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Aristotle: Ethics and the Virtues

The Goal of Ethics

Aristotle applied the same patient, careful, descriptive approach to his examination of moral philosophy in the Εθικη Νικομαχοι (Nicomachean Ethics). Here he discussed the conditions under which moral responsibility may be ascribed to individual agents, the nature of the virtues and vices involved in moral evaluation, and the methods of achieving happiness in human life. The central issue for Aristotle is the question of character or personality — what does it take for an individual human being to be a good person?

Every activity has a final cause, the good at which it aims, and Aristotle argued that since there cannot be an infinite regress of merely extrinsic goods, there must be a highest good at which all human activity ultimately aims. (Nic. Ethics I 2) This end of human life could be called happiness (or living well), of course, but what is it really? Neither the ordinary notions of pleasure, wealth, and honor nor the philosophical theory of forms provide an adequate account of this ultimate goal, since even individuals who acquire the material goods or achieve intellectual knowledge may not be happy.

According to Aristotle, things of any variety have a characteristic function that they are properly used to perform. The good for human beings, then, must essentially involve the entire proper function of human life as a whole, and this must be an activity of the soul that expresses genuine virtue or excellence. (Nic. Ethics I 7) Thus, human beings should aim at a life in full conformity with their rational natures; for this, the satisfaction of desires and the acquisition of material goods are less important than the achievement of virtue. A happy person will exhibit a personality appropriately balanced between reasons and desires, with moderation characterizing all. In this sense, at least, "virtue is its own reward." True happiness can therefore be attained only through the cultivation of the virtues that make a human life complete.

The Nature of Virtue

Ethics is not merely a theoretical study for Aristotle. Unlike any intellectual capacity, virtues of character are dispositions to act in certain ways in response to similar situations, the habits of behaving in a certain way. Thus, good conduct arises from habits that in turn can only be acquired by repeated action and correction, making ethics an intensely practical discipline.

Each of the virtues is a state of being that naturally seeks its mean {Gk. μεσος [mesos]} relative to us. According to Aristotle, the virtuous habit of action is always an intermediate state between the opposed vices of excess and deficiency: too much and too little are always wrong; the right kind of action always lies in the mean. (Nic. Ethics II 6) Thus, for example:

with respect to acting in the face of danger,
courage {Gk. ανδρεια [andreia]} is a mean between
the excess of rashness and the deficiency of cowardice;

with respect to the enjoyment of pleasures,
temperance {Gk. σωφρσυνη [sophrosúnê]} is a mean between
the excess of intemperance and the deficiency of insensibility;

with respect to spending money,
generosity is a mean between
the excess of wastefulness and the deficiency of stinginess;

with respect to relations with strangers,
being friendly is a mean between
the excess of being ingratiating and the deficiency of being surly; and

with respect to self-esteem,
magnanimity {Gk. μεγαλοψυχι&alpha [megalopsychia]} is a mean between
the excess of vanity and the deficiency of pusillanimity.

Notice that the application of this theory of virtue requires a great deal of flexibility: friendliness is closer to its excess than to its deficiency, while few human beings are naturally inclined to undervalue pleasure, so it is not unusual to overlook or ignore one of the extremes in each of these instances and simply to regard the virtue as the opposite of the other vice.

Although the analysis may be complicated or awkward in some instances, the general plan of Aristotle's ethical doctrine is clear: avoid extremes of all sorts and seek moderation in all things. Not bad advice, surely. Some version of this general approach dominated Western culture for many centuries.

Voluntary Action

Because ethics is a practical rather than a theoretical science, Aristotle also gave careful consideration to the aspects of human nature involved in acting and accepting moral responsibility. Moral evaluation of an action presupposes the attribution of responsibility to a human agent. But in certain circumstances, this attribution would not be appropriate. Responsible action must be undertaken voluntarily, on Aristotle's view, and human actions are involuntary under two distinct conditions: (Nic. Ethics III 1)

First, actions that are produced by some external force (or, perhaps, under an extreme duress from outside the agent) are taken involuntarily, and the agent is not responsible for them. Thus, if someone grabs my arm and uses it to strike a third person, I cannot reasonably be blamed (or praised) morally for what my arm has done.

Second, actions performed out of ignorance are also involuntary. Thus, if I swing my arm for exercise and strike the third party who (unbeknownst to me) is standing nearby, then again I cannot be held responsible for having struck that person. Notice that the sort of ignorance Aristotle is willing to regard as exculpatory is always of lack of awareness of relevant particulars. Striking other people while claiming to be ignorant of the moral rule under which it is wrong to do so would not provide any excuse on his view.

As we'll soon see, decisions to act voluntarily rely upon deliberation about the choice among alternative actions that the individual could perform. During the deliberative process, individual actions are evaluated in light of the good, and the best among them is then chosen for implementation. Under these conditions, Aristotle supposed, moral actions are within our power to perform or avoid; hence, we can reasonably be held responsible for them and their consequences. Just as with health of the body, virtue of the soul is a habit that can be acquired (at least in part) as the result of our own choices.

