Virtue Ethics, or What If Mother Teresa Was an Olympian?

As one of the three major approaches to ethical thought, virtue ethics seeks to describe the qualities that constitute a good person. Rather than focus on how one should act or the consequences one should endeavor to produce, virtue ethics examines the virtues held by a good person. A good person is brave, kind, just, etc.; hence, a good person will act bravely, kindly and justly to produce favorable consequences. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle remains the most influential thinker in the virtue ethics canon. His seminal work, Nicomachean Ethics, derives an ethical theory from an exploration of human virtue.

Aristotle believed that in order to characterize a good human, one must first describe the characteristic function of human beings. An understanding of this function will then lead to an understanding of what constitutes a good person. The function of any object, animal or profession is the end it is meant to achieve. For example, a hammer is a tool used to drive nails into a solid object; a good hammer is one which achieves this end to the ease and approval of the user. Likewise, a doctor is a person whose end is the health of her patients. The function of a doctor is to make people healthy and keep them so, and a good doctor is one who reliably achieves this end.

What then is the function of a human being? Aristotle defines it as “activity of the soul in accord with reason or requiring reason.” [1] Like humans, plants are also alive and animals are sentient. But among the species on Earth, only humans are capable of reason. To be a functional human being is, for Aristotle, to exercise this capacity. As a result, a good human is one who reasons well. Reasons about what? What is the end of all this reasoning? The end is the activity of the soul, or what the soul should do. Therefore, a good person is one who reasons well and whose soul acts well accordingly.

Aristotle's virtue ethics doctrine of the meanTurning to the reasoning itself and the actions good reasoning should produce, Aristotle divides human goods into three types: external goods (such as prosperity), goods of the soul (such as happiness) and goods of the body (such as health), and he declares goods of the soul to be the complete form of good. [2] Furthermore, he observes that goods are often attained by choosing the mean between two extremes. Eating too much or too little ruins health, but eating a moderate amount leads to well-being. Human virtue, then, is the state in which the individual chooses the proper mean in accordance with reason. Like goods, virtues are ruined by excess and deficiency but preserved by the mean. A person who lacks courage is a coward, a person with an excess of courage is foolhardy or rash, but a person with the right amount of courage possesses the virtue of bravery.

Consequently, virtue consists in having the right feelings at the right times, about the right things, toward the right people, for the right ends and in the right ways. Reason is required for virtue because these means are often relative to the individual and his situation. Fighting in battle exhibits the bravery proper to a soldier, but such an act would be rash or foolhardy for a crippled child. And in order to become virtuous, one must recognize and practice virtue. Reasoning correctly about which situations call for bravery and how much is required, and then acting bravely in those situations strengthens an individual’s courage and brings her nearer to acquiring this virtue.

And just as a master pianist plays exquisite music and plays it in accord with his knowledge of the piano and music in general, true virtue cannot be produced by chance. An agent must know she is acting virtuously, decide on virtuous actions for themselves and do them from a firm and unchanging mind. The function of a human being is activity of the soul in accord with reason. A virtuous human uses the capacity of reason to recognize the virtue required in any situation and then acts accordingly.

Let us return to Aristotle’s distinction of humans from plants and animals. While the ability to reason does distinguish human beings from other living, sentient things, it is not the sole defining characteristic of humanity. Humans are beings with active bodies that respond to reasoning minds. If we link human virtue too closely to reason, it seems a disembodied brain floating in a vat of nutrient-rich chemicals and stimulated by electrodes connecting the cortex to a bank of supercomputers would be capable of virtue despite the fact that it could never actually act with courage or generosity or temperance.

Yet Aristotle does not make that mistake. There are goods of the body, such as health, though they are less good than goods of the soul. There are virtues of the body, like strength and temperance, and Aristotle regularly cites them as examples in his arguments. [3] The virtuous person is physically strong and temperate in his indulgences because these virtues promote the good of health. Moreover, if the function of a human being includes physical activity, then the virtuous human is one who performs physical actions well. On this account, strength, speed, power, endurance, coordination and flexibility are virtues. The human being who realizes these capacities of her body is in some measure virtuous. Does this mean Mother Teresa was not virtuous because she was physically frail? No. There is no denying she was a paragon of virtues of the soul. But if in addition to all her other exemplary traits she had also possessed certain physical virtues, then by necessity she would have been even more virtuous.

Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean also provides a model for defining virtues like physical fitness. On one extreme is the vice of sloth, exhibited by the person who eats too much of the worst kind of food and moves too little. At the opposite extreme is the person who exercises too intensely and too frequently or crash diets to lose weight. The mean of these two extremes is the virtue of fitness, i.e. doing everything possible to maintain one’s body in peak physical condition without going overboard. Like the other virtues, most of us will fall between the apex of physical virtue and the pit of one extreme or the other. The boundaries that delineate vice from virtue are often slim and are still being defined. Yet such is the case with respect to many other questions of virtue. And such gray areas should not dissuade us from the reality that these virtues do exist.


1. Aristotle. “The Nature of Virtue.” Ethical Theory, Ed. Russ Shafer-Landau, Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007, p. 671
2. Ibid.
3. See Ibid p. 676 and p. 677.

2 thoughts on “Virtue Ethics, or What If Mother Teresa Was an Olympian?”

  1. What's up Greg,

    Long time reader first time poster. I read this today and wanted to get your thoughts on something that popped into my head as I went. Bringing the discussion back to your post on obesity, I was wondering what your personal thoughts were on the choice of the obese in America to, in theory based on Aristotle's '3 Human Goods', to choose Goods of the Soul (Happiness) over Goods of the Body (Fitness). If these people are truly choosing the foods they eat a lot of… sugars, fats, etc… and are consuming them in less than moderation, ergo falling into the "pit" in the fitness realm, but are still happy, how do you think Aristotle would classify them? Do you think he would see them as virtuous because they excel in the most important good? Or do you think he would vilify them for being balanced in the good of Soul but so far imbalanced in the good of Body?

    Moving to today's day and age I would be interested in your opinion on a question your post raises for me: Is it better to be fat, happy, and have an increased risk of being considered "unhealthy" by society, possibly dying of a heart attack at 50? Or is it better to be balanced, fit in with societal norms of health, and live a longer life, but maybe also only have balanced happiness as well.

    Just asking for your personal thoughts, I'm definitely not asking you to make a judgement on obese people or those classified as "unhealthy".

    Great stuff man, keep up the thought provoking work.

  2. Rob-

    As for your first question, I think Aristotle would say the person who consumes excessive quantities of unhealthy food falls pray to the vice of intemperance, which he defines as "[gratifying] himself from every pleasure and [abstaining] from none" (Aristotle, p. 676). At the same time, I don't think Aristotle would condemn an intemperate man as evil if he were otherwise virtuous and happy. However, he does say that "happiness requires both complete virtue and a complete life" (p. 673), which I think accords with his feeling that true virtue requires the individual to perform the right action for the right reason and enjoy the performance of virtue: "for if someone who abstains from bodily pleasures enjoys the abstinence itself, he is temperate; if he is grieved by it, he is intemperate" (p. 676). So the person who calls herself happy but remains intemperate seems to lack both complete virtue and complete happiness.

    In answer your second question, I first think it's important to differentiate between society's definition of health and an ethical definition of health beyond society, in the same way we might differentiate between a social construct like legality in comparison to pure ethics. For example, let's say society's definition of health is something like normal BMI, low cholesterol, generally active, non-smoker, moderate drinker, etc. To the extent that these definitions may affect how much individuals pay for health insurance, who gets special treatment on public transportation and air travel, and how so-called vice taxes and (potentially) income taxes are apportioned, they are certainly worth examining. But there is also the question of what a truly healthy individual actually looks like and to what extent individual health and fitness can be considered an ethical question, apart from a democratic definition of health. As for your question, if we look at health from a social perspective, an unhealthy obese individual might produce such deleterious effects as raising healthcare costs for others or burdening loved ones. But even if these concerns were somehow allayed, the ethical question of how healthy one should actually be still remains. In many ways, I echo Aristotle on this question. To consider the ethical standing of a real human being seems to require balancing all of that person's virtues and vices. The ideally ethical person would be completely virtuous in body, mind and soul, but no such person exists, and I don't think ethics really has much to say on the question of which imperfect person is more virtuous. It seems odd to weigh the ethics of Person A, a professional athlete who makes the league minimum, contributes half her salary to charity and runs a successful business after her playing career is over, with Person B, a brilliant oncologist who devotes his life to curing cancer. I would say they are both more ethical than a serial rapist, but still being imperfect, they are each ethical in different ways. In the same way, the fat, happy person who dies at 50 could be just as ethical as the moderately healthy, moderately happy person who lives to 100. I do agree with Aristotle that healthiness contributes to happiness, although happiness obviously has many contributing factors.

    What does everyone else think? Any other thoughts on this question?

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