Nico. Ethics Book II, III: 6–12 #PHIL320S21

Aristotle establishes that virtue lies in the middle of two vicious extremes- excess and deficiency. To live in this virtuous mean, Aristotle says that, beyond accumulating a knowledge of intellectual virtues, we must develop our moral values by habit and the constant application of the virtues that we learn in theoretical terms. This process is called habituation. To narrow the scope of this concept even further, there are three criteria that separate truly virtuous people from those who occasionally display virtue: virtuous people know they are acting virtuously, they choose to act this way for the sake of being virtuous, and this behavior manifests itself as a state of character more so than a feeling. Coinciding with the three criteria of a virtuous person are three practical rules of conduct to help us avoid falling into vice. First, it is advisable to avoid the extreme that is furthest from the mean, whether that be one of excess or deficiency. Also, be aware of the errors and vices to which we are particularly susceptible and work diligently to steer clear of them. Lastly, similar to the second suggestion, it is important to be mindful of pleasure and its ability to cloud our judgement.

When looked at through a broader lens, Aristotle’s theory of habituation makes a lot of practical sense. In most cases, we can pinpoint one’s most prominent attributes to attributes exhibited by those that had a substantial influence on the individual’s life. More simply, if we are not taught to appreciate virtue, we are less likely to exhibit virtuous habits. Where the concepts of vice and virtue become complicated is in their subjectivity. The mean of a virtue is different for different people, as are the valuations of its extremes.

In examining several specific virtues, Aristotle gives us his perspective on the relationship between bravery and fear. Bravery, he claims, is not the absence of fear (fearlessness), but rather the ability to exhibit confidence when confronted by fear, mentioning specifically the bravery of a man of war to confront death with honor. In terms of Aristotle’s moral scale, an excess of fear constitutes cowardice while a deficiency constitutes rashness. There is also that which constitutes false bravery. Lack of fear from overconfidence and ignorance of danger are commonly mistaken for the virtue of bravery. These acts inappropriately apply fearlessness to situations in which it is courage that is required. In a way, bravery is distinct in it that it requires one to endure the pain of being in the fearful situation for which their bravery has been called upon.