Circular Virtue

In the last post, we raised this concern: if virtue means action that leads to happiness, and happiness consists in a virtuous life, then our definition of virtue is circular.

But happiness is first defined more generally as the perfection of human life, and it is by means of this general definition that Aristotle arrives at the particular account involving virtue. And we have an understanding of good and bad which comes before an understanding of virtue or moral obligation. It is not the same to say that something is good and that it is morally required, or that something is bad and that one is morally obliged to avoid it. Thus eating ice cream is good but not a moral obligation, and having a headache is bad, but one suffering from a headache is not under the moral obligation of taking aspirin.

This implies that we can know that some things are opposed to happiness even before considering virtue. And it is through these things that we begin to learn what is virtuous. Thus drinking wine to the point of sickness and severe hangovers is evidently opposed to happiness, and from this we can learn that moderation in drinking is virtuous.

One might conclude that temperance is merely a means to good outcomes, but this is not the case. It is in part a means to good outcomes, as in the above illustration. But since doing and making are not the same, the good of “not having a hangover” is distinct from the action of “drinking moderately,” and both the result and the action are good things. So we learn the goodness of the action from the results, but the goodness of the action is distinct from the goodness of the results. Aristotle points out that one who becomes virtuous learns to appreciate the goodness of virtue in itself, even apart from its consequences:

Their life is also in itself pleasant. For pleasure is a state of soul, and to each man that which he is said to be a lover of is pleasant; e.g. not only is a horse pleasant to the lover of horses, and a spectacle to the lover of sights, but also in the same way just acts are pleasant to the lover of justice and in general virtuous acts to the lover of virtue. Now for most men their pleasures are in conflict with one another because these are not by nature pleasant, but the lovers of what is noble find pleasant the things that are by nature pleasant; and virtuous actions are such, so that these are pleasant for such men as well as in their own nature. Their life, therefore, has no further need of pleasure as a sort of adventitious charm, but has its pleasure in itself. For, besides what we have said, the man who does not rejoice in noble actions is not even good; since no one would call a man just who did not enjoy acting justly, nor any man liberal who did not enjoy liberal actions; and similarly in all other cases. If this is so, virtuous actions must be in themselves pleasant.

And since the good of virtue is something additional to the good of the results, happiness, or a perfect human life, requires both goods. In this way neither the definition of happiness nor the definition of virtue is circular.



One thought on “Circular Virtue

  1. […] or supposed background in common with the real world, in the way discussed in the previous post. I pointed out earlier that we learn morality from the real world by noticing that our actions have e…. Stories can be even more effective than reality in this respect, because while “bad things […]


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