Sunday, April 14, 2013

"How much of what [an athlete does is within his own control? As Paul Konerko reminds us, all of it. Even when it defies what we think we know." - Christina Kahrl on

A great article on human agency in the face of inevitability: Paul Konerko redefines challenges, expectations

Monday, April 1, 2013

Virtue Ethics, Or What If Mother Teresa Was an Olympian?

            As one of the three major approaches to ethical thought, virtue ethics seeks to describe the qualities that constitute a good person. Rather than focus on how one should act or the consequences one should endeavor to produce, virtue ethics examines the virtues held by a good person. A good person is brave, kind, just, etc.; hence, a good person will act bravely, kindly and justly to produce favorable consequences. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle remains the most influential thinker in the virtue ethics canon. His seminal work, Nicomachean Ethics, derives an ethical theory from an exploration of human virtue.
Aristotle believed that in order to characterize a good human, one must first describe the characteristic function of human beings. An understanding of this function will then lead to an understanding of what constitutes a good person. The function of any object, animal or profession is the end it is meant to achieve. For example, a hammer is a tool used to drive nails into a solid object; a good hammer is one which achieves this end to the ease and approval of the user. Likewise a doctor is a person whose end is the health of her patients. The function of a doctor is to make people healthy and keep them so, and a good doctor is one who reliably achieves this end.
            What then is the function of a human being? Aristotle defines it as “activity of the soul in accord with reason or requiring reason.”1 Like humans, plants are also alive and animals are sentient. But among the species of Earth, only humans are capable of reason. To be a functional human being is, for Aristotle, to exercise this capacity. As a result, a good human is one who reasons well. Reasons about what? What is the end of all this reasoning? The end is the activity of the soul, or what the soul should do. Therefore, a good person is one who reasons well and whose soul acts well accordingly.
            Turning to the reasoning itself and the actions good reasoning should produce, Aristotle divides human goods into three types: external goods (such as prosperity), goods of the soul (such as happiness) and goods of the body (such as health), and he declares goods of the soul to be the most complete form of good.2 Furthermore, he observes that goods are often attained by choosing the mean between two extremes. Eating too much or too little ruins health, but eating a moderate amount leads to well-being. Human virtue, then, is the state in which the individual chooses the proper mean in accordance with reason. Like goods, virtues are ruined by excess and deficiency but preserved by the mean. A person who lacks courage is a coward, a person with an excess of courage is foolhardy or rash, but a person with the right amount of courage possesses the virtue of bravery.
Consequently, virtue consists in having the right feelings at the right times, about the right things, toward he right people, for the right ends and in the right ways. Reason is required for virtue because these means are often relative to the individual and his situation. Fighting in battle exhibits the bravery proper to a soldier, but such an act would be rash or foolhardy for a crippled child. And in order to become virtuous, one must recognize and practice virtue. Reasoning correctly about which situations call for bravery and how much is required, and then acting bravely in those situations strengthens an individual’s courage and brings her nearer to acquiring this virtue.
And just as a master pianist plays exquisite music and plays it in accord with his knowledge of the piano and music in general, true virtue cannot be produced by chance. An agent must know she is acting virtuously, decide on virtuous actions for themselves and do them from a firm and unchanging mind. The function of a human being is activity of the soul in accord with reason. A virtuous human uses the capacity of reason to recognize the virtue required in any situation and then acts accordingly.
Let us return to Aristotle’s distinction of humans from plants and animals. While the ability to reason does distinguish human beings from other living, sentient things, it is not the sole defining characteristic of humanity. Humans are beings with active bodies that respond to reasoning minds. If we link human virtue too closely to reason, it seems a disembodied brain floating in a vat of nutrient-rich chemicals and stimulated by electrodes connecting the cortex to a bank of supercomputers would be capable of virtue despite the fact that it could never actually act with courage or generosity or temperance.
Yet Aristotle does not make that mistake. There are goods of the body, such as health, though they are less complete than goods of the soul. There are virtues of the body, like strength and temperance, and Aristotle regularly cites them as examples in his arguments.3 The virtuous person is physically strong and temperate in his indulgences because these virtues promote the good of health. Moreover, if the function of a human being includes physical action, then the virtuous human is one who performs physical actions well. On this account, strength, speed, power, endurance, coordination and flexibility are virtues. The human being who realizes these capacities of her body is in some measure virtuous. Does this mean Mother Teresa was not virtuous because she was physically frail? No. There is no denying she was a paragon of virtues of the soul. But if in addition to all her other exemplary traits she had also possessed certain physical virtues, then by necessity she would have been even more virtuous.
Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean also provides a model for defining virtues like physical fitness. On one extreme is the vice of sloth, exhibited by the person who eats too much of the worst kind of food and moves too little. At the opposite extreme is the person who exercises too intensely and too frequently or crash diets to lose weight. The mean of these two extremes is the virtue of fitness, i.e. doing everything possible to maintain one’s body in peak physical condition without going overboard. Like the other virtues, most of us will fall between the apex of physical virtue and the pit of one extreme or the other. The boundaries that delineate vice from virtue are often slim and are still being defined. Yet such is the case with respect to many other questions of virtue. And such gray areas should not dissuade us from the reality that these virtues do exist.


1 Aristotle. “The Nature of Virtue.” Ethical Thoery, Ed. Russ Shafer-Landau, Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007, p. 671
2 Ibid.
3 See Ibid p. 676 and p. 677.