Maybe you cover this in your new book on virtue, but I’m puzzled about how the virtues can “moderate” our desires.  For example, does the virtue of temperance somehow “know” what is moderate?  If not, then doesn’t everything really depend on the judgment of prudence?  So in that case, what’s left for temperance to do?  To put it another way, in the temperate person is reason embedded in the desires, or do the desires merely obey reason?

Any thoughts would be most appreciated!


I think I see what is puzzling you.  Actually, the exercise of each moral virtue results from a partnership of two virtues.  One of them is the moral virtue itself (in your example, temperance), and the other is the intellectual virtue of prudence, or practical wisdom.

Suppose, then, I am offered the chance of devouring a “You Can’t Eat it All!” ice cream Sundae at the local ice cream parlor, containing sixteen scoops of assorted flavors, along with bananas, cherries, pineapple, peanuts, walnuts, three different syrups, and whipped cream.  What happens?

By itself, my temperance can’t locate the mean between deficiency and excess.  It doesn’t “know” how much ice cream it would be appropriate to eat.  On the other hand, it isn’t passive either.  It really does have something to do.

First, through temperance I am habituated to not letting my appetites go hog-wild.  So, even without knowing how just much it would be appropriate to eat, my appetite is probably not going to find the “You Can’t Eat it All” sundae an appealing way to conclude a meal of four cheeseburgers.

Moreover, through temperance my appetite listens to prudence, and prudence, unlike temperance, can locate the mean.  Of course, depending on my health and circumstances, prudence may give me different instructions.  Am I healthy or sick?  Am I an overweight older man, or a young man with a lively metabolism who needs to take in lots of calories?  Is it a feast day, an ordinary day, or a fast?  That sort of thing.

So, yes, temperance really does moderate my appetite, but it doesn’t actually incorporate practical wisdom; it cooperates with it.  It achieves the mean, not because it knows the mean, but because practical wisdom is its advisor.  You might say that practical wisdom takes care of the fine tuning.  Better, you might say that temperance is the virtue that enables me to respond to the counsel of prudence.  Because of temperance, I desire the right ends; because of prudence, I pursue the right means.

As you can see, then, moral virtue and prudence are connected.  On one hand, if I am intemperate I will find it much more difficult to achieve prudence about food and other pleasures – I will always be telling myself what I want to believe about the right thing to do.  On the other hand, if I am imprudent I will find it much more difficult to achieve temperance itself -- I will have habituated my appetites improperly.

In fact, indirectly, not only will intemperance make it more difficult for me to acquire prudence, it will even make it more difficult to practice the other moral virtues such as justice and fortitude.  Consider a young man who is intemperate about sex.  Do you think he will be just to his girl friends?  Or consider someone who has habituated himself to giving in to every bodily desire.  Do you think he is likely to be courageous in the face of bodily danger and discomfort?

Hope this helps!

New Book: Commentary on Thomas Aquinas’s Virtue Ethics