The Construction of The Concept of Virtue

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Words: 2425 |

Pages: 5|

13 min read

Published: Jul 2, 2018

Words: 2425|Pages: 5|13 min read

Published: Jul 2, 2018

Aristotle devotes the first six books of his Nicomachean Ethics to a discussion of virtue. In doing so he divides virtue into two different categories: moral virtue and intellectual virtue and discusses them individually. However, in our approach to the question of the highest moral virtue, we will examine moral and intellectual virtue together (rather than separately) for the purpose of not only discerning what Aristotle deems this virtue to be, but also examine whether or not there is a connection between the two different types of virtue. Although Aristotle believes moral virtues to be of extreme importance, we will find that even the highest of the moral virtues would be unable to exist if it were not for the intellectual virtues.

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According to Aristotle, intellectual virtues are developed by teaching and instruction while moral virtues are developed by practice or force of habit. Moral virtues are not naturally instilled in us; the soul is designed to receive moral virtues, but in order to develop into guiding forces they must be nurtured by habit. The soul acquires moral virtue by exercising it, just as the harpist learns to play the harp by playing it and men become builders by building homes (1103a14-1103b2). A morally virtuous character is not brought about by thought, but rather, through action.

The next thing Aristotle believes we must understand about virtue is the concept of moderation. He first notes that the nature of moral qualities is destroyed by both defect and excess (1104a12-13). As examples of this, Aristotle notes that both too much and too little food and drink will destroy our health, while the proportionate amount increases and preserves it. Applying these doctrines to virtue, Aristotle finds that the man who shuns everything becomes a coward while the man who knows no fear becomes reckless. In all things, virtue represents a middle ground between too much and too little (1104a15-27).

Aristotle ends Book Two with a warning about referring to the virtuous mean as being the opposite of one of the extremes rather than the middle ground between them. If we were to take a few examples from Book Three, we may be inclined to say that courage is the opposite of cowardice and that temperance is the opposite of licentiousness. This, according to Aristotle, is an incorrect assertion, as can be demonstrated from the diagram below:

Recklessness ------- Courage ------- Cowardice

In drawing a line diagram such as the one we see above, it is actually recklessness, rather than courage that is the opposite of cowardice. Courage, rather, is the mean or the virtue between the two vices. Although we may be inclined to make statements to the contrary, virtue in all things is that which seeks the mean.

The next thing we must understand about virtue comes from Book Three, which deals with what Aristotle calls voluntary and involuntary actions. All morally virtuous conduct is rooted in voluntary action. Aristotle writes that an involuntary action is one that is performed under constraint or through ignorance, while a voluntary action, is one in which the initiative lies with the agent who knows the particular circumstances in which the action is performed (1111a21-4). An act is completely involuntary only when its sole cause is not the person performing it, but an external force or person (for example, a person pushes you from behind into another person) (1110a1-5). Other forms of involuntary action are acts performed through ignorance (when the person is ignorant of the particular situation) or in ignorance (when an action is performed due to drunkenness or immorality) (1110b15-35).

Voluntary action, on the other hand, implies choice. Aristotle carefully distinguishes choice from opinion and argues that true choice implies that the person choosing can determine that one action is preferable to another (1112a2-15). Therefore, the concept of choice also implies deliberation when we are put into a situation where the most preferable action is unclear. According to Aristotle we never deliberate about ends, but rather, we take the ends for granted and deliberate about how to achieve the best ends (1112b32-35). Because the object of deliberation and the object of choice are the same for Aristotle (1113a3), and because we can only deliberate between options that are within our power (1112a32), a choice must be considered review of things that lie in our power (1113a10-14).

In choosing, those of good character will always aim for the good. However, those who are not of good character may understand things incorrectly, and may only wish for what they believe to be good. Both good and vice, therefore, lie within human power, and it is very possible for people to voluntarily choose vice. If we were to deny this, we would also have to deny that man is the source of his own actions (1113b8-21). Aristotle supports this explanation through an examination of how lawgivers reward those who act nobly and punish those who do evil (except evil that is done under some constraint or due to ignorance that exists through no fault of their own). Just as people are responsible for their own bad actions, they are also responsible for their moral states. If someone falls into a bad moral condition, it is his own fault for leading a bad life (1113b21-9).

