20th World Congress of Philosophy Logo

Theoretical Ethics

The Relationship of Freedom to the Acquisition, Possession, and Exercise of Virtue

Moira M. Walsh
University of Notre Dame

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)

ABSTRACT: There are three common objections that any broadly Aristotelian virtue theorist must face, insofar as he or she holds that acts must be performed from a firm and stable disposition in order to express virtue, and that virtue is in some way a praiseworthy fulfillment of human potential. Each of these objections accuses the virtuous person of not fully exercising his or her rationality and freedom, and thus of being somehow less than fully human.

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)

There are three common objections that any broadly Aristotelian virtue theorist must face, insofar as he or she holds that acts must be performed from a firm and stable disposition in order to be called acts expressing virtue, and that virtue is in some way a praiseworthy fulfillment of human potential. Each of these objections accuse the virtuous person of not fully exercising his or her rationality and freedom, and thus of being somehow less than fully human. The first objection is that acts flowing from the firm and stable disposition of virtue need not be expressions of rationality and freedom, since they may be performed by rote.

The second objection, related to the first, has to do with the voluntariness of the possession of virtue. Those who hold that the virtues must be firm and stable dispositions generally hold that a good upbringing from childhood is of utmost importance in the acquisition of such dispositions. The second objection is thus as follows: if a person’s virtue depends upon her upbringing, then she is not responsible for her virtue; it was not up to her and she deserves no praise. The first objection, then, is that particular acts from a firm disposition of virtue are not fully rational or free; the second objection is that the acquisition of the dispositions themselves is not fully rational or free, since it depends upon upbringing. If neither the possession nor the exercise of virtue need be rational and free, then it seems that the activity of virtue is less than fully human, and thus cannot be the praiseworthy fulfillment of our human potential.

The third objection, like the second, also has to do with the importance of one’s upbringing to the virtuous life, but is a bit more pointed. Those who present the third objection argue that the acquisition of virtue, inasmuch as it requires such a directive upbringing, itself constitutes a limitation of one’s freedom. Not only does habituation take place without the cooperation of one’s freedom and rationality, it positively impedes freedom by directing its subject to embrace one particular conception of the good life. Virtue must be considered a limitation of one’s rationality and freedom, if its attainment requires having been restricted by one’s upbringing to the choice of this and only this way of life. According to the first two objections, virtue is not a manifestation of freedom and rationality either in its possession or in its exercise; according to the third, the acquisition of virtue as a firm and stable disposition not only fails to manifest, but actually hinders freedom.

The first of these three objections is relatively easy to overcome, inasmuch as it rests on a common misunderstanding of the nature of virtue. Virtue cannot be a mindless, mechanical habit of performing certain sorts of actions, as the objector claims, but must be rather a disposition concerned precisely with deliberate choice or decision. Taking one's lead from Aristotle, who argued that virtue must be an hexis prohairetike, one may respond to the objector that the man who performs his duties merely by rote is not virtuous at all. External accordance with the demands of virtue is not enough; the virtuous agent must proceed on the basis of deliberation about the act in question and its relation to his overall good. Deliberation is essential to virtue, not only because a non-deliberative disposition would be insufficiently human, but because the complexities of life require that reason discern in each instance what virtue demands. The virtue of courage, for example, can not be a simple habit of running towards danger, because it is a disposition to act well in the face of potentially terrifying situations, where "acting well" sometimes requires running towards, and sometimes running away from, occasions of danger. Determining what it is to act well here and now is part of the task of practical reason, discerning the course of action appropriate to each particular case. Virtue, then, displays itself as a firm and stable disposition to act well, but this disposition can not be a rote habit; no virtuous act is mindless, because it is not virtuous unless it is guided by practical reason. That is to say, the exercise of virtue must always involve a deliberate choice, and the first objection fails.

The second and third objections, those concerning the acquisition rather than the exercise of virtue, would require a somewhat more complicated response. One the one hand, it is generally agreed that one’s early upbringing has much to do with the sort of dispositions one acquires. On the other hand, this would seem to mitigate one’s own responsibility for one’s character. Moreover, our confidence that the exercise of our dispositions is fully deliberate is somewhat shaken by the thought that even our very manner of deliberating was not up to us, but determined by our early habituation. If we are only free now to choose those actions which our education has determined we should choose, we are not very free at all, or so it would seem to most of us.

How might a virtue theorist respond to such charges? In what follows, I will attempt to sketch the sort of case a virtue theorist would have to make in order to provide an adequate response to the second and third objections, taking into account the conception of freedom best suited to a broadly Aristotelian virtue theory.

