For Aristotle, becoming good is a matter of practice. He believed that each of us are born with dispositions towards good things – an inclination towards justice, courage, and kindness, for example – and becoming good requires us to exercise these dispositions regularly so that they become habits. In order to make good actions habits, we must use our capacity for reason to guide us to the right sort of ends. Hence both desire and reason in isolation are insufficient in bringing about the good. Both need to be trained and cultivated in such a way as to regularly maximise the goodness in our deeds.
Aristotle’s ethics differ from his contemporaries Plato in Socrates in one fundamental way: for Aristotle, reason alone cannot bring about goodness. Unlike Socrates, who believed that knowledge of the good is sufficient to bring it about, Aristotle believed that reason and desire must work together to produce good habits of action. A doctor, for example, knows how to heal people; but this knowledge alone is insufficient in bringing about goodness because the doctor could also use her knowledge to harm people, i.e. by concocting some sort of poison.* Reason, therefore, must always be accompanied by the right kind of desire if it is to bring about goodness.
Our capacity for reason allows us to develop practical wisdom (Greek: phronesis). Practical wisdom helps us to determine how we ought to act – and for Aristotle this was a matter of cultivating virtue. If we have virtue then we will always behave in the right way, because virtuous action presupposes the right sorts of ends – i.e. justice, honesty, courage, and so on. By habitually acting in ways that maximise goodness, we acquire these virtues.
One of the problems with virtue ethics (act as the virtuous person would act) is that it is circular: it tells us to act as the virtuous person would act, but gives us no way of determining what the virtues are outside of this measure. One way to get around this problem is to use the golden mean. The golden mean is the point between excess and deficiency, and provides a practical framework for understanding the virtues. Courage, for example, is the golden mean between cowardice and recklessness, and modesty the golden mean between humility and pride.
But to become good, it is not enough to simply know what the virtues are (contra Plato and Socrates): to become good, we must use practical wisdom to apply the virtues in the right situation, at the right time and in the right way. A situation demanding honesty will also require practical wisdom if we are to act in the right way. If the Nazi’s come knocking on the door, there is a right way to exercise honesty (note that this could involve not exercising it at all) – and the virtuous person will act accordingly. This is what Aristotle means when he says that:
Anybody can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.
Aristotle believed that all of us are born with the capacity to become good, and in this way he teaches a more egalitarian ethics than Plato and Socrates, who believed that only theoretical contemplation (and those with the time to do it) could – through the acquisition of knowledge – become good. Each of us, through a combination of habit and practical wisdom, can acquire the virtues needed to be good. It is worth noting too, that becoming good is more than an individual project – a mastery of character. Remember that the way we ought to act is how the virtuous person would act. Becoming good – acquiring the virtues – therefore, is not merely a solution but the solution to any and all ethical dilemmas.