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Aristotle's Ordinary Versus Kant's Revisionist Definition of Virtue as Habit

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Aristotle's Ordinary Versus Kant's Revisionist Definition of Virtue as Habit

Aristotle's Ordinary versus Kant's Revisionist Definition of Virtue as Habit

L. Hughes Cox

Centenary College of Louisiana

lcox@beta.centenary.edu

ABSTRACT: In what follows I examine the following question: does it make a difference in moral psychology whether one adopts Aristotle's ordinary or Kant's revisionist definition of virtue as habit? Points of commensurability and critical comparison are provided by Kant's attempt to refute Aristotle's definition of virtue as a mean and by the moral problems of ignorance (I don't know what I ought to do) and weakness (I don't do what I know I ought to do). These two problems are essential topics for moral psychology. I show two things. First, Kant's definition is revisionist because he excludes from moral habit-formation what Aristotle includes, that is, (i) practice in prudential calculation of a mean, and (ii) habit-formation by repetition. This follows from Kant's insistence that an act is virtuous only if the moral agent is willing freely and universally. Secondly, Aristotle's virtues modify behavior directly, whereas Kant's virtues modify behavior indirectly by creating moral feeling which, in turn, represses the temptations of the natural inclination. I suggest, thirdly, that as one approximates Kant's ideal of perfect virtue, entailed by the broad duties of beneficence and self-perfection, the difference in kind invented by Kant between virtue and prudence, as a morally neutral rational skill, erodes and becomes a difference in degree. I conclude that Aristotle's ordinary definition of virtue is better able to modify human behavior and solve these two moral problems.

The aim of this essay is to examine the following question. Does it make a difference in moral psychology whether one adopts Aristotle's ordinary or Immanuel Kant's revisionist definition of virtue as a moral habit? Suppose it is objected, at the outset, that these definitions cannot be critically compared because their moral theories are, respectively, aposteriori and apriori, and so incommensurable. Two points of commensurability and grounds for comparative evaluation are two basic problems that any theory in moral psychology must address. They are moral ignorance (I don't know what I ought to do) and weakness (I don't do what I know I ought to do).(1)

In the Nicomachean Ethics (hereafter Ethics), Aristotle maintains that the virtues are formed by repetition as are other habits (see book II, chapters 1-5). "[I]t is by doing just acts that a just man is produced, and by doing temperate acts the temperate man," he explains, and without this kind of habit formation "no one would have even the prospect of being good" (1105b9-12). Further, the "mark" of a good "legislator" and "constitution" is that they: "Make the citizens good by forming habits in them" (1103b4). And in his investigation of the virtue justice, he takes as his "starting point" the ordinary meanings of a "just and an "unjust" man: the latter is "lawless," "grasping," and "unfair"; the former is "law-abiding" and "fair" (V:1129a30-34). In short, Aristotle's intention is to clarify the ordinary meaning of virtue as habit.

In the Metaphysical Principles of Virtue (hereafter Virtue), Kant clearly rejects any concept of moral habit-formation by repetition. He writes:

Skill (habitus) is a faculty of action and a subjective perfection

of choice. But not every such faculty is a free skill (habitus

libertatis)... (66).

If "skill is a habit," that is, a

. . . uniformity of action which by frequent repetition has

become a necessity, then it is not a skill proceeding from

freedom and accordingly not a moral skill (66).

Further, "inner freedom" is a rational self-control which enables one to "subdue one's emotions and to govern one's passions" (67). Essential here is his claim that a virtue is not a "free skill" unless it is a free act of a moral will which "in adopting a rule also declares it to be a universal law" (66-67). Kant's concept of willing (i) freely and (ii) universally leads to his revisionist definition of virtue as moral habit.

The key to (i) is to be found in his insistence on the cognitive certainty

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