The virtue ethics of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, the Epicureans, and the Stoics were very individualistic and primarily concerned with helping one person become a better person though self-improvement. This is a sharp contrast to the current popular moral theories—Kantianism and consequentialism—that tend to be concerned with categorizing actions as right and wrong. These moral theories provide us with a set of rules to follow. They are much like computer programs invented to determine which actions are (or tend to be) right or wrong. The personal requirement of “thinking for yourself” would ideally be dispensable because the moral theory can think for us.
Although virtue ethics lacks in popularity, many people still think it is indispensable. Virtue ethics requires us to understand how to be transform ourselves into better people. That means we have to understand what is moral, how to be motivated to be moral, and how to actually behave morally. I will describe the virtue ethics of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, the Epicureans, and the Stoics.
Socrates thought that knowledge is virtue, and virtue leads to happiness. It makes sense to think that moral people know what morality is. If you know right from wrong, then you might be able to choose to do what you know to be right. It also makes some sense to suspect that our beliefs about right and wrong influence our decisions. If we believe it’s right to help a drowning child, then it would be fairly shocking to decide not to do so—and it would less surprising when we decide to help the child.
It is quite a shocking statement to say that virtue always leads to happiness. Criminals commit crimes that hurt others to help themselves. To think that their crimes would make them unhappy is a strange thought. However, it isn’t too shocking to think that helping others can make us happy, so doing the right thing might be more fulfilling than committing crimes.
Perhaps the most shocking thought that Socrates proposed was the unity of the virtues—if you have one virtue, then you have them all. Courage requires wisdom, wisdom requires moderation (e.g. appropriate eating habits), and moderation requires courage. Socrates argued that all virtues are a sort of wisdom, but it isn’t clear that one sort of wisdom would require all sorts of wisdom. I could know nothing about programming computers, but that doesn’t seem to make me less virtuous. However, Socrates might have envisioned a person with an ideal virtue (such as ideal courage) that would require us to possess all other virtues assuming that there will be at least one situation when one virtue requires another. For example, moderation might require the courage to feel the pain of withdrawal symptoms after we become addicted to cigarettes.
Plato thought that we have three major parts: The intellect, the emotions, and the appetites. We have the intellect to reason and learn, emotions to be motivated, and the appetites to know when we are in need of something (food, water, etc.) Wise people use their emotions to motivate them to do what the intellect finds valuable, but the unwise use their emotions to motivate them to overindulge the appetites. To over-indulge the appetites is to be immoderate and addictive, but the intellect should learn to value fulfilling our appetites in a healthy way.
Plato helps us understand why some people do what they know to be wrong—because our emotions can side with our appetites—but he does not make it entirely clear why some people are (relatively) wise and are able to passionately value the right things, but others are unwise and passionately value superficial things.
Aristotle concludes that (a) the proper object of virtue is happiness and (b) we can become wise through habit.
Aristotle’s first conclusion was partially justified through an important discovery—morality needs a goal (or one or more primary values). If nothing really matters, then morality is baseless. If we want money just to make more money, then the money will never do any good. We need to spend the money and use it for something worthy for its own sake. Most of our goals are nonmoral goals, such as our goal to make money. Our goals are only virtuous when they lead to something truly good.
Additionally, Aristotle’s first conclusion helps explain why we can be motivated to being virtuous—attaining personal happiness is what everyone finds worthy of being a goal.
However, the strange result of Aristotle’s first conclusion is that what we think has to be virtuous, right, and good—such as helping people—is actually only contingently virtuous based on the assumption that such things will make us happy.1 Whatever we think of as “morality” would be rejected by Aristotle as soon as we discover that it doesn’t bring us personal happiness. What Aristotle calls “morality” is potentially revisionary because our common sense understanding of morality could be severely mistaken once we realize that whatever makes us personally happy is good, virtuous, or right by definition.
I don’t find it strange to think that something is only virtuous if it has some relation to what is “truly good,” but Aristotle didn’t seem to find the right relation. He advocated a sort of selfish egoism that most people would now find puzzling and objectionable. The fact that I might personally get no happiness in helping others doesn’t seem to make my action wrong or unwise.
Aristotle’s second conclusion, that we can attain virtue through habit, continues Plato’s discovery that morality and psychology must be connected. We need to find motivation to be moral, but not all our moral knowledge is something we can easily explain or prove to others. There is something “intuitive” about our everyday moral decisions. We don’t have the time to think about moral theories before making every moral decision. Instead, we use our entire life experience to help us know what decision is most likely to make us happy.
Aristotle’s second conclusion attempts to explain how our life experience can help us make quick, thoughtless, effortless moral decisions by attributing our decisions to habit. Once we have made certain decisions in the past, it’s easy to make similar decisions now. We can also “acquire a taste” for healthy food and learn to take pleasure in virtuous actions by continuing to do them.
