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Rosalind Hursthouse remembers the exact moment she knew she was going to study philosophy: "Somehow or another, it was love at first sight."

It was an evening at home when her Aunt Mary, who studied philosophy, was visiting, and Professor Hursthouse was an impressionable 17-year-old.

"My father asked, 'So what's all this philosophy then, Mary?' and my aunt said, 'Haven't you ever realised that we don't really know that this is a table in front of us? All we have to go on are our sensations.'

"My father, who was extremely fond of his sister, thought this was the silliest thing he'd ever heard in his life and said, 'Jolly good, have another drink.' I enrolled the next year."

The head of Auckland University's philosophy department is quick to dismiss the notion that philosophy is a monolith of impractical thinking. In fact, after decades of academic study, including a doctorate from Oxford University, Professor Hursthouse practises what she preaches.

"It has made me quite excessively high-minded, because with virtue ethics, which derives from the ancient Greeks, the fundamental idea is to live life where you acquire and exercise virtues. And if you don't do that, life's not worth living.

"This came to me as a blinding truth when I was about 26. I became a born-again Aristotelian and decided what I wanted to be was to be good. That's what philosophy did for me."

Not that she had been nasty up until that point, she is quick to add.

She explains virtue ethics, made famous by Aristotle, as thinking about ethics in terms of virtues and vices, rather than as moral rules such as "thou shalt not kill".

The virtues are ordinary terms everyone uses: honesty, bravery, compassion, to name a few. If we all lived virtuously, she says, there would be no difference between reality and our notion of heaven. This wouldn't mean choirs of angels, but it would mean everyone being nice to each other all the time.

Sound boring?

"Do you think the only spice of life comes from evil?" she responds.

"Due importance would be given to the physical pleasures ... We're animals, and if you don't enjoy the physical pleasure, you're not an animal, but the corresponding vice is to give them undue importance."

As with any philosophy, virtue ethics is not always straightforward. The main crux of it is the moral dilemma, where the protagonist must choose the lesser of two evils.

For example, you've cheated on your partner and to be virtuous, you should reveal the truth, though doing so would cause someone harm. What do you do, besides have another drink?

"Virtue ethics says, 'Well, this doesn't have anything to do with one virtue outranking another, but by looking at individual cases, sometimes it goes one way, and sometimes the other, and sometimes there is no right answer." Isn't that the infuriating side of philosophy, to study how one goes about being ethical, only to be told that sometimes one can't tell?

"I find that rather nice myself. You never know as an individual whether this is actually one of the ones that doesn't have an answer. How do we know? Most of the time, it doesn't matter."

So how do we go about achieving this life worth living?

"Aristotle said there's absolutely no way to do it but habitually behaving virtuously ... and if it is going to make your life worth living, you do this gladly instead of it being a constant battle of duty against self-indulgence.

"One hardly needs to add, that this is difficult. But it's surely worth it."