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Originally published at Faith Seeking Understanding. You can comment here or there.

I hope to get back to the abortion series this weekend. Next up is parental consent, and I’m actually pretty excited about that. But first, I want to go back to a point that was raised in those posts. Remember, I said one of the law’s purposes was to set up a context where we could develop virtue. I want to set the law completely aside and look at a deeper question: who gets to decide what counts as virtue? Some people will say honesty is a virtue, for instance, while others will say discretion is the better part of valor. Who gets to make that call?

Virtue, for me at least, is an Aristotelian concept. According to Aristotle, something is good if it does a good job at whatever that thing’s defining characteristic is. This isn’t just for humans and ethics. Let’s start out simple. Say you have two chairs available to you: a standard desk chair and a kitchen chair. The computer desk chair is unremarkable in every way: no wobble, arm rests at a good height, doesn’t collapse under your weight when you sit down. It does squeak horribly when you turn in it, a sound which drives you nut. The kitchen chair on the other hand has one leg that’s a good half-inch shorter than the other, meaning it slants so horribly it’s hard to sit in for a long period of time. Now, some people might be so irked by the sound (I find it physically excruciating, actually) that they’d rather take the leaning chair, maybe find a book to prop under it.

So if I ask you which chair you prefer, reasonable people might disagree. But if I asked you which chair was the better chair? According to Aristotle, it’s a no-brainer. The purpose of a chair is to allow you to sit at a desk. Both chairs have faults, but only one of those faults actually keeps you from sitting well at the desk. As-is, the kitchen chair forces you to either sit in a way that messes up your body and quickly gets uncomfortable, or else requires you improve it somehow. The computer desk chair has its faults but those faults don’t actually get in the way of the work a computer desk is supposed to do. It’s its ability to hold me comfortably at desk height that makes a chair a chair – this is its defining characteristics. And a good chair, according to Aristotle, is what does this defining characteristic well.

I know it sounds a bit stilted when I put it like that, but I think the more you think about it, the more plausible this approach to ethics becomes. Let’s say you want to know whether a certain flute is good or not. You wouldn’t look at its color or its weight or the quality of its case; you’d look at what makes a flute different from a harp or a horn or anything else – you know, what makes it a flute – and look at whether it actually meets that test.

This can sound a bit like Aquinas’s natural law at first, but Aristotle isn’t saying that we get to decide what the natural purpose behind some kind of act is. This isn’t saying that someone gets to decide the purpose of sex is to procreate. It’s saying that the good ______ does whatever makes ______ unique – whatever defines it as ________ – and does it well. So what makes semen unique is it carries the DNA that has the capacity to create a new, unique human being. Good semen doesn’t actually have to create said human being; it just has to have the information and whatever else it needs so it could create this person if it had to. And along those same lines, good birth control will “shut that whole thing down” (to borrow a phrase from the unlamented Todd Akin). We’re not making judgments here about which is better – just talking about what it means to be a good whatever.

Incidentally, this is why I believe homo sapiens fetuses aren’t human from conception on. Aristotle has this whole long argument that I’ll spare you, but the upshot is that what makes humans unique – what makes us human – is our ability to be rational. He’s not thinking the Spock route. Rather, it’s being influenced by our emotions in the right degree, so we’re not cold and heartless but also not so swept away by emotions we do stupid things. If anything, it’s about the Kirk route in the Spock-Kirk-McCoy triad. The main point is that you’re not just acting on instinct and can make an actual decision. Aristotle thinks this is what sets us apart from other animals. It’s what makes us human. So you’re not human if you don’t have the capacity for this kind of choosing. A blastocyst of cells, simply because it has human DNA, is not yet able to make a decision, so I don’t consider it a human and I don’t consider killing it murder. (I do think morality requires we value and nurture it, but I don’t think that it’s the law’s job to make us do that.)

But getting back to human goodness. Say Aristotle is right – that humans choose, and this is what separates humans out from other animals. Then good humans are the ones that choose well. We don’t normally talk about ethics except with humans, precisely because a lot of people connect choice with responsibility. So it would seem odd to blame the chair that wobbled for being a bad chair, but with humans we do expect them to try to be good. And this is where virtues come in.

For Aristotle, ethics is all about balancing our emotions well. The trick is being affected by them but not ruled by them. Take fear. Fear is good, and we’d do well to take it seriously; modern psychologists think it’s part of a very quick neural system that helps us avoid danger and act quickly. But if you’re so scared you’re paralyzed by it, particularly if you know the fear is irrational, that’s obviously no good. The virtues are those parts of our characters that help us balance out emotions so they impact us the right way. They’re the way we listen to fear when it’s appropriate but ignore it when needed. Or that help us be moved by pity for the street kid without becoming foolish in the process. Or that uses hate to keep us from being taken advantage of again while at the same time moving on when that’s the smart thing to do. And on down the list.

Virtues do have to do with each of us individually. Take Adrian Monk, from the TV show. He has a series of phobias and obsessive-compulsive disorder, but he’s really very brave about facing up to them. He struggles against little things like germs and dirt much more than most people, but when it’s necessary he has the strength of character to push through. So he has courage because, although he has disabilities, he manages them as well as any person could. This is what I’m talking about. Courage would look different for different people, depending on their temperaments and their past experiences (take an ex-marine versus the college freshman with no military training – if a bodega they’re in is being robbed, they will be brave in very different ways). The importance thing here is that courage is a virtue for all human because it helps us master our emotions in the right way.

I find this pretty convincing, personally. I guess you could ask, who decides we’re going to break up things the way we do, and that’s a fair point. A better philosopher than me might bring in something called natural kinds (google it), but I don’t understand them well enough to talk about them. And the little bit I understand is complicated, and it’s Friday afternoon, and so I don’t quite feel like going into all that. :-) So I’ll just say that even if the way we divide up tables from chairs, flutes from harps, and humans from lemurs is somehow arbitrary, it’s also pretty well ingrained into the way society works. It’s built into the language we speak, the way we as a society have decided to structure the world. So even if it’s arbitrary, it’s not the kind of thing any of us can change on a whim.

So, the ninety-second version of all this:

1. We divide things into groups, either by long-established tradition or because there’s a natural division at work.

2. Groups are defined by some characteristic. This is what lets us say some things belong in the group and other things don’t.

3. The good member of a certain group does this defining characteristic well.

4. With humans, this defining characteristic is reasoning, which is really about the balancing of emotions so we can use them without being mastered by them.

5. So the good human masters his emotions well.

6. Virtues are the character traits that allow us to master different emotions. They may play out differently in different circumstances and with different people, but the basic virtue stays the same.

7. So virtues really aren’t in the eye of the beholder. You might personally find some personality traits important to you, but that doesn’t make them a virtue. They’re about mastering an emotion in a way that helps you make a good decision.

I’m interested – what do folks make out of all this? One of the things I quite like about Aristotle is that he gives us a pretty flexible ethics which takes our own idiosyncracies into account. It also shows that there is such a thing as good and bad without needing to invoke God – it’s just how reality sorts itself into categories, or if you prefer how the human community over all its history have chosen to structure the way we think about things. That’s not nothing, by a long shot. It’s not just what people choose is right, it’s the way people have found it helpful to think things through. But I can imagine some people will find it a bit restrictive since it draws a hard line on what it means to be human. What do you think? Is it a good way of approaching ethics and virtue?

I’ll get back to the abortion questions in a day or two. I hope you find today’s excursion through moral philosophy interesting in any event.

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