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From Continence to Virtue: Cultivation of Moral Character
Sep 1, 2012

Can people be held accountable for what they feel and wish from a moral point of view or is it only their resulting actions that matter? Is it equally valuable to perform a moral action through forcing oneself with little accompanying desire compared to performing the same action with pleasure?

Let us imagine two people of similar economic status, one of whom donates a considerable amount of money to a charity organization willingly, while the other hesitates but eventually donates the same amount of money with relative difficulty. Which action deserves the real moral praise? Intuitively, the willing donor seems to get our praise and sympathy more than the other; yet, it might require more virtue to choose the right action in the face of adverse inclinations. Acknowledging that this question is more difficult than it first appears lets us go back several millennia to hear what Aristotle, the great philosopher and ethicist, has to say on this issue.

Aristotle use the terms virtue, continence, incontinence, and vice in order to account for diverse attitudes present in individuals when confronted with ethical dilemmas. "Virtue" is an excellence of the soul that helps one to achieve complete harmony between one's reasoning and desires. Whenever the virtuous person chooses an action as the rationally best option, he performs this action pleasurably. Yet this is a pleasure of a higher status, a noble joy, one that stems from appreciating the intrinsic value of the virtuous action and thus coming to love it. In other words, the virtuous person's emotions and reason point at the same direction and there is no inner conflict that haunts his soul. This results in a noble and complete joy; a cultivated ability to see the intrinsic value embedded in the virtuous act through gaining a second nature. This second nature begins with having joy in doing the right thing rather than primarily being after the satisfaction of the bodily desires.

Unlike the state of virtue, the cases of continence, incontinence, and vice all include conflict to some degree between one's reason and desires. Within this spectrum, some people better resist these counter-rational desires than others, and they are able to act in the same manner as a virtuous person, as in our example above. Aristotle calls such individuals "continent" (enkrates) and he distinguishes them from the fully virtuous. Their distinctive characteristic is that they struggle inside, but they end up doing the morally right thing. Yet, unlike the continent, some people are less successful in resisting their inner desires, and they end up doing the wrong action even though they are rationally aware of its wrongness. These individuals are called "incontinent" (akratês). Their reason and appetites drift them in opposite directions, and they find themselves in a miserable position. In the very last category, vice, are the individuals who refuse to do what an ethically virtuous person would do because they have become convinced that justice, temperance, generosity, and the like are of little or no value; Aristotle calls such people evil (kakos). This last category is demarcated from other categories sharply by the lack of any struggle against the dark side of the soul. These people both begin and end up on the negative side. Despite the fact that vicious people might seem to possess an inner harmony since both their wills and acts are in accord, Aristotle portrays them as deeply divided, because they cannot help but become dissatisfied as a result of the over-dominance of the irrational part of their souls. Aristotle assumes that if someone is in the habit of making bad decisions about how to live his life, his failures are caused by psychological forces that are less than fully rational. It is probable that his desires for pleasure, power, or some other external goal have become so strong that they make him care too little or not at all about acting ethically. It can be claimed that the vicious person lacks internal harmony because he cannot implement his rational side properly in making decisions. This reminds us of the famous chariot allegory of Aristotle's teacher, Plato, in which he paints the picture of a charioteer driving a chariot pulled by two winged horses: one of them representing the rational and moral impulses and the other irrational appetites. The charioteer is like the human soul that needs to balance and keep the chariot going in the path towards enlightenment. While it is not easy to keep the two fighting horses in check, a human soul is better off whenever it is guided through reason, the charioteer. Yet, the evil person suffers from an imbalance and is perpetually drifted away by the whims of the bad-behaved horse. This, in the long run, results in unhappiness and sickness of the soul.

Cultivation of dispositions

Now that a brief sketch of Aristotle's four types of ethical subjects is drawn, there is an inevitable question that awaits us. We have seen that all three of these positions involve some lack of integrity; it is only the life of a virtuous person that possesses internal harmony, and all other lives deviate to some degree from this ideal. Yet, one cannot help but wonder how we could attain this ideal state? According to Aristotle, in order to achieve the state of virtue, we need to develop proper habits and emotional responses starting from early childhood. Although full virtue is a rare achievement for human beings, it is only attainable through employment of continence persistently in life. Aristotle divides the virtues into two categories, the natural and the true virtues, and whereas the former comes by nature, the latter is cultivated through habituation. Aristotle's truly virtuous man has cultivated (habituated) emotions rather than possessing immediate impulses to do good. Aristotle famously tells us that "action" leads to the corresponding character states; just as to be a good painter, you have to paint, and to be a good shoemaker you need to make shoes, you need to do virtuous actions to become virtuous. In Aristotle's words, we become "just by doing just actions, and temperate by acting temperately." (NE II.4.)

Virtue is "made perfect by habit and by practical wisdom," and this makes the virtuous person's position superior to that of the merely continent person. This conception of virtue as an ongoing, developmental process implies that individuals cannot typically will to feel certain emotions at a moment's notice, but they can choose to cultivate certain emotions over time as a significant part of developing moral character.

Although Aristotle advises that virtue be our ultimate aim, he still esteems the continent person to some extent. A lack of complete harmony between reason and desires is often inescapable for human beings. We can only want or choose to do the virtuous thing, but we cannot make ourselves take pleasure from doing it. In fact, continence is often the only state we are capable of achieving, even though we might want to do the right thing cheerfully. To make an analogy, Aristotle encourages the cultivation of virtues just like the flourishing of a flower. Growing flowers require time and great care; likewise, virtuousness does not always come by nature but it is gained through cultivation and care.

