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The Paideia Archive: Twentieth World Congress of Philosophy

Volume 3, 1998

Ancient Philosophy

Howard J. Curzer
Pages 106-111

To Become Good

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.

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