What Is Praiseworthy?
Kant, in the Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, had written that someone who is not
inclined to help others, but who forces himself to, performs a morally praiseworthy action.
Someone who regularly helps others and enjoys doing so, even if the enjoyment is not selfish,
deserves praise. But his action has no true moral worth.
How We Are on the “Inside”
Many of us might not agree. What could be more praiseworthy than helping others; doing it
graciously, effortlessly, tactfully, and with genuine enjoyment in benefiting others? Many might
say that this is the mark of a truly moral individual. They might even say it is the mark of
someone who is generous “on the inside.” If it pains you to be generous, you overdo it to
compensate, and want to let everyone know just how generous you are, then others might be
tempted to think that not only are you not really a generous individual “on the inside,” but that
you have not quite mastered the art of living.
Being an individual of a certain kind and mastering the art of living is what moral excellence is
all about. The pursuit of excellence is what virtue ethics is all about. The prototypical moral
theory that adopts this position is Aristotle’s virtue ethics, or the ethics of excellence. One of the
most influential works in ethics of all times is his Nicomachean Ethics, composed in the 4th
Choice and Habit; Reason and Feeling
All moral theories recognize that choice and moral action take place on a background tapestry
of habits and feelings, and are sustained in ongoing interactions among individuals. Choice
doesn’t just appear out of nowhere. The theory of utility, the Kantian theory of moral duties, and
the theory of rights all recognize this fact. They nevertheless focus on general principles of
action governing choice. The conception of moral choice in natural law theories, which we
briefly looked at in Module 4, recognized the importance of how habits are adjusted in order to
foster proper choice. But they too see ethics as a matter of following rules of reason, and it is
through reason that one grasps the commands of natural law.
Moral Cultivation and the Purpose of a Human Life
In this module, we look at virtue ethics, which focuses on the cultivation of human skill-based
capabilities that sustain moral choice and action and are tied to questions about what is the
meaning or purpose of one’s life. Aristotle’s answer, in a nutshell, was that the purpose of a
human life is to develop one’s human capabilities to the fullest. That is what happiness is. Given
that humans are social beings, full human development occurs in relation with social others,
such as family and friends, to whom one bears especially strong emotional attachments.
Moral Virtues and Excellence
Virtues are conducive to happiness understood as the full development of human capabilities.
They are at the same time constitutive of happiness. That is, they make up happiness. The
sense of virtue here is one of virtuosity. This is what the Greek word, arête (translated as virtue)