Aristotle’s Painful Path to Virtue

Howard J Curzer. Journal of the History of Philosophy. Volume 40, Issue 2. April 2002.

1. Two Questions

For Aristotle, the goal of moral development is, of course, to become virtuous. Aristotle provides a partial description of the virtuous person in the following familiar passage. The virtuous person performing virtuous acts,

must have knowledge, secondly he must choose the acts, and choose them for their own sakes, and thirdly his actions must proceed from a firm and unchangeable character. (1105a31-33)

By my count, this passage lists five components of virtue. Presumably, the virtuous agent’s knowledge consists in true beliefs concerning which acts are virtuous plus a correct account of why they are virtuous. Virtue thus includes both (1) the ability to identify which acts are virtuous in a given situation and (2) an understanding of why they are virtuous. Choice is deliberate desire, so choosing virtuous acts is a combination of determining and desiring virtuous acts. People want to carry out virtuous acts for various reasons. For example, some choose virtuous acts merely because they are fashionable or instrumentally valuable. But Aristotle specifies that the virtuous person (3) desires virtuous acts for their own sake. Finally, since a state of character includes dispositions to act and feel in certain ways, “a firm virtuous character” includes not only (4) dispositions of virtuous action, but also (5) dispositions of virtuous passion. The virtuous person reliably acts and feels right.

Since, “We are inquiring not in order to know what virtue is but in order to become good” (1103b27-28), it seems natural to ask how these five components of virtue are acquired. Aristotle’s oft-repeated prescription for becoming virtuous is, “We become just by performing just acts, and temperate by performing temperate acts” (1105a18-19). Now virtuous action is different in different situations, so habitually acting virtuously does not mean repeatedly doing the same thing, but rather it means repeatedly doing the right thing. Nevertheless, it is easy enough to see how performing virtuous acts can provide dispositions of virtuous action. Aristotle explains elsewhere that teaching rather than habituation provides the explanation of why certain acts are virtuous (1095b2-13; see below). Aristotle suggests that dispositions of virtuous passion are inculcated through music (Politics 1340a12-b13). But the acquisition of the two remaining components of virtue seems mysterious. How do we acquire the ability to identify virtuous acts? How do we come to desire virtuous acts for their own sake?

2. Burnyeat’s Answers: Moral Progress through Pleasure

In a classic article entitled “Aristotle on Learning to be Good,” Myles Burnyeat presents answers to these two questions. He says that according to Aristotle,

[W]e first learn (come to see) what is noble and just not by experience of or induction from a series of instances, nor by intuition (intellectual or perceptual), but by learning to do noble and just things, by being habituated to noble and just conduct … You need a good upbringing not simply in order that you may have someone around to tell you what is noble and just-you do need that … Aristotle discusses whether the job is best done by one’s father or by community arrangements-but you need also to be guided in your conduct so that by doing the things you are told are noble and just you will discover that what you have been told is true … in the sense of having made the judgment your own, second nature to you.

So according to Burnyeat, Aristotle thinks that guided habituation enables you acquire the ability to judge for yourself which acts are virtuous. To begin with, you need “someone around to tell you what is noble and just.” You must be told by someone that this act in this context is virtuous; that act is vicious; and so on. But you do not become a good judge of action simply by generalizing from these virtue judgments. Instead, “doing the things you are told are noble and just,” enables you to “make the judgment your own, second nature to you.” That is, habitual virtuous action causes you to accept these virtue judgments not just superficially, but in a profound way.

Of course, making these judgments your own is not enough; you need to be able to make your own judgments. Luckily, by habitually acting on these particular judgments you also develop the ability to judge for yourself which acts are virtuous and which are vicious. You “internalize from a scattered range of particular cases a general evaluative attitude which is not reducible to rules or precepts.” Parents or community provide the true beliefs about how to act. You internalize these beliefs and also cultivate the ability to make further virtue judgments by acting on these beliefs again and again.

Burnyeat recognizes that an explanation of this process is necessary. “How can I learn that something is noble or just by becoming habituated to doing it?” he asks. Burnyeat’s answer is that,

I may be told, and may believe, that such and such actions arejust and noble, but I have not really learned for myself (taken to heart, made second nature to me) that they have this intrinsic value until I have learned to value (love) them for it.

So I internalize a judgment that a certain act is virtuous by recognizing the intrinsic value of the act. I have “really learned for myself (taken to heart, made second nature to me)” that a certain act is virtuous by coming to value the act for its own sake. This is not a dispassionate judgment. Coming to value virtuous acts is coming to love them. The learner “has learned what is noble (‘the that’) and, as we now see, thus comes to love it.” To internalize the judgments of which acts are virtuous is to come to love (i.e., to desire) virtuous acts for their own sake.

How does the learner come to love virtuous acts for their own sake? According to Burnyeat, Aristotle’s view is that, “what you love in this sense is what you enjoy or take pleasure in. But equally [Aristotle] insists that the capacity for ‘noble joy and noble hatred’ grows from habituation.” The learner comes to love virtuous acts by taking pleasure in them. The acts are pleasing so the agent desires to repeat them. That positive reinforcement leads learners to desire virtuous acts is unsurprising. But the further claim that this pleasure “grows from habituation” stands in need of explanation.

Why does repeatedly performing virtuous acts produce pleasure? Burnyeat appeals to Aristotle’s observation that virtuous people enjoy performing virtuous acts because they know that the acts are virtuous and because they have developed “virtuous tastes.” For example, virtuous people enjoy drinking moderate amounts of wine because it is temperate and because wine tastes good in correct quantities, not merely because moderation avoids hangovers and bad reputations. Now according to Burnyeat, when learners repeatedly perform virtuous acts they enjoy these acts in the same way and for the same reason that virtuous people do. So what “grows from habituation” is not just any sort of pleasure; habituation produces “noble joy.” The learners are “learning to enjoy something properly where this contrasts with merely taking pleasure in it.”

Let me summarize Burnyeat’s interpretation. (A) Aristotle thinks that the learner is given virtue judgments about particular acts in particular situations. (B) The learner internalizes these judgments by habitual virtuous action. (C) This guided habituation also yields the ability to identify virtuous acts. It produces the desire to perform virtuous acts for their own sake. (D) The learner is motivated to perform virtuous acts again and again by taking pleasure in them. (E) Conversely, the learner comes to take proper pleasure in virtuous acts by performing them.

