A chief facet of our being human is the urge to find out who we are, and in effect, the nature of man. Why do humans behave the way they do? Why do they live the way they do? These are some of the questions that occupy most of our time as we try to discern human nature. Many theories have been expounded, by philosophers and other scholars in the community, as to the nature of being human. Christians believe that we live and exist solely to exalt God, while psychologists hold that we are motivated by the desire to attain mental peace and tranquility.
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Philosophers-especially those grounded in existentialism-opine that the worthiness and character of any human is gauged by his deeds, as opposed to his views and attitude. As such, what we do is more important than what we think, and this, in a nutshell, is what human nature is all about. Theorists who subscribe to this school of thought include, among others, Jean-Paul Sartre (Irwin 374). Others like Aristotle hold that human nature is all about pursuit of happiness, or more specifically, “flourish”. He bases his arguments on the fact that human ethic and morality are to be viewed from a virtuous pedestal. Virtuous existence leads to human flourish.
The ethical theories that address human nature have some commonalities tying them together. This is despite the fact that they are, to the larger extent, varying in their view of human nature and morality. They all address the issue of whether or not we are able to realize what is good and moral and conducting it. To what extent are humans able to be moralistic? Another thing that they address is the reason why human pursue morality and an ethical existence. Aristotle shares the same view with Plato concerning the benefit of virtue in humans. These two are of the view that virtue and personal happiness are inextricably intertwined. This been the case, humans will forever seek to attain a state of virtuous and ethical existence. Hobbes, on his part, regards morality and pain of life in nature as been related. Moral actions help the individual avoid these painful experiences.
Given this view on human nature, the applicability part of it becomes a concern. If we have established that human nature is composed of been virtuous and moralistic, the next question then has to do with how we can attain this state of virtuous existence. The rest of this document is going to address the following question: how d we become virtuous? In other words, what does it take for us to follow laws which will guide us in leading just lives? To address this question, the writer will look at the role that reason, emotions, obedience to authority and necessity of social contracts plays in achieving the moral goals. In extension, the writer will be not only how to become moral and virtuous, but the motivation behind this.
Human Nature and Virtue
Before embarking on the issue of how one can attain a status of virtuous existence, it is important to look at different opinions expounded by different theorists addressing the issue of virtue. These are for example Aristotle and Plato. The importance of this discussion is that the subsequent one addressing virtuous existence will be provided with a context.
The good life, according to Aristotle, is a state of existence where the individual is the happiest (Irwin 378). It is a state of eudemonia, a state of human “flourish” or excellence. When it comes to a state of good life, the opinions of Aristotle concur with those of Plato. They are of the view that in this state, the individual is displays total virtue.
However, the cause of total virtue sets the view of these two men apart. On one hand, Plato holds that it is brought forth by the extinction of desire in man (Irwin 375). In other words, Plato opines that when every desire held by the individual is eliminated, through satisfaction or otherwise, what follows is a state of total virtue. A case in point is when a person holds the desire for money. He will do anything to get the money; including stealing if this is part of his nature. Take away the desire for money and you are left with a virtuous man, a man who will have no motivation to steal. The desire can be eliminated by giving the man money, or by making it irrelevant to his life by reducing its worth.
On the other extreme, Aristotle is of the view that “the perfect state will bring forth the virtue in men” (Irwin 378). The perfect state in this case can be defined as a state where the man is able to live to his full potential. This can be a concurrence with Plato’s view if we consider a perfect state to be that state where every desire has been eliminated. However, Aristotle does not qualify this perfect state, and for all we know, it can be a state where the desires have been suppressed for the time being.
Plato makes a connection between good life and love in the life of the individual. He holds that good life is borne out of love (Irwin 378). It is through love that we are able to meet our desires, and when our desires are met, we are perfect. To simplify this, one can take the case of sexual desire. It is through sexual intercourse between two loving adults hat the desire is gotten rid of, and the two attain good life. But one may argue that a sexual intercourse in a rape situation is not replete with love, yet one of the participators attains good life by getting their desires sated. Plato has a ready answer for this. He is of the view that though love leads to satisfaction of desires, it is not every “loving relationship” that leads to “goodness” of man (Irwin 376). However, love is a means, or a quest for that matter, for the state of “goodness”.
Good life varies from one man to the other. What man X calls and feels to be good life is not the same for man Y. Aristotle explains this by saying that every person lives his life according to their own virtues (Irwin 378). Given that the definitions held by people as to what is virtue differ, it is no wonder then that virtuous experience, and in extension good life, varies from one person to the other, depending on their definition of virtue.
