Next is the Nichomachean Ethics, where Aristotle professes that virtue can be learned and made a habit by practice similar to when learning how to play a flute. At first it is unpleasant and tedious to act virtuously or to practice the flute, but as one develops proficiency, performing well becomes second nature, easier, and eventually even pleasant. Habit makes virtue a capacity, part of one’s character just as a sleeping flute player possesses that ability even while asleep. Aristotle also refers to four ‘cardinal’ virtues: courage, temperance, justice, and practical wisdom. The first three are felt to be a mean between two vices (e.g. courage as the mean between rashness and cowardice). Practical wisdom is the most vital virtue as it allows one to find the mean and to make correct decisions in particular situations.2
Other traditions add different ‘cardinal’ virtues. For example St. Paul suggests the three Christian virtues are faith, hope, and charity. Augustine considered Aristotle’s choices the ‘natural’ virtues and those of St. Paul the ‘supernatural’ virtues while Aquinas called the latter the ‘Theological’ virtues.
Despite the guidance above, we are likely to find ourselves in circumstances more complex than suggested above and Aristotle’s practical wisdom is elusive for many of us. My college ethics book3 offers a rational solution for those situations. It proposes the principle of ‘beneficence’ whereby one’s duty can be ranked:
1. One ought not to inflict evil or harm.
2. One ought to prevent evil.
3. One ought to remove evil.
4. One ought to do or promote good (not a strict duty).
5. When a mixed outcome is likely, one ought to do that which brings about the greatest balance of good over evil (when this balance can be measured).
In conclusion, the Golden Rule is a universally accepted principle for ordinary interactions with others in life. A general means to ethical conduct is to instill desired behavior through practice and habit, seeking a middle course based on experience and wisdom. In complex situations, avoid and eliminate evil first, then promote good; never choose any evil unless there is a clear excess of good from the choice.
1 Runes, Dagobert, Pictorial History of Philosophy, Bramhall House, 1959, p. vii.
2 Great Minds of the Western Intellectual Tradition, the Great Courses, 2000. Lecture 9,
3Frankena, William K., Ethics, Prentice-Hall, Inc. ISBN 0-13-290478-0 . 1973, p. 47.