The Great Conversation: Virtue and Vice

By Gabriel Blanchard

One of the principal goals of education is to cultivate virtue. But what does that mean?

Virtue (and its implied opposite) is something we discuss a good deal under the aegis of a classic education: Martin Luther King Jr.‘s dictum, “Intelligence plus character is the goal of true education,” is one of our mantras. This situates us in a tradition stretching back more than thirty centuries; from the present day, through the Medieval university, on to classical Athens, and further still to Egyptian myths of the judgment of the dead.

What do we mean by virtue? The Greek aretē meant “excellence” or “prowess,” and came later to be narrowed to moral qualities (like the Latin virtus itself, which originally meant “manliness”). Aristotle created a sophisticated theory of virtues that classified excellence under as many as a dozen headings, but the ancients in general agreed upon four basic virtues: prudence, courage, justice, and moderation. These were called cardinal virtues, from the Latin cardo, “hinge”; good character hung on them as a door hangs on its hinges. When Christianity came to dominate the classical world, the four cardinal virtues were combined with three theological virtuesfaith, hope, and charityfor a total of seven. This list, with some disputes and elaborations, has remained common currency for a thousand years.

One of Socrates’ concerns was whether virtue could be taught, or required an innate talent like art. He earned the enmity of many Sophists who claimed to be able to teach virtue (and made a pretty penny doing so) by cross-examining and debunking their claims, but the debate continued. Most thinkers have admitted virtue is in some way teachablesome taking the strong view that all vice is simply a kind of ignorance, while others have recognized us as having an innate sense of right and wrong, one that does require maturation but is nothing like Locke‘s tabula rasa.

All the things I really like to do are either illegal, immoral, or fattening.

The question of the relationship between virtue and happiness is another thorny one. Given an Aristotelian idea of happiness as “human flourishing,” nearly every philosopher and theologian in the West considered virtue a prerequisite for happiness. Some, such as the Stoics, considered it the only requirement; the early Christian martyrs, who famously sang hymns while being burned alive, seemed to justify this idea, albeit on quite different grounds. However, a number of Idealist philosophers, notably Kant, considered virtue and happiness to be irrelevant to each other. Duty was duty, and that was all there was to it: tying virtue to happiness made it mercenary, which was not virtuous at all.

This flowed from Kant’s theory of why we must pursue virtue and avoid vice. Called deontology, from the Greek deon “binding,” the virtuous was a category unto itself, rather than directed to some purpose like happiness. This stood in stark contrast to the tradition of ethics descending from Aristotle, which conceived of the virtues not primarily as patterns of obedience to arbitrary rules, but as inner qualities of character. Where for Kant a person who does the right thing despite not wanting to is specially praiseworthy, Aristotle considered enjoying doing the right thing a mark of virtue.

A rival family of ethical theories arose in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, known loosely as consequentialism. Utilitarianismthe idea that virtue means doing whatever leads to the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of peoplecame in the writings of Jeremy Bentham and J. S. Mill. Kierkegaard’s Either/Or set a deontologist view against a kind of intelligent hedonism, in which a prudent, strategic approach to pleasures led in practice to moderation, equity, and other virtues.

More recently, certain strains of feminist thought have advanced yet another radically different (and controversial) concept of virtue, known as relational ethics. This posits that morals center primarily on interpersonal relationships rather than abstract principles. This forms a fascinating counterpoint to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, which defines the Godhead itself as relational, and perhaps to ancient suzerain-vassal covenants and the ideals of feudalism as well.

Suggested reading:
Plato, Protagoras
Aristotle, The Nichomachean Ethics
St. Augustine, Confessions
Baruch Spinoza, Ethics
Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or
Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice


If you enjoyed this piece, you might also like our series on our author bank, spanning names from Euripides to St. Thomas More to Dorothy Sayers. Or take a look that this post from our staff writer Matt McKeown, Why a “Hard” Education Is Better.

Published on 22nd April, 2020.

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