As alluded to earlier in the paper, virtue is one of the facets that are needed in our life if we are to be happy. Volumes have been written on the connection between happiness and virtue. But how exactly do we become virtuous? Let us look at how each of the following plays a role in our quest for morality:
Humans and animals are one and different at the same time. We are physical, as much as animals are physical. Just like animals, humans need to be nourished and to exercise in order to keep their bodies in a functional mode.
There is one very crucial feature that separates animals, human beings include, from plants. We possess desires, wants and have needs (Irwin 374). We also have reactions, meaning that we can respond to stimulus from the environment. These are what are referred by Irwin as emotions (374). Man sees something in the world, wants it, and through emotions, determines whether to get it or not. Man has the power to acquire what they want from the environment around them. On the same vein, man possesses the power to avoid and resist what they do not want (Irwin 374). These are emotional needs, and they stem from basic components of our existence (Irwin 374).
By controlling these emotions, we can attain a state of virtue, and as a result, flourish. As earlier expounded, Plato talks of desires that have to be extinguished if one is to attain a state of virtue and good life. These desires are emotional in nature, and their extinction emanates from manipulating our emotions. We may possess the desire to engage in alcoholism. Virtue can be achieved by eliminating this need either by imbibing alcohol or replacing it with another beneficial need. This way, we have manipulated our emotions to attain virtue.
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Role of Reason
We are rational beings, and this fact perhaps sets us apart from animals in nature. We are able to make choices from a myriad of alternatives. In life, we come across situations that call for choices to be made. We are presented by many choices, and we have to be rational when we are picking the one that we believe will be beneficial to us. This fact is related with the aspect of free will. We have the ability to make choices given their consequences, and we can differentiate between good and bad. We can opt for the good or for the bad.
It is not always that we listen to our rational voice, and it is not always that we act rationally as a result (Irwin 378). However, this does not eliminate our rational nature. We retain the potential for rationality.
As far as eudemonia and our flourish are concerned, the role of rationality cannot be denied. We make rational choices to obey or break rules, and the consequences of the same leads to happiness or lack of it. We might make a choice to break rules and benefit, for example when committing crime. This may result to a virtuous existence, since the person would have attained a perfect state as explained by Aristotle. On the other hand, the crime may result to apprehension by the law enforcement officers, and will suffer the consequences by been incarcerated. In this case, state of perfection is not attained, and virtue, in extension, is not availed the individual.
Rationality also has a relationship with extinguishing of desires as Plato portends. A case in point is desire for money. We then have the option to address this need, and as a result attain good life, or we can ignore it, and it will persist. The choice we make will stem from our rationality.
Obedience to Authority
Obeying authority also does play a role in attaining a virtuous state. Authority has been conferred on some people and institutions in the society so that they can safeguard the wellbeing of the society as a whole. For example, the police have been given authority to apprehend law breakers so that order can be maintained in the community. Laws have been legislated to check the conduct of members of society so that no one person acts on his own benefit while harming other members of the society.
Obeying these institutions and individuals in positions of authorities leads to a virtuous existence. A case in point is traffic rules. When we obey them, we safeguard the lives of other people in the society. Every person possesses the desire to do good things, to benefit the other person, although this desire is latent at times. When we obey the traffic rules, this desire is extinguished, and we experience a state of satisfaction. This leads to happiness, and in effect, a virtuous existence. We thus flourish, which is one of the means of achieving a virtuous existence.
Necessity of Social Contracts
According to Irwin (375), we are social animals, and we have to exist and function within societies. We excel in social settings, as opposed to isolation. This is related to our emotional nature, since some of the emotional needs that we possess emanate from our being social animals. We cannot flourish in isolation, and that is why social contracts become central to a virtuous existence.
To exist effectively in the society, we need to enter into social contracts with the other members of the community. This calls for trust between us, trusting the other person to play their role and meet their part of the deal. For example, we enter into a contract with the police, and entrust the safety of the society on their hands. We trust that they will play their role, and we will support them by enacting the rules. This social contract satisfies and extinguishes our social needs, leading to a perfect and virtuous existence.
Aristotle introduces the idea of mean when addressing virtue. He opines virtue is attained when we strike a balance between two extreme vices (Irwin 374). A case in point is bravery. Virtue, as far as bravery is concerned, is to be found at a point between lack of it and too much of it. Too much of it can only be referred to as rashness. For example, a person may too brave as to engage in a fight with a beast to prove to the rest. They may get hurt or killed, and this is not rational. On the other hand, lack of bravery, or too little of it, is cowardice. A coward will not engage in any challenging activity for fear of getting hurt. Virtue is a moderate version of the same.
Irwin, Terence. Aristotle’s First Principles. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. 374-379.