Reason as the guide

The Aristotelian virtuous person is the one whose rational part overrides and guides the appetitive part. Accordingly, as long as the person is guided by his rational part, his actions are virtuous; whenever the rational side of the person is weaker than his appetitive side, it leads to moral weakness (incontinence). The idea of acting from the rational part of the soul is pivotal in Aristotle's ethics; he ties human arête (virtue) to reasoning. For Aristotle, virtuous action must definitely originate from reasoning since it is the human arête (virtue) to be guided by the rational part of the soul. "Like every other creature in the world, man has a particular nature and the best way to live is to live up to his nature, which is to be directed by a rational soul." Therefore, by "desiring to do the virtuous thing" Aristotle does not claim that this person should have a natural inclination to do the right thing; instead, it requires adoption of rational desires that are in line with virtuous actions.

One-way road to happiness: From continence to virtue

How can we make ourselves enjoy doing the virtuous things according to Aristotle? For instance, how can we "enjoy" giving to charity? As Aristotle proposes, we become just by doing just actions, we become temperate by acting temperately; so, the only way to arrive at true virtue goes from acting in conformity with duty even if we do it with continence. Aristotle assumes every individual begins the journey by continence and tries to arrive at virtuousness, which is a complete harmony of will and reason. In a way, Aristotle's virtuous person is someone who walked up the ladder from continence to virtue. No one ascends to the state of virtue without first being continent. It is important to note that, for Aristotle, doing the better thing willingly is a better position to which we should aspire, but climbing up the ladder of virtue is already sufficient to make someone a good person. Full virtue and complete harmony could only be the destination we reach after a long journey of cultivation of emotions.

Yet, the question still remains: how can we make our souls come to love and enjoy being virtuous? Aristotle's answer is that when your will and reason are in complete harmony, you do the desirable thing with pleasure. Otherwise, it is continence, which is a state with a lesser degree of moral worth. Let us assume we have cultivated our emotions and habituated ourselves to do the virtuous thing. Now, I always "want" to do the right thing. Still, one cannot help but wonder how we can make ourselves "enjoy" being virtuous. Aristotle's reply would be simple: the virtuous person, upon moral deliberation, rationally chooses the virtuous thing to do, and because he is acting in conformity with his rational part and because his rational part has supremacy over the emotional part, he is expected to perform the action pleasurably. However, this is not totally convincing; no matter how many times we "choose" or "want" to do the right thing, we might still not be able to "take pleasure" from doing the right thing. I might be able to acquire the habit of sleeping less after considerable effort, but I cannot get myself to "enjoy" this. If we define a virtuous person as the one who both "wants" and "does" the virtuous thing, then this is understandable. Yet, when it comes to "enjoying" or "taking pleasure from" the virtuous action, we are usually short of actualizing this at will.

Then, is it ever possible to be truly virtuous? Evidently, Aristotle is optimistic on this issue. He believes true virtue is possible as long as proper cultivation is provided. Nonetheless, virtue does not come without effort; it requires time and tender care -- being virtuous is not possible without persistently doing the right thing and trying to strengthen our rational part so that it will have supremacy over the appetitive part. Only then can people ascend to true virtue rather than staying at the level of continence. And this journey is not something we could afford to overlook, since it harbors true happiness.

Despite Aristotle's invaluable contribution to ethics, he falls short of providing satisfactory answers to many intuitive questions regarding how and why the human soul enjoys being virtuous. His ultimate answer revolves around the happiness of the soul and there is no greater gain other than having the best possible life that is characterized as the eudaimon life. This is not a bad ideal, but its significance is quite negligible compared to the greater ideal of gaining an immortal life of happiness and beauty. Yet, since Aristotle does not believe in an immortal soul, his arguments do not include references to eternal happiness. Given this, no matter how convincing the ethicists' arguments are, there will always remain a question: Why would I care so much about a life that is doomed to end? Why should I take the trouble to fight with my desires and make myself a so-called virtuous person? Moreover, complete happiness is almost impossible to attain in a life that we know to be short. Even though we could lead a happy life through virtue, knowing that it will last merely for this life makes it bittersweet at best. Without immortality, we are like birds that are kept in cages in this finite world, trying to find the best way to lead a good and happy life--a small and finite goal. Instead, finding the real eternal Divine source of why our souls find happiness and peace in virtuous actions and knowing that this joy is to last forever, can grant us true happiness. Whenever we act virtuously, say, giving to the poor without expecting anything in return, we are actually imitating and aspiring to the character of the Divine who is the most Generous. Similarly, whenever a person forgives another, he would be acting in accordance with the Divine mercy that is exemplified in the name of the All-Merciful. Hence, engaging in such virtuous acts gives the person unprecedented joy of the soul because such participation in the Divine goodness is greater than other sorts of pleasure. Furthermore, with immortality such acts do not merely stay in this life; on the contrary, performing these virtuous acts become the key to eternal happiness. Acting virtuously is good because these acts derive from God's character Who is the source of all goodness, truth, and beauty. As long as a human soul can reflect this beauty as a mirror, his actions gain intrinsic value, and she can reach true happiness, not only in this life but also in the eternal afterlife.