Allow me to make a rectification before I dive deep into the Virtue Theory:
In the previous post, I argued that Contractarianism is superior to all other ethical theories on the ground of it having higher credibility – Contractarianism reflects how humanity deals with moralities since the inception of tribalism accurately. The argument of higher credibility still holds. However, after much introspection, I realized that it wasn’t fair to consider it superior. Contractarianism holds the merit of factual-accuracy, but it lacks idealism- a trait that all other ethical theories possess. Both idealism and factual-accuracy are, in my opinion, vital to a strong ethical theory. Thus, it is unfair to consider Contractarianism superior to all other ethical theories. After doing away with the misconceived notion of superiority, I’ve realized that Contractarianism is inherently syncretic, proposing a system that features multiple other ethical theories. Take the Shariah laws in Saudi Arabia for instance, it fits the Divine Command Theory into the social contract. Another instance would be the current state of Philippine under President Rodrigo Duterte. The de-facto law system now permits the killing of suspected drug dealers in the country without trial . This is the prime example of adherence to the belief that “the end justifies the mean”, a feature of Utilitarianism. The high approval rating of president Duterte is testament to the utilitarian belief of the people in general, especially with the sharp fall of drug offenses in the country which serves as evidence to the people about how effective the crackdowns on drug offenders are in spite of the collateral damage. Based on this, we can observe the “symbiosis” of Contractarianism and other ethical theories – Contractarianism providing a comprehensive rule-based system to manifest the ethical belief of the people, and the other ethical theories providing the idealism that the ethical system needs to propel moral progress. Hence, the real question to ask is not just which ethical theory is the best, but rather; which ethical theory would be the best mix with Contractarianism in order to steer our societies in the right direction? The answer to that is, in my own humble opinion, The Virtue Theory, espoused by 300BC Greek philosopher Aristotle. Now, let us finally begin with The Virtue Theory:
Essence of Humanity
The basic and ancient assumption of Aristotle’s Virtue Theory is that all things have essence. Essence, in philosophy, refers to purpose. The essence of scissors is to cut, the essence of a cup is to contain liquid, and the essence of humanity is to:
- As a species, preserve our own kind and reproduce
- As rational animals, be proactive in using logic
- As social animals, be sociable and cooperative
However, these purposes have no impact on how we should live our lives if we are to subscribe to The Virtue Theory, unlike the Natural Law Theory. This is because Aristotle argued that nature has already built into us the desire to be virtuous. Hence, as long as we put in the effort and try our best to be good people, we will become good people.
Although I am skeptical about Aristotle’s argument on nature, as it is as factually elusive as the existence of divine beings, the rest of the theory is incredibly interesting nonetheless. From here on, it does get very interesting.
The Golden Mean
Aristotle saw being virtuous as having a set of robust characteristics that, once developed, will lead to predictably good behaviors. These characteristics, or virtues, are midpoints in between 2 extremes. Take courage for example: being courageous is the midpoint of being reckless and cowardly. On one end, we have cowardice- which is a lack of courage. However, having too much courage can also be a bad thing. Crashcourse gave an excellent example to illustrate this: say you were walking on the street and you witness a woman being mugged. The coward would do nothing about it, obviously. What makes recklessness and courage different is the rational assessment of the situation. If the mugger is smaller built compared to you, and is seemingly unarmed, the courageous action will be to step in and forcefully stop the mugging. However, if the mugger is bigger built than you or is visibly armed, stepping in is considered reckless since it would also put yourself in significant danger. The courageous action in this case would be to seek help to gang up on the mugger or to call the police. The same logic of Golden Mean can be applied to virtues like generosity and honesty. The lack of generosity is stinginess. The excess of it doesn’t have a specific adjective assigned to it, but it means giving the wrong help to those who don’t need it. For instance, donating to drug addicts or being generous when you yourself are struggling to pay your bills. The virtue of generosity demands you to be generous when you can afford it, and only to people who really need it. One last example of the Golden Mean that I would give in this post is honesty. The lack of honesty is, like the lack of all other virtues, straightforward: dishonesty (duh). The excess of it may seem very familiar to you. Have you ever met someone who’s brutally honest or straightforward? These people don’t hide their opinions, they deliver the truth to you bluntly. Maybe you don’t mind them, but for most people; truth hurts. Thus, honesty requires one to find a balance: to deliver truth in the most tactical sense possible, offer criticisms that are constructive but not soul-crashing, keep quiet about facts that are not important and may be considered offensive to others, and to deliver hard truths gracefully/softly, bringing the bad news down on a soft landing. That is the essence of the Golden Mean, and Aristotle believed that developing the Golden Mean/Virtues is key to being virtuous; it is also the key to reaching eudaimonia.
