Maggie and Me (a philosophical dialogue): What is a virtue?

Question: You said that being good is more about having virtues (good character) than about following rules. I like that because it gets rid of some of the pressure I feel trying to follow all the rules. But what is a virtue?

Answer: That is a very good question. The best answer is given by Aristotle in a book called The Nicomachean Ethics.

In this book, Aristotle defines virtue as follows: a virtue is (i) a habit (this is the genus of the definition, like the trunk of a tree), (ii) consisting in a mean between two extreme characteristics (this is the first difference of the definition, like a branch on the tree), (iii) that helps us make good choices (this is the second difference of the definition, like a second branch on the tree). Let’s see if we can unpack this a bit.

(i)  The genus of the definition states that a virtue is a habit. It is a stable character trait that provides a habitual foundation from which our actions flow. For example, when we tell the truth (an activity), this flows from the virtue (or habit) of honesty. When our friends try to talk us into doing something wrong, but we stand up and say no (an activity), this flows from the virtue (or habit) of courage. When we see a kid sitting alone at lunch and we go and sit with her (an action), this flows from the virtue (or habit) of kindness.

(ii)  The first difference states that these habits are a mean, or middle point, between two extreme character traits. Aristotle calls these extreme characteristics vices. This is a bit more challenging to understand, so let me see if I can illustrate this in terms of the virtue of honesty.

Dishonesty (deficiency)‹—›Honesty (virtue)‹—›Brutally Honesty (excess)

Honesty is a mean (or middle point) between two vices: the vice of dishonesty (which is a deficiency of honesty) on one side and the vice of brutal honesty (which is an excess of honesty) on the other side. Let’s discuss the deficiency of honesty first. A dishonest person has a hard time telling the truth. She has lied so much that lying has become a habit. She even lies about trivial matters. For example, if you ask her how much her new shirt cost, she will likely tell you that it cost more than the actual price. She does this even though you don’t care how much the shirt cost. The excess of honesty is on the other side of the spectrum. This is the brutally honest person. This person is simply mean and doesn’t really care about others. She tells the truth, even when she should keep quiet. For example, she is the type of person who will tell you something mean and then justify her action by saying “I am just telling the truth.” But, in between these two extremes is the honest person. This person doesn’t lie, but she also knows when to keep quiet so she doesn’t hurt other people’s feelings.

Aristotle says we should try to hit the mean (the virtue) between the two extremes (the vice of deficiency and the vice of excess). But this isn’t an exact science and we shouldn’t make it too difficult. As long as you are aiming for the mean, and are somewhere near that middle point, it doesn’t matter if we are not perfect.

(iii)  The reason we want to try to hit the mean is pointed out by the second difference, which states that our virtuous habits help us make good choices. An honest person, by habit, chooses the honest action. A courageous person, by habit, chooses the courageous act. A kind person, by habit, is kind. In other words, a virtue is a habit that influences our choices and helps us choose to act according to that virtue.

To summarize, a virtue is a good character-habit that lies between two vices: the deficiency of the virtue and the excess of the virtue. Once developed, our virtues help us choose to do virtuous acts. So, let’s work hard to develop the good characteristics, to hit the mean between the two extremes. But this isn’t a rule. As long as we are somewhere in the middle and striving to improve, we are doing well. And we should like ourselves for doing so well.

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