Lecture 09 Notes

Human Function and Moral Virtue


Plan of the Lecture

I.    Happiness Revisited
II.   The Function Argument
III.  Example: Friendship
IV.  The Nature of Moral Virtue

I.    Happiness Revisited

A.   What is the Good Life?

  • To answer that question, we must first ask: What is the chief good of human life?
  • And to answer that question, we must first ask: What is the goal or final end of life?
  • And to answer that question, we must first ask: What do people take as their ends? The answer we all give is happiness:
“Since there are evidently more than one end and we choose some of these for the sake of something else, clearly not all are final ends; but the chief good is evidently something final. Therefore, if there is only one final end, this will be what we are seeking, and if there are more than one, the most final of these will be what we are seeking. Now we call that which is in itself worthy of pursuit more final than that which is worthy of pursuit for the sake of something else, and that which is never desirable for the sake of something else more final than the things that are desirable both in themselves and for the sake of that other thing, and therefore we call final without qualification that which is always desirable in itself and never for the sake of something else. Now such a thing happiness, above all else, is held to be.” (I.7)

B.   There are Different Ideas About What the Goal of Life is:

  • Aristotle considers pleasure, money, and honor.
  • But he rejects all three.  None can serve as the proper goal of human life.  Therefore none can be the thing in which happiness is found.

C.    Question: Don’t pleasure, money or honor make (some) people happy?

  • Does this show Aristotle was wrong? Consider examples:
  1. the libertine
  2. the greedy man
  3. the resume-builder
  • Are such people happy?  Is are they flourishing as human beings? What do they all lack that flourishing human being has?

D.  Recall the Distinction between a State of Mind or a Condition and an Action:

  • Happiness is not a state of mind or a condition.
  • This the libertine, greedy man, resume-builder, have in common: they are engaged in performing certain actions. Therefore as far as their states of mind are concerned, they are okay.
  • Where they go wrong is in performing the wrong actions.  Their actions fall short of what would be best.
  • Problem: What more can we say about what they lack?

E.    Aristotle's Answer:

  • In all three cases, the person's actions governed by bad choices.
  • According to Aristotle, a good life is a life of good choices.  Good choices are made through the exercise of practical wisdom and the virtues.  The virtues include wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance.
  • It follows then, that the happy life is an active life lived according to the virtues.  It is this way of life that is choiceworthy for its own sake.

II.   The Function Argument

A.   In Short

  1. Aristotle argues that everything in the natural world has function.  As human beings are part of the natural world, human beings have functions.
  2. The function of human beings must be activity unique to them.  The activity unique to human beings is rational activity.
  3. Therefore, the function of human beings is to act in accord with reason.
  • But what are the relevant activities?

B.   Reason Permeates Human Activity

  • It is tempting to think that when Aristotle says we must act in accord with reason, he means we must spend lives engaged in intellectual activity, e.g., philosophy and the opera.  But this is not what he means!
  • Alternatively, it is tempting to think that rational activity is calculating.  But this is not what he means either!
  • Aristotle thinks that (almost) everything human beings do involves the exercise of reason, involves rational choice.  This includes eating, playing, falling in love, politics, laying bricks, conceiving and raising children, as well as intellectual activity.
  • What is distinctive here is that we must make wise choices about all these activities. This means doing the right thing in right way at right time.  It also means combining these into a harmonious life.

C.    Human Beings Live Well When They:

  • lead lives that integrate good performance of variety, which is equivalent to...
  • exercising reason well in the performance of these, which is equivalent to...
  • deliberate choices and proper feelings when engaged in these activities, which is equivalent to...
  • leading lives governed by wise choices and virtues, which is equivalent to...
  • leading lives of wisdom, justice, courage and temperance.
  • Therefore, Aristotle's Answer is vindicated!

III.   Example: Friendship

A.   Friendship is a Rational Activity

B.   Friendship is an Activity in Which Reason Can Function Well or Badly

C.   What is it to be a Person Who Forms and Sustains Good Friendships?


IV.   The Nature of Moral Virtue

A.   A State of Character

  1. Cannot be a passion or emotion like anger, joy, sorrow.  Having feelings is not what makes someone a good friend, e.g. Rather the feelings are signs of friendship
  2. Cannot be a faculty, a capacity to feel or to understand. Having human capacities does not make someone a good friend
  3. Therefore must be a state of character: the way feelings and capacities are developed

B.   To Choose the Mean

  1. A virtue is a disposition of the passions, emotions.  All emotions admit of extremes: some feel too much affection, others are so cold that they show too little or none.  The case is similar with respect to anger, fearlessness, etc.  In all these, there are two extremes and the intermediate seems to be best.
  2. The wise or judicious thing is to moderate passions.  This is what wise, judicious people who lead good lives do.  Since virtue enables us to lead good lives, it must be a disposition to moderation, to choosing the mean between extremes
  3. A comparison with art suggestive.

C.   As Determined by Rational Perception


  1. In activities associated with friendship, we rarely engage in calculation or explicit reasoning about what to do.  There is spontaneity about the activity, but it is nonetheless rational.
  2. So it is with other activities of virtue: the virtuous person perceives what is the right thing to do, and does it.  The temperate person just sees and feels she has had enough.  The courageous person just sees when to run and when not to.
  3. The goal of moral education is to train reason and emotion so that we choose the mean spontaneously, we take pleasure in doing so.

D.   Acquired by Habituation

  1. We learn to be just by performing just actions.  We learn to be temperate by performing temperate actions.  We learn to be courageous by performing courageous actions.
  2. Aristotle is especially concerned with the moral formation of children and of the young.  He recognizes that people may have to be forced to do these until they are fully virtuous.  Some, unfortunately, must be coerced all their lives.



Citation: Weithman, P. (2006, September 19). Lecture 09 Notes. Retrieved October 19, 2014, from Notre Dame OpenCourseWare Web site: http://ocw.nd.edu/philosophy/introduction-to-philosophy/lectures/lecture-09-notes.
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