Virtue Not a Potential

I picked up L’excellence de la vie especially for the early essay of GwenaĆ«lle Aubry, “Actuality and Potentiality in Aristotelian Ethics” (my translation). Here she makes a number of important distinctions. Contrary to some modern interpretations, Aristotle’s natural teleology and values-first approach to ultimate philosophical questions do not lead to what 20th century philosophers called ethical naturalism, or to any kind of nature-based elitism. I’ve been assuming this all along, but it is good to spell out the argument.

Virtue can sound like the optimal realization of a healthy nature, but for Aristotle it is actually a kind of habit, so it cannot be straightforwardly natural. In Nicomachean Ethics book 2 chapter 1, Aristotle points out that we can throw a stone up in the air a thousand times, but this doesn’t change its natural tendency to fall back to the ground. One may be born with a penchant for courage, justice, or temperance, but for these qualities to become true virtues requires the engagement of reason and what Aubry calls the “transcendental” intellectual virtue of practical judgment (phronesis). Virtue is not an unevenly distributed innate talent, but a result of extensive practice that is available to all. It requires effort and “seriousness”.

If biological nature itself is shaped by implicit ends, what distinguishes human ethical development? “[T]he position of Aristotle is clear: virtue is not natural, but neither is it contrary to nature” (Aubry, p. 78, emphasis in original). Here we are in the territory of what the commentary tradition called “second nature”. Virtue for Aristotle is an acquired disposition. This rules out the notion that it is just the unfolding of something innate. Aubry says that ethical practice is a mediation between nature and something beyond nature. Before the fact, Aristotle evicts both naturalism and supernaturalism, in the way that these are commonly understood.

According to Aubry, in the ethical domain Aristotle’s standard notion of potentiality is subject to a triple modification. First, the goal of virtue is not to “be all you can be”. It is selective. Only the “definitional” potentiality of the human — to be what makes us properly human — is involved in virtue. Second, one only becomes fully human under the condition of actively choosing what one is essentially. “If everyone tends naturally toward the good, no one is naturally virtuous” (p. 79). Third, virtue can only be actualized in the context of a free exercise of reason.

“Virtue, albeit a necessary condition for the actualization of the definitional potentiality of the human, is not itself a potentiality” (p. 81). She quotes Aristotle in book 2 chapter 1 of the Nicomachean Ethics, “It is neither by nature nor against nature that the virtues are born in us, but nature has given us the capacity to receive them, and this capacity is brought to maturity by habit [hexis]” (p. 82). And again from the same, “All that we have naturally, we receive first in a state of potentiality, and it is later that we manifest it in act, as is clear in the case of the sensory faculties…. For the virtues on the contrary, their possession presupposes a previous exercise, as is the case for the other arts” (p. 83).

Aubry notes that this might seem like a vicious circle: it is necessary to act well to become capable of acting well. And in avoiding naturalism, have we replaced it with the opposite excess of a pure imposition? But this is artificial, and resembles the false paradoxes of learning. To be a good musician, one must play an instrument well, and one learns this through repeated practice. To become virtuous, one “practices” doing the right thing in the right way.

Ethics and Effectiveness

I’m sampling a French anthology edited by Gilbert Romeyer Dherbey and GwenaĆ«lle Aubry, Excellence in Life: On the Nicomachean Ethics and the Eudemian Ethics of Aristotle (2002; my translation throughout). Dherbey’s essay “Ethics and Effectivity in Aristotle” aims to show that Aristotle anticipates Hegel in successfully overcoming the apparent opposition between pure principles and the real world. This makes a nice complement to Robert Pippin’s discernment of strongly Aristotelian notions of actuality and actualization in Hegel’s ethics.

Dherbey begins by noting that some people situate pure ethics outside of all real-world effectiveness, while viewing real-world effectiveness as inevitably involving moral compromise, shortfall, deviation, and corruption. He associates this with “romanticism, from Schiller to Sartre” (p. 1). I think of the “beautiful soul” criticized by Hegel. Aristotle avoids this unfortunate result by emphasizing what Dherbey calls the “weight” of ethics, or “the inscription of the moral act in an exteriority that prolongs it” (ibid). Brandom makes the related point that we do not own or control the full scope of our deeds.

“The one who does nothing cannot act well”, Dherbey quotes from Aristotle’s Politics. Moral excellence is not constituted by intentions alone. Dherbey says that for Aristotle, “the validity of the intention is judged by the act that realizes it, or doesn’t realize it” (p.4, emphasis in original). Pippin develops a similar point in more detail in his remarks on actuality in Hegel.

For Aristotle it is not enough just to have the good will that Peter Abelard took to be the basis of virtue. According to Dherbey, Kant’s affirmation that nothing can be called good, if not a good will, makes intention the very source of the goodness of a good act. I am impressed by Nancy Sherman’s argument that Kant came closer to Aristotle than is commonly thought. But in any case, while Aristotle is far from disregarding the importance of what we might call the agent’s subjectivity, for him the goodness of an act depends on more than this.

Dherbey notes a major cleavage between Aristotle and the Stoics on another related point. For Aristotle, “not acting ‘lightly’ signifies that ‘intentional’ action, in order to be virtuous, must take support from a stable foundation, from a support that is none other than ethos or character…. It is indeed character, more than punctual intention in the modern sense of the term, that governs ethical choice” (p. 5; see also What We Really Want). It was the Stoics who bequeathed to later writers a strong notion of punctual decisions. I find the narrowing of ethics to a focus on punctual acts of decision to have consequences that are quite pernicious.

In closing, Dherbey quotes Hegel’s remark in his History of Philosophy lectures that for Aristotle, “The good in general is not defined as an abstract idea, but in such a way that the moment of realization finds itself essentially in it” (p. 12).