3. Objections to Burnyeat’s Answers

Burnyeat has done a great service by calling attention to the questions of how habituation can have cognitive and motivational impact, how learners come to identify virtuous acts and to desire these acts for their own sake. Unfortunately, I must disagree with Burnyeat’s answers for several reasons.


Aristotle maintains that learners gain the ability to determine which acts are virtuous through habituation rather than by teaching. He says,

[1] For, while we must begin with what is familiar, things are so in two ways-some to us, some without qualification. Presumably, then, we must begin with things familiar to us. [2] Hence anyone who is to listen intelligently to lectures about what is noble and just, and generally, about the subjects of political science must have been brought up in good habits. [3] For the facts (to hoti, the that) are the starting-point, and if they are sufficiently plain to him, he will not need the reason (to dihoti, the because) as well. (1095b2-7)

In sentence [3] Aristotle distinguishes between the belief that certain acts are virtuous, and the account of why these acts are virtuous. The virtuous person presumably has both the that and the because. Sentence [2] distinguishes between what is acquired by being “brought up in good habits,” and what is acquired by listening “intelligently to lectures about what is noble and just.” Together these sentences indicate that habituation provides the ability to identify virtuous acts, and teaching provides the understanding of why virtuous acts are virtuous.

Aristotle’s first reason for asserting that the that cannot be acquired through teaching is that ethics teaching presupposes knowledge of the that “A young man is not a proper hearer of lectures on political science; for he is inexperienced in the actions that occur in life, but its discussions start from these and are about these” (1095a2-4).

Now Aristotle believes that learners need someone to ensure that their practice makes them better, not worse since, “it is from playing the lyre that both good and bad lyre-players are produced” (1103b8-9). Someone must make certain that learners acquire the right beliefs and desires through habituation. Learners cannot simply be trained by rote as we train animals because virtue requires different acts in different situations. But how is habituation guided?

Burnyeat declares that the guide tells the learner which acts are virtuous and which vicious in particular situations. The learner must know “of specific actions that they are noble or just in specific circumstances . [M] oral advice will come to him in fairly general terms; a spot of dialectic may be needed…”

But this is teaching. To calling it anything else would be misleading. So although Burnyeat says that he is attributing to Aristotle the view that learners acquire the that by habituation, Burnyeat’s description of guided habituation reveals that he actually takes Aristotle’s view to be that learners acquire the that by habituation plus teaching.

Of course, if there were no other way to guide learners, then Burnyeat’s interpretation might be charitable despite Aristotle’s protestations that ethics teaching presupposes that the learner already knows the that. However, there are various ways to keep learners on track without either giving them the that (i.e., teaching learners “this is the right thing to do in this situation”) or reducing habituation to mere mindless repetition (e.g., making learners stand fast in battle again and again no matter what the risk and likelihood of success). For example, one might merely prevent learners from acting wrongly, allowing them to discover the right acts for themselves. So Burnyeat errs by attributing to Aristotle the view that habituation begins with the learner being taught which acts are virtuous and which vicious.


In sentence of the passage quoted above (1095b2-7), Aristotle gives his second reason for asserting that the that must be acquired through habituation rather than teaching. He insists that successful habituation is a prerequisite for successful teaching. This claim is supported by sentences [1] and [3], too. The judgments about which acts are virtuous are “what is familiar to us” and “we must begin with things familiar to us.” These judgments “are the starting-point.”

Aristotle advances the thesis that teaching is futile before good habits are already in place in another passage, too. Aristotle says,

Argument and teaching, we may suspect, are not powerful with all men, but the soul of the student must first have been cultivated by means of habits for noblejoy and noble hatred, like earth which is to nourish the seed … The character, then, must somehow be there already with a kinship to virtue, loving what is noble and hating what is base. (I 79b2 3-3 11; see also 1095a4-6)

In this passage, habituation has a different role; it provides the learner with a love of the noble and hatred of the base. What Aristotle means by “the noble” and “the base” is not obvious. I suggest that these terms are residual elements of an older, Homeric value system, coexisting uneasily alongside Aristotle’s newer system of values. Aristotle strives to harmonize the two systems in various ways. One way is by defining virtuous actions in his own way and then asserting that “virtuous actions are noble” (1120a23). In any event, “loving what is noble” surely includes desiring to perform virtuous acts for their own sake. So in this passage, Aristotle is claiming that we acquire the desire to perform virtuous acts for their own sake by habituation.

Aristotle’s main point in the passage is that this habituation must precede “argument and teaching.” Farmers prepare the earth before they sow. The two activities are not mingled. Similarly, the student must have been “cultivated by means of habits” before teaching can be effective. “Argument and teaching are not powerful” with people unless the proper habits are inculcated “first.” They must “be there already.” Odd though it may sound to us, in these two passages Aristotle is saying that the learner must both come to be able to identify virtuous acts and come to desire to perform virtuous acts by habituation before one can teach the learner anything about the noble.

Of course, Burnyeat is aware of Aristotle’s claim that “Education through habits must come earlier than education through reason” (Politics 1338b4-5); Burnyeat quotes the same passages that I do. His way of accommodating Aristotle’s claim is to distinguish between two sorts of teaching. He implies that one sort of teaching occurs early in the learning process and consists of telling learners which acts are right. The second sort of teaching occurs late in the learning process and consists of explaining why right acts are right. The former sort guides habituation; the later sort presupposes proper habits.

But Aristotle does not distinguish between these two sorts of teaching. He does not mention a type of ethics teaching that is somehow exempt from the prerequisite of proper habits. He does not say that habituation must precede teaching about the because but not teaching about other aspects of ethics. His claim is quite general; proper habits are a prerequisite of teaching about ethics. Unfortunately, Burnyeat’s interpretation of guided habituation makes habituation kick in during or after learners are taught which acts are virtuous. Burnyeat’s suggestion is that learners are told which acts are virtuous “in fairly general terms [with] a spot of dialectic.” And this contradicts Aristotle’s claim that successful ethics teaching presupposes both knowledge of the that and good habits.


