Unlike Kant, the emblematic modern who claimed that the rightness of our deeds is determined solely by reason, unsullied by need, desire or interest, Aristotle rooted his ethics in human nature, in the habits and practices, the dispositions and tendencies, that make us happy and enable our flourishing. And where Kant believed that morality consists of austere rules, imposing unconditional duties upon us and requiring our most strenuous sacrifice, Aristotle located the ethical life in the virtues. These are qualities or states, somewhere between reason and emotion but combining elements of both, that carry and convey us, by the gentlest and subtlest of means, to the outer hills of good conduct. Once there, we are inspired and equipped to scale these lower heights, whence we move onto the higher reaches. A person who acts virtuously develops a nature that wants and is able to act virtuously and that finds happiness in virtue. That coincidence of thought and feeling, reason and desire, is achieved over a lifetime of virtuous deeds. Virtue, in other words, is less a codex of rules, which must be observed in the face of the self’s most violent opposition, than it is the food and fiber, the grease and gasoline, of a properly functioning soul.
This is a fascinating discussion, and I have quoted this article elsewhere. Accepting the author’s précis of Kant and Aristotle at face value, one must ask a question: how do we get to that virtuous behavior unless we have a guide to what that behavior is? And how do we practice that behavior consistently without a codex of rules?
Man is neither automatically virtuous nor automatically vicious. Both instincts are inexorably intertwined. The pathway to the better angels of our nature is not the only logical path, nor is it the easiest. We need more than the beauty of the mountains of virtue to attract us to climb their heights.