Summary and Analysis Book II: Chapter IV - Relation of Virtue and Virtuous Action


A difficulty arises at this point, in that we have said that men become virtuous by performing virtuous actions. A critic of this view might say that men are already virtuous if they perform virtuous actions, just as a man is already literate if he reads and writes correctly and is already musical if able to play an instrument. However, this is a false analogy and not a valid objection, first, because there is a significant difference between acts that create virtue and acts that are caused by virtue, and, second, because excellence in the arts is determined only by the end product and not by the process by which that product is created, so that in judging a musician one is only concerned with the music he produces and not with his method of playing the instrument. Or, another case in point, it is quite possible to find someone who speaks according to the rules of grammar without having any knowledge of those rules, but it is not possible to consider this man literate or well-versed in grammar.

This is not the case in ethics. A virtuous act is not virtuous only because it is an act of a certain quality or kind. The agent or doer of a virtuous act must also be in a certain frame of mind and have certain characteristics when he acts. There are three conditions required; (a) that the agent must be fully conscious of what he is doing, (b) that he must deliberately choose or will his action, and must choose it for its own sake, (c) that the act must proceed from a fixed moral disposition.

These requirements, with the exception of mere knowledge, are not among the necessary qualifications of the artist or craftsman, despite the fact that their products may be deemed excellent or virtuous. This is an additional reason why the analogy cited at the head of this chapter is not valid; the actions that produce virtue are like the actions produced by virtue only in regard to their external superficial appearance and not in their inner nature. Thus, the three conditions mentioned are of great importance, for it is only through the repeated performance of virtuous actions that virtue is produced.

Therefore, acts are called virtuous when they are the kind of acts a virtuous man would perform, but a man who performs a virtuous act is not necessarily himself virtuous. The virtuous man is the one who performs the act in the way common to virtuous men, i.e., he knows that the act is the right thing to do in the circumstances, and he does it for the right motive. We can be assured that men become virtuous through the performance of virtuous acts since there is not the slightest likelihood of a man ever becoming virtuous by any other course of conduct. Those who devote themselves to the theoretical study of ethics often assume that this makes them moral, but they are foolish, for knowledge of moral philosophy without the exercise of morality is of little value.

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