According to many philosophers, especially ancient philosophers, the secret to having a life worth living, is not only to examine your life, but to actively aspire to being a good person. What is a good person, though? Many may think about being a successful, charitable, kind, funny, and inspiring. How do you reach these goals? Of course, here too, there have been a lot of philosophers with varying opinions. Perhaps the most prevalent through history, were virtue ethicists. And while most people nowadays, when they hear or read the word “ethicists” think about ‘utilitarians’, ‘divine command theorists’ etc., virtue ethics is an entirely different branch of ethics.
Many people these days misunderstand the word virtue to be a religious concept. This is because the most prevalent way in which we use the word is in sentences like “faith is a virtue”. But we will soon see that it is not a religious concept. There is much more to it and it is in fact far more applicable today than one might think.
Is faith a virtue?
We’ve all heard the phrase “faith is a virtue”. But is it really? What is a virtue? The most pertinent and still applicable concept of virtue is coined by Aristotle. Aristotle proposed that being a good person is the result of finding oneself in the right mean between two vices. A good example of this, is the virtue of bravery. If you are too brave, you might be reckless. If you are not reckless enough, you might be cowardly. So, we understand bravery as being the “golden mean” between recklessness and cowardice. This still holds true today. A general that withdraws his troops while they possess overwhelming strength and should -by all means- have won the battle, will be deemed a coward. On the other hand, the general that charges ahead, knowing that they will lose, will be deemed reckless.
There is, as with most moral considerations, an effect of circumstances though. As we’ve seen in the examples of generals above, the consideration made does count. We might fault the General of a drone squadron, who as such isn’t at risk of losing lives, more for his needless withdrawal, than we would the general of a battalion of land units, who does stand to risk the loss of life. We could indeed consider his care for preventing the loss of life to be noble, or even prudent depending on the risks the withdrawal carries for the larger war effort.
To get back to answering our main question in this section, then. “Is faith a virtue?” Well, possibly. Depending on the subject, we can say that faith is either gullibility or that it holds some mean between gullibility and incredulity. If I ask you for directions, I may have faith that the information you provide me is correct information. I have this faith because clearly, I am lost and am asking you for information because you seem to not be lost and I take the potential risk of being provided with wrongful information to be acceptable considering my circumstance. In this case, my faith in you and your information is not gullibility -though it may be abused- it is actually a virtuous thing to do, as I may compare your information with what I already know about the directions I have been given. It is thus a mean between gullibility and incredulity that may well be virtuous. On the other hand, if I choose to believe you when you say that you have spoken to a genie that inhabits a microscopic lamp orbiting one of the moons of andromeda, without you giving me any proof or information, I am being gullible. My faith in you and your information, then, is vicious. But of course, we want to know about faith in God. Is being Faithful to God gullible, or does it hold some merit? To be honest, I can’t give you a straight answer to this one, simply because, in this case, it depends too much on the information the believer in question possesses. We can say, though, that faith in and of itself is not a virtue.
The golden mean
When they speak of the golden mean, philosophers are referring to the theory of virtue outlined above. To be concise; “The desirable middle between two extremes”, nothing to excess and nothing to deficiency. This illustrates a specific point on the scale between two vices, that falls within the “acceptable” scale. Figure 1 shows this idea.
As you can see, the golden mean is the virtue. Now, whatever the vices in question are determine the mobility of the scale and might place the golden mean in a different position. For instance, when you are annoyed with a colleague for being lazy, you might want to be more friendly then when they purposefully undermine you. In this case, the golden mean between aggression and timidity shifts from being somewhere in the middle, to a bit more to the aggression side. So the golden mean is not a static mean. It is instead highly dependent on context.
Of course, as many have claimed throughout the ages, this makes virtue ethics incredibly hard to track. Especially from the outside.
How virtue ethics is different from other ethics
I said in the introductory paragraph of this article, that virtue ethics is an ethics entirely different from other forms of ethics like utilitarianism, divine command theory etc. The difference between virtue ethics and “regular ethics”, is that virtue ethics deals in traits of character rather than actions. A virtuous person is a person who exercises virtuous actions because they constitute his/her personality. Virtue ethics, then, bases itself the attempt to build virtuous people. Good people, and thereby improve the world and individual lives.
As such, attaining a virtuous character, becoming a virtuous person, is a process rather than an incident. Where utilitarian ethics has an incidental character, going situation by situation, step by step, the virtue ethicist tries to be one unit of virtue. This process is akin to a kind of therapy. The virtue ethicist mauls over their actions to decide whether they have chosen the best path available to them, given their abilities and knowledge. They adjust themselves accordingly. Should they have lost their patience with someone, they will try to set in place some kind of safeguard so they shall, in the future, be more mild mannered.
Other than most kinds of ethics, virtue ethics emphasizes control. To be a virtuous person, after all, one should be able to control their urges. The urges we suffer, the virtue ethicist says, are more basic, knee-jerk responses. We get upset when we perceive we are betrayed. We feel damaged, so we lash out. We trust people we shouldn’t trust, because we fail to examine them in a thorough manner. We cause harm because we act thoughtlessly. The challenge, then, is to live consciously and with attention to detail, to keep our wits about us and to be rational in our decisions. This aspiration is what virtue ethics has to offer us. the certainty of being as good a person as you possibly can be, by building character, enduring struggle and remaining, at all times, patient.
