How Virtues Become Vices
Aristotle, the Greek dude you learned about in school, lived from 384 to 322 BCE. He wrote powerfully about perennial wisdom called virtue ethics.
The idea serves as the foundation for numerous self-help, psychology, and management books suggesting people seek excellence.
Simply put, and to quote his equally ancient pal, the Greek poet Pindar, you strive to:
Become Who You Are
(It’s a bit more than this, though, because Aristotle thought a full identity requires moral virtue).
Interestingly, Aristotle thought any virtue, taken to its excess, becomes a vice.
He defined moral virtue—meaning living an ethical life—as requiring:
- The disposition to behave in the right manner, and;
- The capacity to navigate between extremes of deficiency and excess.
Imagine you’re struggling financially—between jobs, let’s say, or hit hard by an unexpected bill.
Your friend takes you out and buys you a nice lunch.
It would be deficient to not thank him or her; it would be excessive to send your friend 50 texts, leave 25 voicemails, and or write 75 notes thanking the friend.
The excess part seems most intriguing. It’s easy to understand, per the example just offered, why a deficiency would lack virtue.
But why would a virtue, of all things, if practiced to excess, transform into a vice?
A few examples come to mind.
I offer them up, in part, to help with my own understanding of what Aristotle meant.
I begin with one of my favorite character flaws, overworking. Working a good amount is a virtue. Karl Marx, for example, parting with Freud who thought human are essentially motivated by combinations of love or aggression, believed we also need to be productive.
Marx considered it a basic human need.
Seems self-evident, don’t ya think?
Particularly if you love your work, enjoy your colleagues, and are sufficiently compensated, work can be fulfilling, even gratifying.
But people like me, who unconsciously rely on work to bolster self-esteem, obtain validity, or provide structure—to excess—display a type of a vice.
Because they exhaust themselves.
And, since we are all swimming in an interpersonal soup, the exhaustion affects others as well.
(In my defense, and considering any patients who might hap upon this blog, I do NOT over-work in the psychotherapy realm. It would harm patients. But, I definitely overwork in non-therapy areas, such as forensic psychology, often finding myself spending four to six hours on weekend days dictating lengthy reports. My bad.)
Gift giving serves as another example of how an excessive virtue can become a vice. Proper navigation of gift giving requires one to consider the unique qualities of the receiver, including the nature of the occasion (the context). A wedding gift should be larger than a birthday gift, I’d think.
Ah, and this brings back a painful memory from 30 years ago:
A fellow who worked, like me, as a psychiatric technician in a psychiatric hospital in the 1970s, was about to end a relationship with his girlfriend. He tried to passively dissolve it, but she didn’t take the hint.
Just before the breakup, he invited my wife and I to a birthday dinner at a local Indian restaurant. The poor young woman, unaware of the pending dissolution, brought this fellow at least ten separate birthday gifts, many of them extravagant.
I’ve never seen such a display of self-defeating behavior. It was extremely painful. The three of us watched with horror as she fawned on this guy, honored him with present after present, and expected to be seen as a kind, generous person.
She was, in truth, just such a person. However, her lovely, giving nature ended up negatively impacting her. Rather than showing her care, she displayed a kind of cluelessness. It almost looked like, perhaps unconsciously, she was trying to buy his love. Obviously, it didn’t work.
She displayed an incapacity, to use Aristotle’s phrase, to navigate between extremes.
A final example concerns the current, extremely popular, concept of self-care.
As a psychoanalytic psychotherapist, I endorse self-care. All ethical systems, it can be argued, begin with caring for the self because, if you’re exhausted, in ill-health, or too busy looking after yourself, then you have no energy left to care for others.
But just like the ill-fated girlfriend just described, self-care can also be overdone. If you are too busy meditating, taking yoga lessons, going to the gym, updating your FB page, studying Taoism, and masturbating, you clearly lack the time to care for others.
Rather than being self-defeating (or masochistic, to use the unfortunate psychoanalytic term-of-art), you’d be demonstrating the opposite—unbridled narcissism.
All this amazing wisdom, simple to understand, from a guy who wore a Toga every day and rarely showered.
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Alan Karbelnig, PhD, ABPP