The Unity of the Virtues and the Possible Normative Guidance of This Unity

The topic at hand is Aristotle’s thesis on the unity of the virtues. Aristotle argues that the virtues, realized such that they can truly be called virtues “in the fullest sense,” are inseparable and united in a prudent person. After giving a more thorough account of the argument in its favor, examples will be used to evaluate this thesis, illuminate possible problems, and search out solutions for overcoming those problems, if possible. Reference will be made to the Nicomachean Ethics (NE).

First it is useful to see how Aristotle defines prudence. Prudence is itself a virtue of the intellect, something which is attained in the cultivation of a certain kind of practical wisdom proper to the function of the intellect. In V.5,§4, Aristotle describes prudence as “a state grasping the truth, involving reason, concerned with action about things that are good or bad for a human being.” It is important to state here that prudence requires knowledge of human goodness and badness, but does not itself supply this knowledge; it is only a state in which we can deliberate properly about the actions that promote goodness. Another key feature of prudence for Aristotle is that it preserves suppositions about what is achievable in action, which is also called the principle, preventing us from being corrupted by sensations of pleasure and pain when we have identified the right goals (NE V.5,§6).

Aristotle succinctly describes the relationship between prudence and virtue in VI.12,§6, when he says that “virtue makes the goal correct, and prudence makes things promoting the goal [correct].” This means that virtue, rather, having a soul in virtuous condition, and having been habituated to virtue such that our decisions, actions, pleasures, and pains accord with that of the virtuous sage, will cause us to have goals that align with the “grand end.” Possessing a virtuous character ensures that the capacity for cleverness (which is blind), which guides us toward success in our goals, will not be abused or lead to unscrupulousness (NE VI.12,§9). The role of prudence, as differentiated from cleverness, is to be “the eye of the soul,” and to show us the intermediate steps (actions) that lead toward the grand end that virtue proper illuminates (NE VI.13,§7). So virtue identifies the grand end, prudence identifies actions that are directed toward the grand end, and cleverness ensures we know how to execute what is necessary to attain our goals.

But while this formulation shows that virtue and prudence are interrelated, and shows this quite convincingly, it is not yet completely clear why prudence and virtue constitute a unity. In VI.13,§5-6, Aristotle argues that any virtue expressed in the fullest sense will require prudent reasoning. To be properly brave, or courageous, one must know the best way to act in accord with bravery and courage — prudence provides this. And to be really prudent, which is to reason about mediate actions and goals oriented toward the grand end, one must be cognizant of the grand end. But the picture of the grand end only becomes clear when one is fully virtuous. So prudence and full virtue must be two parts of a unity; possession of one implies the other necessarily. Further, because prudence requires every virtue be fully realized, the virtues must also be a unity. And this is because to possess any one virtue fully, one must be prudent, but one cannot be prudent without possessing a fully virtuous character. Without possessing the virtues fully, we might reason in a way that approaches prudence, but prudence properly speaking is “a single state” and not something which can be separated into degrees (NE VI.13,§6).

We may test this formulation by proposing a scenario in which prudence may seem to be at odds with fulfilling a virtue. For example, a courageous soldier may be faced with the choice of a facing down “beautiful death” or of fleeing the battlefield and going on to live a long life, without even sacrificing valor or social status, if perhaps he was injured in combat or had some good excuse for leaving the battlefield. What is the proper weight to give to a lifetime of good family life, honor among friends and fellow citizens, and many years of potential fulfillment, including the pursuit of greater virtue and right acts? How is this to be weighed against a “good death” for a noble cause? Is there a commensurability?

Now is a good time to speak, if only briefly, of continence and incontinence, terms which will be useful in addressing this puzzle. Continence can be thought of as a path one takes on the road to virtuousness, and incontinence as the road to viciousness. “The incontinent person knows that his actions are base, but does them because of his feelings, whereas the continent person knows that his appetites are base, but because of reason does not follow them” (NE VII.1,§3).