Deliberate Choice

Although the virtues are habits of acting or dispositions to act in certain ways, Aristotle maintained that these habits are acquired by engaging in proper conduct on specific occasions and that doing so requires thinking about what one does in a specific way. Neither demonstrative knowledge of the sort employed in science nor aesthetic judgment of the sort applied in crafts are relevant to morality. The understanding {Gk. διανοια [diánoia]} can only explore the nature of origins of things, on Aristotle's view, and wisdom {Gk. σοφια [sophía]} can only trace the demonstratable connections among them.

But there is a distinctive mode of thinking that does provide adequately for morality, according to Aristotle: practical intelligence or prudence {Gk. φρνησις [phrónêsis]}. This faculty alone comprehends the true character of individual and community welfare and applies its results to the guidance of human action. Acting rightly, then, involves coordinating our desires with correct thoughts about the correct goals or ends.

This is the function of deliberative reasoning: to consider each of the many actions that are within one's power to perform, considering the extent to which each of them would contribute to the achievement of the appropriate goal or end, making a deliberate choice to act in the way that best fits that end, and then voluntarily engaging in the action itself. (Nic. Ethics III 3) Although virtue is different from intelligence, then, the acquisition of virtue relies heavily upon the exercise of that intelligence.

Weakness of the Will

But doing the right thing is not always so simple, even though few people deliberately choose to develop vicious habits. Aristotle sharply disagreed with Socrates's belief that knowing what is right always results in doing it. The great enemy of moral conduct, on Aristotle's view, is precisely the failure to behave well even on those occasions when one's deliberation has resulted in clear knowledge of what is right.

Incontinent agents suffer from a sort of weakness of the will {Gk. ακρασια [akrásia]} that prevents them from carrying out actions in conformity with what they have reasoned. (Nic. Ethics VII 1) This may appear to be a simple failure of intelligence, Aristotle acknowledged, since the akratic individual seems not to draw the appropriate connection between the general moral rule and the particular case to which it applies. Somehow, the overwhelming prospect of some great pleasure seems to obscure one's perception of what is truly good. But this difficulty, Aristotle held, need not be fatal to the achievement of virtue.

Although incontinence is not heroically moral, neither is it truly vicious. Consider the difference between an incontinent person, who knows what is right and aims for it but is sometimes overcome by pleasure, and an intemperate person, who purposefully seeks excessive pleasure. Aristotle argued that the vice of intemperance is incurable because it destroys the principle of the related virtue, while incontinence is curable because respect for virtue remains. (Nic. Ethics VII 8) A clumsy archer may get better with practice, while a skilled archer who chooses not to aim for the target will not.


In a particularly influential section of the Ethics, Aristotle considered the role of human relationships in general and friendship {Gk. φιλια [philia]} in particular as a vital element in the good life.

For without friends no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods.
Differentiating between the aims or goals of each, he distinguished three kinds of friendships that we commonly form. (Nic. Ethics VIII 3)

A friendship for pleasure comes into being when two people discover that they have common interest in an activity which they can pursue together. Their reciprocal participation in that activity results in greater pleasure for each than either could achieve by acting alone. Thus, for example, two people who enjoy playing tennis might derive pleasure from playing each other. Such a relationship lasts only so long as the pleasure continues.

A friendship grounded on utility, on the other hand, comes into being when two people can benefit in some way by engaging in coordinated activity. In this case, the focus is on what use the two can derive from each other, rather than on any enjoyment they might have. Thus, for example, one person might teach another to play tennis for a fee: the one benefits by learning and the other benefits financially; their relationship is based solely on the mutual utility. A relationship of this sort lasts only so long as its utility.

A friendship for the good, however, comes into being when two people engage in common activities solely for the sake of developing the overall goodness of the other. Here, neither pleasure nor utility are relevant, but the good is. (Nic. Ethics VIII 4) Thus, for example, two people with heart disease might play tennis with each other for the sake of the exercise that contributes to the overall health of both. Since the good is never wholly realized, a friendship of this sort should, in principle, last forever.

Rather conservatively representing his own culture, Aristotle expressed some rather peculiar notions about the likelihood of forming friendships of these distinct varieties among people of different ages and genders. But the general description has some value nevertheless, especially in its focus on reciprocity. Mixed friendships—those in which one party is seeking one payoff while the other seeks a different one—are inherently unstable and prone to dissatisfaction.

Achieving Happiness

Aristotle rounded off his discussion of ethical living with a more detailed description of the achievement of true happiness. Pleasure is not a good in itself, he argued, since it is by its nature incomplete. But worthwhile activities are often associated with their own distinctive pleasures. Hence, we are rightly guided in life by our natural preference for engaging in pleasant activities rather than in unpleasant ones.

Genuine happiness lies in action that leads to virtue, since this alone provides true value and not just amusement. Thus, Aristotle held that contemplation is the highest form of moral activity because it is continuous, pleasant, self-sufficient, and complete. (Nic. Ethics X 8) In intellectual activity, human beings most nearly approach divine blessedness, while realizing all of the genuine human virtues as well.

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