Friday, August 23, 2013

The Virtuous and the Vicious

  Aristotle tells us that when it comes to morals there are 4 types of people; the Virtuous, the Continent, the Incontinent, and the Vicious.
  The Virtuous person is morally good for its own sake. To be Virtuous,
"...then, is a state concerned with choice, lying in a mean relative to us, this being determined by reason and in the way in which the man of practical wisdom would determine it. Now it is a mean between two vices, that which depends on excess and that which depends on defect."
  Aristotle illuminates what he means by speaking of temper. An irascible man (i.e., one who loses his temper often and over minor issues) is wrong because he is inappropriately over-reacting. The timid man (who never loses his temper) is wrong because certain things (injustice, for example) deserve our anger yet he is inappropriately under-reacting. A man with an improper excess of courage is foolhardy and reckless while a man with an improper lack of courage is a coward, etc. The temperate man is angry when it is appropriate and brave in an appropriate manner. In a similar vein the Virtuous man reacts appropriately in moral situations.
  The Virtuous man is not conflicted about moral actions; his emotions and reason are aligned and there is no internal struggle to do the morally correct thing. Being Virtuous is a state, not a potential or tendency. And it is the state of understanding reality with both reason and emotion. Or as Aristotle and St. Thomas explain, a Virtuous man understands what is right, chooses to do the virtuous thing, acts properly upon this choice, and does not have 'contrary desires'. By 'contrary desires' they each mean the inner conflict of doing the right thing but wishing you could have done something else (such as not taking a bribe but wanting to have taken it).
  Of course, not everyone is Virtuous; many of us do the right thing but have contrary desires or understand what the moral choice is and wish to do it, but still act inappropriately. Aristotle divides these groups into the Continent and the Incontinent.
  The Continent man resembles the Virtuous man; his reason understands the moral good; he chooses to act appropriately; and he does act appropriately. But he suffers from contrary desires - he wants to run away almost more than to fight; he wants to indulge his lust rather than remain chaste; he wants to be stingy rather than pay the appropriate amount; etc. 
  In other words the Continent man is succeeding by self-mastery. By understanding the moral good he is able to overcome emotional resistance to it and accomplish the moral acts that are appropriate. And this is good because habitual success in this self-mastery over time can lead a person to Virtue where the contrary desires fade and are replaced with the proper alignment of reason and emotion as the result of virtue is understood by both the rational and irrational parts of the person. This self-mastery is the task of youth so that as they become mature they may also become Virtuous. Failure to master the self and properly align your emotions with reason can cause the Continent to become Incontinent, however.
  The Incontinent man is very similar to the Continent man but lacks the same level of self-mastery. The Incontinent man recognizes the good and, recognizing it, wishes to do the good but fails to act appropriately because of his contrary desires. The man who wishes to be a whistleblower but does not act for financial reasons (from loss of position); the bystander that knows they should stop the fight but fails to do so from cowardice; etc. 
  The incontinent man is failing from lack of self-mastery. With effort the Incontinent man may grow to be Continent and, then, Virtuous, but this is a great effort. With the wrong sort of effort the Incontinent man becomes Vicious.
  Obviously most people fall within the range of the Continent and Incontinent. Aristotle tells us (and St. Thomas warns us) that with proper moral and intellectual training and effort the Continent and Incontinent can either rise to be Virtuous or fall and be Viscous, as I mentioned above. In each case it is the habits of moral choice and action that guide the moral development of a man.
  The Vicious man is an inversion of the Virtuous man. His core flaw is he cannot properly choose - he mistakes virtue for vice and vice for virtue. He sees licentiousness not as an excess, but as good, for example. The Vicious man may see greed, cowardice, stinginess, vanity, and  boorishness as good and regard the Continent and Virtuous as fools. 
  As a result the Vicious man does not understand what is right, chooses to act wrongly, acts wrongly, and has no contrary desires. The truly vicious man may well cheat a family of their home, lie to a judge (sending his sister to prison unjustly), and physically bully an innocent child and yet sleep well at night, convinced they are correct in their choices and actions.
  The Vicious man is usually the result of the poor habits of the Incontinent man. After enough times of their contrary desires thwarting their proper choices their reason becomes undermined by improper emotion. Or, since their conscience is constantly pricked by their moral failing they decide, unconsciously, to correct the issue by rejecting morality. They, in effect, become irrational about morals in order to avoid the pain of their internal emotional conflict. Their improperly-ordered reason is a result of their improperly-ordered emotions and habitual actions resulting in an improperly-ordered self-love.
  Indeed, because of his twisted version of self-love the Vicious man will often strongly defend his choices even as his self-love is focused on material goods, possessions, and advantages over others. Where the Virtuous man (who has a properly-ordered self-love) will reject what St. Thomas calls the 'common vices' the Vicious will revel in the common vices and in excess, believing them to be 'good'. The Vicious man embraces debauchery as entertainment even as they reject chastity as foolish. Likewise the Vicious reject art the elevates for crude colors; they replace the beauty of the human form with pornography; they prefer drunken gluttony to the family meal; they replace fine music with crude rhythms; etc. 
  In the end the Vicious man, however seemingly educated, regardless of social position or wealth, despite a clear gaze and steady voice embraces the crude, the crass, the foolish, the irrational, the common, the low, the shallow, and the false. And once embraced they hold it aloft, proclaiming these things to be cultivated, sophisticated, subtle, reasonable, rare, elevated, profound, and true and demand that others agree with them.

  Here are some pieces related to this article:
  1) What makes premium cable so great?
  2) What is his name?

1 comment:

Van Harvey said...

"...In the end the Vicious man, however seemingly educated, regardless of social position or wealth, despite a clear gaze and steady voice embraces the crude, the crass, the foolish, the irrational, the common, the low, the shallow, and the false...." Or as Aristotle, on a related subject, said

"...For the originating causes of the things that are done consist in the end at which they are aimed; but the man who has been ruined by pleasure or pain forthwith fails to see any such originating cause-to see that for the sake of this or because of this he ought to choose and do whatever he chooses and does; for vice is destructive of the originating cause of action...."

IOW, Justice, like Gravity, works just fine... whether or not we understand the physics of it.