The Countercultural Practice of Virtue

The following lines from Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida – spoken by the Trojan warrior Hector, who (anachronistically) cites Aristotle several centuries before the philosopher’s birth – refer to a famous passage in Aristotle’s great work on moral philosophy, the Nicomachean Ethics:

And on the cause and question now in hand
Have glozed, but superficially: not much
Unlike young men, whom Aristotle thought
Unfit to hear moral philosophy…

Aristotle says there that the young – and not necessarily the young in age – are not suitable students of ethics and politics both because they lack experience and because they tend to follow feelings rather than reason.

Catholic moral and political teaching has accepted what Aristotle says as true.

If the study of ethics and politics were simply a matter of understanding arguments, lack of worldly experience and emotional immaturity would not be an insurmountable obstacle. When it comes to the study of arithmetic, no teacher waits for his students to gain experience of the world and to grow up emotionally. Children can commence the study of arithmetic at the age of six or seven, if not before, because arithmetic is aimed solely at the student’s burgeoning understanding.

Not so with ethics and politics. Success in the study of ethics and politics demands that the student come to class already in possession of a decent amount of experience and moral formation.

Imagine trying to teach the Nicomachean Ethics to a gangster such as Michael Corleone or Tony Soprano. How would they take Aristotle’s arguments about the virtues of courage, temperance, and justice? If they were not simply bored, they would probably find what Aristotle has to say inscrutable, if not quaint or naïve.

There is an old philosophical principle: whatever is received is received according to the mode of the receiver. Or as the man said, “Books are like mirrors, when an ape looks in no apostle can look out.”

So it is with the study of ethics and politics. A course in ethics or in politics is not meant to make the student good. The point of the course is to clarify the target that the student has already been trained to hit.

Alasdair MacIntyre
Alasdair MacIntyre

These observations from Aristotle should caution us not to over-intellectualize moral and political formation. It is often said that we live in an age of images, and we do. But we also, because of the pervasiveness of digital media, live in an age where we are swimming in words and opinions and arguments just like the one you are reading now. Because of this, we can fall into thinking that moral and political argument – the incisive op-ed, the stirring blog post, the hot new book – is the chief tool we need to change the world. But it’s not.

If Aristotle is right, what we need most of all is the right kind of experience and formation, the kind that will enable us and others to grow in possession of the virtues. But where do we find this kind of experience and formation?

The Catholic moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has argued that the virtues flourish in a special social context he calls a practice. Think of a practice as the activity of a community expressly come together for the pursuit of common goods. A family is a practice, as is a school, an athletic team, a theater company, a political advocacy group, and certain kinds of businesses.

The point of a practice is to secure common goods. Common goods are unique in that they come into being through the shared action of the members involved in a practice. They cannot be adequately attained without such shared action. Truth, for example, is one of the common goods of a school. It is a good that everyone in the school enjoys and that comes into being through the virtuous activities of teaching and learning undertaken in tandem by the members of the school.

MacIntyre’s point, again, is that the virtues flourish in the context of practices. A child learns temperance first by being given the right kinds and the right amounts of food and drink by his parents, long before the child is able to reflect upon philosophical and theological arguments about temperance. Children absorb more about what it means to be a decent human being by watching their parents and relatives than by listening, or half-listening, to the explicit moral instructions these same parents and relatives give them.

So what we most need in order to effect moral and political change are practices in good working order – first among them being, of course, the family.

Our present moral and political climate, to say the least, is not one that prizes the virtues and the practices required to sustain them. The individual goods of wealth, beauty, position, honor, and good health trump the common goods of practices. Increasingly, our efforts to build and sustain practices are acts of cultural resistance.

Sometimes the clash between practices and culture are obvious and dramatic, as when a political regime redefines marriage as an institution not necessarily requiring one man and one woman. At other times the clash is subtler. You often hear Catholic educational institutions justifying their meager teaching salaries by saying that they’re “competitive.” And no doubt they are.

But not being out of sync with the prevailing market price should not be the sole, much less primary, consideration of such institutions when it comes to paying their teachers. Rather, they should be thinking about how the practice of the school should benefit and support the even more fundamental practice of family life. Such a train of thought might lead them to see the wisdom of paying teachers a wage that would allow one of the parents to stay home with the children, should the parents deem that best for their family.

This kind of counter-cultural thinking about practices should be second nature to Catholic institutions, and to all faithful Catholics seeking to live the virtues.

Daniel McInerny is a philosopher and author of fiction for both children and adults. You can find out more about him and his work at