Aristotle’s Nicomachaen Ethics




An Imprecise Theory


"Our discussion will be adequate if it has as much clearness as the subject-matter admits of, for precision is not to be sought for alike in all discussions…Now fine and just actions, which political science investigates, admit of much variety and fluctuation of opinion…We must be content, then, in speaking of such subjects and with such premises to indicate the truth roughly and in outline…it is evidently equally foolish to accept probable reasoning from a mathematician and to demand from a rhetorician scientific proofs."




              Good is the aim of all action


"Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim."


Some goods are subordinate to others

The highest goods are intrinsically good –not subordinate to anything


If something is the highest good, then it is good in itself, and not merely because it leads to something else.


Good in itself = intrinsic good


Good because it leads to something else = extrinsic good



Good and Function


What is good for X depends on the function of X


The function of a knife is to cut.         -----     A good knife cuts well.


The function of an eye is to see.        -----     A good eye sees well.


The function of a tree is to grow and flourish.   -----

A good tree grows and flourishes.


Any living thing can be said to “flourish” – that is just another way of saying that it is living well.  But living well for a tree and living well for a man are different things, because they have different natures.


Souls According to Aristotle


All living things have souls, where a soul is simply whatever it is that makes the difference between life and death.  (Think of the soul as what makes it go).


Souls come in different types depending on the kind of creature they belong to.  Plants have souls that are only “vegetative”.  That is, they control growth and do various things automatically (e.g. photosynthesize).


Higher animals have a vegetative part of the soul, but they also have an appetitive part of the soul, which feels sensations (such as pleasure and pain) and appetites (desires for food, sex, etc.)


The Highest Good for Human Beings


Happiness = the highest good for man (by definition)


But what is happiness exactly?


Humans have vegetative and appetitive parts of the soul, but they also have a rational part, which other animals lack.  The rational part is the intellect, which is capable of understanding concepts and making decisions.


Hence, man is a rational animal.


Therefore, the highest good for man must include the excellent functioning of the rational faculties


This will involve the rational faculties being in control of the appetitive part of the soul. (You can’t be in control of the vegetative part of the soul;  that would be like controlling your autonomic nervous system).


Pleasure and happiness

According to Aristotle, pleasure is not the aim of every human action, because not every pleasure is good.  (Remember, the highest good is intrinsically good).

Pleasure is found in various forms of activity, and a proper pleasure or pain may belong to any activity. The pleasure which is found in some forms of activity may be good, and the pleasure which is found in other forms of activity may be bad. Pain may similarly be good or bad.


So, pleasure is not the highest good -- it is not the same as happiness.  Rather,


A life of happiness = a life of excellent functioning =

A life a virtue =

a life in which the rational faculties are in control (in a way to be described below…)



Virtues and vices are acquired by habit


There are moral virtues and intellectual virtues; we will concerned with the moral virtues.


Intellectual virtue comes from teaching, but moral virtue comes from habit.  This means that the two are acquired differently; intellectual virtue can be acquired by reading a book; moral virtue can be acquired only through practice.


An argument:

1.Nothing can form a habit that is contrary to its nature.

2.Virtues can be formed by habit.

3.Vices can be formed by habit.


Therefore, man is neither virtuous nor vicious by nature.



How virtues and vices are formed



A certain type of situation elicits certain responses in us (actions and passions).

Depending on how we respond, we will form a habit and become either virtuous of vicious.


Thus, vices are acquired by bad habits, just as virtues are acquired by good habits.


We become virtuous by acting virtuously.

We become vicious by acting viciously.


Again, it is from the same causes and by the same means that every virtue is both produced and destroyed, and similarly every art; for it is from playing the lyre that both good and bad lyre-players are produced.”


Virtues are destroyed by defect and excess.  They are created by avoiding defect and excess.


it is the nature of such things to be destroyed by defect and excess, as we see in the case of strength and of health (for to gain light on things imperceptible we must use the evidence of sensible things); both excessive and defective exercise destroys the strength, and similarly drink or food which is above or below a certain amount destroys the health, while that which is proportionate both produces and increases and preserves it. So too is it, then, in the case of temperance and courage and the other virtues. For the man who flies from and fears everything and does not stand his ground against anything becomes a coward, and the man who fears nothing at all but goes to meet every danger becomes rash; and similarly the man who indulges in every pleasure and abstains from none becomes self-indulgent, while the man who shuns every pleasure, as boors do, becomes in a way insensible; temperance and courage, then, are destroyed by excess and defect, and preserved by the mean.”