Aristotle says that the desire to perform virtuous acts for their own sake arises from habituation. Plausibly enough, Burnyeat takes this to mean that learners do not desire to perform virtuous acts for their own sake unless they first perform them many times.

But habituation is not required to instill the desire to perform virtuous acts for their own sake. Our appetite for virtue is not limited to virtuous acts that have already become habits. We intrinsically value and desire many actions that we have not even performed, let alone performed habitually. For example, we may not only judge that in certain situations standing fast in battle and resisting adulterous advances are the right acts, we may also desire to perform these acts for their own sake even if we have never before been in battle or been the object of seduction. The view Burnyeat attributes to Aristotle cannot explain the common fact of our moral experience that we often choose virtuous acts for their own sake the first time that we encounter them.

A defender of Burnyeat might maintain that we acquire the disposition to want to perform certain virtuous acts by performing different acts of similar sorts. Although we may never have stood fast in battle or resisted adultery, we have done things like this before. Other previously performed courageous and temperate acts prepare us to resist warriors and seducers.

Yet what is like war and seduction? Is Burnyeat’s defender maintaining that habitually resisting pressure in committee meetings and declining hot fudge sundaes disposes us to want to stand fast when we find ourselves in our first battle and run fast from our first seduction? This seems implausible.

Moreover, consider the incontinent. They choose virtuous acts for their own sake, but they do not end up performing the virtuous acts they choose. Some people become incontinent by backsliding, but many others come to choose virtuous acts before they develop their own character to the point of being able to carry out their virtuous choices. People who have been acting wrongly may resolve to change their vicious ways and act rightly for its own sake. Yet they often spend a long time, perhaps forever, not implementing this resolution. In situation after situation they fail to act rightly. Such incontinent people have somehow learned to choose virtuous acts for their own sake, but they have not learned this through acting virtuously because they have not been acting virtuously. These people are clear counterexamples to Burnyeat’s thesis that learners who come to desire virtuous acts for their own sake must have repeatedly performed these virtuous acts.

Conversely, some people habitually act rightly in situation after situation although their motives are far from pure. They refrain from theft in order to avoid getting caught, stand fast in battle in order to impress their girlfriends, etc. Such people act better than the incontinent, although at least in one sense they are morally worse, for they lack the desire to perform virtuous acts for their own sake. Some of these people go on to become virtuous, I suppose, but others make no moral progress at all. They habitually act rightly, but for the wrong reasons. They show that habituation alone is insufficient to instill the desire to perform virtuous acts for their own sake. I shall suggest below that habituation instills this desire only when combined with a certain catalyst.


Burnyeat claims that we “really learn” which acts are virtuous (i.e., we come to desire these acts for their own sake) by taking pleasure in performing them. Pleasure is a guide to virtuous action. But Aristotle does not say that learners take pleasure in performing virtuous acts. In fact, Aristotle says that following their pleasures leads the not-yet-virtuous astray (1104b9-12, 1109a14-16, 1113a33- b2). This is presumably Aristotle’s reason for advising learners to avoid the things they find pleasant in order to hit the mean. He says,

Now in everything the pleasant or pleasure is most to be guarded against; for we do not judge it impartially. We ought, then, to feel towards pleasure as the elders of the people felt towards Helen, and in all circumstances repeat their saying; for if we dismiss pleasure thus we are less likely to go astray. (1109b7-13)

The advice of the Trojan elders that Aristotle is here urging us to follow was to send Helen back because she was too tempting.” She was a forbidden pleasure. Far from urging us to perform the acts that please us in order to learn to desire virtuous acts for their own sake, Aristotle instead urges us to steer clear of pleasure because it is likely to lead us wrong.


Burnyeat attributes to Aristotle the view that repetition makes virtuous acts pleasant. But Aristotle never actually says this. He does say, “Things familiar and things habitual belong to the class of pleasant things; for there are many actions not naturally pleasant which men perform with pleasure, once they have become used to them” (Rhetoric 1369b15-19; see also 1179b35-36). But a few lines later Aristotle goes on to say that, “I count among pleasures escape from painful or apparently painful things and the exchange of a greater pain for a less” (Rhetoric 1369b26-28). So in these passages his claim really is that habituation transforms acts that are not naturally pleasant into pleasant acts or less painful acts.

Burnyeat thinks that Aristotelian learners take pleasure in performing virtuous acts in the same way that the virtuous do. Now the virtuous enjoy virtuous acts in two ways: they enjoy both the virtuousness and the proper pleasure of the acts. Unfortunately, learners do not enjoy virtuous acts in either of these ways. Aristotle is actually committed to the view that learners do not typically enjoy virtuous acts at all

Before one can derive pleasure from the intrinsic value of virtuous acts, one must first consider them to be intrinsically valuable. Thus, the learners’ enjoyment depends upon the choice to perform these acts for their own sake. The enjoyment does not produce, but rather presupposes, the choice. Virtuous people have made this choice; learners have not. So learners do not enjoy the virtuousness of virtuous acts.

By definition, learners are not yet virtuous. In particular, they lack the right passions and the right tastes. They find some vicious acts pleasant and some virtuous acts unpleasant. Medial action is typically unpleasant for a person with excessive or defective passions and tastes. Standing fast in battle is unpleasant for anyone experiencing excessive or defective fear. Spending and giving the right amount of money is unpleasant for people who love money too little or too much. Eating the right amount is unpleasant for people whose appetites are too large or too small. And so on. “One cannot get the pleasures of a just man without being just” (1173b29-30). So learners do not learn that virtuous acts are pleasant by performing and enjoying them, because learners do not enjoy them. Indeed, virtuous action is painful for learners. It certainly does not positively reinforce the desire to perform virtuous acts.

Burnyeat uses the analogy of skiing to glide over this gap between the set of acts that seem pleasant to learners and the set of virtuous acts. At first, skiing may be a chore, but as it becomes easier with practice it becomes more fun. If virtuous activities are like skiing, then practice makes virtuous acts pleasant, too, reasons Burnyeat.

Activities are sports (rather than drudgery) because mere acquisition of appropriate skills is all it takes for most people to find the activity pleasant. Thus, a taste for sports comes naturally along with the acquisition of skills, and practice provides skills. However, virtuous acts are not like sports in this respect. The ability to perform virtuous acts does not, by itself, make these acts pleasant. Continent or even vicious people, for example, are often expert at virtuous acts that they do not enjoy. Making virtuous acts pleasant requires something over and above the skills provided by practice.