I would suggest that a virtue theorist who wishes to respond to the second and third objections ought to defend something like the following view. One’s character cannot be purely a matter of choice, inasmuch as the child does not initially choose to become virtuous as such, and in fact usually cannot do so until she develops some sort of conception of and desire for virtue through the experience derived from habituation. Nevertheless, the rudimentary dispositions acquired through habituation are not yet true virtues; true virtues require that their possessor be disposed to choose virtuous acts deliberately, for their own sake. Thus, the virtue theorist might argue that any virtue worthy of the name must indeed be the result of a series of voluntary choices. The fact that virtue must consist in a disposition to choose virtuous actions for their own sake, as we will see, forms a basis for a response to the second objection against virtue theory.

In response to the third objection, the virtue theorist might argue that although the rudimentary dispositions of acting in accordance with virtue, which form a foundation for true virtue, are not deliberately chosen by children, they are nevertheless means of increasing the effectiveness of the agent’s rationality. Habituation to virtuous actions makes rationality more effective and makes the agent more free, not by helping her become whomever she has chosen to become, but by helping her to become, by her choice, most fully who she is, by affording her the opportunity to discover and fulfill her potential as a rational and free being. In what follows, I will first describe what I take to be the conception of freedom that best sits with a broadly Aristotelian theory of virtue. I will then attempt to explain how education into the virtues, rather than constituting an impediment to freedom, might be rather perfective of, and indeed almost a necessary condition for, freedom thus conceived.

We have said that in any broadly Aristotelian theory of virtues, the virtues are considered firm and stable dispositions of acting in ways that perfect or fulfill one’s potential as a human being. In such a theory, rationality is best conceived not only as the instrumental capacity of discovering means to the achievement of whatever goals one may have, but also as the capacity to discover which goals are in fact good to pursue, that is to say, which goals will in fact conduce to such fulfillment. Reason has the task of apprehending reality, including the reality of one’s own inherent potential, and of the particular circumstances of one’s situation affecting the range of actions which may be seen as means to the perfection of this potential.

Freedom, in turn, is best conceived not just as the capacity to move oneself towards whatever goals one wishes, but as the capacity to move oneself towards the goals that one's reason has recognized as genuinely appropriate. The human being who has achieved the fullest expression of her rational and free human nature, then, is the one who has the most developed capacity to apprehend reality, recognizing which goals are good to pursue and discerning fitting means to these goals. Her rational apprehension of reality is confirmed and made effective in her practice, through her developed disposition of actually pursuing that which her reason apprehends as good. The free person is therefore the one who is capable of directing her own life according to her right reason.

Freedom is thus intimately connected with rationality, and, in fact, the person who can most truly be called free is the one who has achieved a certain excellence in the effective exercise of her rationality. The free person is not the one who simply lives as she likes, but the one who lives in accordance with — indeed, orders her life by — her rational apprehension of her good. It remains only to state an obvious fact: this sort of freedom is something that we can possess in greater or lesser degrees, according to the level of development of our rationality and the strength of the disposition of bringing our actions into accord with our reason. As we will see, part of the effect of habituation is the perfection of our possession of freedom.

This notion of freedom is, of course, rather different from that presupposed by the objections we are considering. Those who raise the objections that the acquisition and exercise of virtue are less than rational and free, or that they make one less free, tend to think of freedom as the ability to do whatever one chooses, without any essential reference to the object of one’s choice. To state matters crudely, the objector conceives of freedom as the capacity to do whatever it is one sees as good, while the virtue theorist best conceives of freedom as the capacity to see and choose that which actually is good. In this view, I may be doing only what I desire, and still fail to be free, if what I desire is in fact not conducive to my fulfillment as a rational being.

If rationality is not purely instrumental, and if freedom is the capacity to direct oneself according to one’s accurate rational apprehension of one’s good, then habituation can be seen to be a means of enhancing rather than impeding the rationality and freedom of the one being habituated. For, as we shall see, growth in the capacity to see and deliberately embrace one’s genuine good is precisely the goal of habituation.

In what way can habituation strengthen freedom? In the usual case of a child undergoing education into the virtues, the agent in whom the dispositions are being formed is not deliberately choosing to become the sort of person she is becoming. Rather, a young child chooses to do what seems to her to be pleasant or useful at that time. If she is fortunate, and being brought up well, her parents and educators will see to it that what she sees as pleasant and useful will be acts in accordance with virtue. When these acts are initially against her inclination, they will provide other incentives for her to perform them, so that custom will make these acts less painful for her. At the same time, they will try to help her see that there is something more in these actions than merely the pleasure that has been artificially attached to them by the promise of reward. So, for example, a mother might say to her very small child, "Here, now, be brave, take your medicine, then I will give you a lollipop." The child takes the medicine for the sake of getting the lollipop, not for the sake of being brave; she may not even understand the word "brave," having had little or no experience of brave actions thus far in her short life.