I would add that this is deeply related to Aristotle’s argument against Plato that potentiality at least in part depends on actuality, rather than being a power that simply produces the actual (or being a template that fully anticipates the actual, as Leibniz seems to have held).

Good will does not vindicate an action, but it does provide an additional reason to be forgiving in our evaluation of actions that turn out badly.

Shaftesbury on Moral Feeling

Anthony Ashley Cooper (1671-1713), third Earl of Shaftesbury, was personally tutored by John Locke as a young man, and the two remained friends in spite of various philosophical differences. Shaftesbury was sympathetic to the Cambridge Platonists, and attracted to aspects of Stoic ethics. He is especially known, however, for his emphasis on the role of feeling in ethics. Rejecting pessimistic Hobbesian and Calvinist views of human nature, he regarded the sense of right and wrong as a kind of second-order feeling — a feeling about other feelings. It is reflective, and while grounded in nature requires the right kind of upbringing and education for its development. The much more rationalistic Leibniz was very impressed by Shaftesbury’s work.

The main role of philosophy for Shaftesbury is to help us “regulate our governing Fancys, Passions, and Humours”, rather than to elaborate a system of the world. Goodness for Shaftesbury is to be understood mainly in terms of motivation rather than results. More objectively, it is grounded in a kind of natural teleology of order and harmony in the world. Something is good if it contributes to the “Existence or Well-Being” of a larger whole such as a species or a world. A virtuous human cultivates “equal, just, and universal Friendship” with humanity as a whole.

Shaftesbury believed in a perfectly good God, and in the argument from design. He opposed voluntarist views that made what is good depend on divine will, and advocated religious tolerance. Motivation by reward and punishment he deemed inadequate as a basis for morality.

Human motivation for Shaftesbury depends entirely on feeling or sentiment, not on reason or belief. He is considered to be a source for Hume’s famous view that in real life, human reason always serves human passions.

Scholars debate the extent to which Shaftesbury’s views should be considered subjectivist, and the extent to which he can be assimilated to the generally egoistic tradition of Hobbes, Locke, and the later Utilitarians. As I have noted previously, “self” has many meanings, from crude to cosmic. Shaftesbury clearly rejects what we would call selfishness, but in other passages promotes a positive view of a broader notion of self. His de-emphasis on reason is tempered by his sense of natural order and purpose in the world and his emphasis on a kind of reflection.

Kant’s emphasis on principles in ethics and his critique of subtler kinds of selfishness in spontaneous moral feeling represent a strong criticism of views like those of Shaftesbury. I think Kant sometimes goes too far in criticizing feeling, but Shaftesbury also goes too far in identifying reason with sterile abstraction. With Aristotle, I see human feeling and human reason as cooperating with one another in producing well-rounded valuations.


Plato’s short dialogue Meno — concerned with virtue and knowledge — is among the most famous of what are referred to as his “Socratic” dialogues, which dwell on Socratic method, and on the character of Socrates as a kind of role model. Meno wants Socrates to provide an easy answer to how virtue is to be acquired. Socrates, ever distrustful of easy answers, shifts the discussion toward the more basic question of what virtue is. Meno first responds with examples, but Socrates points out that examples do not answer the “what is” question.

Meno eventually suggests that virtue is the desire of honorable things, combined with the power of attaining them. Socrates then points out that some people desire evil, and that a person may have power, yet still fail to properly recognize good as good and evil as evil. Meno complains that Socrates is always doubting himself and making others doubt, and says he feels bewitched.

Socrates introduces a poetic myth that learning is a kind of recollection of knowledge that we already had. He then walks a young boy through a simple geometrical construction. At the beginning, the boy seems to have no idea how to solve the problem. Then he thinks he does, but he is wrong. At a later point, he recognizes the mistake. Socrates points out that it is always better to know that we do not know, than to think that we know when we do not. But still later, after following the steps of the construction, it seems like the boy does understand how to find the solution, though he is never told. As Brandom might remind us, this shows the value of making what was implicit into something explicit.

Eventually, Socrates leads Meno to the conclusion that virtue is “either wholly or partly wisdom”. But then he introduces a further doubt, whether virtue can be reduced to knowledge. True opinion is said to be as good a guide to action as knowledge, and this is said to be how most good people function.

But then finally, true opinion is said not to be of very great value after all, because it is not “fastened by the tie of the cause”, and therefore tends to “run away” from us. That is to say, when we do not really know — i.e., cannot articulate — the why of a conclusion that is right in one context, it is easy to misapply it in a different context. (See also Dialogue; Platonic Truth; What and Why; Reasons.)

Aristotelian Virtue

Aristotelian ethics is not just about cultivating virtue as a kind of good character. Although he does emphasize it a lot, ultimately character is just a means and a potentiality for actualization of the real goal of that part of living well that is under our power. The actualization itself comes from good practice (praxis), grounded in sound, well-rounded deliberation and choice. Aristotle also says the very best life is that of the philosopher. Not only is philosophy valuable in itself, but it also helps us deliberate.

The best deliberation and choice is supported by intellectual virtues, a concern for justice, and a spirit of friendship or love, but it would not even get off the ground without progress in the classic “moral” virtues, which are all said to pertain to our emotions or passions, and to how we are affected by pleasure and pain. Aristotle characterizes each of these emotional virtues as a kind of mean, or balanced emotional state.

Thus, courage is presented as a mean between rashness and cowardice. Temperance is a mean between self-indulgence and insensibility. Interestingly, justice and prudence are also included among emotional virtues, and subjected to a similar analysis. Other emotional virtues are presented as following the same pattern. Unlike the Stoics, neither Plato nor Aristotle advocated suppressing the emotions.