It is true that Aristotle, Maimonides, and Aquinas share quite a lot, and in some important ways they can be grouped together in contrast to other key figures in moral philosophy. Their interpretations of objectivity stand apart from the objectivity of Kantian pure practical reason, the objectivity of Mill's empiricist naturalism, the objectivity of Moore's non-naturalistic realism, and Plato's quite different non-naturalistic realism, among others.

Moreover, all three thinkers are perfectionists in the sense that each holds that given the constitution of a common human nature, there is a condition of perfection of that nature, a telos for a human being that is its final and complete good. In that respect we might say that all three are optimists. This is because the metaphysics of human nature underwrites a genuine and complete good for a human being. However, the actualization of this, the movement to perfection, is not something that just happens "anyway," naturally, all on its own unless something impedes it. There is a great deal the agent must do, and in particular, the agent must acquire and cultivate the virtues through his or her own voluntary activity.

They agree that ethically significant states of character are acquired, and that we are responsible for the acquisition of them. Aristotle writes:

We have found, then, that we wish for the end, and deliberate and decide about what promotes it; hence the actions concerned with what promotes the end will express a decision and will be voluntary. Now the activities of the virtues are concerned with [what promotes the end]; hence virtue is also up to us, and so is vice. (NE, 1113b 3-7)


Now the virtues, as we say, are voluntary, since in fact we are ourselves in a way jointly responsible for our states of character, and by having the sort of character we have we lay down the sort of end we do. Hence the vices will also be voluntary, since the same is true of them. (NE, 1114b 23-25)

Maimonides writes:

It is not possible for a man to possess virtue or vice by nature, from the beginning of his life, just as it is not possible for man to possess one of the practical arts by nature.1


Know that these moral virtues and vices are acquired and firmly established in the soul by frequently repeating the actions pertaining to a particular moral habit over a long period of time and by our becoming accustomed to them. (Ibid., p. 68)

Aquinas says of the intellectual and moral virtues that they:

are in us naturally, namely, according to an inchoateness which consists in our ability to acquire them. But their completion is not present naturally, since nature is determined to one course of action, while the completion of these virtues does not depend on one particular mode of action;2

and "human virtue, directed to the good which is defined according to the rule of human reason, can be caused by human acts" (Ibid., S.T., Q. 63. Art. 2; p. 600), and the rational powers "are determined to acts by means of habits,. Therefore human virtues are habits" (Ibid., S.T., Q. 55. Art. 1; p. 561).

Voluntary action and habituation (much of which is a matter of our habituating ourselves as we mature and are more capable of deliberation and judgment of what is good) account for our virtues and vices. There is pre-rational habituation, directed by others, followed by the more mature process of habituating ourselves through acting on our own conceptions of what is worth doing and why. The ethically relevant states of character are not present in us by nature, though the capacity for them is.

These are all substantial points of contact among these thinkers. Each holds that there are objective ethical considerations that a person with sound character rightly apprehends, and each holds that the virtues and vices are voluntary. Here, though, is where a crucial difference begins to emerge. What sort of access to ethical considerations is there? That is, how is an agent able to engage with a right conception of good such that that agent's perfection is a real practical possibility? It is with respect to this issue of the accessibility of ethical considerations that Maimonides and Aquinas (and many other more modern theorists such as Kant and Mill, as well) depart from Aristotle, and this departure counts in a number of ways.

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