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Living the Spiritual Disciplines and Virtues in 12-Step Recovery

Character, Defect, & Virtue

Aristotle & Virtue Theory: Crash Course Philosophy

What does Aristotle have to do with AA? A lot, is the short answer. Much of it can be traced to a simple but profound observation the ancient Greek philosopher made almost 2,400 years ago:

“Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act, but a habit.”

We can immediately recognize two ideas that are crucial to the AA program. One is the idea of action. Ours is a program of action. “There’s action and more action,” says the Big Book (“Into Action,” p. 87). We take the Steps, we work them, we practice their principles, both the disciplines like self-examination and the virtues like honesty. And we do it over and over again, day in and day out, month after month and year after year. That’s the idea of practice: repeated practice over the long term.

The other idea is that of habit. The reason why we continue to take inventory and continue to admit where we are wrong and continue to make amends and practice all the other principles of the program is so that we can assimilate and internalize and make habits out of them. That’s how we grow in character. That’s how we change and become better and happier people.

Habit, says Aristotle, is the key to excellence in any human endeavor. That’s the source of the idea that practice makes perfect. By excellence here Aristotle meant specifically human excellence, that is, excelling specifically as human beings. Such excellence is marked by a natural ability to consistently do the right thing for the right reason and with the right feelings or emotions, all in pursuit of the common human good.

That, says Aristotle, is achieved by training and habituation in those traits which are defining and distinctive of human excellence, what later came to be known as virtues. These virtues are of two kinds: of character—which govern our moral and affective selves—and of intellect—which govern the way we think, acquire, and impart knowledge.

By acting repeatedly and intentionally in keeping with these virtues, they become gradually and progressively an ingrained part of our character and intellect. The more they are integrated, the more naturally and easily are we able to reason and act out of them. In practice, then, a virtue is a habit. We have the virtue of honesty—it is an integral part of who are character—when we are habitually honest. We have the virtue of open-mindedness when we are naturally receptive to considering new information and acquiring new knowledge.

Central to Aristotle’s concept of virtue is the principle of the Golden Mean. According to this, virtue is a midpoint between two extremes, both of which are vices, or what we call character defects in AA. One extreme is of excess, and the other of deficiency. This means that there are two opposite ways we can go wrong and deviate from what is good and right.

As regards the giving of money, for instance, we can be stingy and not give enough, or we can be extravagant and give too much. Both are vices with potential consequences for harm, for ourselves as well as for the recipient and other parties concerned. The intermediate point or virtue is generosity, where we give in proportion to the need in question and to our ability to meet that need.
In cases involving danger, to take another example, we can be reckless and ignore, dismiss, or rashly override our fear, or we can be cowardly and let our fear prevent us from rightly facing the situation. In either case we can cause harm, to ourselves and to others involved. The virtuous midpoint is courage, where we accurately recognize the danger and are duly afraid or apprehensive, but we take the right action in the service of a good in spite of our fear. 

The idea of virtue is that through experience and practice on the basis of right principles—principles conducive to the human good—we come to a point where think, act, and feel rightly, as the situation demands. Central to this process is the virtue of practical wisdom, an intellectual virtue which governs our capacity to reason, see the good to be attained in a situation, and utilize the right means to pursue it. 

Why strive to be the best person we can be? Because that’s the road to well-being, and happiness. We flourish when we are good, according to Aristotle, and when we are good, we flourish. 

The Aristotelian spirit is nicely expressed in these words of the 12&12: “Understanding is the key to right principles and attitudes, and right action is the key to good living; therefore the joy of good living is the theme of A.A.'s Twelfth Step.” (p.125).   

In his brief and engaging video, Hank Green walks us through some of the highlight of Aristotle’s view of the good life and how to pursue it. Green is a co-producer of the YouTube Crash Course. “Crash Course Philosophy” is produced in association with PBS Digital Studios. His presentation is of course of a popular rather than a scholarly nature. We are making it available because of its practical utility. We are also providing a transcription below. This may help the listener assimilate the material. In some cases, we have added some points of clarification.  

For related posts on this website, please see “Virtue: The Concept,” “Character: The Concept,” “Character Defects,” and “Practice & Habit.”

To return to “Character, Defects, & Virtue,” please click on link.


