Aristotle's Ethics

In the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle develops a theory of the good life (eudiamonia) for humans. "Eudiamonia" is perhaps best translated as flourishing or living well and doing well. So when Aristotle speaks of the good life as the happy life, he does not mean that the good life is merely one of feeling happy or amused. Rather, as we will shortly see, the good life for a person is the active life of functioning well in those ways that are essential and unique to humans.

Aristotle starts by considering some popular conceptions of the good life.

Pleasure? Ultimately, Aristotle will maintain that the good life is the most pleasurable life. But that is not to say that the pleasure seekerís life is the good life. Rather, those who seek pleasure tend to seek it in the wrong places. Usually with the result of being distracted from leading the good life.

Wealth? Wealth is a means to further ends. The good life, according to Aristotle, is an end in itself.

Honor? Honor is external, but happiness is not. Honor has to do with how others see you. But the good life is intrinsic to the person who leads it.

Virtue? Virtue is an essential component of the good life according to Aristotle. But the good life cannot be identified with virtue because merely being virtuous is consistent with leading an inactive life or with suffering greatly.

Aristotle introduces the notion of a hierarchy of ends. Some ends are pursued for the sake of other ends, some are pursued for their own sake. Ends pursued for their own sake are called final ends. Studying can be a final end if I do it for its own sake. But it is not a final end if I am studying in order to pass a test. An end that is pursued always for its own sake and never for the sake of another end is called a most final end. Happiness, or the good life, is taken to be a most final end.

Happiness is also self sufficient in the sense of being something which could not be improved by the addition of anything further. The happy personís life is complete.

Aristotle proposes that this most final end, the good life for humans, is to be explicated in terms of the function of humans. In general, we evaluate a thing as a good thing of its kind if it performs the function of that kind well. A good hammer is one that drives nails well. A good apple tree is one that produces lots of fruit. Accordingly, the good life for a human is taken to be the life of functioning well as person. The function of humans is part of the essential nature of every individual human and it is unique to humans in that the function of humans is what differentiates them from other kinds of things.

Aristotle considers and eliminates a couple of possible accounts of the function of a person. These include the functions associated with the three components of the human soul.

Aristotle employs the ancient Greek tri-partite conception of the soul. Here we should think of the soul not as some non-material substance, but as a map of human capacities. The soul has a vegetative component, an appetitive component and a calculative component. Corresponding to each of these capacities in a kind virtue.

Calculative -- Intellectual Virtue


Appetitive -- Moral Virtue


Vegetative -- Nutritional Virtue

Nourishment and growth is considered and rejected as the function of humans on the grounds that the life of nourishment and growth is not unique to humans but shared also by plants and animals.

Likewise, the life of getting ones appetites satisfied is rejected as the function of humans since all higher animals function in this way.

Only the capacity for rational thought is unique to humans. So, the good life for a human is the active life of exercising the rational capacity.

"In a complete life . . . For one swallow does not make a summer."

Life in accordance with virtue is the most pleasant. But happiness requires more than just virtue. It also requires some degree of good fortune

Two kinds of virtue: moral and intellectual virtue.

Moral virtue is a matter of the appetitive part of the soul being obedient to the rational.

Intellectual virtue is a kind of wisdom or understanding. It is acquired by teaching.

Moral virtues are acquired by habit, not by nature. Nothing that is a certain way by nature can form a habit contrary to nature. A rock can't be habituated to rising. But we can be habituated to act either justly or unjustly.

Moral virtues are acquired by acting virtuously. They are destroyed by either excess or defect (exercise/health analogy).

The virtuous person takes pleasure in acting virtuously. One can act virtuously but lack virtue. The person who performs the just act but is pained by it lacks virtue. Yet, by repeatedly acting justly he may become just and take pleasure in acting so (money on the sidewalk test case).

Objection: Isn't the person who does the just thing already just? No, one might perform the just act by accident or under direction of some other. Just person performs the just act justly.

Performing the just act justly requires three things: (1) knowledge (that this is the just act) (2) choosing the just act because it is just (not for some ulterior motive), and (3) the act must proceed from a firm and unchangeable character.

What are the virtues? (That is, what sorts of things are they?). The soul contains passions (feelings), faculties (capacities) and states of character. The virtues must be one of these three.