Knowing Aristotle's requirements for obtaining moral virtue are extremely important because they have a direct bearing on the relationship between moral and intellectual virtue. The relationship between moral and intellectual virtue is discussed at length in Book Six. He begins Book Six by returning to his fundamental premise that virtue is distinguished from vice by voluntary action that involves some level of reasoning. Reasoning occurs through deliberation and choice as described above.

There are five intellectual virtues according to Aristotle: science, art, practical wisdom , intellect, and theoretical wisdom. Of these five virtues, he gives the most attention to practical wisdom. He argues that practical wisdom is the intellectual virtue of the same part of the soul that forms opinions and that unlike art (which is concerned with production and results in an object distinct from the process of making it) practical wisdom concerns the realm of action where doing good is in itself an end. Therefore, practical wisdom is an intellectual virtue that enables one to grasp the truth about human action.

The mark of a prudent person is that they deliberate well not just about what is good and advantageous in a particular situation, but also, about what is conductive to the good life in general (1140a25-28). He who deliberates well, according to Aristotle, deliberates correctly, and this correctness is restricts deliberation to activities that enable one to arrive at a good (1142b8-22). Earlier, we found that Aristotle established this kind of correct deliberation as a pre-requisite to arriving at moral virtue, so it logically follows that for a person to be truly good they must be able to deliberate well, and thus, have practical wisdom.

However, a problem would necessarily arise if a wicked man were to use practical wisdom and the power to deliberate to arrive at something evil. Aristotle responds to this objection by citing a difference between practical wisdom and what he refers to as knavishness. Both practical wisdom and knavishness are the power to perform those steps that are conductive to a goal we have set for ourselves. The crucial difference is that practical wisdom involves some vision of good as it appears to the virtuous person whereas knavishness does not necessarily result in a good end (1144a29-37).

Based on Aristotle's definition as to what would be required to arrive at moral virtue, it would appear as if one would not be able to arrive at moral virtue if one did not first possess the intellectual virtue of practical wisdom. Moral virtue is learned through the voluntary performance of morally virtuous activities, and for an action to be voluntary, it necessarily involves deliberation. However, Aristotle's arguments on practical wisdom appear to suggest that the imprudent man would be incapable of such deliberation, because deliberative excellence is the mark of practical wisdom. Therefore, one would need to be taught the intellectual virtue of practical wisdom before one could practice any of the moral virtues. On the other hand, the only difference between 'practical wisdom' and 'knavishness' is the goal each seeks to attain. Practical wisdom involves deliberation towards goals that are said to be 'good' while knavishness is deliberation towards goals that are deemed to be 'bad'. However, it would seem that for a person would need some amount of moral virtue to distinguish between which goal is 'good' and 'bad'. This forces us to conclude that practical wisdom requires moral virtue and we are left with a circular argument.

Aristotle responds to this objection by showing that just as practical wisdom and knavishness are similar, that there is a similarity in what he calls 'natural virtue' and 'virtue in the full sense' (1144b3-4). He notes that from the time of our birth we all tend to possess some level of virtue, however, we tend to seek something in addition to what we are born with. The virtue we seek is what he calls 'virtue in the full sense', and argues that it is not possible to attain this virtue without practical wisdom. Aristotle asserts that if we were to attempt to attain moral virtue without practical wisdom, the action would be similar to 'a mighty body that, moving without vision, comes to a mighty fall' (1144b10-20).Aristotle concludes Book Six by arguing that virtue in the full sense cannot be obtained without practical wisdom, and he argues that this definition has led some people to believe that all virtues are forms of practical wisdom. Most important in this re-examination of practical wisdom and moral virtue is his assertion that virtue is a characteristic guided by 'right reason', which is determined by practical wisdom (1144b16-24). However, Aristotle finds it necessary to go beyond this simple redefinition, and goes on to argue that right reason in moral matters is practical wisdom. Therefore, right reason is what makes us virtuous and we can logically conclude that once we possess the single intellectual virtue of practical wisdom, we will possess all of the moral virtues (1145a2-4).

