Every few nights, my husband I and read (at the moment, philosophy) to one another, and discuss what we’ve read. We have to be careful to do this early in the evening, or we don’t get enough sleep.

Right now, before we tackle anything in depth, we’re going through Nigel Warburton’s Philosophy: The Basics, and last night we came to Aristotle’s Virtue Theory.

Aristotle believed that every human wished to achieve eudaimonia, or the flourishing of a complete, happy life. One accomplished this by the cultivation of virtues. Therein lies the rub. What are virtues? The trap in trying to define virtues is the tendency to codify either one’s own prejudices, or the prevailing morality of the time. For example, if I like Mercedes Benz, I might define one virtue as appreciation of fine craftsmanship.

I decided I liked the idea of cultivating virtues, but not the nebulousness of said virtues. Couldn’t one perhaps apply a brand of utilitarianism–look for those things which bring about the most good for the most people–and find our elusive virtues?

Another problem with Virtue Theory is that it assumes the existence of a human nature. If we accept this as a starting point, one way to define human nature is to look at what people actually do, then try to reduce these actions to their most basic elements. We would hunt for this objective example of human nature, and then, if possible, apply our utilitarian virtue.

We began with culture. Humans are social animals, and will always form some sort of society. In the establishment of a group, there will always be two basic processes: education to impart the culture, and the development of hierarchy. I thought these two might be expressions of human nature. Bill thought these things arose naturally as a consequence of cooperative group living. Perhaps the creation of a culture was human nature? Well, not really, because the creation of culture is more of a survival skill for humans. Nonetheless, the idea of cooperating with the group was integrated into our solution in a way.

More intrinsic, and certainly more individual, than the creation of culture is the expression of emotion. Unless we’re seriously ill, we all express emotions in great quantity and variety. It is certainly a distinctive (though not uniquely) human characteristic. We decided it was a good candidate for a chunk of human nature.

So where is the virtue with which one develops this nature? The virtue is empathy. When one applies empathy to emotions, the result is mercy, generosity, fairness, and a number of other qualities that benefit humanity as a whole, as well as creating eudaimonia in the individual. When empathy is not practiced, the result is greed, selfishness, and the type of sociopathy that allows acts such as murder and robbery. Empathy informs our conscience.

We briefly explored the possibility of other basic aspects of human nature, and what virtue might be applied, but again and again, we came back to empathy.

Now I suppose we should actually read some Aristotle to see if he came up with something similar.

8 Responses to Eudaimonia

  1. Ralf says:

    You might also enjoy looking at Donald Brown’s Human Universals
    as a starting point for a list of what all humans do.


  2. the dalai lama draws much the same conclusion in ethics for the new millenium. he argues a bit to his conclusions–I think competition is as innate as compassion–and I haven’t finished it yet, but I still recommend the book.

  3. Cat says:

    Thanks both of you–I have a couple of books to add to my list.

    Competition seems like a mechanism for the survival of the individual, which would make sense when balanced with compassion, which ensures the survival of the group. I wonder about modern application, though. I know I’m getting off on a tangent–but if the goal is to make the world a better place (I’m assuming this goal only because it’s mine), then how does competition serve this? Is there a virtue one can apply to the need to compete?

  4. Bill says:


    “No, Eudaimonia!”


  5. Ralf says:

    Firstly, I forgot you could link from here. Sorry about the cut and paste URLs.

    I saw mention of the Universals in Steven Pinker’s “The Blank Slate”, which has a list of them in the appendix. Looks to be a good read too, maybe worth getting before Donald Brown’s book.

    As to the question of virtues and humanity, from a scientific perspective this looks like an optimisation problem to me, which are notorious for being a balancing act between the group and the individual. For example, optimising a server so that a person connecting gets great service, while also allowing many people to connect at the same time with good service.

