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Nicomachean Ethics
Don’t expect more precision than the subject
matter admits of:
• Before embarking on an examination of what the
nature of the best life for a person, Aristotle
offers the above caveat.
• Wealth and courage are generally good, but have
on occasion contributed to the ruin of some
• One should not expect precise proofs out of an
ethicist or political scientist because they have to
deal with things that are just generally true;
similarly one should not expect approximate
proofs out of a mathematician, who deals with
things that are determinate and definite.
The Function Argument (briefly)
1. Every action is aimed at some goal (end).
2. Accomplishing that goal then is the “characteristic function” of
whoever aims at that goal. In other words, what makes a thing
what it is is the goal that it is aimed at. For example the
characteristic function of a house builder is the goal of building
good houses, and the characteristic function of a flute player is
playing the flute well. What makes a house builder a house builder
is that they have the goal of building houses well. Nobody else has
such a goal.
3. Every goal has standards of quality that come with that particular
Therefore, human life has a characteristic function.
But what is the goal of human life, and what are the standards of
quality for it?
The goal of human life
• Aristotle says that everyone agrees that the goal
of human life is happiness.
• However, this is an unfortunate translation.
When the modern English speaker thinks of
happiness they think of the feeling of being
happy (a sort of pleasure).
• The word Aristotle used is εὐδαιμονία
(eudaimonia), which means something more like
“well-being” or “fulfillment” than “happiness”.
• But what does happiness consist of?
• Aristotle dismisses some answers that others
supply to the question “what is hapiness?”
• The masses say that the life of pleasure is
happiness, but Aristotle contends that this is
vulgar and not fitting of a human being.
• Politicians say happiness is in honor, but
Aristotle points out that that requires other
people to honor you. Surely someone could
be live well without others honoring them.
3 lives:
• The life of mere survival (the vegetative life):
– This cannot be the characteristic life of a person because
even plants do this, so there must be more to life for us.
• The life of pleasure (the animal life):
– This cannot be the characteristic life of a person because
even animals do this, so there must be more to life for us.
• The life of virtue and reflection (the best life for a
– Since only human beings can live the life of virtue and
reflection (uses our faculty of reason) this is the
characteristic function of human life.
Virtue and Prudence
• We have seen previous moral theories sweep
prudence aside in favor of what morality demands.
• Aristotle argues that the best life for a person (i.e.
the most prudent life) just is the life of virtue. So
what morality requires is in fact the best life.
• Recall the three lives. It may be that someone wants
to live the life of a pig in the mud, but that person
does not have a refined set of desires that are
appropriate for human happiness.
An Analogical argument:
• Aristotle writes:
– “For pleasure is a state of soul, and to each man that which he is said to be a lover of is
pleasant; e.g. not only is a horse pleasant to the lover of horses, and a spectacle to the
lover of sights, but also in the same way just acts are pleasant to the lover of justice and
in general virtuous acts to the lover of virtue. Now for most men their pleasures are in
conflict with one another because these are not by nature pleasant, but the lovers of
what is noble find pleasant the things that are by nature pleasant; and virtuous actions
are such, so that these are pleasant for such men as well as in their own nature. Their
life, therefore, has no further need of pleasure as a sort of adventitious charm, but has
its pleasure in itself. For, besides what we have said, the man who does not rejoice in
noble actions is not even good; since no one would call a man just who did not enjoy
acting justly, nor any man liberal who did not enjoy liberal actions; and similarly in all
other cases. If this is so, virtuous actions must be in themselves pleasant.”
• The analogy is that to be a lover of the best life means to be
pleased by it, so to live the best life, we must be able to
modify our character traits to fit with the life of virtue.
Desires and Character Traits
• Desires are but one part of what we call “character”.
• A character trait is a stable disposition to act a
certain way in certain circumstances. (e.g. a generous
person is disposed to give when they see need)
• Often, modern persons regard desires as things that
just come with a person and that can’t or shouldn’t
be changed. However, we often seek to raise children
with positive character traits (e.g. honesty, patience)
and teach them to avoid negative character traits
(e.g. selfishness, bad tempers).