Now that we have a solid understanding of virtue, we are able to return to the question of moral virtue. Aristotle spends part of Book Three and all of Book Four describing the different moral virtues through application of his concept of the mean. However, none of these virtues receive the same amoun of attention as the virtue of justice, which is discussed throughout the entire text of Book Five. It is not surprising that he gives this amount of space to his discussion of justice, because for Aristotle, justice is the highest of the moral virtues.

For Aristotle, there are two different kinds of justice: universal justice and particular justice. For our purposes, Aristotle's definition of universal justice is, by far, the most important. Aristotle looks at the definition of its opposite, or what it means to be unjust. His begins this discussion with an examination of the unjust man. He writes "we regard as unjust both a lawbreaker and also a man who takes more than his share, so that obviously a law-abiding and a fair man will be just. Consequently, 'just' is what is lawful and fair, and unjust is what is unlawful and unfair"(1129a32-1129b1). Aristotle also notes in defining the unjust man that 'unfairness' does not necessarily have to do with those things that are larger in size. For example, when presented with a choice of bad things the unjust man will take the smallest share. Therefore, unfairness includes both taking more than ones share of those things deemed to be 'good' and less than ones share of those things deemed to be 'bad' (1129b7-10).

Universal justice then, for Aristotle, is manifest in obedience to law. With regard to these laws, Aristotle makes two assertions. The first assertion is that they aim at producing or preserving happiness or 'the common interest either of all or of the best or of those who hold power' (129b14-19). The second assertion is that they prescribe conduct in accordance with the virtues and forbid conduct that is vicious. Therefore, men living in a political order are compelled to be virtuous by the force of the law. However, it is also worth noting that only a correctly framed law will accomplish this rightly while a more hastily conceived law will not (1129b19-25).

Aristotle concludes his discussion of complete justice by referring to it as 'complete virtue or excellence' and claims that, in justice, 'every virtue is summed up'. The reasoning Aristotle gives for this is that a just man not only makes use of this virtue in his own affairs, but also in affairs with fellow men. In short, Justice is the only virtue that considers the good of others as well as the good of oneself. The worst man for Aristotle is the man who does wickedness to both himself and others while the best man is he that practices virtue towards himself and others. Aristotle would not agree that virtue is the same as justice and that vice is the same as injustice. He concludes instead by saying that universal justice coincides with the whole of ethical virtue and universal injustice with the whole of ethical vice. As states and dispositions, justice and injustice are the same, but they also convey a relationship between man and his neighbors, which the terms virtue and vice do not (1130a8-13) .

In recapitulation, we have discovered that the highest of the moral virtues is universal justice. The distinguishing factor that sets justice apart from the other moral virtues is the fact that it is the only moral virtue that takes into consideration the good for ones neighbors, rather than only the good of the practitioner of the virtue. Finally, we have concluded that there is a connection between moral and intellectual virtue because one can only become morally virtuous through the practice of morally virtuous actions. However, moral virtue in the full sense cannot exist without right reason, which is determined by the intellectual virtue of practical wisdom. Therefore, we can conclude our examination of virtue in the Nicomachean Ethics with the assertion that moral virtue cannot exist without intellectual virtue.

Works Cited

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (translated by Martin Ostwald). Pentice Hall.New Jersey. 1999.

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Hardie, W.F.R. Aristotle's Ethical Theory. Clarendon Press. Oxford. 1980.

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The Construction of the Concept of Virtue. (2018, April 21). GradesFixer. Retrieved December 11, 2023, from
“The Construction of the Concept of Virtue.” GradesFixer, 21 Apr. 2018,
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