Aristotle himself assimilates virtue acquisition, not to the process of becoming skilled at sports, but rather to craft acquisition.

Virtues we get by first exercising them, as also happens in the case of the arts as well … Men become builders by building and lyre-players by playing the lyre; so too we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts. (1103a31-b2)

Of course, Aristotle’s point here is that virtues, like crafts, are acquired through habituation. In this passage he takes no position on whether either habituation process is pleasant or painful. Elsewhere, however, Aristotle says that learning to play music “is no amusement, but is accompanied by pain” (Politics 1339a29-30). In general, acquiring a craft through practice is not pleasant. If virtue acquisition is like craft acquisition, perhaps learning to act virtuously is also a painful process.

A defender of Burnyeat might make the following rebuttal. Virtue, vice, incontinence, etc., are matters of degree, and people can exemplify combinations of these attributes. Aristotle is giving us paradigms, not pigeonholes. Could not the recommendation to perform virtuous acts be addressed to somewhat virtuous people, people who have some of the right beliefs, desires, passions, motives, etc., but need more, or have all of these things, but need them nailed down, or have these things in outline, but need them fleshed out, etc.? After all, the closer people are to being virtuous, the more pleasure they gain from virtuous activity, but even people who are rather far from being virtuous gain some pleasure from acting virtuously.” So perhaps virtuous action enables the somewhat virtuous person to find virtuous action somewhat pleasant.

This rebuttal fails. In order for virtuous acts to provide positive reinforcement to the somewhat virtuous person, the amount of pleasure generated must exceed the amount of pain, so that the act is overall pleasant. However, virtuous acts are typically not even overall pleasant for these less-than-virtuous people.

4. The Painfulness of Virtuous Action

There is, moreover, a deeper reason why Burnyeat’s account fails, a point that is important enough on its own to develop at some length. Learners will not find all or even most virtuous acts to be overall pleasant because, on Aristotle’s considered view, virtuous acts are not typically overall pleasant even for the virtuous, let alone for the learners.

This claim may seem surprising since Aristotle says such things as “a good man qua good delights in virtuous actions” (1170a8-9) in many passages. Moreover, Aristotle argues for the claim that virtuous people find virtuous acts pleasant in the following passage.

[1] The lovers of what is noble find pleasant the things that are by nature pleasant; and [2] virtuous actions are such, so that [3] these are pleasant for such men as well as in their own nature. (1099a13-15)

In sentence [1] Aristotle asserts his doctrine that the virtuous accurately experience pleasure and pain. Illness can distort our tastes, so to determine whether some food is really sweet, consult the healthy rather than the sick. Similarly, vice (and other bad character states) can distort our pleasures, so to determine whether something is really pleasant, consult the virtuous. Aristotle combines this thesis with the claim that [2] virtuous acts are truly pleasant and concludes that [3] virtuous acts are pleasant for virtuous people.

Aristotle uses this conclusion to derive a criterion of virtue. He says,

We must take as a sign of states the pleasure or pain that supervenes on acts; for the man who abstains from bodily pleasures and delights in this very fact is temperate, while the man who is annoyed at it is self-indulgent . (1104b3-7)

Thus, to determine whether someone is virtuous, check to see if the person enjoys virtuous acts such as abstaining from (presumably intemperate) bodily pleasures. A virtuous person will take pleasure from virtuous acts; a vicious person will not. Not only do the virtuous constitute the standard of the pleasant, the pleasant also constitutes the standard of the virtuous.

Although Aristotle asserts, argues for, and uses the thesis that virtuous acts are pleasant for the virtuous, I shall show that when Aristotle expresses his considered view, he rejects the thesis that they are typically overall pleasant.

First, notice that Aristotle concedes at many points within his detailed treatment of the particular virtues that virtuous people do not always find virtuous acts completely pleasant, pleasant without any admixture of unpleasantness. Indeed, almost every virtue’s exercise often involves a substantial amount of pain. The virtue of good temper requires appropriately feeling and expressing anger, yet Aristotle mentions that expressing anger is painful (1149b20-21). Many just acts are painful. For example, justice requires that one pay one’s debts, yet even Aristotle’s exemplars, the great-souled people (megalopsychoi), find it painful even to hear of, let alone to pay their debts (1124b12-15).22 justice sometimes requires us to administer setbacks to our friends (e.g., awarding an honor coveted by a friend to a more deserving person). Friends are pained by each other’s misfortune. Thus, we are sometimes pained by our own just acts. Temperate people are moderately pained by the absence of certain bodily pleasures (1119a14), and sometimes this absence and therefore this pain results from a temperate act of abstention. For example, a temperate person might refrain from eating a desired desert that is beyond his or her means (1119a16-20). Aristotle denies that liberal people find liberal acts (e.g., refusing an offer of money from the wrong sources) painful, but he suggests that these acts are not always pleasant (1120a26-27). The quasi-virtue of righteous indignation (nemesis) involves feeling pain at the undeserved bad fortune of the good and the undeserved good fortune of the bad Eudemian Ethics (EE 1233b19-25). Whenever our action brings undeserved good or bad fortune (e.g., helping a stranger who turns out to be wicked), righteous indignation will make our act painful. The quasi-virtue of friendship opens people up to much pain. An odd example is this: “To see [our friends] pained at our misfortunes is painful” (1171b4-6) so when a person reveals his own misfortune (e.g., by announcing the funeral of a beloved relative) he “cannot stand the pain that ensues for his friends” (1171b8).

In general, the thesis that the virtuous always find virtuous acts completely pleasant is incompatible with Aristotle’s account of mixed actions. Aristotle says, “For such actions men are sometimes even praised, when they endure something base or painful in return for great and noble objects gained” (1110a19-22.). In this passage Aristotle asserts that some mixed acts are both praiseworthy (i.e., virtuous) and, in some respect, painful.

