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Aristotle, as did and have many others, defined “virtue” as “excellence” in whatever activity in which one is engaged (a concept that Machiavelli would later refine in a more ruthless context). But he also applied the concept of virtue an a more positive context, specifically in referring to how one approaches his or her role in society. Aristotle was concerned with the interaction of human beings, and a virtuous person was one who experienced “…emotions at the right times and on the right occasions and toward the right persons and for the right causes and in the right manner.” This, he wrote, “is characteristic of virtue.” Aristotle believed that man needed to develop the ability to reason in accordance with certain universal values and that “the good of man is activity of soul in accordance with virtue…” The “virtue or excellence of man,” he believed, “will be such a moral state as makes a man good and able to perform his proper function well.”
Aristotle, however, as not particularly naïve, and was certainly not blind to the flaws around him: “For the many naturally obey fear, not shame; they avoid what is base because of the penalties, not because it is disgraceful.” This most eminent of Greek philosophers understood that virtuous ethics demanded a fealty to a higher cause than one’s own self-interest and to one’s own pursuit of pleasure for the sake of pleasure. In this, he was entirely realistic, and entirely irrelevant to much of the world’s population.
People are motivated in their beliefs and in their actions by many factors, some physiological, many sociological. The few people walking the planet today who can even identify Aristotle are preoccupied by the day-to-day challenges of navigating modern society, occasionally with one’s integrity intact. The essence of civilization is the acceptance of restrictions on personal behavior for the greater good. Those limitations do not infringe on personal liberty, but simply affirm that society cannot function in the absence of laws and enforcement mechanisms because of the tendency of a certain percentage of every population to infringe the freedom of others.
Aristotle’s virtue ethics provide a reasonable foundation upon which a society should function. That societies are composed of millions of people holding divergent beliefs and with a certain percentage of those who believe that laws are imposed solely to prevent them from living the life they believe is their due, is sufficient to ensure that virtue ethics will never touch more than a small percentage of mankind. But, that is only one perspective.
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