“The second is the concept of a virtue (or vice) itself. Suppose someone were described as having the virtue of honesty. What would we expect them to be like? Most obviously we expect a reliability in their actions; they do not lie or cheat or plagiarize or casually pocket other people’s possessions. You can rely on them to tell you the truth, to give sincere references, to own up to their mistakes, not to pretend to be more knowledgeable than they are; you can buy a used car from them or ask for their opinion with confidence. In thinking about the virtues, many people stop here—or indeed, rather earlier, with just a couple of examples—and are thereby led to describe the virtues as no more than mere tendencies to act in certain ways, perhaps in accordance with a rule.

But this is not the Aristotelian concept. Despite a few awkward exceptions (friendship, gratitude), a virtue is generally held to be a character trait, a state of one’s character. If you have the virtues of, say, generosity, honesty, and justice, generous, honest, and just is the sort of person you are. Clearly, one can give the appearance of being a generous, honest, and just person without being one, by making sure one acts in certain ways. And that is enough to show that there is more to the possession of a virtue than being disposed to act in certain ways; at the very least, one has to act in those ways for certain sorts of reasons. But, in fact, we think of such character traits as involving much more than tendencies or dispositions to act, even for certain reasons.

For example, we think of honest people as people who tend to avoid the dishonest deeds and do the honest ones in a certain manner—readily, eagerly, unhesitatingly, scrupulously, as appropriate. They hasten to correct a false impression their words have led you into which would be to their advantage; they own up immediately without waiting to see if they are going to be found out; they give voice to the truth everyone else fears to utter; they are concerned to make sure you understand what you are signing or agreeing to do for them.

We expect a reliability in the actions that reflect their attitude to honesty, too. We expect them to disapprove of, to dislike, and to deplore dishonesty, to approve of, like, and admire honesty, and so we expect them in conversation to praise or defend people, real or fictitious, for their honesty, to avoid consorting with the dishonest, to choose, where possible, to work with honest people and have honest friends, to be bringing up their children to be honest. Where relevant, we expect them to uphold the ideals of truth and honesty in their jobs; if they are academics, to be resistant to fashion and scrupulous in their research; if they are teachers, to resist pressure to teach what they do not believe, or if doctors to defend the importance of trust between doctor and patient, or if in business, to resist sharp practice and argue for honesty as the best policy.

And this spills over into the emotions we expect from them. We expect them to be distressed when those near and dear to them are dishonest, to be unresentful of honest criticism, to be surprised, shocked, angered (as appropriate) by flagrant acts of dishonesty, not to be amused by certain tales of chicanery, to despise rather than to envy those who succeed by dishonest means, to be unsurprised, or pleased, or delighted (as appropriate) when honesty triumphs.

Finally, we may not actually expect, but may notice, if we are fortunate enough to come across someone thoroughly honest, that they are particularly acute about occasions when honesty is at issue. If we are less than thoroughly honest ourselves, they put us to shame, noticing, as we have failed to do, that someone is obviously not to be trusted, or that we are all about to connive at dishonesty, or that we are all allowing someone to be misled. As Stephen Hudson has rightly remarked: ‘The unity of character is extremely labyrinthine. It couples systematically a person’s values, choices, desires, strength or weakness of will, emotions, feelings, perceptions, interests, expectations and sensibilities.’

One important fact about people’s virtues and vices is that, once acquired, they are strongly entrenched, precisely because they involve so much more than mere tendencies to act in certain ways. A change in such character traits is a profound change, one that goes, as we say, ‘all the way down’. Such a change can happen slowly, but on the rare occasions when it happens suddenly, the change calls for special explanations—religious conversion, an experience that changes the person’s whole outlook on life, brain damage, or drugs. It is certainly not a change that one can just decide to bring about oneself overnight, as one might decide to break the habit of a lifetime and cease to have coffee for breakfast.

That the virtues are not merely tendencies to act in certain ways is not an unfamiliar thought. What is more unfamiliar is the Aristotelian idea that they are not only character traits but excellences of character. Each of the virtues involves getting things right, for each involves phronesis, or practical wisdom, which is the ability to reason correctly about practical matters. In the case of generosity this involves giving the right amount of the right sort of thing, for the right reasons, to the right people, on the right occasions. ‘The right amount’ in many cases is ‘the amount I can afford’ or ‘the amount I can give without depriving someone else’. So, for instance, I do not count as mean or even ungenerous when, being relatively poor, or fairly well off but with a large and demanding family, I do not give lavish presents to richer friends at Christmas. Nor do I count as mean or even ungenerous if I refuse to let people exploit me; generosity does not require me to help support someone who is simply bone idle, nor to finance the self-indulgence of a spendthrift. Any virtue may contrast with several vices or failings, and generosity contrasts not only with meanness or selfishness but also with being prodigal, too open-handed, a sucker.”

p 9-11, On Virtue Ethics, Rosalind Hursthouse, 1999.