Aristotle is very persuasive in his discussion of virtue and the excellences. He mainly argues that virtue is, in a moral sense, a product of habit. Intellectual excellence, on the other hand, is derived mainly from teaching. According to Aristotle, “Neither by nature, then, nor contrary to nature do excellences arise in us; rather we are adapted by nature to receive them, and are made perfect by habit.” Moral virtue is then a product of nature, or habit.
Interestingly, the Greek words for “character” and “habit” are almost identical. Aristotle furthers this claim by comparing the possession of virtue to the use of the senses. He, quite naturally, proposes that humans were given their sense before they actually knew how to use them. For instance, a child cannot see without the power of sight, which must have been inherent in the child before the child could be able to see. Based from this theory of naturalism, Aristotle states:
“So it follows, since virtue of character itself is a mean state and always concerned with pleasures and pains, while vice lies in excess and deficiency, and has to do with the same things as virtue, that virtue is the state of the character which chooses the mean, relative to us in things pleasant and unpleasantÃ¢Â?Â¦” (Eudemian Ethics, Book II, Chapter 10)
So, in effect, virtue is a mean state or a middle ground of sorts. The middle ground that virtue encompasses is representative of an individual’s ideas of pleasure and pain and has been decided through nature to be that certain way. Aristotle then brings up the point of whether man’s decision making skills are voluntary or involuntary or in some gray area in-between. He makes the argument that some virtuous behavior is perfectly natural but that some unethical behavior is not exhibited through the threat of punishment. He states, men will, “Ã¢Â?Â¦do what they take to be both unpleasant and badÃ¢Â?Â¦” because if they do not, then, “Ã¢Â?Â¦flogging or imprisonment await them.” Aristotle sums his argument to a certain degree by agreeing that virtue and vice are intertwined. Virtue is the mean, the middle ground, of human existence. Acting virtuous is completely dependent on what the individual perceives to be pleasant or painful. A portion of this is inherited naturally and another portion is in deference to punishment. A man can behave virtuously through the threat of pain, but that does not truly make him virtuous since his inclination would to not be virtuous.
Aristotle’s Virtue Theory is the best approach to be taken towards ethics. The idea that a person can be “naturally” virtuous may sound preposterous. The idea that the morality of a person is inherent of habitual is not universally accepted. Placed in the context of Aristotle’s other writings and beliefs, the theory remains valid. Although there is no way to measure the morality, or virtue, of a person other than by their actions and how those actions are viewed through societal norms, the individual analysis of Aristotle’s theory is not possible. It is possible, on the other hand, to produce a series of examples that would examine the validity of the theory. For example, by viewing the actions and interactions of a wolf pack can a clue to Aristotle’s meaning. Man is a mammal, first and foremost, and exhibits pack behavior (family grouping, care of young, etc.). A wolf pack functions very much like a human family and are not specifically taught to be virtuous, but the actions of a pack are morally acceptable viewed through the “society” of the pack. The behavior exhibited can be nothing other than habitual.
Aristotle’s point becomes even more clear-cut. Since man’s individual sense of being virtuous is a middle ground and is completely dependent on his habit of, or natural inclination to, moral behavior then what that man perceives as pleasures or pains is also completely dependent on his virtuousness. The natural habit of a man’s morality is completely dependent on what he perceives to be virtuous or not. Although the man may behave in a lawful fashion due to some threat from a higher power, this does not automatically make the man a virtuous man. The individual that has no problem with murder, but only doesn’t commit a crime due solely to the ramifications that might happen if he were caught, is not a virtuous man. It is not his habit to be virtuous and his behavior is involuntary, not a true representation of the man’s attitudes.
The other theories of virtue and morality are not as inclusive as Aristotle’s. Aristotle has provided a basic sense of “why” man behaves virtuously or not. In essence, everyone that is true to their own inclinations, in Aristotle’s theory, are virtuous. It is those individuals that deny their own inclinations are not virtuous. Although this leads to a discussion on the lack or morality.
The ethical concerns with Aristotle’s theory are also include a few problems. The practice of ethics can also be viewed to be connected with Aristotle’s “naturalistic” ideas on morality. One’s own virtuousness, morality and adherence to ethics are intertwined. Aristotle would seem to be saying that a person’s ethical behavior is completely dependent on their own inclinations and sense of “excellences” of morality that they are born with. This is the major fault of the other theories and serve to highlight their inadequacies. The other theories are not equipped to provide an explanation for real human behavior. Aristotle has given a set of circumstances that are valid and can be seen in every aspect of human behavior. A person behaves a certain way because of their inclinations and their tastes. Changing that behavior through threat or other outside stimuli is the measure of the virtuousness of the person. If the behavior changes then the person is not virtuous, since their first responsibility is to obey their own nature.