ABSTRACT: Aristotle says that we learn which acts are virtuous, choose virtuous acts for their own sake, and acquire virtuous habits by performing virtuous acts. According to Burnyeat, Aristotle thinks this works successfully because virtuous acts are pleasant. The learner’s virtuous choices and passions are positively reinforced. I argue that Burnyeat’s interpretation fails because virtuous acts are not typically pleasant for learners or, perhaps surprisingly, even for virtuous people. Instead, I maintain that according to Aristotle moral progress is motivated by different sorts of pain associated with vicious acts. I find a series of stages in Aristotle. First, the many come to choose virtuous acts for their own sake by internalizing punishment and becoming generous-minded. Second, motivated by shame, they gain knowledge of which acts are virtuous, becoming incontinent. Third, learners gain habits of virtuous action by regretting their vicious acts and thus become continent. Fourth, they gain habits of virtuous passions by regretting their vicious passions and become well-brought-up. Finally, they are fully virtuous by being taught why virtuous acts are virtuous.

We are inquiring not in order to know what virtue is, but in order to become good ... (1103b27-28) (1)

I shall try to resolve an interesting and insufficiently explored tension between two well known strands of Aristotle's thought. On the one hand, Aristotle's main piece of advice for becoming virtuous is to perform virtuous acts. He says, "We become just by performing just acts, and temperate by performing temperate acts" (1105a18-19). On the other hand, Aristotle says that in order to perform virtuous acts virtuously "the agent also must be in a certain condition when he does them; in the first place he must have knowledge, secondly he must choose the acts, and choose them for their own sakes, and thirdly his actions must proceed from a firm and unchangeable character" (1105a30-33). Of course, a firm character includes not only habits of virtuous action, but also habits of virtuous passion. It is easy enough to see how performing virtuous acts can provide habits of virtuous action. And teaching provides knowledge of why certain acts are virtuous to people with the right habits, the well-brought-up (1095a2-6, 1095b2-13, 1103a14-17). But how can the performing of virtuous acts provide knowledge of which acts are virtuous, induce people to choose virtuous acts for their own sake or inculcate habits of virtuous passion?

Burnyeat's account

Burnyeat says that according to Aristotle, "You need a good upbringing not simply in order that you may have someone around to tell you what is noble and just -- you do need that . . . but you need also to be guided in your conduct so that by doing the things you are told are noble and just you will discover that what you have been told is true . . . in the sense of having made the judgment your own, second nature to you." (2) The role of virtuous action is not to provide knowledge of which acts are virtuous, for you need "someone around to tell you what is noble and just." Instead, virtuous action enables you to "make the judgment your own, second nature to you." Some authority provides the knowledge; virtuous acts enable you to internalize the knowledge. And to internalize the knowledge is to come to choose virtuous acts for their own sake, to deliberately desire virtuous acts because they are intrinsically valuable. Burnyeat says, "I may be told, and may believe, that such and such actions are just and noble, but I have not really learned for myself (taken to heart, made second nature to me) that they have this intrinsic value until I have learned to value (love) them for it." (3) Burnyeat does not explain how a learner develops habits of virtuous passion, but perhaps Burnyeat's account may be supplemented by Kosman's speculation that the habit of feeling virtuous passions is acquired by habitually performing virtuous acts. Kosman says, "One acts in ways that are naturally associated with and will ‘bring about’ [appropriate and correct] feelings, and eventually the feelings become, as Aristotle might have said, second nature." (4)

Burnyeat’s interpretation of how, according to Aristotle, the learner becomes good hinges upon Aristotle's observation that virtuous people enjoy performing virtuous acts. "The lovers of what is noble find pleasant the things that are by nature pleasant; and virtuous actions are such, so that these are pleasant for such men as well as in their own nature" (1099a13-15; cf. 1099a17-21, 1104b3-13, 1109b1-5). Now Burnyeat observes that what virtuous people enjoy about virtuous acts is that they are "the practice of the virtues undertaken for its own sake. . . . [which] could only be enjoyed if they are seen as noble and virtuous . . ." (5) Virtuous people enjoy virtuous acts because they know that the acts are virtuous. They enjoy the virtuousness of these acts. For example, virtuous people enjoy moderate drinking because it is temperate, and not merely because it avoids hangovers. Now according to Burnyeat, when learners perform virtuous acts they enjoy these acts in the same way that virtuous people do. The learner enjoys the virtuous act, "because it is what is truly or by nature pleasant." (6) This positive reinforcement leads learners to choose these acts for their own sake. And this, in turn, produces habits of virtuous passion.

