Aristotle's Theory of Ehtical Virtue  
   By Cassie Tweten         
2004 Cassie Tweten


Although Aristotle was a friend and student of Plato, he did not agree with Plato's theories on morality. Like many Greeks, Aristotle did not believe in the existence of inherently bad behaviors.

A behavior cannot be either good or evil, but a person can have good or bad character traits. Aristotle said that all people are composed of a combination of vice (bad character traits) and virtue (good character traits). He uses this concept to explain the thesis: Virtue is a disposition concerned with choice.

This is explained in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. However, the thesis cannot be understood without an understanding of what exactly a disposition is. Aristotle believed that dispositions are one of three groups of things that make up the soul. Feelings and capacities are the other two; they differ from dispositions in that they are not leaned responses.

A disposition has to be learned in response to a situation. For example we learn to wear certain styles of clothing. In America, it a norm for men to wear pants; skirts and dresses are typically considered women's clothing. Men could wear dresses if they wanted to, and they are physically able to do so, but most men choose not to. Most American men have a disposition to wear pants.

Because dispositions are variable, we must make certain decisions in given situations that we would not make in other situations. The other components of the soul are not variable in the same way. This is important to Aristotle's thesis because these choices are applied to virtue. He arrives at the theory that virtue is a disposition through augment by elimination.

Virtue is a character trait, and character traits are part of an individual. If virtue is part of the soul then it must be a disposition, a feeling, or a capacity. In class we used the example of a drunk driver causing a car accident and seriously injuring another person. Most people would hold the drunk driver entirely responsible for the other driver's injuries and any suffering the other driver experiences in regards to the accident. It is not considered virtuous to drink and drive, meaning that a bad character trait is expressed by a drunk driver.

The action of drunk driving is important, but not because it is inherently wrong. Even if someone has a thought or feelings about driving drunk, they cannot be held accountable for the thought and feelings if they do not act on them. In the example, the drunken person acted on the desire to drive and created an unfavorable situation. The individual cannot be held accountable for the desire to drive, only for acting on the desire. Since people can't be held accountable for their emotions, virtue is not an emotion.

Using the same example, we can prove that virtue is not a capacity. Everyone is capable of getting drunk, driving a car, and causing an accident. Just because everyone is capable of these things does not mean that everyone will do them. Since we are all capable of basically the same things, but we do not all fulfill these capacities we cannot be held accountable for them.

The only thing that virtue could be is a disposition, because it is not a feeling or a capacity. Since virtue is a disposition we are responsible for the choices that we make based on personal vice and virtue. How virtuous a person is determines how they will behave in a given situation.

Aristotle argued that since different people may act differently in the same situation there are no inherently bad actions. The Virtue Theory claims that an action is good if performed by a person based on virtue and bad if performed based on vice. This enforces the thesis that virtue is a disposition because a virtuous person will theoretically make the right choice in any situation.

Arguments can be made both for and against this thesis. One example of where the thesis can be applied is in the situation of self-defense. If a woman is attacked by a man with a gun and is about to be violently raped, but somehow gets the gun away from the man and shoots him to save herself, it will not be said that she is a bad person or that what she did was wrong. It will most likely be said that she is brave and that she did what was right (given the situation).

An argument against the thesis is that some actions are morally wrong on every level. Christianity and Judaism both describe actions that are bad, independent of the person performing the action. For example, Christianity says that it is wrong for a person to kill another person. Therefore, someone who kills another person has done a bad thing whether they have good or bad character traits doesn't matter, because the action itself is not moral.

I personally believe that there are actions that in most cases are wrong. Murder, adultery, and stealing are all bad behaviors. Before reading Aristotle's thesis I would have said that these things are inherently bad. After reading Nicomachean Ethics I thought more about the topic and considered many examples of when "bad" behaviors are the right thing to do or the only choice. The self-defense example is one of these; another classic example would be a mother stealing bread to feed her family. From a Christian standpoint I would like to say that there are inherently bad behaviors, but after thinking of many examples of when a "bad" behavior would be acceptable, I agree with Aristotle's thesis.

     
Note on the Text: This essay was written by a student in Theodore Gracyk's Philosophy 101 course during fall semester 2004, and it is posted here with her permission.
 Click here to read Aristotle's analysis of virtue