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Nicomachean Ethics/Aristotle theory of ethics

The Nicomachean Ethics 

What does it mean to live life happily and virtuously? Dive deep into The Nicomachean Ethics & discover how Aristotle's philosophy can affect how you think about ethics.

The Nicomachean Ethics, written by Aristotle in the 4th century BC, is a work that investigates the concept of “happiness” and how one should live an ethical life. It examines virtue, reason and moral decision-making to form a framework of lasting guidance for ethical behavior.

greek philosopher Aristotle

What is Aristotle's ethical theory ?

IN the corpus of Aristotle's works, three treatises on ethics have a place, but two of these are now generally held to be by disciples. the third, the Nicomachean Ethics, remains for the most part unquestioned as to authenticity, but even in this book there is a portion (Books V, VI, and VII) which is held by many to have been incorporated from one of the works of disciples. I shall, however, ignore this controversial question, and treat the book as a whole and as Aristotle's.

Aristotle ethics philosophy

The Nicomachean Ethics is Aristotle’s most famous philosophical work, and is considered to be one of the foundational works of Western philosophy. In it, Aristotle formulates a moral framework that builds on his concept of eudaimonia, or “happiness” which was the central concern in his ethical thought. He argues that living virtuously and making prudent decisions will lead to a life that is overall satisfactory and content.

The views of Aristotle on ethics represent, in the main, the prevailing opinions of educated and experienced men of his day. They are not, like Plato's and Socrates, impregnated with mystical religion; nor do they countenance such unorthodox theories as are to be found in the Republic concerning property and the family. Those who neither fall below nor rise above the level of decent, well-behaved citizens will find in the Ethics a systematic account of the principles by which they hold that their conduct should be regulated. Those who demand anything more will be disappointed. The book appeals to the respectable middle-aged, and has been used by them, especially since the seventeenth century, to repress the ardours and enthusiasms of the young. But to a man with any depth of feeling it cannot but be repulsive.

The Nicomachean ethics all about

The Nicomachean Ethics is a work by Aristotle in which he examines the nature of ethics and the use of reason to identify what’s important in life. Aristotle was an ancient Greek philosopher who lived from 384-322 BCE, during the height of Classical culture and learning. He wrote this treatise as a way to understand why humans should strive for virtue, a key question in understanding moral life. In his view, living a virtuous life is essential to living happily, achieving success and giving meaning to our actions.

Aristotle’s technique was to look at commonly held views about things (the endoxa) and the disagreements that arise about them, and to find a resolution to the disagreements. In the Nicomachean Ethics he begins by noting that every pursuit aims at some good, which means that there are as many different kinds of good as there are pursuits. Such things as boatbuilding, military strategy and getting rich each requires subordinate goods to be attained – in carpentry, sword-making, starting a business – each of which has its own set of subordinate ends to be achieved first: and so on. Each ‘good’ is an end serving a higher end. But what is the supreme end, the highest good? It will be the end desired for its own sake, not as a means to anything beyond itself.

Virtues according to Aristotle

There are two kinds of virtues, intellectual and moral, corresponding to the two parts of the soul. Intellectual virtues result from teaching, moral virtues from habit. It is the business of the legislator to make the citizens good by forming good habits. We become just by performing just acts, and similarly as regards other virtues. By being compelled to acquire good habits, we shall in time, Aristotle thinks, come to find pleasure in performing good actions. 

Assume a virtue if you have it not. That monster, custom, who all sense doth eat, Of habits devil, is angel, yet in this, That to the use of actions fair and good He likewise gives a frock or livery That aptly is put on.

There are three sorts of people.

1. Pleasure and enjoyment - who don't care about the politics, world and others. They enjoy there life and they are moto is "as long as  I am happy  it's fine.

2. Free and responsible citizen - They care about world, they follow the rule and  help others too.

3. Thinker and philosopher - Who think real knowledge but he live a pleasure life and also think for the world.

Virtue, Actions, and Moral Characteristics.

In The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle imbues the concept of virtue as having three components – understanding, feeling, and desire. Understanding gives us knowledge about the nature of human actions, feelings provide our judgements with a moral colouring, such as a respect for justice or honourable pursuits; and desire directs us to undertake virtuous action. Furthermore, he argues that these individual characteristics are relative and necessary to develop a higher ‘moral character’ that will bring one true happiness.

The golden mean Aristotle virtue ethics

We now come to the famous doctrine of the golden mean. Every virtue is a mean between two extremes, each of which is a vice. This is proved by an examination of the various virtues. Courage is a mean between cowardice and rashness; liberality, between prodigality and meanness; proper pride, between vanity and humility; ready wit, between buffoonery and boorishness; modesty, between bashfulness and shamelessness. Some virtues do not seem to fit into this scheme; for instance, truthfulness. Aristotle says that this is a mean between boastfulness and mock-modesty , but this only applies to truthfulness about oneself. I do not see how truthfulness in any wider sense can be fitted into the scheme. There was once a mayor who had adopted Aristotle's doctrine; at the end of his term of office he made a speech saying that he had endeavoured to steer the narrow line between partiality on the one hand and impartiality on the other. The view of truthfulness as a mean seems scarcely less absurd.

 Everyone is born with the capacity to develop the virtues, but they have to do so by acquiring good habits in childhood and eventually, as we attain maturity, practical wisdom (phronesis). By ‘good habits’ Aristotle means a settled disposition to feel and act appropriately, an important point for him because he disagrees with Socrates and Plato that virtue is knowledge, a doctrine that makes no sense of the phenomenon of weakness of will (akrasia); this latter exists, he says, and is caused by ungoverned emotions; therefore acquiring the habit of strength of will is important.