Imagine a person who always knows what to say, can defuse a tense situation, deliver tough news gracefully, is confident without being arrogant, brave but not reckless, generous but never extravagant. This is the type of person that everybody wants to be around and to be like. Someone who seems to have mastered the art of being a person [insert: Philosophy: we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.] This may sound like an impossible feat, but Aristotle believed that, while rare, such people do exist. And they are what we should all aspire to be: virtuous.

And there’s a whole moral theory based on this idea of virtue. But unlike other moral theories, virtue theory doesn’t spend a lot of time telling you what to do. There’s no categorical imperative or principle of utility. Instead, virtue theory is all about character. Rather than saying, “follow these rules so you can be a good person,” Aristotle and other virtue theorists reasoned that, if we can just focus on being good people, the right actions will follow, effortlessly. Become a good person, and you will do good things. No rulebook needed.

So, why should you become virtuous? Because: eudaimonia. 

Virtue theory reflects the ancient assumption that humans have a fixed nature—an essence— and that the way we flourish is by adhering to that nature. Aristotle described it in terms of what he called proper functioning. Everything has a function, and a thing is good to the extent it fulfills its function, and bad to the extent it doesn’t.

This is easy to see in objects created by humans. A function of a knife is to cut, so a dull knife is a bad knife. And a function of a flower is to grow and reproduce, so a flower that doesn’t do that is just bad at being a flower. And the same goes for humans—we’re animals—so all the stuff that would indicate proper functioning for an animal holds true for us as well—we need to grow and be healthy and fertile.

But we are also “the rational animal,” and “a social animal,” so our function also involves using reason and getting along with our pack. Now, you might notice that some of this sounds like parts of natural law theory—Aquina’s theory that God made us with the tools we need to know what’s Good. Well, Aristotle had a strong influence on Thomas Aquinas, so part of Aristotle’s thoughts on virtue ended up in natural law theory. [Insert: Phi-lol-sophy: The things that we love tell us what we are]

But for Aristotle this isn’t about God’s plan, it’s just about nature. Aristotle argued that nature has built into us the desire to be virtuous, in the same way that acorns are built with the drive to become oak trees. But what exactly does it mean to be virtuous? Aristotle said that having virtue just means doing the right thing, at the right time, in the right way, in the right amount, toward the right people. Which sounds like Aristotle is saying exactly nothing. I mean, how vague can you be?

But according to Aristotle, there’s no need to be specific, because if you are virtuous, you know what to do. All the time. You know how to handle yourself and how to get along with others. You have good judgment, you can read a room, and you know what’s right and when. Aristotle understood virtue as a set of robust character traits that, once developed, will lead to predictably good behavior.

You can think of virtue as the midpoint between two extremes, which Aristotle called vices. Virtue is the just-right amount—the sweet spot between the extreme of excess and the extreme of deficiency. And this sweet spot is known as the Golden Mean.

So let’s take a look at some particular virtues, starting with courage. What is courage? To take closer look at this, let’s head to the Thought Bubble for some Flash Philosophy. Walking home from a movie, you see a person being mugged. What is the courageous action for you to take? Your impulse might be to say that a courageous person would run over there and stop the mugging, because courage means putting yourself in harm’s way for a good cause, right?

Well, no. A virtuous person—in the Aristotelian sense—would first take stock of the situation. [Insert: Situation: Age, Height, Weight, Strength, Stamina, Agility, Intelligence] If you size up the mugger and have good reason to believe that you could safely intervene, then that’s probably the courageous [the wise] choice. But if you assess the situation and recognize that is likely to mean that both you and the victim will be in danger, the courageous choice [it's actually the wise choice] is not to intervene, but to call for help instead [wisdom tells you that it would be rash to intervene].

According to Aristotle, courage is the midpoint between the extremes of cowardice and recklessness. Cowardice is a deficiency [with regard to handling danger] of courage while recklessness is an excess [ditto] of courage—and both are bad. Aristotle said that you definitely can have too much of a good thing [not with regards to a virtue, which by definition is a mean and cannot be in excess; here's no such thing as too much courage: there's recklessness]. So, being courageous doesn’t mean rushing headlong into danger. A courageous person will assess the situation, they’ll know their own abilities, and they’ll take action that is right in the particular situation.