Could it be that, although virtuous acts sometimes involve pain, the pain is always or almost always outweighed by pleasure so that each virtuous act is typically overall pleasant for the virtuous agent? Aristotle states his view most overtly with respect to the pain of courageous acts. He not only concedes that courageous acts are often painful because they frequently lead to death, wounds, etc. (1117a32-34), he explicitly goes on to reject the general claim that virtuous people always or almost always find virtuous acts overall pleasant. He says, “It is not the case, then, with all the virtues that the exercise of them is pleasant, except in so far as it reaches its end” (1117b15-16). In this important and somewhat neglected passage, Aristotle is clearly maintaining that virtuous acts are often not pleasant for the virtuous.

What does Aristotle mean by the qualification “except in so far as it reaches its end”? Accomplishing the external goal of a virtuous act yields a certain pleasure. Aristotle is saying that if this pleasure is added to whatever other pleasures the act generates, then the combination will outweigh whatever pain is generated by the act. For example, suppose you surprise a pair of strangers stealthily removing your computer from your house. You fight to repel the robbers. If you succeed, then you are pleased by the fact that your property is saved. You are also pleased by the awareness that you acted courageously and probably by other things, too. These pleasures will outweigh the suffering caused by your fright and leg wound, so the act will be overall pleasant. However, virtuous acts do not always or almost always accomplish their external goals. And when the external goal is not achieved, then the pain of a virtuous act may outweigh the pleasure. If the robbers get away with your computer despite your efforts, then your courageous act may be, on balance, painful. The pain of your pounding heart, throbbing leg, and missing computer may outweigh the pleasures of the act, even including the pleasure of knowing that you acted courageously. So Aristotle’s claim in this passage is that if the end of the act is achieved, then the act is overall pleasant for the virtuous agent; otherwise the act is not necessarily overall pleasant.

The belief that virtuous acts are typically overall pleasant for virtuous people is dear to us. We want to believe it, and we want to attribute it to Aristotle. Yet in addition to Aristotle’s examples, many other commonly painful, virtuous acts may be adduced. Justly punishing one’s own child, forgoing a hilarious but inappropriate joke (1128a33-b3), acknowledging one’s own serious faults (1127a23-26), listening politely to a very boring person, delivering terrible news to a friend, are all often overall painful, even for (perhaps especially for) just, witty, truthful, friendly, caring people. Courageous action may produce the pleasure of liberating a captive in war but is often overall painful when wounds are sustained or innocent bystanders are harmed. Temperate eating usually produces sensual pleasure, but may be painful if the food is spoiled or badly prepared. Liberal giving may produce the pleasure of receiving the recipient’s gratitude for one’s charitable gift but often produces the pain of the recipient’s ingratitude. And so on.

Aristotle’s general account of pleasure says that pleasure is (or supervenes upon or completes) unimpeded action. But whatever “unimpeded” means, virtuous action is often impeded. And impeded virtuous action is not overall pleasant.

An honest examination of our own experience confirms that when all of a virtuous act’s pleasures and pains are combined, the act often turns out to be overall painful. Aristotle is honest enough to admit that doing the right thing often hurts. Indeed, this fact is so obvious that attributing its denial to Aristotle would be uncharitable.

A charitable reading of Aristotle would try to preserve consistency and plausibility by reinterpreting Aristotle’s various statements that virtuous people enjoy virtuous acts. I suggest that Aristotle’s statements do not mean that virtuous acts are always completely pleasant or even typically overall pleasant for virtuous people. Instead, these statements mean that virtuous acts are somewhat pleasant; they yield some pleasure although their pleasure is often outweighed by their pain. More precisely, the virtuous person gains two sorts of pleasure from performing virtuous acts. First, the virtuous person feels a warm glow stemming from the belief that he or she is acting rightly. The virtuous enjoy the virtuousness of their acts. Second, virtuous people develop virtuous tastes, and virtuous acts gratify these tastes. The virtuous enjoy the pleasures proper to virtuous acts. For example, temperate people develop a taste for reasonable quantities of nutritious food at dinner time. They enjoy eating a good dinner. By contrast, the intemperate, the incontinent, and even the continent do not enjoy eating good dinners because they are longing for junk food, instead.

Abandoning the thesis that virtuous acts are typically overall pleasant for virtuous people does not, by any means, eliminate the link between virtue and pleasure. We can still say that the virtuous person always feels the warm glow when doing the right thing, while the vicious person feels a corresponding repugnance when acting rightly. We can say that virtuous acts are overall pleasant for virtuous people when the acts achieve their ends. We can say that painful virtuous acts are usually less painful overall than vicious acts for virtuous people. We can say that virtuous people typically find the virtuous life overall pleasant. But we cannot say that they find virtuous acts to be always, or even typically, overall pleasant. Indeed, virtuous people might find virtuous acts to be typically overall painful.

The overall painfulness of some virtuous acts for the virtuous has various interesting implications. For example. the difference between virtue and continence cannot be that the virtuous person does with pleasure what the continent person does with pain. The implication relevant to the present paper, however, is the collapse of Burnyeat’s interpretation of Aristotle’s account of moral development. Burnyeat’s claim that the pleasure of virtuous acts drives moral development cannot survive the discovery that virtuous acts are not typically overall pleasant. In the remainder of the paper I shall present an alternative interpretation of Aristotle’s account of moral development.

5. Stages of Moral Development

Aristotle takes moral development to proceed in stages, each stage being a different character type. The later stages are familiar. Learners move from incontinence to continence by acquiring habits of virtuous action, from continence to proper virtue by acquiring habits of virtuous passion and coming to understand why virtuous acts are virtuous. The earlier stages may be less familiar and more controversial, perhaps because they do not appear in Aristotle’s NE VII. 1 list of character types. I shall argue that the many (hoi polloi) are moral beginners who have the potential for virtue, but as yet possess none of the components of virtue. The generous-minded (eleutherios) are the people at the second stage of moral development. They have chosen to lead the virtuous life, but are confused about what virtue is. Next, I shall argue that the many become generous-minded by coming to desire to perform virtuous acts for their own sake, and the generous-minded advance to incontinence by acquiring the ability to determine which acts are virtuous. Thus, Aristotle believes that the desire to act virtuously for its own sake precedes the ability to identify virtuous acts.

