravery). Secondly, the mean is intuitive in itself in all cases. Our language is broad enough to encompass all possible middle grounds between vices that we might consider excesses. Language, insofar as it guides us to a means, is constructive in determining our moral code. For example, a speaker of the English language knows what it means to be starving and gluttonous, that these are extremes, and that satiation is the mean between them. Aristotle defines a virtue as a state of character in Book II, Chapter 6 of the Nicomachean Ethics, which prompts a treatment of virtue as a mean. He writes, “Now it is a mean between two vices, that which depends on excess and that which depends on defect; and again it is a mean because the vices respectively fall short of or exceed what is right in both passions and actions, while virtue both finds and chooses that which is intermediate” (NE II:6, 1106a25-29). In other words, if a continuum between two excesses can be defined, then a midpoint between them can be established—a midpoint that is then constitutive of virtue. In contrast to modes of moralizing that modern people are more familiar with, Aristotle here is not concerned with denouncing certain actions as immoral and others as moral, but rather with conceptualizing a continuum of habits, characters, and dispositions that lead to generalized sorts of actions. In Aristotle’s minds, the habits, characters, and dispositions themselves are immoral or moral, not the actions that they lead to. In addition to language, we can determine the mean of two excesses by how they feel relative to us. In health, there is “excess, defect, and the intermediate” with respect to drink and food that both has the capability to harm us if we eat and drink too little to the point of privation, or if we eat and drink too much to the point of excess. The intermediate, or mean, in that case is relative to the person undergoing the process. Continuing with the metaphor, the difference in eating too little and too much is quite different if one considers the interests of a child and a large athlete. Clearly, an athlete needs far more food to sustain his bodily health than the child does, which suggests that in similar matters of morality, we can essentially “intuit” the excesses, defects, and intermediates involved with our ...Show more


The notion of moral virtues, or excellences, as a mean is an idea promulgated by Aristotle in the second half of Book II of the Nicomachean Ethics. From his account, one gathers that Aristotle believes the virtue is a perfect mean between a vice of excess and a vice of privation…
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