Lecture 4: Virtue


    What is the good for man? Aristotle's approach through function. Peter Geach brought back the relevance of this approach. The supposed gap between Is and Ought. Moore's Naturalistic Fallacy. Geach has shown the nonapplicability of such skepticism. Much of recent moral philosophy was developed on the assumption that the alleged fallacy had to be avoided. Even Thomas has been read in such a way as to save him from this supposed fallacy. It is the fallacy that is a fallacy -- and the fault lies more on the side of IS than of Ought. Role and function. Given a thing's function we can say whether it is good. If man had a function, performing it well would amount to his good.


    What is distinctive of man is that he acts according to reason -- this is true whether he acts well or badly. He puts his mind to what he does; he sets out to do what he has in mind. To perform rational activity well is its fulfillment or excellence -- arete. It is this Greek word that answers to virtue. The good of a function or role is its virtue.

    Rational activity may be distinctive of men but it does not seem to be any one thing. We said that any human act is an instance of rational activity; human acts seem to vary infinitely; there must be numberless meaning of rational activity and thus many many virtues responding to it in its different senses.

    Aristotle agrees. "Rational activity" is ambiguous; Thomas will say that it is analogous, that is, it chiefly means one things and means other things insofar as they are more or less related to the chief thing it means. "Healthy." Essential and shared rational activity. If I decide to lift my hand, and do it, raising my hand is rational. I can be asked why I did it? But the movement of the arm is not just as such an act of reason -- it shares in it insofar as it responds to rational direction.

    Essential rational activity is the activity of reason itself. But this, we have seen, is of two major kinds, theoretical and practical. We have then three major meanings of "rational activity": the theoretical use of reason, the practical use of reason, the sharing in rational direction on the part of other human capacities.


    Not every human capacity is such that it responds to reason's command. I digest food, grow old, lose my hair, and I cannot by taking thought alter these processes. I can decide to get a haircut, or buy a toupee; I can arrange my diet sensibly; I can grow old gracefully. But these are a lot like falling when dropped. If you see my slip and fall off the roof of a highrise, you are unlikely to grade my performance on way down. Give me a 10 for style and a 7 for difficulty, say. It is our emotions that can be governed by reason and thus give rise to virtues in the sense of rational activity well-performed. I feel the stir of desire or of revulsion upon seeing or hearing this or that; the sight of food when I am hungry, or its smell, evokes a reaction from me that is not the result of decision. Insofar as such desire comports with reason, it is humanized, and the rational pursuit of it is a virtue, the virtue of temperance. My fear of danger can be directed by reason and when it is a virtue results, Courage or fortitude.


    There is a plurality of virtues, not just one, because rational activity, our specifically human function, admits of different meanings. The intellectual virtues are Insight, science and wisdom, in the theoretical order, and art and prudence in the practical order. The moral virtues are chiefly temperance and fortitude and justice. This is a unified set, as the calling of "rational activity" analogous was meant to indicate.

    There are two ways the various human virtues can be arranged, first, in terms of necessity, second, in terms of intrinsic value. The moral virtues are more necessary than the intellectual -- indeed we need them in order to be disposed appropriately to seek the object of the intellectual virtues. But wisdom, as bearing on the divine, is intrinsically better than habits which enable us to bring our emotions under control.

    For Aristotle the culmination of the moral life, and indeed of philosophy as such, was Contemplation.


Peter Geach, "Good and Evil"
Bernard Williams, Morality
Ralph McInerny, Aquinas on Human Action
Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Aristotle's ethics


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