To perform a virtuous act for its own sake is to perform the act as an end in itself (rather than as a mere means) because the act is virtuous (rather than because the act is customary, pleasurable, expected of one, etc.). So virtuous people desire to perform virtuous acts at least partially because they take virtuous acts qua virtuous to be intrinsically valuable.” This is a special sort of desire, a desire stemming from a belief about what is an ultimate end. Intrinsically valuable things are (part of) the virtuous person’s goal in life. A person who says, “I believe X to be intrinsically valuable, but I do not want X” either does not really believe X to be intrinsically valuable or has not yet brought his or her desires and beliefs into harmony. So virtuous people take performing virtuous acts to be part of their conception of the happy life. Indeed, the overall, long-term desire to perform virtuous acts for their own sake is nothing less than the desire to lead the virtuous life. This desire based upon a judgment of intrinsic value is a choice, an over-arching decision, a sort of commitment to virtuous living.

Aristotle contrasts those who have made the commitment to lead the virtuous life with those who have not in the following passage.

While [arguments] seem to have the power to encourage and stimulate the generous– minded among the young, and to make a character which is gently born, and a true lover of what is noble, ready to be possessed by virtue, they are not able to encourage the many to nobility and goodness. For these do not by nature obey the sense ofaid aidos [shame, guilt, remorse], but only fear, and do not abstain from bad acts because of their baseness but through fear of punishment. (1179b7-13 )

I take Aristotle’s claim that the generous-minded person is “a true lover of what is noble” to mean that the generous-minded have made the commitment to lead the virtuous life. They have accepted the ultimate values of the virtuous. That the generous-minded are “ready to be possessed by virtue,” indicates that they desire to become virtuous although they are not yet actually virtuous. The many, on the other hand, have not made this commitment to the virtuous life. They also do not even “abstain from bad acts because of their baseness” let alone perform virtuous acts for their goodness. They do not yet endorse the values of the virtuous, and they are far from eager to become virtuous. They do not take virtuous action to be intrinsically valuable, to be part of the happy life. Instead, “The many … think [happiness] is some plain and obvious thing, like pleasure, wealth, or honor” (1195a22-23). Of course, the many lack the ability to determine which acts are virtuous and why. And they also lack habits of virtuous action and passion. They have none of the five components of virtue listed at the start of this paper. They are at the beginning of the moral development path.

The claim that the many are moral beginners seems odd. It might be objected that beginners are children, but the many are adults. However, although some people at each stage of moral development eventually progress to the next stage, and some deviate from the moral development path, most people at each stage simply fail to move up. For one reason or another they do not make moral progress, In particular, most people never even get started on the process of moral development. They are stuck at the first stage. Thus, the category of “the many” includes not only children, but also the majority of adults, for these adults are morally childish. Aristotle’s poignant description of the generous-minded suggests that they are almost virtuous rather than just one step up from the many. However, since the generous-minded are “among the young” they must have the character traits of the young. And Aristotle considers the young to be far from virtue. He says,

[1] A young man is not a proper hearer of lectures on political science; for he is inexperienced in the actions that occur in life, but its discussions start from these and are about these; and, further, since he tends to follow his passions, his study will be vain and unprofilable, because the end aimed at is not knowledge but action. [2] And it makes no difference whether he is young in years or youthful in character. (1095a2-7)

In this passage, sentence [2] indicates that “the young,” like “the many,” is a phrase that names a group of people of similar characters, rather than of similar ages. Some of the young are not young. Sentence [1] describes the character of the young. The young man “follows his passions”; presumably they lead him astray. Thus, the young lack the habits of virtuous actions and passions. Moreover, the young are “inexperienced in the actions that occur in life.” They have not yet acquired the starting points of lectures and discussions of political science. That is, they lack “the that.” Since “the that” is a prerequisite for obtaining “the because” (see 1095b4-7, quoted above), we may assume that the young lack “the because,” too. They have neither the ability to identify virtuous acts nor the understanding of why virtuous acts are virtuous. Since the generous-minded are a subset of the young, it follows that the generous-minded lack these habits and abilities. The generous-minded are far from virtuous.

How could such a morally deficient person be a “true lover of what is noble?” How, in other words, could the generous-minded desire to perform virtuous acts for their own sake? I suggest that learners typically make the commitment to the moral life quite early in the moral development process. To desire to perform virtuous acts for their own sake, one need not be virtuous or even know much about the virtuous life. Some people are in love with (the idea of) love without actually being in love, or knowing what love is, or even recognizing it when they see it. Similarly, I suggest that the generous-minded are in love with (the idea of) virtue without actually being virtuous, or knowing what virtue is, or even recognizing virtuous acts when they see them. The generous-minded have a vague conception of the happy life as the virtuous life, and a commitment to that vague conception. But they lack the concrete ability to determine which acts are virtuous in which situations, let alone the habits of choosing these acts or feeling the right passions.

Aristotle (a) says that arguments “seem to have the power to encourage and stimulate the generous-minded”; (b) describes the young as “not proper hearers of lectures on political science”; and (c) asserts that “the generous-minded are among the young.” These three statements seem inconsistent. However, they can be reconciled by distinguishing between “properly hearing” and “being encouraged and stimulated by” arguments and lectures. Proper hearers are persuaded by the facts and logic of lectures or arguments. But people who are encouraged and stimulated listen to an argument or a lecture about what to do and, without really understanding it, they become excited and inspired (see 1149aa25-29). Fred may hear a moving sermon about standing up for one’s beliefs, for example, and vow to become a “person of principle,” a “paragon of integrity” ready to “sacrifice anything and everything” rather than compromise his ideals. And then the next day Fred may bow to peer pressure without even recognizing that he is doing so. So it is perfectly possible, indeed quite common, for arguments and lectures to “encourage and stimulate” generous-minded people before they are yet ready to learn from arguments and lectures.

