Virtue is excellence of character, the possession of habits appropriate for a human being within a particular sociocultural context. Used as a synonym of integrity, virtue suggests wholeness and stability in a person. Virtue is a form of capital, moral capital, because it is a productive capacity that accumulates and develops through investments of time and effort. Virtue is unique because it perfects the human being as a whole and not just in a limited aspect. It may not make a person strong, smart, or successful, but it makes him good as a human being.
Excellence of character depends on cultivating the right habits. Aristotle explains that virtuous habits result from the repetition of virtuous actions, and virtuous actions spring from the nurture of suitable inclinations in accordance with one’s nature. There is a feedback mechanism among character, habits, and actions. Actions arise from a person’s inclinations, yet actions may also weaken or reinforce inclinations. Similarly, not only do habits forge character; character likewise predisposes or disengages a person from certain habits. Let us now consider the three main analogues of virtue: actions, habits, and character.
Actions that arise from a person’s inclinations are the building blocks of moral life. Virtue lies in good voluntary actions, and its goodness springs from three sources: the object or the action itself, the agent’s end or intention, and the circumstances in which the act is carried out. The object refers to what the agent does as a humanly meaningful whole and not the mere series of movements he or she goes through: homicide and not simply aiming a gun and pulling the trigger, for
example. The object principally determines whether an action is good or evil. Certain actions are evil by their very object and are prohibited without exception: lying, theft, murder, and so forth.
The second criterion examines the agent’s intention, whether it is oriented toward his final end. At times, an action choiceworthy in its object becomes ethically flawed due to the agent’s intention. To be virtuous, an action has to be performed with a noble end. For instance, it is not enough to give alms; one should also wish to help the poor rather than do it merely for show.
Finally, we have the circumstances surrounding actions. Seemingly favorable circumstances cannot change the moral quality of an action from evil to good. For example, no act of torture could be justified even if the fate of a hundred people depended on it. Circumstances affect the degree to which actions are good or evil, making them better or worse.
Every voluntary act leaves a trace in the agent. This by-product is called habit : a stable disposition or manner of being and doing. Habits vest human nature with a new, improved, and reinforced tendency, a second nature. After good actions, good habits are the next analogue of virtue.
As habits, virtues and vices arise from the repetition of actions. But not any sort of action, for good actions alone produce virtues. First, to acquire proper habits, actions should express correct reason in practice, as expert doctors or navigators know in each particular case. Second, right habituation equally shuns excess and defect, and third, proper habits come from experiencing appropriate pleasure or pain. For example, a generous person is not only one who normally gives alms but also one who is happy in doing so.
Character describes an individual’s personality. It results from the combination of different habits that a person develops. How do we acquire virtue of character? Since it lies in the mean, Aristotle admonishes us to avoid the more opposed extreme. Regarding courage, for example, it would be better to err on the side of rashness than on cowardice, the more contrary extreme. Second, one should avoid the easier extreme depending on one’s natural drift. Aristotle also warns that we be careful with pleasures, to which we are already favorably biased. Finally, Aristotle tells us that the rules do not give exact and detailed guidance for action. Virtues of character deal with concrete, contingent actions and feelings beyond the scope of general, theoretical accounts. We are remitted, in the end, to the perception of an already virtuous person who alone is the competent judge in concrete situations.
Leadership as a Character Trait
Joseph Rost defines leadership as an influence relationship that brings about changes reflecting the mutual purposes of leaders and followers. He is right in characterizing leadership as a reciprocal relationship and in affirming that goals have to be agreed on voluntarily by leader and followers. Leadership does not develop merely as the result of pressure or coercion. Its converse, followership, has to spring naturally from the minds and hearts of people who feel respected and valued. Leadership thus becomes a moral relationship based on trust, obligation, commitment, emotion, and a common vision of the good.
Leadership consists in exerting moral influence. A leader earns authority and legitimacy when he seeks the good of followers. Moral influence, in turn, could be understood in a double direction. First, followers demand moral behavior honesty, integrity, credibility, and trustworthiness from leaders. Second, leaders shape the choices of their followers, promoting their personal growth. As the leadership theorist James MacGregor Burns commented, leadership is a two-way transformative and intrinsically moral relationship between leader and followers. Thus, leadership becomes a major driving force for people and organizations to become ethical.