The Epicureans agreed with Aristotle that virtue is necessary to attain certain values, and the main purpose of virtue is to attain those values for oneself. The Epicureans valued joy, pleasure, and avoidance of suffering. Here “joy” includes positive emotions and “intellectual pleasures.” Epicurus didn’t glorify superficial bodily pleasures and found that pleasures of reason were the most fulfilling.
For Epicurus virtuous people would feel no pain or suffering, and they would not be demanding in their life. Instead, they would appreciate what little joy and pleasures they could get. To become virtuous required that one correct their thinking and practice “spiritual meditations” that would continually remind themselves that there is no reason to suffer and every reason to appreciate their life. The Epicureans realized that certain thoughts have an effect over our emotions, and “virtuous thoughts” could eliminate our suffering.
Again, the Epicureans needlessly restrict values to ones attained for oneself, but this is not something many people will agree with.
The Stoics based their moral philosophy on the virtue ethics of Socrates (knowledge leads to virtue and happiness), but the Stoics were also highly influenced by Aristotle. They agreed with Aristotle that virtue is necessary to attain a certain value, and the main purpose of virtue is to attain that value. However, the Stoics found that the most important value is virtue itself. Virtue doesn’t technically need to lead to another value because it is worthy for its own sake. Additionally, the Stoics provided us with a sophisticated moral psychology that could greatly help us find motivation to be virtuous.
Many Stoics seemed to agree with Socrates that knowledge leads to virtue and happiness, but they added a couple of details. In particular, the Stoics realized that evaluative beliefs and thoughts influence our emotions and actions. If you believe that saving a drowning child is virtuous, then it is likely that you will feel at least somewhat motivated to save the child, and it is then likely that you will actually save the child. We can have virtuous thoughts and beliefs, emotions, and actions. Courageous thoughts lead to courageous emotions and actions.
Understanding that evaluative thoughts and beliefs influence our emotions and actions gives us a way to influence them. We can remind ourselves about certain “truths” that can help us not only find motivation to do the right thing, but also to help us avoid suffering similar to Epicureanism. For example, when someone murders a loved one, we are likely to have an automatic response including thoughts that “something terrible has happened” and feeling grief. In some situations it could even motivate revenge. A Stoic could use “meditative exercises” to regain a calm and rational state of mind—perhaps by reminding themselves to appreciate whatever we get out of life and that we have no right to make demands on the world. Perhaps also that murderers aren’t demons. (They are ignorant human beings who have a corrupted and unhealthy state of mind rather than highly accountable and responsible cunning monsters.)
One question not easy for the Stoic to answer is, “Why does virtue make us happy?” After all, the purpose of virtue isn’t to make us happy. The fact that it makes us happy is just a contingent fact. The Stoics combine their moral psychology with an understanding of the universe to give us reason to think that virtue will lead to happiness (or at least help us avoid suffering). In particular, they believed that everything that happens was divinely preordained. Everything that happens is ultimately “for the best.” Therefore, we have no reason to have negative evaluative judgments, and negative evaluative judgments are the main (or only) source of suffering.
We might also want to ask the Stoics, “How do we know if an action is virtuous?” Aristotle and the Epicureans can tell us that we know that we are virtuous if we know how to be happy and avoid suffering, but the Stoics can’t tell us that.2 Instead, the Stoics suggest that we instinctively know various secondary values or duties that are important, but insignificant compared to virtue itself. Why would they think this? They suggest that our instincts were divinely preordained to help us understand virtue.
Although I think Stoicism has a lot to offer us, I don’t think Stoicism should require us to believe in a divinity.3 I find it intuitive to think that we should appreciate whatever life has to offer for us, but I don’t find it obvious that everything that happens is “for the best.” I find it intuitive to think that there are various worthy values or duties that we can discover, but the idea that they were “divinely preordained” is not something I would find convincing.
Does Stoicism require the belief in a divinity? I don’t think it has to. I find it plausible that virtue is our most important priority and that virtue can be understood in terms of various values. Find out more here.
Why is Stoicism attractive? It helps us become virtuous by helping us influence our emotions and become motivated to do the right thing.
Virtue ethics is about ethics up close and personal. It’s about motivating ourselves to be better people. I don’t see any reason to think that virtue ethics has to be incompatible with our current popular moral theories, but I also find virtue ethics to be indispensable. The impersonal rules given to us by the popular moral theories neither provide us with the motivation to be moral nor do they help us think on our toes make moral decisions.
1 Aristotle thought that we are social animals, and if he is right, it’s part of human nature to find happiness by helping others. That might be true of many people, but it might not be true of everyone. (Aristotle even seemed to admit that different people have different natures.)
2 The Stoics can tell us that we are virtuous when our actions lead to happiness given the assumption that virtue leads to happiness, but we couldn’t prove that relation before we actually know what virtue is.