Since both the generous-minded and the many lack the habits of virtue-the ability to identify virtuous acts and the understanding of why virtuous acts are virtuous-the two sorts of people are the same with respect to four of the five components of virtue. The only difference between the generous-minded and the many is that the generous-minded have made the commitment to leading the virtuous life and the many have not. The generous-minded desire to perform virtuous acts for their own sake, and the many do not. Of course, this is a very important difference. Yet it is just one difference, after all. Thus, the generous-minded are just one step up from the many in the process of moral development. So the question, “How do people come to desire virtuous acts for their own sake?” (i.e., “How do people come to commit themselves to the moral life?”) is equivalent to the question, “How do the many become the generous-minded?” Similarly, since both the generous-minded and the incontinent are committed to virtue, but lack the habits of virtuous actions and passions, the sole difference between them is that the incontinent are reliably able to identify virtuous acts while the generous-minded are not. They too are the same with respect to four of the five components of virtue. So the question, “How do people acquire the ability to identify virtuous acts?” (i.e., “How do people gain the that?”) is equivalent to the question, “How do the generous-minded become the incontinent?”

In practice, it is often difficult to distinguish the many and the generous-minded from the incontinent. First, none of these people reliably act virtuously. The many have no desire to act virtuously. The generous-minded fail because they lack the ability to identify virtuous acts. The incontinent have both this desire and this ability, but fail to act virtuously because their choices to perform particular virtuous acts are trumped or bypassed by bad passions. Second, all of these people are frustrated because they do not reliably achieve their objectives. The generous-minded are blocked by their ignorance. The incontinent are blocked by their passions. And the many are blocked by the fact that their choices are counterproductive and contradictory. For example, overeaters want to be thin; the dishonest want to be trusted; etc. Third, most of these people are busy pretending (to others and even to themselves) to have each other’s character traits. The many often pretend to be incontinent because incontinence is more respectable than choosing to act wrongly. They rationalize their actions in moral terms even though their real reasons are not moral. For example, a person may choose to indulge in a third slice of cheesecake, pretending to be a dieter unable to resist temptation. On the other hand, the incontinent sometimes pretend to be members of the many because they prefer to be perceived as people who are not trying to be moral rather than people who are failing to be moral. They would rather be successes at vice than failures at virtue. Unsuccessful dieters may deny that they are on diets, for example. Many of the many pretend to be generous-minded. Rather than admitting that they knowingly did wrong, they plead ignorance: “Of course I wanted to treat my mother-in-law with respect; I just did not know that she would mind being teased about her weight.” Contrariwise, the generous-minded may pretend to be incontinent or members of the many because they would prefer to be perceived as weak or even wicked rather than foolish: “Of course I knew that I should not tease her, but I could not stop myself” or “Of course I knew, but I just wanted to slight her.”

6. Moral Progress through Pain

As we have seen, Aristotle says that people come to identify and desire virtuous action through habituation. But this is still somewhat mysterious. Aristotle cannot simply mean that people acquire this desire and ability merely by repeatedly acting rightly. The thoughts and feelings of the learner are a crucial part of the process. I shall argue that according to Aristotle, both the many and the generous-minded make moral progress through pain rather than pleasure. More precisely, my answers to the two questions posed at the beginning of the paper are these: the many come to choose virtuous actions for their own sake through habituation motivated by punishment and threat of punishment, and the generous-minded become able to identify virtuous acts through habituation motivated by the pain of retrospective and prospective aidos.

Aristotle makes the many seem so despicable that it is hard to imagine them making moral progress. Can they really become morally better? And if so, do they improve by coming to desire virtuous acts for their own sake, thus becoming the generous-minded? Or do they acquire some different component of virtue?

In the following passage Aristotle contrasts the many with those who are incorrigible (as well as with the generous-minded, again).

The many obey necessity rather than argument, and punishments rather than what is noble. This is why some think that legislators ought to stimulate men to virtue and urge them forward by the motive of the noble, on the assumption that those who have been well advanced by the formation of habits will attend to such influences; and that punishments and penalties should be imposed on those who disobey and are of inferior nature, while the incurably bad should be completely banished. (1180a4-10)

The many are not “the incurably bad.” They need not be “completely banished.” Thus the many are capable of moral progress. This passage implies that the many progress because they act virtuously when threatened with “punishment and penalties.” Here, Aristotle not only endorses negative reinforcement for such people; he also rules out the possibility that they are improved by argument. That virtue acquisition hurts is hardly a new idea, Plato describes each stage in the ascent from the cave as painful (Republic 515c, 516a). But Aristotle does not take pain to be a mere side effect of moral development or even a minor contributor; he thinks that the pain drives the process.

Aristotle says elsewhere, “People who are puzzled to know whether one ought to honor the gods and love one’s parents or not need punishment” (Topics 105a5-7). Presumably, he is not suggesting that people committed to the life of virtue, but in doubt about whether virtue requires us to honor the gods and love our parents, come to learn these requirements through punishment. There are no such people. Honoring gods and loving parents are obviously aspects of the virtuous life. Aristotle’s point is rather that punishment pushes people to commit to the life of virtue.

How does performing virtuous acts over and over under the threat of pain induce the many to progress? Aristotle does not say. I suggest that the many progress through the familiar mechanism of internalizing the punishments. The many move from being punished for vicious acts to punishing themselves for vicious acts. After her parents have scolded and grounded Betty several times for getting drunk, she almost hears their voices in her head when she wakes up with a hangover. After Bob has been teased by his peers for his timidity, he calls himself a coward when he declines a dare. And just as Betty used to hold herself back and Bob used to push himself forward for fear of “punishment and penalties” from parents and peers, they now respectively stay sober and act audaciously from fear of self-punishment. Like many of the many, Betty and Bob come to perform virtuous acts from fear of the painful feeling we might call shame, guilt, or remorse. They “obey the sense of aidos” as Aristotle says of the generous-minded.

To internalize punishment is to internalize a certain standard, certain values. People who feel aidos for not doing certain things, for not living a certain way, believe that they should do these things, should live this way. This is a belief about intrinsic value and thus about ultimate ends. It begets a desire to lead a certain type of life. By coming to feel aidos for vicious acts, the many come to desire to perform virtuous acts for their own sake. They make the virtuous life their goal; they come to “love the noble.” And this is the component of virtue that the generous-minded have and the many lack. The members of the many who ultimately make moral progress by internalizing punishments become the generous-minded. Thus, learners come to desire virtuous acts for their own sake not through the pleasure of virtuous action, as Burnyeat maintained, but rather through the pain of punishment.