Pleasure and pain are indicators of virtue and vice


We must take as a sign of states of character the pleasure or pain that ensues on acts; for the man who abstains from bodily pleasures and delights in this very fact is temperate, while the man who is annoyed at it is self-indulgent, and he who stands his ground against things that are terrible and delights in this or at least is not pained is brave, while the man who is pained is a coward. For moral excellence is concerned with pleasures and pains; it is on account of the pleasure that we do bad things, and on account of the pain that we abstain from noble ones.”


If you are not virtuous, then virtue is painful and vice is pleasant.  This is why it is difficult to become virtuous.  On the other hand, if you are virtuous, then virtue is pleasant and vice is painful.  So, the more virtuous you are, the easier it is to remain virtuous and become more virtuous.




Again, if the virtues are concerned with actions and passions, and every passion and every action is accompanied by pleasure and pain, for this reason also virtue will be concerned with pleasures and pains. This is indicated also by the fact that punishment is inflicted by these means; for it is a kind of cure, and it is the nature of cures to be effected by contraries.”


Why do we make punishments painful?  Because in that way we make viciousness painful, such as it is for the virtuous man.  In this way, it is a cure that makes the vicious more virtuous.


Aristotle believed that the main function of politics was to benefit everyone by making good laws – good laws literally make one’s fellow citizens better, and this can be understood at least partially in terms of the positive effect of appropriate punishment.



Objection:  The question might be asked,; what we mean by saying that we must become just by doing just acts, and temperate by doing temperate acts; for if men do just and temperate acts, they are already just and temperate, exactly as, if they do what is in accordance with the laws of grammar and of music, they are grammarians and musicians.”


Reply:  It is possible to do something that is in accordance with the laws of grammar, either by chance or at the suggestion of another. A man will be a grammarian, then, only when he has both done something grammatical and done it grammatically; and this means doing it in accordance with the grammatical knowledge in himself…


...if the acts that are in accordance with the virtues have themselves a certain character it does not follow that they are done justly or temperately. The agent also must be in a certain condition when he does them; in the first place he must have knowledge, secondly he must choose the acts, and choose them for their own sakes, and thirdly his action must proceed from a firm and unchangeable character.


“But most people do not do these, but take refuge in theory and think they are being philosophers and will become good in this way, behaving somewhat like patients who listen attentively to their doctors, but do none of the things they are ordered to do. As the latter will not be made well in body by such a course of treatment, the former will not be made well in soul by such a course of philosophy.”


Analogy: if you read a self-help book you may know how to help yourself, but that does not mean you are doing it.  Likewise, learning how to become virtuous should not be confused with becoming virtuous.



What virtue is:


Virtue is the disposition to choose the mean, in both actions and passions.  Virtue is a state of character which causes one to choose the intermediate (“the mean”) between two extremes (“vices”).


[Moral virtue] is concerned with passions and actions, and in these there is excess, defect, and the intermediate. For instance, both fear and confidence and appetite and anger and pity and in general pleasure and pain may be felt both too much and too little, and in both cases not well; but to feel them at the right times, with reference to the right objects, towards the right people, with the right motive, and in the right way, is what is both intermediate and best, and this is characteristic of virtue. Similarly with regard to actions also there is excess, defect, and the intermediate.”



Examples of the Mean In Particular Virtues:



the excess 

the mean 

the defect 

giving and taking money 




pleasure seeking




honor and dishonor

empty vanity 

proper pride 





mock modesty 

facing danger




feeling anger


good temper




Some types of activities do not have a mean.


But not every action nor every passion admits of a mean; for some have names that already imply badness, e.g. spite, shamelessness, envy, and in the case of actions adultery, theft, murder; for all of these and suchlike things imply by their names that they are themselves bad, and not the excesses or deficiencies of them. It is not possible, then, ever to be right with regard to them; one must always be wrong.”



Hitting the mean is hard because there are lots of ways to get it wrong and only one way to get it right.


Again, it is possible to fail in many ways...while to succeed is possible only in one way (for which reason also one is easy and the other difficult- to miss the mark easy, to hit it difficult)”



When trying to hit the mean, it is helpful first to figure out which side we tend to err on, and then try to err in the other direction.


But we must consider the things towards which we ourselves also are easily carried away; for some of us tend to one thing, some to another; and this will be recognizable from the pleasure and the pain we feel. We must drag ourselves away to the contrary extreme; for we shall get into the intermediate state by drawing well away from error, as people do in straightening sticks that are bent.”


Are you civilized and of “well-born” character?


"…the aim of studies about action…is surely not to study and know about a given thing, but rather to act on our knowledge. Hence knowing about virtue is not enough, but we must also try to possess and exercise virtue….

Now if arguments were sufficient by themselves to make people decent, the rewards they command would justifiably have been many and large….In fact, however, arguments seem to have enough influence to stimulate and encourage the civilized ones among the young people, and perhaps to make virtue take possession of a well-born character that truly loves what is fine; but they seem unable to turn the many toward being fine and good."


