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Finding Virtue in a Virtue-less Society

Image by Nick Thompson via Flickr. Image by Nick Thompson via Flickr.

Throughout this week, I have been reading the Nicomachean Ethics by that master of moral structure, Aristotle, who developed a system of morality that has come to be known as virtue ethics. Virtue ethics is different from many modern moral schemes, most of which are legalistic in nature. Rather than providing a systematic set of rules, virtue ethics explores the proper dispositions in a person, which, according to Aristotle, would lead to the ultimate end of happiness.

These dispositions are not present by nature, Aristotle explains, so they have to be obtained by habituation, or the repetition of virtuous activities. When you practice virtue, it becomes ingrained into your character and forms your disposition.

The obvious challenge, then, is understanding what activities need to be habituated. An even larger problem is applying this understanding to society, especially when our individual understanding is limited by several different factors, including experience. Aristotle's odd solution to this problem? Politics.

Aristotle believed law was not a regulatory mechanism but a means of promoting virtue and ultimately happiness among the citizen. Happiness (eudaimonia in Greek), unlike the modern sense of the word, was an "activity of the soul" and more than a passing feeling (i.e. pleasure). Aristotle's idea of the word was a much more overarching notion, a kind of lifelong and enduring happiness, and so for him, virtue, law, and politics were all connected.

Since happiness is inherently connected to virtue, Aristotle believed that there needed to be a way to encourage virtue, and this was accomplished by  law. Law was supposed to make a moral claim about what is good in the world, encourage virtuous behavior, and facilitate happiness. Modern liberal democracies, however, take a much different approach to proper governance by avoiding any sort of moral claim. You might ask, "Is it even possible to cultivate virtue in a modern liberal society?" The answer would seem to be "No," but I think that there could be another way to cultivate virtue, even in the absence of moral laws.

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle writes: “But when cities utterly neglect the public care, it would seem appropriate for each individual to contribute to the virtue of his own offspring and friends, or at least to make the choice to do so.” Now, Aristotle could not have accounted for the onset of churches, because he lived before Christianity, but I would argue that the church is able to promote a common good and virtue as a whole without depending on government. I would even go so far as to argue that only the church is capable of respecting our liberal democratic society while still promoting virtue, provided its freedom is respected.

Prospects for virtue are far from dead, and if Aristotle was correct, that would also mean that the prospects for true happiness are also still alive. In a world where freedom is almost limitless, there is still hope for virtue, and that hope is the church.


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