Objections to Burnyeat's account

I must disagree with Burnyeat for several reasons. First, Aristotle never actually says that repetition makes virtuous acts pleasant or that certain ways of acting bring about certain ways of feeling. He does say that painful things "will not be painful when they have become customary" (1179b35-36), but "not painful" does not mean "pleasant".

Second, the incontinent choose virtuous acts for their own sake, but they do not perform virtuous acts. So the incontinent are counter-examples to Burnyeat's thesis that learners come to choose virtuous acts for their own sake by performing virtuous acts.

Third, the continent have habits of virtuous action, but not habits of virtuous passion. So the continent are counter-examples to Kosman's suggestion that right action instills right passions.

Fourth, if learners enjoy virtuous acts in the way that the virtuous do, then their enjoyment depends upon the choice to perform the acts for their own sake. Thus the enjoyment does not produce, but rather presupposes, the choice.

Fifth, Burnyeat's explanation of how virtuous action provides the ability to choose to perform virtuous acts for their own sake fails because Aristotle is committed the view that learners do not typically enjoy virtuous acts. Learners do not make the right choices for the right reasons. They lack the right passions. Therefore, they are not pleased by the right things. Learners find some vicious acts pleasant, and some virtuous acts unpleasant. Medial action is not pleasant for a person with excessive or defective passions. Standing fast in battle is not pleasant for anyone experiencing excessive or defective fear. Spending and giving the right amount of money is not pleasant for people who love money too little or too much. Eating the right amount is not pleasant for people whose appetites are too large or too small. And so on. So learners do not learn that virtuous acts are pleasant by performing and enjoying them, because learners do not enjoy them. Thus, Burnyeat's explanation collapses. Virtuous action does not bring learners to choose virtuous acts for their own sake. The problem of how virtuous action makes people virtuous remains. (7)

Virtue, vice, incontinence, etc. are matters of degree, and people can exemplify combinations of these terms. Aristotle is giving us paradigms, not pigeon holes. Could the recommendation to perform virtuous acts be addressed to somewhat virtuous people, people who have some of the right knowledge, desires, passions, motives, etc. but need more, or have all of these things, but need them nailed down, or have these things in outline, but need them fleshed out, etc. After all, the closer people are to being virtuous, the more pleasure they gain from virtuous activity, but even people who are rather far from being virtuous gain some pleasure from acting virtuously. (8) So perhaps virtuous action enables the somewhat virtuous person to find virtuous action somewhat pleasant.

The problem with this line of thought is that in order for the somewhat virtuous person to enjoy virtuous acts, the amount of pleasure generated must exceed the amount of pain, so that the act is overall pleasant. Yet virtuous acts are often not overall pleasant for people with somewhat virtuous tastes.

There is, moreover, a deeper reason why Burnyeat's account fails. Learners will not find all or even most virtuous acts to be pleasant because virtuous acts are not typically pleasant even for the virtuous, let alone for the learners. When he gets to the detailed treatment of the particular virtues Aristotle, himself, abandons the thesis that virtuous people find performing virtuous acts to be pleasant. Contrary to what is usually thought, Aristotle concedes that virtuous acts are not typically pleasant at several points. The virtue of good temper involves appropriately feeling and expressing anger, yet Aristotle mentions that expressing anger is painful (1149b20-21). Similarly, justice requires that one pay one's debts, yet even Aristotle's exemplars, the great-souled people (megalopsychoi), find it painful even to hear of, let alone to pay, their debts (1124b12-15). Temperate people are moderately pained by the absence of certain bodily pleasures (1119a14) and sometimes this absence and therefore this pain results from a temperate act of abstention such as refraining from eating a doughnut which is beyond one's means (1119a16-20). Aristotle denies that liberal people find liberal acts (e.g. refusing an offer of money from the wrong sources) painful, but he suggests that these acts are not always pleasant.