    I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, in relation to two Buddhist approaches that I had thought to be contradictory:
    1. Tibetan Buddhism has a whole bunch of vows of things to do, not do, etc.
    2. Zen Buddhism says vows aren’t needed, just concentrate on the now moment.
    Recently I read something (note: pdf) by Geshe Michael Roach where he talks about working to keep those vows, and I’ve come to my current understanding that they are techniques for us to become more aware of the world. Like concentrating on people’s facial shape (round, oval, etc), rather than their whole faces, for a week, and then their hair lines, then nose curvature, etc so that you improve your facial recognition.

    I think the concept of virtues is the same thing. Empathy to yourself is just as important as empathy to others, and how will you act when you are in a position where you have to choose between the two? By focusing on virtues you learn about complexity in life, but by just being aware you learn to escape the potential of self imposed codes of honour, virtues, vows, etc to become dogma.

    This is one of the main reasons why I try to meditate regularly, i.e. to practise my now-moment-awareness so that I can try to live in that state more in daily life.


  6. Cat says:

    Empathy to yourself is just as important as empathy to others, and how will you act when you are in a position where you have to choose between the two?

    I see empathy to yourself as a necessary first step. It’s hard to reach out to the world when you are not a whole person yourself. It took me many, many years to get to the point where I finally felt comfortable in my skin, and confident in my personal ethics. Things grew organically from my own self-awareness, not from the application of any code.

    At this time in my life, when the inner is (mostly) at peace, it’s time to look toward the outer. While being in the moment is essential, it’s also vital not to make an abstraction of the world, but rather to see real issues and make real decisions.

  7. Ralf says:

    Things grew organically from my own self-awareness, not from the application of any code.

    At this time in my life, when the inner is (mostly) at peace, it’s time to look toward the outer. While being in the moment is essential, it’s also vital not to make an abstraction of the world, but rather to see real issues and make real decisions.


    I think.

    The “While … it’s also vital …” reads to me like you’re saying that living in the current moment makes an abstraction of the world. I would have thought that analysing and projecting rules of conduct, etc is more abstracting.

    I have found that by developing my awareness I identify with more of the environment around me, through it’s effect on me, my effect, etc. Decisions are then made naturally and organically, as you said about your healing.

    Empathy for the world is what empathy for the self evolves into, all by itself.

    Anyway, the reading sounds like a great habit of yours and Bill’s.

    Wishing you all the best,


  8. avogadro says:

    /trying desperately to remember Aristotelian ethics

    If’n I remember correctly, the word that we now know as “virtue” was defined in Aristotle’s day to be more-or-less equivalent to what we know know as “skills” (the original word was “arete”, which is akin to “excellence”.

    (Tangentially, Bill and Ted’s admonition to be “excellent” to one another is quite Aristotelian, but I digress.)

    So, what we mean as “virtue”, that is, something related to morality, is somewhat different to what Aristotle would have conceived. The use of virtue (skill) in Aristotle’s time had more to do with functioning well in society. Things such as “knowing one’s place in society” and “participating in the life of the polis” were, among other things, regarded as “virtues” essential to eudaimonia. In that time, the virtues were well recognized; society was more homogenous and our existing condition of having a plurality of beliefs and practices was unknown. Tellingly, foreigners could not achieve eudaimonia in Aristotle’s world because they were not familiar with the universe of “virtues” (arete) needed to funcition in Athenian (or any other city state’s) society.

    Virtue (as a means of functioning well in society) in today’s world is a much more complicated thing, given the diversity inherent in liberal society. What one group may proclaim as a virtue may be considered antithetical to “good living” by another group. It can be argued that there are no longer universal virtues, only those that can be practiced within certain groups (like your family, your faith community, your friends, your workplace, etc.) One finds oneself playing utterly different roles throughout a course of a day, requiring different virtues to fit in.

    Just some things to think about.

    (For further reading on the history and understanding, or lack thereof, of virtues and ethics from pre-Aristotle to modernity, I recommend Alasdair MacIntyre’s excellent book After Virtue.