The Virtuous Man

‘At the end of Book 1 of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle introduces a distinction between the ‘continent’ or ‘self-controlled’ type of human being, (who has enkrateia) and the one who has full virtue (arete). Simply, the continent character is the one who, typically, knowing what she should do, does it, contrary to her desires,fully virtuous character is the one who, typically, knowing what she should do, does it, desiring to do it. Her desires are in ‘complete harmony’ with her reason; hence, when she does what she should, she does what she desires to do, and reaps the reward of satisfied desire. Hence, ‘virtuous conduct gives pleasure to the lover of virtue’ (1099a12); the fully virtuous do what they (characteristically) do, gladly.

So Aristotle draws a distinction between two sorts of people—the continent or self-controlled, and the fully virtuous—and he weights that distinction, as the phrases show, a particular way; the fully virtuous agent is morally superior to the merely self-controlled one.’

p. 70-71.

Emotions and Human Rationality

‘When we recall that the agent with Humean benevolence, and children with natural virtue, notably fail to feel emotions correctly on every occasion, we are in a position to see that virtue is not merely a matter of being disposed to act well with a few dispositions to feel ‘nice’, sympathetic (or perhaps empathetic) reactions thrown in to make up the full weight. Just as Augustine’s famous instruction ‘Love, and do what you will’ turns out not to be a license to follow one’s heart, but to embody extremely stern directions concerning what really counts as love, so the claim that full virtue involves feeling emotions correctly makes it clear that this would not be possible (in general) without the influence of reason.

What account of the emotions allows this claim to be true? One account that will not allow for it is one that makes the emotions no part of our rational nature. And there is indeed much in Kant to suggest that, although he shares with Aristotle the view that we have not just one, but two principles of movement, in other respects his philosophical psychology is Humean. He seems committed to the view that our emotions or inclinations are no part of our rationality. They come from the non-rational, animal side of our nature; if they happen to prompt us to act in accordance with the judgements of reason about what ought to be done we are lucky; if they incline us against them we find life difficult, but their prompting us in the right direction is no mark or indication of their rationality. The emotions are not rational in any way.

A different account, with a tradition that dates back to the Stoics, has it that the emotions are indeed part of our rational nature, for they are, or are partially constituted by, judgements, at least some of which are evaluative. On the face of it, this account marries well with the claim that emotions may be had rightly or correctly; roughly, an emotion is had correctly when the judgement (or set of judgements) which (partially) constitutes it is true (or, perhaps, reasonable given the evidence available). As an enormous literature on this topic has made clear, this ‘cognitive account’ faces numerous difficulties; for my present purposes, it suffices to mention just two. […] These two objections might be summed up as one more general one; that on the cognitive account, the emotions are too rational, too akin to the judgements of theoretical reason.

What seems needed is an account which avoids these two extremes—of animal/non-rational and utterly rational. On Hume’s, and Kant’s, picture of human nature, there is no logical space between the two. But Aristotle’s division of the parts of the soul into rational and non -rational is not so hard and fast. We may classify the desiderative part of the soul with the nutritive part, as non-rational, he says—but then we must divide the non-rational part of the soul in two, distinguishing the desiderative part by saying that it participates in reason as the nutritive soul does not. Alternatively, we may classify the desiderative with the reasoning part of the soul as rational—but then we must divide the rational part of the soul in two, and say that the desiderative listens to, or obeys, the reasoning part.1 [Nicomachean Ethics 1102b10–1103a1]

So the Aristotelian picture of human nature creates a space for the emotions—in what is called the desiderative part of the soul—which allows them to be, shall we say, Janus-faced; animal and/or non-rational one face; rational the other. And this allows us to be struck—as surely we should be—not only by the fact that human beings are subject to some emotions which non-rational animals are also subject to, and not only by the fact that human beings are subject to some emotions that non-rational animals notably lack (for instance, pride, shame, and regret), but, much more significantly, by the way in which reason can radically transform an emotion that human beings certainly share with animals, such as fear. How very unlike the other animals human beings are when they endure agony, and risk their lives, for justice and truth, or are terrified by the prospect of university examinations; when they are ready to die for glory, but tremble at the prospect of humiliation. The emotion that in the other animals is essentially connected to physical self-preservation or preservation of the species can be transformed in human beings into an emotion connected with the preservation of what is best, most worth preserving, in us and our species. And the correctness (or incorrectness) of our view of that is an aspect of our rationality. […]’

p. 84-86.


The Reasons of an Action

‘Naturally, the reasons the virtuous agent gives will not make her actions fully comprehensible to the cowardly, intemperate, untrustworthy and dishonest. She thinks saving Mozart’s original manuscript from the fire is worth the risk—how can she? She would like someone else to have some of what’s available—why, when she could take it herself? Why is she making such a point of keeping her promise or telling the truth in this case when all it’s going to do is cause her trouble? — It’s pointless. To the vicious, the virtuous will seem reckless, foolishly self-denying, unrealistically obsessive about promise-keeping and truth.

But this is just what we should expect. One’s detailed grasp of what is involved in acting virtuously, in acting for the right reasons, is not separable from one’s grasp of what each of the virtues involves, and one’s grasp of that is not separable from possession of the virtues themselves, at least to some degree. As Aristotle rightly remarks, ‘the coward calls the brave man rash, the rash man calls him a coward and similarly in all other cases’. 10 [Nicomachean Ethics 1108b25–6.]

p. 100-101, On Virtue Ethics, Rosalind Hursthouse, 1999.