Part of having courage, he argued, is being able to recognize when, rather than stepping in, you need to find an authority who can handle a situation that’s too big for you to tackle alone. Basically, courage is finding the right way to act [no, that's wisdom, and it applies to all the virtues]. And a lot of the time—but not all of the time—that means doing a thing that you know you are capable of, even if doing it scares the pants off you [now, that’s courage: being able to act rightly in the face of danger, risk, or difficulty, in spite of one's fear]. Thanks, Thought Bubble!

Aristotle thought all virtue works like this. The right action is always a midpoint between extremes. So, there’s no all-or-nothing in this theory—even honesty. In this view, honesty is the perfect midpoint between brutal honesty and failing to say things that need to be said [not quite].  Like no one needs to be told that they have a big zit on their face—they already know. The virtue of honesty means knowing what needs to be put out there, and what you should keep quiet about. And it also means knowing how to deliver hard truths gracefully. How to break bad news gently, or to offer criticism in a way that’s constructive, rather than soul-crushing.

The virtue of generosity works the same way. It avoids the obvious vices of stinginess, but also doesn’t give too much. [Insert: stinginess, generosity, prodigality] It’s not generous to give drugs to an addict, or to buy rounds of drinks for everyone in the bar when you need that money for rent. The right amount of generosity means giving when you have it, to those who need it. It can mean having the disposition to give just for the heck of it, but it also means realizing when you can’t, or shouldn’t give.

So now you can see why Aristotle’s definition of virtue was totally vague—where what Golden Mean is depends on the situation. But, if you have to figure out what virtue is in every situation, how can you possibly ever learn to be virtuous? Aristotle though there was a lot you could learn from books, but how to be a good person was not one of them. He said that virtue is a skill, a way of living, and that’s something that really can only be learned through experience. Virtue is [requires] a kind of knowledge that he called practical wisdom. You might think of it as kind of like street smarts [not quite: a Three-card Monte hustler has street smarts, but he uses it to cheat people of their money. As a virtue, wisdom is by definition in the service of the common good]. And the thing about street smarts is that you gotta learn ‘em on the street [one learns wisdom through experience and reflecting on that experience].

But the good news is, you don’t have to do it alone. Aristotle said your character is developed through habituation. If you do a virtuous thing over and over again, eventually it will become part of your character. But the way you know what the thing to do is in the first place, is by finding someone who already knows, and emulating them. These people who already possess virtue are moral exemplars, and according to this theory, we are built with the ability to recognize them, and the desire to emulate them. So you learn virtue by watching it, and then doing it.

In the beginning, it will be hard, and maybe it’ll feel fake, because you are just copying someone who’s better than you at being a good person. But over time, these actions will become an ingrained part of your character. And eventually, it becomes that robust trait that Aristotle was talking about. It’ll just manifest every time you need it. That’s when you know you have virtue. It becomes effortless.

Ok, but why? What’s your motivation? What if you have no desire to be the guy who always says the right thing, or the lady who always finds the courage when its needed? Virtue theory says that you should become virtuous because, if you are, then you can attain the pinnacle of humanity. It allows you to achieve what’s known as eudaimonia. This is a cool Greek word that doesn’t have a simple English translation. You might say it means “a life well lived.” It’s sometimes translated as “human flourishing.”

And a life of eudaimonia is a life of striving. It’s life of pushing yourself to your limits, and finding success. A eudemonistic life will be full of happiness that comes from achieving something really difficult, rather than having it just handed to you. But choosing to live a eudemonistic life means you are never done improving, you are never to a point where you can just coast. You’re constantly setting new goals, and working to develop new muscles.

Choosing to live life in this way also means you’ll face disappointments, and failures. Eudaimonia doesn’t mean a life of cupcakes and rainbows. It means the sweet pleasure of sinking into bed at the end of an absolutely exhausting day. It’s the satisfaction of knowing you have accomplished a lot, and that you’ve pushed yourself to be the very best person you could be. 

This is morality, for Aristotle. It’s being the best person you can be, honing your strengths, while working on your weaknesses. And for Aristotle, the kind of person who lives likes this, is the kind of person who will do good things.

Today we learned about virtue theory. [Insert: You learned about: Virtue Theory, Golden Mean, Moral Exemplar, Eudaimonia] We studied the Golden Mean and how it exists as a midpoint between vices of excess and deficiency. We talked about moral exemplars, and the life of eudaimonia that comes with virtuousness.

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