Stewardship and servant-leadership stem from this assumption. According to the organizational consultant Peter Block, stewardship underscores a leader’s accountability to the organization and its workers. A steward-leader recognizes the power of workers to make decisions and to influence the organization’s goals, systems, and structures. He empowers workers so that they can become leaders themselves. For the management theorist Robert Greenleaf, servant-leadership is even more revolutionary in that it shuns high-profile figures. A servant-leader commits himself or herself in the first place to serve the interests of others, providing them with a chance to grow and develop, materially and morally. The integral fulfillment of everyone in the organization is his aim.
Many construe ethical leadership as an emotional relationship based on charisma, that mysterious power possessed by people who are good at influencing others. As a nonrational characteristic, charisma is difficult to define. It has to do with a leader’s message, how he says it, and the whole gamut of emotions he evokes. Charm, intelligence, and sincerity also contribute. For this reason, the business and philosophy
scholar Robert Solomon opines that charisma is more of a distraction than a help.
In place of charisma, Solomon proposes trust as the basis of ethical leadership. An ethical leader establishes and sustains a framework of trust between himself or herself and followers. Without trust, no dialogue, understanding, cooperation, commerce, or community would be possible. Furthermore, trust lowers transaction costs, facilitates entrepreneurial initiatives, and boosts economic competitiveness. But what is the source of trust? It is none other than virtue.
Rhetoric as the Art of Virtue-Based Leadership
The art of leadership is what was known in the classical world as rhetoric. Aristotle defines rhetoric as an ability, in each case, to see the available means of persuasion. Barring force, the only instrument available to the potential leader is reason. A leader has to persuade his audience through words. However, words alone do not move; they require the complicity of feelings and emotions.
Today, as in Aristotle’s time, there are people with a gift for persuasion and others who seem bereft of it. Nevertheless, both types stand to gain by studying the principles of speech and composition. Aristotle was aware of the controversy surrounding rhetoric. Socrates and Plato both thought that Sophist rhetoric was mere flattery, the use of empty words and misleading arguments to one’s advantage, an appeal to emotions without regard for truth. In contrast, Plato’s ideal rhetorician in the Phaedrus was a virtuous person with firm knowledge: rhetoric-wedded persuasive skills with personal virtue and a love of truth.
Aristotle held that rhetoric as a communication art was morally neutral; it could be used for good or evil. He was careful, however, not to separate rhetoric from ethics; rather, he insisted on its subordination to the architectonic discipline of politics. Aristotle argues that the study of rhetoric is useful for three main reasons. First, without rhetoric, the truth can be easily defeated, for true knowledge may not be enough to persuade audiences reliant on feelings and opinions. Second, rhetoric helps the speaker understand an issue by giving him a chance to consider both sides. And third, rhetoric permits one to defend himself without recourse to violence.
According to Aristotle, three instruments are available to the speaker or leader in persuading his followers: the speech or argument itself (logos), the speaker’s
character (ethos), and his listeners’ emotional disposition (pathos). Speech persuades when it shows the truth in a particular case. The truth, however, may prove insufficient for those unable to follow complicated reasoning and dependent on hearsay. Yet this does not mean that true reasoning has to be abandoned. Persuasion also occurs when the public is led by speech to experience appropriate emotions. These emotions become the triggers of action. Those who hold a purely technical view of rhetoric focus exclusively on listeners’ emotions. Yet it is also relevant to consider to whom a particular emotion is directed and for what purpose. Insofar as human judgment is affected by emotions, it is not an entirely rational act, but neither should the influence of emotions be exaggerated. Aristotle considers the character of the speaker as the controlling factor in persuasion, because we believe fair-minded people to a greater extent and more quickly. Listeners are convinced mainly by the image of trustworthiness that a speaker or leader projects. And what better way to ensure an image of trustworthiness than by being trustworthy in fact?
Aristotle lists three personal qualities that an aspiring leader should possess: practical wisdom (phrone-sis), virtue (areté), and goodwill (eunoia). Practical wisdom permits one to form correct opinions over concrete, contingent issues; virtue prods him to express his views justly and fairly; and goodwill ensures that he give the best advice. A person with these characteristics becomes not only a persuasive speaker but an effective leader also.
Whatever a leader’s purpose, it would be helpful to learn to present one’s arguments well and thus elicit the audience’s sympathy. For this, one must turn to rhetoric. But these techniques alone would not work if one lacked virtue, and hence the need for ethics.
Alejo José G. Sison
See also Aristotle; Ethics of Persuasion; Integrity; Leadership; Moral Leadership; Servant Leadership; Virtue; Virtue Ethics