In a culture obsessed by efficiency, it is not surprising that the emphasis of our children’s moral instruction is placed on actions.
“Do the right thing,” we tell them, and then describe abstract principles or the consequences of misdeeds.
What might surprise many of our time is that this emphasis would have been completely foreign to the great thinkers of the ancient world.
The intellectual giants of ancient Egypt, China, and Greece were far less concerned about a person’s actions than they were about character.
They didn’t share our passion for generating rules and calculating outcomes, but instead focused on the development of virtues – character traits that would guide where there were no written rules and where calculations were complex and impractical.
Arguably, the greatest surviving, systematic treatment of character-based morality is Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.
In it, he argues that the key to living ethically and, perhaps, more importantly, to living a good life is to possess a good character.
For Aristotle, training the young to develop their character is the most important function of a community.
Citizens who are courageous, honest, temperate, compassionate and generous are the foundation of any lasting society. More than this, people who possess the virtues lead happy, good lives.
Aristotle believed that all virtues fall between two corresponding vices. Someone could possess less of a trait than a virtue demands or they could possess too much of it – someone who possesses a deficient amount of whatever is required for courage is a coward, while one who has it in excess is rash.
Though Aristotle likely overstates his case on this point, it serves as a helpful heuristic. Someone who can distinguish between the miserly and the extravagant has a more complete understanding of what it means to be generous.
Wes McMichael is an assistant professor of philosophy and religion at Pennsylvania Highlands Community College. He is a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at the University at Albany, SUNY, and holds graduate degrees in philosophy, biblical studies, theology and the humanities.