Aristotle and Virtue

Aristotle and dog training

the nub of Aristotle's approach is that each individual has, as a living human organism, a certain balance between and among talents, interests, limitations and external obligations. Training any one person to be ethical and to live a good life in which she flourishes requires a thorough understanding of both the individual being trained, of the situation for which the training is being done, and of the specific demands that this situation will make on this individual. A good analogy is that the individual is like an athlete and the ethical teacher like a good coach.

The analogy is not perfect because ethical training goes beyond teaching your charge how to set a pick or drive the lane, to include a sense of moderation, that is of striking a mean or, midpoint between extremes. In sports one wants to train the athlete to achieve extremes, not just to be a good defender but to be a smothering defender. However, in areas beyond skill, sports and Aristotelian ethics are not far apart. A good person and a good athlete have this in common: both know how to act in the right, moderate way in challenging circumstances. Thus, a good person knows when to back off in an argument, or when to call someone for making a racist remark, or when to stop drinking at a party. Similarly, a good athlete knows how to take bad calls with dignity, how to give a good foul, how to act when they win. A perfect example of Aristotelian good action and athletic class: coach Huggins of West Virginia comforting his injured point guard in the NCAA semifinal game. Huggins knew what to do: when your player is injured you step in to provide support, forgetting the game for the moment. Huggins did not weep and wail at his athlete's injury, but neither did he act cool. This was a possible major injury to a decent guy who wanted a pro career; Huggins' response was measured perfectly to the situation.

Aristotle did not believe that there were universally binding ethical rules, or single universal motives, to guide his thinking. For him, being a good person was a matter of a particular individual acting in the right way for that individual at that time and in that place. To be good one had to acquire the habits needed to respond well under differing and sometimes trying circumstances to a series of complex challenges. Knowing how to respond moderately and appropriately to every situation, even to ones in which there were no good options was, for Aristotle, the heart of the moral life.

Reader Comments

There are no comments for this journal entry. To create a new comment, use the form below.

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>