Desires and Character Traits
• One example of contemporary struggles to modify desires are
struggles with addictions or other “bad” habits.
• Our approach to these issues is strongly reminiscent of
Aristotle’s approach to ethics in general. A person might
decide to quit smoking because: a) life is longer and more
pleasant without smoking, b) they wish to be a better
example to children, c) smoking inhibits other virtuous
behavior (sociability, financial management, etc.)
• These motivations generally match a desire to live the life of
reflection and virtue, i.e. to live the best life.
Acquiring/Modifying Character Traits:
• Aristotle writes: “…the virtues we get by first exercising
them, as also happens in the case of the arts as well. For the
things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by
doing them, e.g. men become builders by building and
lyreplayers by playing the lyre; so too we become just by
doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by
doing brave acts. This is confirmed by what happens in states;
for legislators make the citizens good by forming habits in
them, and this is the wish of every legislator, and those who
do not effect it miss their mark, and it is in this that a good
constitution differs from a bad one.”
Habituation and Training
• We modify character traits by habituation and training. At some point,
someone must teach us or show us what it means to be trustworthy, loyal,
helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, cheerful, obedient, thrifty, brave, clean
and reverent (for example) and this is what is meant by training, and it’s
most effective for the young.
• Beyond just training, we must form habits that make virtuous behavior
part of our nature. To make honesty a part of your character, you must be
honest until you do so without even trying or thinking about it.
• When you get a bad habit, it takes even more effort to first break the bad
habit and then replace it with a good habit (e.g. many ex-smokers replace
time spent smoking with exercise or other worthy pursuits)
Finding Virtue
• If we are following Aristotle this far, we may then ask
how we determine which character traits are
• Aristotle answers as follows: “First, then, let us consider this,
that 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.”
Three Dispositions:
• This introduces a general method that Aristotle follows for
determining virtue: “There are three kinds of disposition,
then, two of them vices, involving excess and deficiency
respectively, and one a virtue, viz. the mean…”
• Every character trait is expressed by some name or other, and
any competent speaker of the language knows whether such
names describe good or bad character traits. Aristotle
maintatins that each of these words will describe either 1) a
virtue (good), 2) a vice of deficiency (a lack of a particular
attribute; bad), or 3) a vice of excess (too much of a particular
attribute; bad).
The Golden Mean
• This leads to the common misinterpretation that
Aristotle advocates “everything in moderation”.
Cowardice is not good in moderation any more than
cyanide is good in moderation.
• Rather, cowardice is what happens when someone
lacks courage. Courage is the virtue, and when
someone lacks courage, they have the vice of
deficiency of courage called ‘cowardice’. If someone
has too much courage, they have the vice of excess,
called ‘rashness’, or ‘recklessness’.
The Virtues:
• There seem to be as many virtues as there are
positive ways to describe character, but some
of the virtues are as follows:
Temperance: the ability to resist what one
ought to resist, even if it is pleasant.
Vice of Deficiency:
• Intemperance,
licentiousness, sybaritism,
over-indulgence; satisfying
appetites to too great a
degree or with too much
Vice of Excess:
• Asceticism; forgoing things
which are really acceptable
to partake of.
Fortitude: the ability to pursue what one
ought to pursue, even if it is unpleasant.
Vice of Deficiency:
• weakness, irresoluteness,
not being able to do what
needs to be done
Vice of Excess:
• ascetic, overly stoic. A
person should not seek out
unpleasantness, and should
be somewhat deterred by it.
Some Other Virtues:
• Magnificence: being appropriately generous, but
with single great gestures of generosity.
• Magnanimity: “greatness of spirit” is knowing
that one is worthy of greatness and actually being
worthy of greatness.
• Friendliness: being neither clingy nor cold
• Truthfulness: being neither a liar nor blunt or
• Wit: being neither humorless nor a clown