Eudaimonia and how Contractarianism can complement it instead
Aristotle gave us a very simple motivation to be virtuous in the Aristotelian way: to achieve eudaimonia. Eudaimonia is, Aristotle argued, the pinnacle of humanity. It translates to “a life well-lived” or “human flourishing” thus the motivation is strong: if you want to live a life that is well-lived, be virtuous. So now you must be wondering what exactly is considered a life well-lived? Ok I am going to sound a bit high and cringey from here onward, but that’s just passion talking (maybe it’s also the strong coffee that I just drank): Living a eudaimonistic life is about doing your best everyday, seeking endless improvements. It is about the satisfaction of overcoming some tasks that are considered difficult, proving that you’ve pushed yourself to your own limits. Living a life like this means that there is never an end where you can just coast. Reaching the end of one goal means the setting of new ones. In the process, there will constantly be failures and disappointments – which are only part of the process of being successful. To put it in Crashcourse words: “Eudaimonia doesn’t mean a life of cupcakes and rainbows. It means the sweet pleasure of sinking into bed at the end of an absolutely exhausting day. It’s the satisfaction of knowing you’ve accomplished a lot, and that you’ve pushed yourself to be the very best person you could be.”. To live this kind of life is definitely making the most out of the wonderful gift of life, to do it the best justice possible. Who says being moral has to be about following some rules? It could just simply be about being the best person that you can possibly be. There’s no need to be divisive, categorizing people into right and wrong just because they don’t follow certain rules or don’t believe in certain gods. To be moral can just be about being the best version of yourself: to be nice to everyone, to be a beacon of positivity, to be a strong role model, to uphold integrity so that you are trustworthy. That is what I think should be what morality is about. Just imagine a whole society of people striving to be the best version of themselves, and setting up a social contract to make the social environment conducive to such pursuits, is that not a wonderful society to live in? I think that should seriously be the goal of all societies: to bring out the best of all its citizens.
Fake it till you make it
I digress, but if you are buying into the idea that The Virtue Theory should be the moral steering wheel of every individual and society just like me, then you’d be wondering: What exactly are the comprehensive steps to being virtuous, achieving the Golden Mean, and reaching Eudaimonia? Aristotle advised us to first find a role model. The role model shouldn’t be difficult to find since eudaimonistic individuals are usually very well-liked, charismatic, and thus cannot escape the spotlight. These people are famous individuals like Martin Luther King and Barack Obama. Pick your own idol; it could be anyone you have in mind, even your friends, but pick them based on the standard of the Golden Mean. Once that is done, begin emulating them, asking yourself: “how would he or she react or what will he or she do in this situation?”. It might seem fake to you at first to emulate, but Aristotle argued that being fake is just the necessary step to being real. Once you’ve developed the instincts and the habits of your idol, you would’ve truly faked it till you make it.
This post may have been rather disorganized, but I felt that it was necessary to spill my thoughts in the most truthful and passionate manner, like throwing paint on a canvas. In a nutshell, Aristotle’s Virtue Theory is about us developing virtues based on the Golden Mean, where we must find true balance within ourselves. To do so, we can emulate those who we think already did it, and then fake it till we make it. The reason why it is so appealing to me is because of the beauty of eudaimonia, the state of life that Aristotle said should be the goal of life. Eudaimonia is beautiful and pure in intention, calling for people to strive to be the best they can be, irregardless of their religion, ethos and beliefs; it is devoid of the tendency of most ethical theories to alieanate or demonize. In my own humble opinion, this is the most universal, inclusive and pure ethical theory that should characterize the social contract, our society, and everyone of us who are looking for way to live a fulfilling life. And that concludes the end of my blog’s section on ethical theories, and my coffee-high.
Reference and cover photo:
Crashcourse (YouTube channel)