Part 4: The Virtue of Temperance, The Vices of Indulgence, Living a Life of Temperance


A Brief Introduction to Ethics



  • The Virtue of Temperance
  • The Vices of Indulgence
  • Living a Life of Temperance

Temperance is a much misunderstood virtue today and its modern meaning is a far cry from what it originally meant. It is unfortunate that most people associate temperance with such things as the prohibition of alcoholic beverages during one period of American history. The famous Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), which was active in passing a Constitutional amendment prohibiting the manufacture, sale, and consumption of alcoholic drinks, was really not interested in temperance despite its name. It was interested in forbidding or prohibiting, but not “tempering.”

The virtue of temperance is involved with what is traditionally called the concupiscible appetite or striving. (An appetite is a striving toward or away from something.) This appetite is a division of the sense appetite and is concerned with desiring what is sensibly pleasant, such as food, drink, sex, and so on. Temperance, therefore, concerns itself with the most natural and basic activities we as human being possess. There is, of course, nothing wrong with these basic strivings, urges, or operations. Indeed, without food we would starve. Without drink we would thirst. Without sex there would be no reproduction of our species.

Temperance is not concerned with forbidding or prohibiting our natural tendencies toward food, drink, and sex. It is concerned with moderating and regulating these sensual delights and enjoyments. And, as with all the virtues, it is right reason that becomes the standard for making decisions regarding specific applications of the virtue of temperance. The important point here, however, is realizing that temperance as a virtue has been misunderstood and does not mean the prohibition of sensual activity but the reasonable control of it.

We have said that temperance moderates the pleasures of certain of the senses. But it also has another function. Temperance also moderates the sorrow we may feel at the absence of such sensual enjoyments. We’ll look at an example of this function in a minute.

Like all virtues, temperance is a relative mean between two extremes, one of excess and one of defect. The mean here will generally fluctuate depending on the individual but, for most of us, the mean will fall closer to the defect than the excess. The reason for this is simple. As human beings we are more inclined toward an excess of food, drink, and sex than toward a defect or lack of these sensual pleasures. Therefore, to keep things in balance, the virtue of temperance, for most of us, will be toward the defect side, which is the weaker side, rather than toward the excess side, which all too often is far more attractive to us.

Let’s consider the two extremes connected with temperance. As we consider these, the meaning of and importance of this virtue should become clear.

The extreme of excess is the vice of indulgence. This is the vice which causes us to seek the pleasure of the senses to an extent and in a manner wholly opposed to right reason. Notice that this does not mean the simple partaking of such pleasures as food, drink, or sex. It means indulging in such pleasures to an excess, usually causing us some harm in the long run.

Each of the sensual pleasure has its own specific vice within the category of the vice of indulgence and all of them should be readily familiar to you.

Gluttony is a vice of excess concerning food. It is the inordinate desire for the taste of food sought only for pleasure and not for the good of reason. Food is, of course, necessary for the health of the body and taking pleasure in good food is not wrong. Eating wouldn’t be much fun if the food didn’t taste good. On the other hand, eating just for the sake of the pleasure involved can lead to an excess of eating to the detriment of one’s bodily health. Overeating, particularly with some foods, can be downright deadly. Your right reason has to be the judge and what is healthful eating for some people is unhealthy for others.

Drunkenness is a vice of excess concerning intoxicating drink. It is the result of an inordinate desire for such types of beverages. Drunkenness not only has a moral effect on a person but also has physical and psychological effects. Intoxicating drink can result in the loss of the good of reason and also in the use of reason itself.

Lust is a vice of excess concerning sexual pleasures. It is the immoderate desire to engage in venereal activities and may have physical, psychological, and social effects as well as moral effects. It is important to keep in mind that lust does not mean the prohibition of sexual activity. Unfortunately some people have interpreted it as such. Lust means engaging in sexual activities to an extent and in a manner wholly opposed to right reason.



The extreme of defect is the vice of insensibility. This is a vice which impels us to avoid in an extreme manner such pleasures of sense as are desirable from the standpoint of right reason. I suspect not too many people suffer from this vice. There are a few people, however, who refuse to eat enough food to maintain health or vomit up the food they do eat in hope of maintaining a “thin” body, or some other such reason. This seems to be a matter, though, more for the physician or the clinical psychologist, rather than for the moralist. A virtue or vice must be voluntarily practiced and a person who avoids food may be suffering from a nervous or psychological disorder and the obsession may not be truly voluntary. (Remember, ethics and moral philosophy is concerned only with free and voluntary acts.)

