Virtue and Meat-Eating
“Virtue” is a concept that sounds dated. And the virtue of temperance, which is the subject of this blog, sounds even more dated—there was a Simpsons episode (if I remember correctly) in which a newly married colonial settler to America had “Temperance” as her name (it was Marge’s character, shot back a few centuries). Indeed, “virtue ethics” refers to a way (or theory, if you want) of thinking about ethics that goes back to the ancient Greeks, ancient Chinese, and medieval Christian and Islamic philosophy, to give a few examples.
Contemporary philosophy has revived these traditions, and today there’s a large number of philosophers who subscribe to virtue ethics as a theory that stands its own ground and defends its own philosophical territory, much like other moral theories do. Some virtue ethicists find their inspiration in Aristotle, others in Confucius, others in Thomas Aquinas, others in Hume, and others in Kant, to name a few. They also research how other historical philosophers have relied on virtues in their work, such as Nietzsche.
I approach virtue ethics using Aristotle’s views. And one of the main virtues that Aristotle discussed—indeed, it is one of the classical virtues—is temperance. Before we go into it, let me give an idea of Aristotle’s virtue ethics.
Aristotle thought that human beings’ activities, desires, and goals have a final destination, which is happiness or flourishing (“flourishing” is a better translation than “happiness” of the Greek concept “Eudaimonia”). Although one life goal of mine is to do a duet with Justin Bieber, while one life goal of yours is to become the Minister of Education in the Lebanese government, we both want these goals because we ultimately want to flourish, because we think it would be part of a good life. Aristotle added that although everyone agrees that flourishing is our goal, not everyone agrees on what it consists of—What is a flourishing, good, or happy life for human beings? He proposed that in order to answer this question, we should look to the unique function of human beings. What is our purpose in life that sets us apart from other creatures? It can’t be merely a life of growth, because this is shared with plants and animals; it can’t be merely a life of pleasure or sense-perception, because this is shared with animals. So, he reasoned, it must have something to do with our reason, because it is our reason or rationality that sets us apart from other creatures. (Aristotle forgot that reason does not set us apart from the gods, but let’s let this one slide.)
So our function is to live life in accordance with reason. But just because that’s our function, it doesn’t mean that everyone does it well, or it doesn’t in itself tell us what it is to do it well. A knife’s function is to cut, but not every knife cuts well, and we need to know what a good knife is. Why bother with goodness at this point? Because Aristotle is not concerned with the function of human beings as such; he is after what a good, flourishing life is. And he arrives at that answer by looking at our function. So the answer is that a flourishing human life is a life lived in accordance with reason well or excellently.
Although it sounds uninformative to say that human life is life in accordance with reason, and that a good human life is a life lived well in accordance with reason, to Aristotle this is not trivial at all. This is because living life well is an idea packed with “goodies,” specifically, living well is having and exercising the virtues, which are human excellences, such as courage, justice, honesty, wisdom, and temperance. So although all human beings (with a few exceptions) live life in accordance with reason, not all do so well. Some live life irrationally, stupidly, immorally, etc. Their reason tells them, “It’s okay to take that candy from that baby,” but this is bad advice. So their reasoning has gone awry. And if reasoning goes awry, it is not well. Hence, to live life well as a human being, one needs the virtues.
(Many philosophers have dumped on this argument by Aristotle, accusing it of all sorts of things, such as relying on the idea of a function as such for human beings, which seems crazy and to go against what evolution tells us, and such as begging the question against those who think that people can lead good lives without the virtues. I and other philosophers, however, happen to think that Aristotle was on the right track, but my aim here is not to defend Aristotle’s argument.)
The above does not mean that one’s vocation in life is to be virtuous; this makes little sense, and we do need, after all, to put food on the table. But it does mean that any type of work, hobby, activity, or personality can be part of a virtuous life or part of a non-virtuous life. So if your job is teaching, you can perform it virtuously or non-virtuously, and you do that not side by side with being virtuous, as if the two just luckily go together, but because you are virtuous (or non-virtuous). And if you have, say, an open personality, you express it virtuously (or non-virtuously). Being virtuous means that that’s how you are, so it permeates how you act and do things, including your job, hobby, relationships with others, and so on. Basically, being virtuous (or non-virtuous) penetrates every nook and cranny of your life because it is your character.
Of course, human beings are not merely receptacles for reason—we are not cold, calculating machines. We have emotions and we have values, so how do they fit in a life lived well in accordance with reason? Both emotion and values are subsumed under the concept of “virtue,” according to Aristotle, in that a virtue (or a vice) affects how one feels, thinks, judges, and assigns value to things. So someone who has the virtues is someone who not only reasons well, but who also feels well and his values are oriented in the right ways.
For example, consider the virtue of courage. It involves, according to Aristotle, the emotions of fear and confidence, but in the right ways. To keep things simple, let’s focus on fear. The courageous person feels fear but in the right “amount,” toward the right things, for the right reasons, at the right times, etc. Generally speaking, someone who feels no fear in the face of impending death is not courageous, but foolhardy, and someone who feels fear at having to talk to their teacher is also not courageous, but a coward (alas, many students today claim that they feel “unsafe” talking to their teachers). So a brave person is not someone who does not feel fear, but who feels it, and overcomes it, but she feels it only in certain circumstances (those that call for fear), in the right measure, and for the right reasons. Note one interesting detail: although death is one of the main things that are rightly feared, not every circumstance involving fear of death and overcoming it is courageous. Overcoming the fear of death as the civilian plane you commandeered is about to crash into a building to kill civilians is not courage, because it is not overcoming the fear of death for the right reasons. It is not, as Aristotle would say, for the sake of the “noble.”
Before ending the first part of this post, it is worth noting why above I have written “non-virtuous” instead of “vicious,” which seems to be the obvious opposite of “virtuous.” The reason is that Aristotle distinguished between four character states, not only two (he identified two more, but they need not concern us): in addition to virtue, we have continence, incontinence, and vice. Thus, the state of virtue has three other contrasting states, not just one (though the state of vice is its polar opposite).
Briefly, a continent person is someone who knows what the right thing to do is, does it, but has to struggle with base desires to do it. He is tempted but overcomes the temptation. The incontinent person knows what the right thing to do is, is tempted not to do it, and succumbs to the temptation. So all three—the virtuous, the continent, and the incontinent—have proper judgment about a particular situation, but the second two do not have their emotions, feelings, and (possibly) values aligned with their judgment, and only the first two act on the proper judgment.
The state of vice is quite interesting, and it can have various manifestations, but one crucial thing about it is that the vicious person does something because he thinks it is the right thing to do, whereas in fact he is wrong to think so. He also, unlike the incontinent person, does not regret what he did (probably because he thinks it is the right thing to do). It is important then to not think of the vicious person as someone who is necessarily evil, rubbing his hands together with malicious, joyful laughter (though he could be); a vicious person might very well do something out of moral ignorance.
All the above will be made concrete with the discussion of temperance and intemperance, in “Virtue and Meat-Eating—Part II.” Stay tuned!