Little by little, the child will develop a disposition of acting in the ways prescribed to her and made attractive to her by her parents; she will also begin to see a sort of pattern in the acts they have referred to as brave, or temperate, or fair, and perhaps to be able to pick out other acts with these characteristics without the assistance of instruction from her parents. If all goes well, she will gradually come to see that these acts are good, in themselves, apart from the reward that may attach to their performance or the punishment that may result from their omission.

When the subject of habituation begins to be able to recognize acts of virtue for herself, and when she sees for herself that acts in accord with virtue are good to do for their own sake, she is capable of having the thought: "I want to do this because it is virtuous." Beforehand, she cannot choose acts of virtue as such, but only as pleasant or as praiseworthy. The child in the early stages of normal habituation, then, is not choosing to acquire virtuous dispositions as such; if the dispositions she is acquiring bring with them the increasing effectiveness of her rationality, it is not because she is becoming the type of person she has deliberately chosen to become. Rather, these dispositions strengthen her rationality because they make her aware of features of reality she was not previously aware of, features that she needs to be able to recognize so that she can order her actions to the fulfillment of her natural potential. Without these dispositions forming the basis for virtue, neither her goals nor her choice of means would be fully in accordance with reality, and she therefore would not be fully rational or free, in the sense we have described. Thus, while these initial dispositions are not themselves the fruit of her free choice, they nevertheless constitute a help and not a hindrance to her capacity for freedom, and the third objection fails. Though it is not the direct result of voluntary choice on the part of the child, habituation conduces to her growth in the power to choose rationally, and thus makes her more free.

So much for a description of how one might respond to the third objection; but what of the second? How can we be held responsible or praiseworthy for virtue if it is the result of habituation? As indicated above, the basis for a response to such questions lies in the fact that the agent must have the firm disposition of performing virtuous actions for their own sake in order to be virtuous. Childhood habituation forms only the rudimentary dispositions which are a prelude or foundation for true virtues, but are not themselves virtues. These dispositions prepare the agent for virtue by giving her the experience necessary to recognize acts of virtue as such and to see for herself that they are choiceworthy. But the agent must begin to choose acts of virtue as such, that is, to choose them because they are virtuous. If one who was well brought up is to become virtuous, she must voluntarily begin to perform virtuous actions for their own sake, and not just for the sake of reward or praise. We are, in the end, responsible at least for the transition from having the rudimentary dispositions to having genuine and complete virtues. Thus, one might argue that anyone who has successfully attained virtue is always at least partly responsible for her possession of that state and may rightly be praised for it; the second objection would thus fail as well.

The objections to any broadly Aristotelian virtue theory, examined in the beginning of this paper, seem to presuppose a notion of freedom other than that which best sits with such a theory. The objectors argue that neither the possession nor the exercise of the firm and stable dispositions of virtue can be the praiseworthy fulfillment of our potential as rational and free beings, since acts from virtue may be performed by rote and the virtues themselves are acquired by habituation. If the virtues and virtuous acts are not the fruit of a deliberate and free choice, they are somehow not fully human, or at least not themselves the fulfillment of human potential. Moreover, according to the objectors, it would seem that habituation, by directing us to one particular way of life, is a positive impediment to our freedom. The first objection, that which claims that the exercise of virtue cannot be rational if it may proceed from rote habit, is overcome easily enough once it is realized that virtue must be a disposition concerned precisely with deliberate choice. The second and third objections, regarding the effect of habituation on the virtuous agent’s rationality and freedom, require a more complex treatment.

I have tried to describe the sort of response that could be made to the second and third objections, based upon the conception I have suggested of freedom as rational self-direction. Early habituation to virtue, though not itself an exercise of freedom, strengthens an agent’s freedom. It does so, not by allowing her to have whatever sort of character she chooses to have, but rather by allowing her to have — and to sustain deliberately — the sort of character that is the true fulfillment of her potential as a rational being, with the firm and stable disposition of directing herself in accordance with her accurate perception of reality. At the same time, our intuition that responsibility for virtue depends upon its voluntary acquisition could be preserved by the claim that genuine virtue requires choosing virtuous actions for their own sake. Habituation is not the sole cause of virtue; we must begin to voluntarily choose virtuous actions on our own if we are to possess mature virtue. My suggestion that the conception of freedom I have described is that which is most fitting for a broadly Aristotelian virtue theory surely needs a stronger defense than I have presented here. However, I hope I have at least shown in this paper that, given the understanding of rationality and freedom which I have suggested, the claim that the activity of the virtues is the fulfillment of one’s potential as rational and free being is not necessarily undermined by the claim that the virtues are firm dispositions inculcated by habituation.

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)


Back to the Top

20th World Congress of Philosophy Logo

Paideia logo design by Janet L. Olson.
All Rights Reserved


Back to the WCP Homepage