Relativity of virtue
Virtue, like any kind of ethics, can be seen in three ways: As the exerciser, the subject and an onlooker. These change the perspective of whether or not a virtue is being exercised. One of the virtues of “patience/good temper”, is to know when finally to get angry. You can imagine a child who just keeps bugging you. Maybe he nudges you over, and over, and over. After a while, you tell them to stop. They don’t listen. You tell them to stop again. At some point, you will have bite their proverbial head off to make them clear they shouldn’t be bugging you. The child (subject) might think this behaviour is vicious. After all, they probably don’t realise how annoying this has been for you. The onlooker might think you are either too lenient (responding too late), too angry (reacting too heavily), too strict (reacting too soon) or in fact showing just the right amount of patience and the right intensity of behaviour (being virtuous). You, on the other hand have made a decision based on the evidence you have that this will in fact be a good decision.
This is why, in the end, virtue ethics depends mostly on the person exercising it, who wants to maximise the virtue in their character and become the best person they can be. Of course, the virtue ethicist should try to communicate with others about how they fared, how they reacted and what they did right or wrong. They should reflect on their actions as often as they can and try to find ways to respond in the future.
The use to you
You may be thinking; “This is all well and good, but how exactly does this improve my life?” Virtue ethics can improve your life, not just by putting it to practice, but by giving a certain insight. In the abstract, it shows us not what to do, but how and when to do it. It teaches us to control ourselves through introspection and reflecting on our actions. And most of all, it teaches us that you can’t be expected to do that which you don’t know should be done.
Aside from that, it provides those who do share the ideas of virtue, or aspire to being a virtuous person with a manual of how to become one. It consoles us when we think we’ve failed and tells us to get back on that proverbial horse. To respect ourselves for trying and to keep working to be a better person. And after all, isn’t it these kinds of ideas and ways of looking at life and our personality, that make our lives the life worth living?
Virtue ethics is far from necessary to live a life worth living. But, as outlined above, it can help. Perhaps the most important thing that virtue ethics may do for you, is to take away a large portion of regrets. What virtue ethics does very well, is ensure that you make your decisions consciously, carefully and deliberately. And regrets, in their turn, are often caused by knee-jerk, careless or otherwise too speedy decision making. In this sense, virtue ethics helps you minimise the regret you feel when thinking of past decisions. Even if the decisions turn out to be the wrong ones; you did the best you could, given the circumstances. Sure, it’s shit, maybe you should have made a different decision, but it was the best decision you could make.
If you think virtue ethics is something for you, you might find yourself wondering at this point, as to how to apply it to your own life. And be warned, it will be a lot of work. Specifically, a lot of reflection is involved. There is a collection of exercises the virtue ethicist employs to keep a steady road towards virtue and to determine course in the first place. I will try to list them in a somewhat chronological order.
The virtuous (wo)man
The exercise of the virtuous man, is an exercise that helps you determine what exactly is the road you will be taking, what virtues to focus most on, and what virtues to focus less on. What we do in this exercise, is determine what – to us – makes the ideal man/woman. The man/woman you aspire to be. Do you want to be even tempered? kind? loving? prudent? These character traits should be ranked in a way that seems fit to you. You can rank them each at a different spot, but you can also group them together. For instance, my #1 ranked virtue is prudence, which is the art of (self)governance. But my #2 ranked virtues are loving kindness and an even temper. This exercise, like I said before, is a very personal exercise and it is of paramount importance that you do this carefully, if you are going to do this at all.
This exercise can be repeated, so that you can change course if you deem it necessary.
Determining the virtue
In this exercise, you take the most important virtues that you have decided on in the virtuous (wo)man exercise, and start to determine what the vices are, in between which the golden mean lies. This exercise is meant to do two things; determining what actually is the virtue you are talking about, and to get a start in recognising the choices in which the virtue applies, and thus when you have to pay close attention to decisions you make.
Finally, we’ve arrived at the last two exercises, on which you will likely focus most. Once you’ve determined which virtues are most important, what they are and in which cases they apply, it is time to bring them to practice. This means that you have to be aware of situations in which you can choose for either the virtues or the accompanying vices. At these points you carefully reflect on the information you have at hand and what that means for the decision you have to make. You bring yourself to consciously analyse the situation, and have an inner dialogue about the decision ahead of you, before you decide to align yourself with virtue.
The judge’s reflection
Then comes the end of the day. The best habit, perhaps, of the virtue ethicist is the judge’s reflection. At the end of the day, you simply sit down and run through the day, analysing again all your decisions of that day and whether they are, retrospectively, the most virtuous decision you could have made. The point here is to be harsh. Scrutinise yourself, your intentions etc. Was your gesture to a coworker, not actually motivated by greed or selfishness? Was your choice to get angry not an unconscious rather than a conscious choice? were you trying to attain virtue at all today? These are the questions that spur us into action, by allowing us to be upset with ourselves, angry with ourselves and disappointed in ourselves. And it is these things that allow us to become better people. To end the judge’s reflection, simply close of with the notion; “But I only say this, because I am committed to being a better person, and that is commendable in itself”.
Whether you agree with this idea, or find it outdated drivel, I really don’t much care. The important thing is that if you ever feel the need to become a better person, instead of a better decision maker. think of this idea, and gain from it what you can. After all, it is the multitude of investigations into life and the plentifulness of ideas that make our lives the life worth living.