Virtues are not passions because we are not praised or blamed merely for the way we feel. We do not choose to feel angry or fearful. We are however praised or blamed for our virtues.

Virtues are also not faculties because we have faculties by nature but we are not made good or bad by nature.

So, virtues must be states of character. Now, what are these?

States of character are dispositions to feel and act in certain ways.

Virtuous states of character are the means between two extremes of excess and deficiency.

Aristotle on Virtue: Aristotle holds the view that moral virtues are states of character lying at the mean between extremes of excess and deficiency. Moral virtues, for Aristotle, are to be distinguished from intellectual virtues. Moral virtue has to do with feeling, choosing, and acting well. Intellectual virtue is identified as a kind of wisdom acquired by teaching. Here we are concerned only with moral virtue. In holding that moral virtues are states of character, Aristotle gives us a view of what sorts of things virtues are. But not all states of character are virtues. Many more states of character are vices. Aristotle's view that virtues lie at the mean between two extremes, sometimes called 'the doctrine of the mean', is intended to help us identify which states of character are the virtuous ones. Here I will explain Aristotle's reasons for holding that moral virtues are states of character and I will explain and illustrate how Aristotle's doctrine of the mean marks the distinction between virtuous and vicious states of character.

It is taken for granted that virtues belong to the soul. Aristotle's notion of the soul is perhaps closer to our notion of the mind. His view of the soul is not a view of some non-material thing that exists independent of our bodies. On Aristotle's view, the soul has three sorts of components. These are our passions, our faculties and our states of character. Our passions are our feelings, our desires, fears, ambitions etc. Our faculties are our natural capacities for feeling and acting in the various ways that we can. Our states of character can be thought of as complex tendencies or dispositions to act and feel in certain ways under certain circumstances. Given this view of what the soul consists of, moral virtues must be identified with one of these three. Aristotle rules out the first two possibilities and is left with the view that virtues are states of character.

Virtues can not be passions, Aristotle claims, because we are not praised or blamed for the way we feel, but we are praised or blamed for our virtues. We are not praised or blamed for our feelings because they arise more or less involuntarily in response to circumstances. Aristotle's reason for denying that virtues are faculties is similar. Part of a persons faculties consist of his or her ability to feel anger. Be we do not praise or blame people for having the ability to feel anger. Rather, we praise people for tending to manifest their ability to feel anger when, and only when, the circumstances call for it. So virtues are not to be identified with our capacities either. Virtues must, therefore, be states of character.

Not all states of character are virtuous. Lustfulness, for instance, is a state of character. It is a tendency to feel sexual desire too much and seek sexual pleasures too much. But this state of character is not a virtuous one. Having reached the conclusion that virtues are states of character, Aristotle's account of moral virtue remains incomplete until he tells us something about which states of character are the virtues. Here Aristotle appeals to his doctrine of the mean. The virtues are those states of character that lie at the mean between excess and deficiency. The virtuous state of character will be a tendency to feel and react to circumstances in the appropriate way and to the appropriate degree. This, as opposed to over-reacting on the one hand or under-reacting on the other.

Consider again the case of lustfulness. Lust is not a virtue because it is a tendency to feel too much sexual desire and to respond to it too indiscriminately. Lust lies at the extreme of excess. At the other extreme is a state of character that consists in a tendency to feel too little sexual desire or to react too little to it. Perhaps this character state is so unusual as to go un-noticed, but in recognizing the existence of such a vice, we are only acknowledging that sexual desire does, under appropriate circumstances, add to a rich an flourishing human life. Sexual virtue, will lie at the mean between these extremes on Aristotle's view. Sexual virtue will consist in feeling and responding to sexual desire under the right circumstances and to the appropriate degree.

Aristotle's doctrine of the mean does not tell us just what circumstances warrant what degree of passion with respect to sexual virtue or other virtues. But, as Aristotle remarks near the beginning of his discussion of virtue and the good life, "our discussion will be adequate if it has as much clearness as the subject matter admits of." A more narrowly focused investigation into the nature of specific virtues would involve a more detailed discussion of what degree of passion or action is appropriate under what circumstances.

© W. Russ Payne