Aristotle not only concedes that courageous acts are often painful because they often lead to death, wounds, etc. (1117a32-34), he explicitly goes on to retract the general claim that virtuous people find virtuous acts pleasant. He says, "it is not the case, then, with all the virtues that the exercise of them is pleasant, except in so far as it reaches its end" (1117b15-16). What does the qualification "except in so far as it reaches its end" mean? Accomplishing the external goal of a virtuous act yields a certain pleasure. Aristotle believes that if this pleasure is added to the pleasure of knowing that one is performing a virtuous act the combination outweighs whatever pain is involved in the act. However, virtuous acts do not always accomplish their goals. The invaders may take the city despite the courageous efforts of the defenders. And Aristotle's point is that when the goal is not achieved, then the pain of a virtuous act may outweigh the pleasure.

In addition to Aristotle's examples, many other painful, virtuous acts may be mentioned. Justly punishing one's own child, forgoing a hilarious, but inappropriate joke (1128a33-b3), acknowledging one's own serious faults (1127a23-26), listening politely to a boring person, are all painful, even for just, witty, truthful, friendly people. Virtuous action is often painful.

This does not mean that the virtuous life is not a pleasant life. Burnyeat can say that virtuous acts usually have pleasant consequences. He can say that the virtuous person feels a certain pleasure in doing the right thing. He can say that a virtuous person finds the overall virtuous life pleasant. But Burnyeat cannot say that virtuous acts are typically overall pleasant, even for the virtuous person. He cannot even say that these acts are not overall painful.

My account

So how do we procure knowledge of which acts are virtuous, come to chose to perform virtuous acts for their own sake, and acquire habitual virtuous passions? There is no reason to think that we acquire these characteristics in the same way at the same time. Instead, moral development proceeds in several stages beginning with two types of people seldom included in lists of Aristotle's character types: the generous-minded and the many. "[W]hile [arguments] seem to have the power to encourage and stimulate the generous-minded among the young, and to make a character which is gently born, and a true lover of what is noble, ready to be possessed by virtue, they are not able to encourage the many to nobility and goodness. For these do not by nature obey the sense of shame, but only fear, and do not abstain from bad acts because of their baseness but through fear of punishment. . . . [They] have not even a conception of what is noble and truly pleasant, since they have never tasted it" (1179b7-16). The many lack knowledge of which acts are virtuous for they "have not even a conception of what is noble." They also do not chose to perform virtuous acts for their own sake, for they "do not abstain from bad acts because of their baseness." And, of course, they lack habitual virtuous actions and passions. There is hope for the many, however. Aristotle goes on to contrast the many with those who are incorrigible. "The many obey necessity rather than argument, and punishments rather than what is noble. That is why some think that legislators ought to stimulate men to virtue and urge them forward by the motive of the noble, on the assumption that those who have been well advanced by the formation of habits will attend to such influences; and that punishments and penalties should be imposed on those who disobey and are of inferior nature, while the incurably bad should be completely banished" (1180a5-10). Here "the incurably bad" are the vicious and the brutish; "those who have been well advanced by the formation of habits" include the generous-minded, and "those who disobey and are of inferior nature" are the many. The vicious have wicked habits of action and passion. Moreover, they believe that their wicked choices are correct. That is why the vicious are incorrigible (1150b29-30). The many, on the other hand, are not incurably bad. They do have wicked habits or firm false beliefs about how to act. They do not think that virtuous action is intrinsically valuable. Instead, "the many think [happiness] is some plain and obvious thing like pleasure, wealth, or honor" (1195a22-23). They are willing and able to perform virtuous acts if threatened with "punishments and penalties." And by performing virtuous acts the many make moral progress. Thus, it is not pleasure associated with virtuous acts, but rather pain and fear of punishment associated with vicious acts that make the many better.

Of course, many of the many remain fixated at the beginning stage of moral development. Presumably, those who progress do so by internalizing the punishments. They move from being punished for wrongdoing to feeling shame for wrongdoing. That is, they come to choose virtuous acts for their own sake, although they still lack knowledge of which acts are virtuous, and lack habits of virtuous action and passion. I suggest that when the many progress they become generous-minded.

Now the generous-minded are "true lovers of what is noble," so they choose virtuous acts for their own sake. But the generous-minded are "among the youth." Aristotle says, "A young man is not a proper hearer of lectures on political science; for he is inexperienced in the actions that occur in life, but its discussions start from these and are about these; and, further, since he tends to follow his passions, his study will be vain and unprofitable, because the end aimed at is not knowledge but action. And it makes no difference whether he is young in years or youthful in character" (1095a2-6). Thus, the generous-minded lack both knowledge of which acts are virtuous and habits of virtuous action and passion. They have the same traits as those among the many who make moral progress.

