Virtue ethics, as practiced by Aristotle, can appear foreign to us because it stands in such sharp contrast to modern moral discourse. We are accustomed to thinking in terms of universal laws, the calculation of the “greatest good for the greatest number,” or the adherence to some vague sense of natural laws or obligations.
We ask, “what is the foundation of morality?” as if there exists a scientific answer or source of authority that can resolve the issue once and for all and for all time. But ethics is more personal and complex than this. Edith Hall, in her latest book Aristotle’s Way, shows us an alternative view of ethics established by Aristotle that takes into account this inherent complexity.
The first thing to understand is that difficult ethical dilemmas are difficult because they always involve trade-offs, and there is no standard calculation that we can universally apply. To take an example, consider the following variation of the trolley problem.
Imagine that a train is barreling down the track where it will kill five people tied to the track. There is also a lever, where you are standing, that can divert the train to another track, but if you pull it, the train will kill one person who is tied to this second track. Would you pull the lever?
Many people claim that they would pull the lever to create a situation where only one person dies rather than five.
But what if I changed the scenario and noted that the one person tied to the track was your child. Would you pull the lever in this scenario, or would you instead let the train kill the five strangers? If you decided to pull the lever in the previous scenario, why wouldn’t you pull it now?
There is no answer to this question because the “answer” depends on your calculation of the value of the life of your child versus the life of five strangers. Perhaps you wouldn’t pull the lever in this scenario, but how many strangers would it take for you to pull the lever? 100? 10,000? Again, it’s a valuation problem and different people will develop different answers.
These types of scenarios demonstrate the futility of trying to deduce “universal” rules or obligations, as if there is some authority that will make an action “right” or “wrong” every time without us having to think about it. It seeks to replace moral agency with blind rule following based on “objective” principles.
In addition to the fact that most of us will never have to face situations like this, these types of problems distract us from the important aspects of morality that have nothing to do with theoretical calculation or the search for some objective foundation of morality. Morality is better thought of in terms of virtue, character, and habit, not in terms of isolated decisions regarding hypothetical scenarios.
There is no scientific foundation of morality because morality is not about how people actually behave; morality is about how people should behave. Moral propositions are not true or false in the sense that a scientific proposition like “the speed of light is 299,792,458 meters per second” is true or false. Moral propositions can lead to better or worse outcomes according to the standards you establish, but not to true or false statements in the sense of science. As Aristotle wrote:
“It is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits; it is evidently equally foolish to accept probable reasoning from a mathematician and to demand from a rhetorician scientific proofs.”
Moral conversation, therefore, should not deal in absolutes or in universal proclamations, but rather in reference to the types of actions, behaviors, and habits that lead to eudaimonia, a Greek word commonly translated as “happiness” or “human flourishing.” Morality, in this sense, is personal and directly tied to our own internal psychological state.
If we thought about morality in this way, we could stop asking misguided questions like “what’s stopping me from taking advantage of everyone I meet, or from generally being a bad person, without some universal standard of morality?” The answer is—as Aristotle figured out long ago—that the types of behaviors that we generally consider to be good are the actions that lead to the achievement of happiness and flourishing.
A stroll through the literature of positive psychology will show you that the things that make us happiest are not material possessions, money, wealth, or fame. Money facilitates the achievement of happiness, of course, but does not produce it directly in itself, at least for most people.
The things that lead to the highest levels of happiness and life satisfaction are relationships, altruism, community involvement, meaningful work, exercise and physical well-being, positive internal mindset, and the pursuit of meaningful goals and aspirations. In other words, developing the virtues of generosity, toleration, honor, truthfulness, friendship, and similar character traits lead to both happiness and to what most people would consider “moral behavior.”
Of course, simply recognizing this does not make one moral or virtuous. Virtuous behavior, according to Aristotle, is based on habit. As Aristotle wrote, for most people, rather than “doing good acts, they instead just discuss what goodness is, and imagine that they are pursuing philosophy and that this will make them good people.”
To be virtuous means to act in virtuous ways, and to do so on a consistent basis so as to make it a habit. In Aristotle’s Way, Hall provides several examples of what this would look like in chapters covering decision making, communication, intentions, love, community, leisure, mortality, and more, using Aristotle as the guide to practicing the virtues of courage, temperance, honor, justice, and more—virtues that lie in the “golden mean” between behavioral extremes (e.g., courage as lying between cowardice and rashness).
The main point to take away from Aristotle’s ethics is that ethical discourse can only become productive when we replace theoretical speculation with a focus on behavior that is conducive to positive psychological outcomes. The question “what is the foundation of morality?” is a misguided one; the more productive question is “how can I establish habits of behavior to lead to my own psychological well-being?” In answering this, Aristotle is still our best source.