Lecture Supplement on Bernard Mayo’s “Virtues and the Moral Life”[1] [1958]


     Copyright © 2013 Bruce W. Hauptli


Bernard Mayo provides an excellent introductory survey discussion of Aristotle’s “virtue ethics” and its central differences from the theories we have discussed thus far. 


441 Aristotle’s ethics vs. Kant’s:


-virtue-oriented vs. deontological. 


Mayo says there has been “...a radical one-sidedness in the philosophers’ account of morality in terms of principles: it takes little or no account of qualities, of what people are.  It is just here that the old fashioned word Virtue used to have a place; and it is just here that the work of Plato and Aristotle can be instructive.” 


“If we wish to enquire about Aristotle’s moral views, it is no use looking for a set of principles.  Of course we can find some principles to which he must have subscribed....The basic question for Aristotle, is not What shall I do? but, What shall I be? 


Being vs. doing. 


442 “...according to the philosophy of moral character [that is the sort of virtue ethic we are looking at], there is another way of answering the fundamental question “What ought I to do?”  Instead of quoting a rule, we quote a quality of character, a virtue: we say “Be brave,” or Be patient” or “Be lenient.”  We may even say “Be a man”; if I am in doubt, say, whether to take a risk and someone says “Be a man,” meaning a morally sound man, in this case a man of sufficient courage.” 


442-443 He asks “Why should we expect that all rules of conduct should be ultimately reducible to a few?” 


443 “A person’s character is not merely a list of dispositions; it has the organic unity of something that is more than the sum of its parts.” 


-Examples: Plato’s “just man,” Aristotle’s “man of practical wisdom,” Augustine’s “citizen of the city of God,” the “good communist,” Socrates, Christ, Buddha, and St. Francis. 


“Heroes and saints are not merely people who did things.  They are people whom we are expected, and expect ourselves, to imitate.  And imitating them means not merely doing what they did, it means being like them .  Their status is not in the least like that of legislators whose laws we admire, for the character of a legislator is irrelevant to our judgment about his legislation.  The heroes and saints did not merely give us principles to live by (though some of them did that as well), they gave us examples to follow .”[2] 


-“It is precisely because it is impossible for ordinary human beings to achieve the same qualities as the saints, and in the same degree, that we do set them apart from the rest of humanity.  It is enough if we try to be a little like them....” 



Notes: (click on note number to return to the text for the note)

[1] Lecture supplement is to selection in Ethical Theory: Classic and Contemporary Readings (sixth edition), eds. Louis Pojman and James Fieser (Boston: Wadsworth, 2011), pp. 440-443.  The essay originally appeared in Mayo’s Ethics and the Moral Life (London: Macmillan, 1958). 

[2] In her “Moral Saints,” Susan Wolf argues that moral saints do not constitute a proper model of human well-being.  The essay appears in Ethical Theory: Classic and Contemporary Readings, op. cit., pp. 471-483.  The essay originally appeared in The Journal of Philosophy v. 79 (1982), pp. 419-439.  Louis Pojman criticizes Wolf’s view in his “In Defense of Moral Saints,” in Ethical Theory: Classic and Contemporary Readings, op. cit., pp. 483-491.  The essay was originally published in the first edition of the anthology (1988) and revised in the 2001 edition. 

Return to PHI 3601 Home-page

Last revised on: 11/21/2013