August, 2009 browsing by month


The Social Limits of Government’s Role

Tuesday, August 25th, 2009

True virtue, of course, cannot be dictated, legislated or forced. Truly virtuous acts must be inspired by right motivation. And yet, moral virtue, Aristotle claims, comes from habituation and intellectual virtue from instruction. What is the initial impetus for people to do virtuous acts that develops their capacity and eventually results in the habituation? Where does the instruction come from which develops the intellectual virtues? I agree with Aristotle that men have the capacity for virtue inherently, but their development is not spontaneous. Instruction, rewards, punishments, norms, and expectations are extremely important to the development of virtue. Parents use those means regularly and with little criticism. Aristotle says that we [must be] trained from infancy to feel joy and grief for the right things.

Virtue is only partially dependent on government. In it’s role as law giver, it’s rewards and punishments government can be extremely heavy handed. Modern government’s ability to influence and inculcate virtue is smaller than that of Aristotle’s polis. As I understand it, polis implies more than mere government. Aristotle’s “polis” was not only laws and governing elites, but also a community and body of citizens who had a more cohesive sense of identity. In so far as government is also community and has a role in socialization and establishment of norms and expectations, to that degree government can more effectively influence virtue, because it has access to more subtle rewards and punishments of influencing social norms and paradigms about the virtues it wants to inculcate.

Virtuous Contradictions

Tuesday, August 25th, 2009

The intriguing thing about reading Aristotle is his tendency to examine and probe a subject, and then make conditional declarations – seldom does he make a declaratory statement that isn’t almost entirely contradictory to a statement he makes elsewhere in the text. 

The subject of virtue is a prime example.  The quote used by Randy implies inculcation of virtue, however in another place Aristotle writes, “A man of good and natural disposition… will possess as a natural gift the finest and most important thing in the world, which cannot be had or learnt from another“.  If we are to believe this statement, then any effort by the state to teach virtue is an exercise in futility.

To answer Randy’s question – Yes,  I would contend that virtue (using the definition that virtue is human excellence) is absolutely dependant on the state.  Society defines excellence, and if virtue is defined by excellence, then society dictates virtue.  An example: If society decides that owning a dog is virtuous, then natural-born dog lovers instantly become virtuous (and vice-versa).

From the other responses, it appears there are two interpretations of Randy’s question – one making the question, “Is our virtue the responsibility of the state and should it be?”  Based on Aristotle’s arguments, and the examples of almost all governments past and present, the answer to this question is by definition in the affirmative – the point of contention arrives when determining the extent of the state’s involvement in prescribing (and enforcing) a virtuous society. 

-Brent Jacobsen

Intellectual and Moral Virtue: An Independent Choice

Tuesday, August 25th, 2009

According to Aristotle, the ultimate aim of all humans is to achieve happiness. In order for a person to achieve happiness, he must do so through intellectual and moral virtue (21). The question then arises: “How does a person obtain intellectual and moral virtue?” Some may argue, as Aristotle does, that it is the duty of the state to help its citizens to obtain intellectual and moral virtue. Aristotle states that “legislators make their citizens good by habituation; this is the intention of every legislator, and those who do not carry it out fail of their object” (32). Aristotle, however, later contradicts the necessity of the state in helping a person to obtain intellectual and moral virtue when he concludes that in order for a person to choose to do virtuous acts he must 1) know what he is doing, 2) choose it for its own sake, and 3) do it from a permanent disposition (37). Prior to this, a person’s disposition is determined by thoughtful deliberation which leads him to direct his aim to an end that lies in his power (59). This results in a person doing certain activities which either produce virtue or the lack there of (32). Consequently, a person’s intellectual and moral virtue cannot be dependent on the state because a person must choose that route toward virtue by himself. The state, however, should establish the best possible circumstance in which to allow each citizen to seek after intellectual and moral virtue independently and unhindered.

Choosing Virtue

Tuesday, August 25th, 2009

Aristotle makes very clear that virtue is not virtue unless it is consciously chosen and not merely incidental. He states that you must know that a virtuous act is being chosen, choose to act in this manner for it’s own sake, and have a fixed and permanent disposition. The only way to ensure true virtue is to allow for the independent and conscious choice of the people. Forcefulness or legislation prescribing virtue is taking away the freedom of choice, which is an underlying pillar of true virtue.