Virtue and Right Action


Many ethical theories focus mainly on the question,


What am I morally required to do?


They try to supply an answer of the form:


An action or policy is morally right if and only if _____________________.


Different theories of right action propose different ways of filling in the blank:


              Egoism®  it best promotes my own interests.


Utilitarianism® it promotes the greatest happiness for the greatest number.


Kant’s theory® it follows a rule that I would be willing for everyone to follow in all circumstances.


Social contract theory® it follows a rule that rational, self-interested people can agree to establish for their mutual benefit



Aristotle’s theory is not like this.  It starts with a different question: 


What traits of character make one a good person?”


Virtue ethics is not fundamentally a theory about the conditions under which an action is right or wrong, it is theory about being a good person.  It does seem to have some implications about which actions are right and wrong, however.  For example, since honesty and benevolence are virtues, then presumably it would be morally wrong to lie to someone in order to harm them, just for fun.  But even this inference makes the assumption that there is a connection between virtue and right action, namely that if an action is not virtuous, then it is not right.  Some virtue theorists (e.g. Anscombe) have claimed that we ought to do away with the notion of “right action” altogether, and simply talk about virtue instead.


But sometimes we want to know what we should do.  We want to assess actions, not just character.  Can virtue ethics help?  We could treat virtue theory as a theory about right action by supplying a “bridge principle”—a rule that connects virtue with right action.


Virtue Action Theory:


An action or policy is morally right if and only if it would be chosen by a virtuous person.


(This is the same suggestion made by Rachels in EMP on page 188, at the end of the section “Virtue and Conduct”)


              Advantages of VAT:


· Moral motivation is easily explained.  Being virtuous is being a well-functioning human being.  Everyone has an interest in that.  If Aristotle is right, then everyone would have an interest in doing the right thing (since that would tend to make us virtuous).  Moreover, doing the right thing because one has a virtuous character is often more praiseworthy than acting out of a sense of duty (see Michael Stocker example, as described in EMP on p. 185).


·  VAT would capture our moral intuitions that call impartiality into doubt, because it recognizes some virtues that are partial to friends and loved ones.  For example, there is the virtue of “loyalty”.  Some other theories (e.g. Utilitarianism) have difficulty with this, because they take impartiality (the idea that everyone’s interests count equally) as a basic moral assumption.  (See EMP, doubts about the “ideal” of impartiality, p. 186)


              Difficulties for VAT:


·  The case of the courageous villain.  Suppose a person fights for an evil cause, and does so very courageously (take your pick of causes:  anti-American terrorism, racism, etc.)  Since courage is a virtue, it seems to follow that the person’s courage in fighting for the cause makes them morally better.  Is this an absurd result?



Perhaps not.  First, notice that if someone is fighting for an evil cause, it is likely that they are vicious in some respects.  For example, suppose that a person commits atrocities because he was ordered to do so by his superiors.  The tendency to follow orders, like other kinds of action, allows of a defect, mean, and excess.  Someone who always refuses to follow orders, even from legitimate authorities, exhibits the defect (call it “insolence”).  On the other hand, someone who always follows orders, even when the orders call for atrocities, exhibits the excess (call it “slavishness”), and other vices as well (such as cruelty).  So, perhaps the courageous villain is a bad person on account of his slavishness and other vices, but really is courageous.  His courage makes him worse in that it makes him a more effective villain, but it is still a virtue.  It is also important to consider a person’s beliefs.  If a suicide bomber believes that he will go straight to heaven after blowing himself up, then he does not believe that he is in any real danger.  Thus, we can deny that he is courageous because he is not facing what he believes to be danger.


·  The possibility of conflicting virtues.  (See EMP p. 189, last full paragraph)  When virtue theory is considered as a theory about character, this isn’t necessarily a problem.  There is no logical requirement that acting virtuously with regard to one character trait means that one is not acting viciously with regard to another; virtue may involve trade-offs.  However, when virtue theory is considered as a theory of right action (VAT), the possibility of conflicting virtues is a definitely a problem.  On VAT, an action is either right or it isn’t.  But if there is no answer to the question of whether the action is virtuous (because of conflict) then there is no answer to the question of whether it is right.  One possible solution is to rank the virtues.  But on what basis could they be ranked?


·  There do not appear to be virtues matching every morally good reason to do something (see EMP, pp189-90).


Both of these disadvantages stem from the fact that VAT is incomplete; it leaves many ethical questions unanswered.  To make it complete, it would have to be supplemented.  But any such supplementation would introduce elements from a different moral theory.  Hence, it seems that we will need to look at some other moral theories…