Rather than focus on the vice of insensibility, which does not seem to be problem for most people, let’s take a look at some temperance virtues relating to each of the above sensual pleasures. These are the practical, everyday sort of virtues which we all need to practice. Besides affecting us morally, these virtues have a physical, psychological, and possibly social effect as well.

Abstinence is the virtue opposed to the vice of gluttony. It is the virtue which moderates the enjoyment of the taste of food under the guide of right reason. It’s important to understand that this does not mean total abstinence. Total abstinence is a condition, of course, that wouldn’t last long. Total abstinence equals starvation! What is called “fasting” is a type of temporary total abstinence from food and in itself, under certain conditions, could be considered a virtue. There may be a good reason for fasting such as before a medical operation or from some religious motive. It it is carried to an extreme, however, it can easily become a vice.

Sobriety is the virtue opposed to the vice of drunkenness. It is the virtue which moderates the enjoyment and use of intoxicating drink. Sobriety is not total abstinence from intoxicating drink, as is popularly thought. It refers to the virtue which moderates the use of intoxicating beverages but, in some cases for some people, the relative mean for the virtue of sobriety is not to drink intoxicating beverages at all. Sobriety is concerned with a right ordering of the appetite toward drink. It is possible, therefore, for one person who drinks and another person who does not drink to be exercising the virtue of sobriety.

Since we’re discussing the virtue of sobriety and the vice of drunkenness, it may be important to comment briefly on the special mater of alcoholism, which is related to the vice of drunkenness, but is distinct from it. Many authorities now consider alcoholism to be a disease and it well may be; this is not for the moralist to decide. The exercise of the virtues and the practice of the vices is one of voluntary choice. A psychological or physical compulsion beyond the control of an individual has an effect on the moral culpability of that individual.

There is a serious question as to what extent an alcoholic is responsible for the condition of alcoholism. It may be genetic (or genetically influenced) as some claim or it may be due to other natural causes. Be that as it may, if an alcoholic, knowing full well that once he starts drinking he cannot stop voluntarily, does indeed take that first drink, he is not acting in accord with right reason and, at that point, the concept of vice might well enter the situation. For that reason, the relative mean of the virtue of sobriety for the alcoholic is total abstinence.

Chastity is the virtue of temperance which is opposite the vice of lust. It is the virtue which moderates the use of sexual activity according to right reason. Again, it is unfortunate that the term “chastity” has taken on another meaning today, that of total abstinence from sex. This is not its traditional meaning and that is not its meaning here.

An understanding of the virtue of chastity does get complicated in today’s world because of conflicts over what constitutes proper sexual activity. The virtue of chastity does not specifically inform one as to “proper” sexual activity except insofar as chastity, understood here as simply moderation in venereal pleasure, is incorporated into a larger moral system, such as a doctrine of religious morality.

Living the Virtue of Temperance

Temperance is definitely a virtue which, if practiced consistently and faithfully, will help you live a good, healthful life. It is, of course, not an easy virtue to practice in today’s culture and it is a difficult one to teach children because of all the negative influences to which they are subjected. Be that as it may, it is a key virtue in a good life and all reasonable attempts should be made to encourage children to practice temperance and understand its importance.

Temperance is one of those virtues which is best taught by example. If the adults in a child’s life practice temperance, the chances are a child will understand the virtue in a practical, concrete sense rather than just in the abstract. Remember, virtues are habits. Gluttony, drunkenness, and lust are not one-time behaviors except in extremely rare cases. Preaching virtues to a child is not nearly as important as setting an example of overall virtuous living.

The old saying “moderation in all things” applies to the virtue of temperance in a special way. This is especially true because temperance deals with the fundamental activities of human nature: eating, drinking, and sexual behavior. From a strictly practical point of view, abuses in the area of temperance can easily cause health problems, both physical and psychological. The virtue of temperance is vitally important to a life well lived.


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The late Dr. Jonathan Dolhenty was the Founder and President of The Center for Applied Philosophy and the Radical Academy, and is Honorary Philosophy Editor at Self-Educated American. Self-Educated American has adopted these projects beginning with a republishing and preserving of all of Dr. Dolhenty’s work.

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