Therefore, if it is the duty of the legislator to instill virtue by the means of either rewards or punishments, legislators are instilling only a false virtue since a good natural disposition cannot be given. If this is the primary source of virtue, people will act out of fear or out of personal greed or honor.  If rewards are the only motivation, and punishments the only discouragement, the laws passed will be broken at every possible opportunity. Since there is a choice in every act, as Aristotle states, the people have a choice to make, to follow or to break the law, whichever might be in their interest. If true virtue motivates an individual, he will consistently choose the virtuous act of his own accord.

-Erika Morris

Disposition Matters

Tuesday, August 25th, 2009

Aristotle contends that the quality of virtue is acquired from habituation, rather than agreeing with the assertion that one is be born with or without virtue. Thus, moral and intellectual virtue are qualities that one “learns by doing”. This raises the question of who teaches these sorts of habits to the persons of a city-state.

The arguments Randy cited above lead one to believe that the state would make laws prescribing certain behaviors, through means such as punishments. Yet, the state’s incentives will not always produce the outcome they are intended to. This is because as rational individuals, we all have different incentives within our lives and thus act accordingly. Intellectual and moral virtue are simply not dependent on the state because they are qualities an individual must value personally in order to practice them. Yes, I agree that the virtues are learned through habituation, but one must value a quality in order to seek to acquire it. This assertion is why Aristotle argued that virtuous acts are only virtuous if they come from someone holding that disposition.  

Nevertheless, people often follow the state’s policies to avoid punishment, whether or not they agree with that particular “rule”. Thus, the person’s virtues are not actually dependent on the state, although their behaviors may be. Our virtues are not and should never be dependent on the state, because coercion cannot create truly virtuous citizens. As Aristotle argued, a virtuous person has an honorable disposition and does more than simply avoid punishment.


Separation of Virtue and State

Monday, August 24th, 2009

Aristotle states that “the chief concern of [political] science is to endue the citizens with certain qualities, namely virtue…” However, he also emphatically distinguishes between those who are virtuous individuals and those who only perform virtuous acts. This distinction is key to realizing that regardless of state mandated virtue-development plans, the actual development of virtuous people is entirely dependent upon each individual. In his detailing of each virtue, Aristotle makes clear that it is not just the performance of good deeds that reveals virtue, but doing so at the right time, in the right situation, and with the right intentions or motives. If the government were to attempt to instill a system of virtues, it would create perverse incentives to be virtuous and so the people would not, by Aristotle’s definition, be virtuous after all.

A system created to “endue citizens with… virtue” would without doubt be treated like a system of laws. This would be a situation where people would perform mandatory virtuous actions more for the sake of avoiding punishment than for the benevolence of the act. This also would be in stark contrast to Aristotle’s idea that virtuous individuals don’t just abstain from doing wrong (to avoid the painful consequences), but that they actively pursue what is right (again, with the right intentions).

As soon as the state attempts to coerce its citizens into virtuousness, the purity of it is lost; therefore the apparent ambiguity of Aristotle remains.

Kip Jackson

1st Reading/Thinking/Writing Assignment

Friday, August 21st, 2009

Aristotle wrote that intellectual and moral virtue are necessary to a successful polis (the city-state or, to Aristotle, the highest form of social organization). Today we do not have city states but many argue that the inculcation of virtue is the principle role of government at all levels and cite Aristotle as the original authority on that role. Aristotle said, for example, “the statesman’s need is greater than the doctor’s, inasmuch as politics is a better and more honourable science than medicine…the statesman too must study the soul, but with a view to politics…” and later he states, “Legislators make their citizens good by habituation. This is the intention of every legislator, and those who do not carry it out fail of their objects. This is what makes the difference between a good constitution and a bad one.” And elsewhere he writes, “Our nurture, then, should be prescribed by law…”

Is our intellectual and moral virtue dependent on the state and should it be?

Write no more than 250 words. We expect thoughtful responses that do not begin with “I think…” Take a position and defend it. Defend it well.

Post your response on the Koch Scholars website by 6:00 p.m. Tuesday, August 25. If you have trouble logging in, email Teri Routledge at


Koch Scholars Fall 2009

Tuesday, August 4th, 2009

Welcome to the 2009 Fall Semester Koch Scholars Program!