Coming to feel aidos is the moral progress of the many; feeling aidos makes further moral progress possible for the generous-minded. How does aidos serve as a catalyst? Of course like external punishments, aidos negatively reinforces bad behavior, but aidos produces moral progress in another way, too. Aristotle thinks that passions call attention to and give importance to things. Fear, for example, alerts you to, and emphasizes dangerous things. It makes you focus on threats. Fear turns a forest landscape into possible ambushes and traps, obstacles to escape, etc. Rustling leaves become warning signs; shadows become lurkers; and so on. Aidos, too, is a salience projector. But instead of highlighting threats, aidos makes you focus on vicious acts and the features within the situation that make these acts vicious. Aidos turns the naked woman in bed beside you into “another man’s wife”; your wedding ring becomes a sign of a broken promise; and so on. When a generous-minded person feels aidos, the act’s viciousness is impressed upon her mind. The aidos vividly brings to the foreground the fact that the aidosproducing act is wrong.

Fear does not tell us that there is danger; we must already be aware of danger in order to feel fear. Similarly, aidos does not tell us that an act is wrong; we must already recognize that the act is wrong in order to feel aidos. So what information does aidos provide? Aidos emphasizes and makes us internalize the judgment that the act is wrong.

Aidos makes another contribution, too. In addition to emphasizing the danger in a dangerous situation, fear “sets us thinking what can be done” (Rhetoric 1383a6-7). Fear motivates us to deliberate about how to avoid or reduce the danger. It also causes useful features of the situation to jump out at us. Fear turns a forest landscape into various hiding places, paths that might lead to safety, etc. Sticks become potential weapons; trees become shields; and so on. Similarly, in addition to emphasizing the viciousness of certain acts, aidos sets us thinking what should have been done. It also provides context clues to the alternatives within the situation. Aidos suggests that the woman should have been “just a friend”; the money for the hotel room should have been spent on a family bread machine; and so on. Thus, aidos presupposes the judgment that certain acts are vicious, but prompts the learner to discover which acts are virtuous. Unlike Burnyeat’s account of moral development, the aido-account need not fall back on a distinction between “learning” and “really learning.” Pushed by aidos, the learner himself or herself (rather than a teacher) identifies virtuous acts.

So far, the aidos-account is limited to the learner’s experience. It explains the acquisition of the ability to make virtue judgments only about familiar situations. So far, aidos seems to emphasize only the viciousness of acts that the learner has already performed; it imparts only the virtuous alternatives to the learner’s actual choices. But an account that does not explain how the learner comes to recognize which acts are virtuous and vicious in situations outside of the learner’s experience is, at best, too limited.

Luckily, aidos develops the learner’s ability to judge acts in new situations, too. First, one person can feel aidos for another person’s act if the former identifies somehow with the latter. Fiction and friendship allow people to feel aidos for the acts of others. Thus, through vicarious aidos people come to recognize that certain acts are wrong and discover which acts are right without actually performing any of these acts. Second, aidos has a prospective as well as a retrospective sense. One can feel aides with respect to an act that one is considering, but has not yet performed. Aristotle says that aidos is “a kind of fear of disrepute” (1128b11-12), and “young people … are restrained by aidos” (1128b16-18). This is a moral revulsion at the very thought of a vicious act, a revulsion that indicates the wrongness of the act. Like Socrates’ daimonion, aides says no to acts before the learner performs them, and this tells the learner that the act is vicious and sets her thinking what would be virtuous in the situation.

Prompted by aidos the generous-minded gradually come to choose, not just the acts they think are virtuous, but the acts that really are virtuous. They make the right choices. Of course they still feel wrongly. And their vicious passions lead them to act wrongly despite their right choices. They still lack the habits of virtuous action and passion (as well as the understanding of why virtuous acts are virtuous). In other words, when the generous-minded make moral progress, they move up to the level of incontinence. Once again moral progress occurs not through pleasure, as Burnyeat maintained, but rather through pain. Whereas the pain of external punishment motivates the many, the generous-minded are improved more subtly by the pain of aides, but in neither case does pleasure play a role.

7. Conclusion

Aristotle defines practical knowledge as correct deliberation plus correct desire. It is correct choice of virtuous acts (1139a21-31). How are the two components of practical knowledge acquired, and in what order? According to Burnyeat’s interpretation of Aristotle, learners begin by being told which acts are virtuous; then by repeatedly performing and enjoying them learners internalize this teaching and come to desire virtuous acts for their own sake. My interpretation reverses Burnyeat’s ordering. I attribute to Aristotle the view that learners first come to desire virtuous acts by internalizing punishments, moving from the many to the generous-minded. Learners then become able to recognize virtuous acts through aidos, moving from the generous-minded to the incontinent. It would be nice if we could attribute to Aristotle the contemporary common sense view that learners simultaneously gain these two components of virtue through a mix of instruction and habituation. But there is no textual evidence for this, and a fair amount of evidence against it. Under such circumstances, attributing the common sense view to Aristotle goes beyond charity to misinterpretation.

Another common sense view, expressed in many contemporary child-raising manuals, is that positive reinforcement is the major motivator of moral development. Burnyeat attributes this view to Aristotle. According to Burnyeat’s interpretation of Aristotle, the pleasure that learners feel upon performing virtuous acts enhances the desire to perform them. On my interpretation, however, pain rather than pleasure drives moral development. Aristotle proposes to improve moral beginners (the many) through external punishments; he does not mention external rewards. Aristotle proposes to improve more advanced learners (the generous-minded) by internal punishment, by aidos, he does not give aidos’s pleasant counterpart, pride, any role in moral development. Burnyeat says that learners enjoy virtuous acts in the same way that virtuous people do; they enjoy the virtuousness and the proper pleasure of virtuous acts. But learners cannot enjoy either of these sorts of pleasures because they do not accept the intrinsic value of virtuous acts and have not developed proper tastes or passions.

Burnyeat’s interpretation faces an even worse obstacle. Commentators attribute to Aristotle the belief that virtuous people typically find virtuous actions overall pleasant. However, this claim flies in the face of common experience and also contradicts Aristotle’s text at several points, so I attribute to Aristotle the following darker view. Virtuous people always take certain pleasures in performing virtuous acts, but the act’s associated pains often outweigh these pleasures. Thus, not even the virtuous, let alone learners, typically enjoy virtuous acts. Although this darker view is less comforting, it is more plausible and more consistent with Aristotle’s text.