Aristotelian Virtue and Kantian Duty

Zuleika asked:

“In Section I of the Groundwork, Kant draws a distinction between actions that are “in conformity with duty” and actions that are “done from duty”. In Book II, chapter 4, of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle draws a distinction between actions that are merely virtuous (“having some quality of their own”) and actions done “in accordance with virtue”. In what respects are Aristotle and Kant drawing the same distinction? In what respects do their distinctions differ?”

Answer by Eric DeJardin

Hi Zuleika,

Let’s consider a concrete case and use it as we work our way through these Aristotelian and Kantian distinctions.

Essay: Mark is taking a philosophy course with one graded assignment, viz. an essay due at the end of the semester. Mark’s final grade for the course will be determined by the mark he receives on his essay. Since Mark is on academic probation, he needs to pass his philosophy course, which means he needs to get a passing mark on his essay. He considers whether he should attempt to write the essay himself, in which case he might fail the class and be dismissed from the university, or purchase an essay instead, which will guarantee he receives a passing mark.

Let’s first consider how an Aristotelian would look at this case.

Suppose Mark chooses to write the essay himself. He badly wants to purchase the essay, however, and only overcomes this temptation with great effort. In this case, Mark acts in accord with virtue; that is, he acts as a virtuous person would act. However, since he doesn’t want to act as a virtuous person would, he doesn’t act virtuously (more on this below). Aristotle categorizes behavior that is in accord with virtue, but is contrary to an agent’s desires, as continent behavior. Continent behavior is good, but it’s not nearly as praiseworthy as is fully virtuous behavior.

Now let’s alter Mark’s response slightly. This time, he sincerely wants to write the essay himself. But this is because he has a natural inclination to behave honestly, or, put another way, not to cheat. He doesn’t deliberate about what to do; he merely acts as he wants to, that is, in accord with inclination, which happens to be in accord with virtue. Aristotle would say that in this case, Mark displays natural virtue.

To act virtuously, Mark would not merely act in accord with virtue, and he would not merely act as he is inclined to act, though he would indeed do both of these things. For a truly virtuous Mark would in addition act for reasons that he has identified, through wise deliberation (i.e. through the exercise of what Aristotle calls phronesis, or practical wisdom), as morally salient. Only then would Mark’s reliably virtuous behavior be categorized as fully virtuous.

Now, let’s consider how a Kantian would look at the case.

Suppose Mark chooses to write the essay himself because he wants to. That is, suppose he displays an Aristotelian natural virtue. In this case, Kant would say that Mark has acted in accord with duty. However, since his inclinations motivate him to act, he has not acted from duty (more on this below). Kant would say that although his behavior is praiseworthy, it does not merit esteem.

To see a clear case of acting from duty, consider the case Aristotle identified as displaying continent behavior. Mark wants to purchase an essay, but he instead chooses to write it himself. Suppose he acts contrary to inclination because he believes that he has a moral duty to write the essay himself. Although Aristotle would judge Mark’s behavior as inferior to fully virtuous behavior, Kant would say that Mark’s action in this case merits our highest esteem. For Mark is motivated to act from a concern for duty alone, and not from inclination.

But what would Kant say if Mark both has an inclination to write the essay himself and ultimately chooses to act from a concern for duty? Although readers of Kant disagree on this point, I think Kant would say that in this case, Mark has acted from duty, and his action merits esteem. That is, Kant doesn’t see anything inherently wrong with acting in accord with inclination, as long as one acts from duty and not from inclination (in cases in which only dutiful action is permissible).

We can now see that Kantian acts that accord with duty are similar to Aristotelian acts that accord with virtue insofar as neither case is morally ideal. And neither is morally ideal because in neither case is the agent’s action done for the right reason. In the Kantian case, the act is not done from duty, and in the Aristotelian case, the act is not done from wise moral deliberation. (Just how similar acts done from duty — which are fundamentally rational acts for Kant — and acts done from wise moral deliberation are focused on the same sorts of considerations is a matter of dispute.) We can also see how they differ. In the Kantian case, one acts in accord with inclination, while in the Aristotelian case, one may be acting either in accord with inclination or contrary to inclination.

We can also now see how dutiful Kantian acts are similar to virtuous Aristotelian acts. A dutiful Kantian act will be done for the right reason, that is, because it is what duty demands. And a virtuous Aristotelian act will be done for the right reason, that is, because it is what the exercise of wise moral deliberation concludes a virtuous person would do. But we can also now see how these acts differ. For the Kantian, a dutiful act can either be contrary to or in accord with inclination, as long as it’s motivated by a concern for duty. For the Aristotelian, however, a fully virtuous act must be in accord with inclination. If an act in accord with virtue is done contrary to inclination, it’s merely continent behavior for Aristotle.

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