Why Do We Choose Virtuous Acts?

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Aristotle says that we learn which acts are virtuous, choose virtuous acts for their own sake, and acquire virtuous habits by performing virtuous acts. According to Burnyeat, Aristotle thinks this works successfully because virtuous acts are pleasant. The learner’s virtuous choices and passions are positively reinforced. I argue that Burnyeat’s interpretation fails because virtuous acts are not typically pleasant for learners or, perhaps surprisingly, even for virtuous people. Instead, I maintain that according to Aristotle moral progress is motivated by different sorts of pain associated with vicious acts. I find a series of stages in Aristotle. First, the many come to choose virtuous acts for their own sake by internalizing punishment and becoming generous-minded. Second, motivated by shame, they gain knowledge of which acts are virtuous, becoming incontinent. Third, learners gain habits of virtuous action by regretting their vicious acts and thus become continent. Fourth, they gain habits of virtuous passions by regretting their vicious passions and become well-brought-up. Finally, they are fully virtuous by being taught why virtuous acts are virtuous.

We are inquiring not in order to know what virtue is, but in order to become good ... (1103b27-28) (1)

I shall try to resolve an interesting and insufficiently explored tension between two well known strands of Aristotle's thought. On the one hand, Aristotle's main piece of advice for becoming virtuous is to perform virtuous acts. He says, "We become just by performing just acts, and temperate by performing temperate acts" (1105a18-19). On the other hand, Aristotle says that in order to perform virtuous acts virtuously "the agent also must be in a certain condition when he ...

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...er, the analogy fails. The assumption that virtuous acts are like games begs the question of whether habitual virtuous action enables people to enjoy virtuous acts. Activities are games (rather than drudgery) because mere acquisition of appropriate skills is all it takes for most people to find the activity pleasant. Thus, a taste for games comes naturally along with the acquisition of skills, and practice provides skills. However, virtuous acts are not like games in the crucial respect. The ability to perform virtuous acts does not, by itself, make these acts pleasant. Vicious or continent people, for example, are often able to perform virtuous acts that they do not enjoy. Making virtuous acts pleasant requires something over and above the skills provided by practice.

(8) N. Sherman, The Fabric of Character (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 185-190.
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