Back to the challenge. There seem to be a few answers to this problem, leading to varying degrees of satisfaction. First, an Aristotelian may just say that the right action is whichever the prudent person would take; if the scenario seems opaque to any of the actors within the scenario, then this simply indicates that they are not prudent in their deliberation about good acts. If the man thought himself virtuous, he should now realize that he is only continent at best on the whole — that is, he does not have a clear picture of the grand end and as such does not have a clear way of deliberating about virtuous action. The thesis has provided him a means for understanding his moral progress, which is a very valuable thing. But while all this may be true, and sound reasonable enough, it may ring hollow or sound like an evasion of the problem.

Another possible answer is to say that if the man is knowingly being cowardly in fleeing the battlefield, then he is acting wrongly in bending to fears of pain, which means he is irresolute and incontinent. To undertake such an action is to show that he is on the path to viciousness, not virtue, and that his would-be prudent evaluation of the situation was an emotionally-guided rationalization. If he rejects the opportunity to defend his people honorably on the battlefield, then he has no reason to believe that virtue and eudaimonia lie in his future if he decides to flee. So it is impossible for this to be a prudent or wise decision. But if the man undergoes a painstaking and careful deliberation and comes out of it still thinking that he has made the right choice according to what he thinks a perfectly prudent man would do, who can correct him?

Yet another answer is to say that whatever the outcome of his life and decision, it will always be “tainted” by this instance of incontinence (in fleeing from a brave death), and that each vicious failure impugns on the character of the life as a whole — and the character of a life is to be considered as a whole. Perhaps this instance of cowardice will be so great as to deeply blacken the whole life; as the man approaches a prudent state, if he ever does, he will only become more and more acutely aware of his earlier failings.

Of these three answers, I think that the first is actually the best that the Aristotelian has to offer. This is because it applies broadly to any scenario we can craft involving a supposedly brave man in conflict with himself; the prudent man does not feel conflicted because he has a clear view of what is fine or good in action and sees this in terms of the grand end. This is because he has a clear idea of what prudence, in its unity with his virtuous character, demands of him. And if we craft a scenario that is not so ambiguous to us, it becomes obvious whether the man is continent or incontinent, because we will have defined and constructed the scenario to that end. This may still be an unsatisfying answer to some, but Aristotle long ago established that the prudent person was to be “the standard and measure” because “he sees what is true in each case” (NE III.4,§5). In other words, it’s far too late for such complaints.

In these three answers we see one of the great strengths of Aristotle’s thesis and, indeed, his ethical system as a whole: it is highly flexible and has great explanatory breadth. But this same flexibility can be seen as a deep flaw; if we lean on the notion of the prudent and virtuous man too heavily for a normative ideal, we risk a subtle but pervasive practical relativism insofar as people may follow the same objectively-oriented rule (“Do what the prudent man would do”) but reach different conclusions about what it means to follow the rule. Two men can agree on the notions of prudence and its ideal unifying force on virtue without ever agreeing on what, exactly, prudence demands of us in moments of crucial deliberation. This is another weakness of the thesis: the prudent man supposedly sees things as they are, and knows what virtue and prudence demand of him, and is therefore without doubt or hesitation, but in practice psychopaths and people who are utterly incompetent can also manifest this clarity and confidence. They can even be so charismatic as to inspire a great many people to wrongdoing and wrongly thinking that they are modeling prudent and virtuous behavior. As long as our model is only “the prudent man” thus conceived, how can we know if we are wrong? Aristotle may contend that they are simply wrong, and his tidy thesis will be safe from logical argument, but it will have done no good, or worse, great harm.

Aristotle’s thesis that the virtues are unified in prudence is well argued-for, especially when supplemented with discourse on continence and incontinence to show how someone who is not perfectly prudent or virtuous can still be a good person or “on the right track.” But there seem to be many cases where this thesis is unhelpful in telling us what the demands of prudence-virtue actually are, especially where people’s notions of the prudent man can diverge absent the immediate and obvious presence of, or means for evaluating, such a perfect being.


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