We often say that someone is a good person. We might call them virtuous, morally good. But what does this really mean? Aristotle, the famous Greek philosopher, made this question the starting point of his ethics, what we today know as virtue ethics.
Imagine you have a friend who is honest. Always. Is this a good thing? You might say, yes, honesty is nice. But what if a murderer comes looking for you, and you are hiding in the closet, and your friend is standing in front of the closet?
Murderer: “Is he in there?”
Your friend (nodding his head): “Yes.”
Not so good, Aristotle would say, and you’d probably agree if the murderer hadn’t got you first. So honesty is not always good. Some degree of honesty is a good thing, but one can overdo it.
Let’s look at another example. What about, say, courage? Truly a good quality. If you don’t have enough of it, you’re a coward. But what happens if I have too much courage? Is this even possible?
Aristotle would say, yes. Let’s say someone has fallen from a bridge into the sea. The poor person can’t swim, and you happen to pass by and see them trying to stay afloat and scream for help. The problem is, you can’t swim either. But who cares. You are so courageous that no such detail will keep you from doing your duty. You take off your jacket, take a deep breath, and jump into the waves. What will be the likely result of this action? Instead of one person who was drowning before, now two people need help. Whoever is coming to help will have a harder time helping both. So, objectively, jumping in there without being able to swim has made the situation worse.
A virtue, therefore, is only a good thing if we have it in the right amount. And there’s a right amount for everything. A right amount of courage, of honesty, of generosity, of kindness. But if that’s the case, how do I know whether I’ve found that right amount? Aristotle says: a virtue is a property of one’s character that is beneficial to oneself and to others.
So this gives us a way to judge. Jumping into the sea without being able to swim doesn’t benefit either myself or the drowning man. So my courage here is not virtuous. Telling the truth to the murderer about my hiding place does benefit the murderer, but neither me nor my friend. Again, it’s not virtuous.
There’s much more to Aristotle’s ethics, which we will explore in future posts. But already he’s given us a way to distinguish between a virtue that is used for good, to benefit oneself and others, and one that is used wrongly, to cause harm.
Whenever a virtuous action is called for, we should stop, Aristotle thinks, and try to evaluate the situation: Given what I know about the world, is the exercise of my virtue likely to benefit both myself and the others who will be affected by it? If so, it’s a good, valuable virtue in this situation. If not, it only resembles virtue, perhaps, but it’s really something I do out of selfish motives, or because I am mistaken. And if I can recognise that, then I should refrain from acting in this way.
Thanks for reading and have a good, virtuous day!
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