Virtue ethics has experienced a revival in the towers of academia and has even become a conversation piece at the dinner table. If Aunt Bertha were to ask me how cultivating practical wisdom and developing a moral character contributes to eudaimonia, I would respond with the following.
According to Aristotle, every living organism takes on a specific function. The function of a spider is to spin a web. If a spider cannot perform this function, then it is not flourishing as a spider. Flourishing is the key word, which roughly translates into the Greek term eudaimonia.
Human beings also take on a specific function. Fulfilling this function allows humanity to flourish. Aristotle pondered what humanity’s function or goal in life might be. According to Aristotle, there is a basic goal that we all strive to achieve. That goal is to be happy or reach eudaimonia. The reasoning being—happiness is an intrinsic value, meaning it is desired for its own sake. Unlike external values, happiness is an end which justifies itself. External values, such as money, are not desired for their own sake. Rather, money is desired because it serves as a means to a greater good—namely, happiness.
So how might we go about reaching eudaimonia? Unlike the hedonists of his time, Aristotle did not regard happiness as a temporary state of pleasure. Rather, happiness is an activity that is cultivated over time. This gets to the crux of Aunt Bertha’s question.
According to Aristotle, the human intellect is the seat of moral autonomy. Without it, our purpose in life would be a purpose fit for pigs (although, pigs are remarkably intelligent creatures). By use of the intellect, we derive various virtues that constitute a good life.
There are two different types of virtues. These included the moral virtues and the intellectual virtues—both of which are essential in order to flourish as a human being. Moral virtues stem from our emotions, such as empathy; whereas intellectual virtues stem from our rational capacities, such as intellectual integrity. There is no overarching virtue that dictates the rest. Rather, the virtues work in harmony with each other.
Virtues are not innate, according to Aristotle, but must be acquired over time. Aristotle developed what is known as “the doctrine of the mean” in order to derive various virtues. A virtue is regarded as the midpoint between and excess and a deficiency. Not too much and not too little. For example, if I were to witness a woman being mugged by four large men, I would be a fool to try to challenge the muggers. I would equally be a coward to turn a blind eye and allow the women to be mugged. Yet there is a third option between these two extremes—namely, call the police.
This sort of reasoning transcribes across all situations if we want to thrive as human beings. Therefore, according to Aristotle, we can use our intellect to derive various moral and intellectual virtues in order to achieve eudemonia. Exercising moral and intellectual allows us function as human beings.
Being an expert in virtue ethics, Aunt Bertha would continue to press my own wisdom by asking me, “What is the difference cleverness and practical wisdom according to Aristotle?” to which I would respond with the following. According to Aristotle, our intellect is the feature that distinguishes us from the rest of the animal kingdom. Exercising this faculty is what allows us to flourish as human beings. A life of the mind or “acquiring wisdom” is the highest of all virtues according to Aristotle. Practical wisdom is what guides our modes of conduct for any given situation.
Complimenting practical wisdom is cleverness, which is used as a mean to acquire wisdom. Cleverness and practical wisdom can also solve what is known as the recognition challenge. The recognition challenge consists of attributing credence to someone whenever it is do. Cleverness motivates our actions, and practical wisdom allows us to draw on previous knowledge in order reference an action to a particular individual. Cleverness and wisdom are not two sides of the same coin. However, intelligence does requires cleverness. Thus, by spoon feeding these points by the mouth full to Aunt Bertha during dinner, our conversation would prove to be quite edifying.