Arguments "encourage and stimulate the generous-minded" to virtue. However as the previous passage indicates, the generous-minded do not learn directly from the arguments for they are not experienced enough or rational enough to benefit from direct teaching. Instead, the generous-minded "obey the sense of shame." Perhaps what Aristotle has in mind is that the generous-minded person makes moral progress by performing a vicious act and then feeling ashamed when someone presents an argument showing that the act is vicious. In this way the generous-minded person gains the knowledge of which acts are virtuous. Again, it is pain associated with vicious acts rather than the pleasure of virtuous acts which drives moral development.

Once the generous-minded have learned which acts are virtuous, they have progressed to incontinence. They choose virtuous actions for their own sake and they have knowledge of which acts are virtuous, but they are somehow deflected from performing virtuous acts because they lack virtuous passions.

The incontinent also make moral progress motivated by pain, the pain of regretting vicious acts. "The self-indulgent man has no regrets; for he stands by his choice; but any incontinent man is subject to regrets. This is why . . . the self-indulgent man is incurable and the incontinent man curable" (1150b29-34; cf. 1114a19-21, 1150a21-22). Regret's role must be to motivate the performance of virtuous acts which eventually become habitual. Thus, those incontinent people who make moral progress gain habits of virtuous action thereby becoming continent in order to avoid the pain of regret.

Presumably, the continent make moral progress by similarly acquiring habits of virtuous passion. This brings them to the point of being well-brought-up and ready-to-be-taught. Once more moral progress occurs through pain associated with vicious acts rather than pleasure associated with virtuous acts.


Burnyeat maintains that, according to Aristotle, people acquire moral virtue through the pleasure generated by the performance of virtuous acts. I have argued that virtuous acts are not typically pleasant, even for the virtuous, let alone for learners on the path to virtue. Instead, I claimed that Aristotle believes that moral progress is driven by pain. Unlike most contemporary child-raising books, Aristotle thinks that people become good through negative rather than positive reinforcement.

Somewhat speculatively, I attributed a series of stages of moral development to Aristotle. I suggested that internalizing punishment causes some of the many to choose virtuous acts for their own sake, and thus to become generous-minded. Shame over the performance of vicious acts imbues some of the generous-minded with the knowledge of which acts are virtuous, transforming the generous-minded into the incontinent. The desire to avoid regret moves some of the incontinent to acquire habits of virtuous action, and become continent. This same desire to avoid regret may move some of the continent to acquire habits of virtuous passion, and become well-brought-up. Finally, the well-brought-up become fully virtuous by being taught why virtuous acts are virtuous.


(1) All quotations from Aristotle are taken from Nicomachean Ethics, trans. W. D. Ross and J. O. Urmson in The Complete Works of Aristotle, ed. J. Barnes (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984) except that I translate arete by "virtue" rather than by "excellence".

(2) M. Burnyeat, "Aristotle on Learning to be Good," Essays on Aristotle's Ethics, ed. A. Rorty (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), p. 74.

(3) Burnyeat, p. 78.

(4) L. A. Kosman, "Being Properly Affected," Essays on Aristotle's Ethics, ed. A. Rorty (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), p. 112.

(5) Burnyeat, p. 77.

(6) Burnyeat, p. 76.

(7) Commentators sometimes glide over this gap between the set of acts which seem pleasant to learners and the set of virtuous acts by introducing the analogy of a game or sport. Burnyeat cites skiing (Burnyeat, p. 76); MacIntyre cites chess (A. MacIntyre, After Virtue [Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981], p. 188). At first, playing a game may be a difficult chore, but as the game becomes easier with practice it becomes more fun. Mere practice makes games pleasant. If virtuous activities are like games, then practice makes virtuous acts pleasant, too. However, the analogy fails. The assumption that virtuous acts are like games begs the question of whether habitual virtuous action enables people to enjoy virtuous acts. Activities are games (rather than drudgery) because mere acquisition of appropriate skills is all it takes for most people to find the activity pleasant. Thus, a taste for games comes naturally along with the acquisition of skills, and practice provides skills. However, virtuous acts are not like games in the crucial respect. The ability to perform virtuous acts does not, by itself, make these acts pleasant. Vicious or continent people, for example, are often able to perform virtuous acts that they do not enjoy. Making virtuous acts pleasant requires something over and above the skills provided by practice.

(8) N. Sherman, The Fabric of Character (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 185-190.