Is there a general, invariant rule about the mean in all cases? No; the individual nature of a situation matters in determining what the mean is in that case. For example, one might think that the virtue of gentleness implies that one should never be angry, for remaining calm when faced with (say) an injustice is what lies between indifference and fury in reaction to it. But Aristotle says that the nature of the case might justify being angry; to be angry ‘in the right way, to the right degree, for the right reason’ is virtuous. But not to such a degree that it undermines reason.

Aristotle moral virtues

‘Virtue makes the goal right, practical wisdom teaches how to reach it,’ Aristotle says, and habits formed in developing character will help to identify the right goals. If we do not have, or do not yet have, the practical wisdom to work out how to reach those goals, we must imitate those who do have such wisdom. And Aristotle concedes that ‘moral luck’ plays its part; those in fortunate circumstances find it easier to attain eudaimonia than those for whom life is a struggle.

The Ethical Virtues: Temperance, Courage, and Justice.

Aristotle proposes that there are three core virtues – temperance, courage and justice. He argues that these are intrinsically valuable and allow one to achieve a prosperous and ‘moral character’. Temperance is achieved through moderation within our desires, avoiding the extreme of either excessive or insufficiency; Courage is having the strength to stand firm and have a sense of self-control in both our emotions and actions; while Justice is the virtuous habit of giving everyone their due.

Aristotle pleasure and happiness

And what is that end which is desirable for its own sake? There is ‘very general agreement’ about this, Aristotle says; both ‘the general run of men and people of superior refinement say that it is happiness’ (eudaimonia). (‘Happiness’ is an inadequate translation of this term: ‘well-being and welldoing’, ‘flourishing’, would be better.) But then they disagree about what happiness is. Some say it consists in the possession of wealth, others say of honour, others again of pleasure. And their opinions differ according to the condition they happen to be in: the poor man says wealth is happiness, the sick man says it is health.

But a little thought shows that wealth, honour, pleasure, health, or any other such, are not ends in themselves; they are themselves instrumental to whatever is truly the highest good. Not only is the highest good not instrumental, because it is desired wholly for its own sake and is sufficient of itself, but it is the thing towards which all other instrumental goods strive, the ‘single final end’ of all activity. It is indeed happiness: but not as identified with any of the individual instrumental ends. Instead it will be what we attain when we live in accordance with ‘the function of human beings’.

Aristotle again shows his good sense in the discussion of pleasure, which Plato had regarded somewhat ascetically. Pleasure, as Aristotle uses the word, is distinct from happiness, though there can be no happiness without pleasure. There are, he says, three views of pleasure: (1) that it is never good; (2) that some pleasure is good, but most is bad; (3) that pleasure is good, but not the best. He rejects the first of these on the ground that pain is certainly bad, and therefore pleasure must be good. He says, very justly, that it is nonsense to say a man can be happy on the rack: some degree of external good fortune is necessary for happiness. He also disposes of the view that all pleasures are bodily; all things have something divine, and therefore some capacity for higher pleasures. Good men have pleasure unless they are unfortunate, and God always enjoys a single and simple pleasure. 

There is another discussion of pleasure, in a later part of the book, which is not wholly consistent with the above. Here it is argued that there are bad pleasures, which, however, are not pleasures to good people ; that perhaps differ in kind ; and that pleasures are good or bad according as they are connected with good or bad activities . There are things that are valued more than pleasure; no one would be content to go through life with a child's intellect, even if it were pleasant to do so. Each animal has its proper pleasure, and the proper pleasure of man is connected with reason.

Happiness and the Goal of Human Life.

Aristotle defines happiness (eudaimonia) as the ultimate goal of human life, and argues that it is attainable through an ethical lifestyle. He recommends developing a consistent virtue or moral character over long periods of time. Moral virtues, according to Aristotle, can only be acquired by repetitive action and effort over weeks and months; one cannot acquire a single act or set of actions completed on a single day. Thus, leading a virtuous life will eventually make one moralistically happy to live in.

What is ‘the function of human beings’? Aristotle approaches an answer to this question by analogies. What makes a good guitar-player? Skill at playing the guitar. A good carpenter? One good at making things from wood. Each is ‘good’ because he performs his particular function, his work (ergon), well. To do his work well is the virtue or excellence (arete) of a guitar-player qua guitar-player or carpenter qua carpenter. What is the arete of a human being qua human being? It is to do the ‘work’ of being human well. And what is the ‘work’ of a human being? It is to live up to that thing which is distinctive and defining of humanity, namely, the possession of reason. A good person is therefore a person who lives and acts rationally in accordance with virtue. ‘The human good’, says Aristotle, is ‘activity of soul in accordance with virtue, and if there is more than one virtue, in accordance with the best and most complete’.

criticism of Aristotelian ethics

The critics - It would be a mistake to regard the doctrine of the mean as implying that every goal should be a compromise. The doctrine is about how we act, not about always seeking halfway-house results. The critics who say that Aristotle’s ethics of the middle way is by its nature ‘middle class, middle aged and middle brow’ are confusing intended action with intended outcome. Of course the idea of reflecting on the best course of action in a given situation, taking that situation’s details into account, is intended to bring about the best outcome; but the best outcome is not therefore necessarily the outcome intermediate between what would happen if the actions implicit in either of the flanking extremes were taken. Suppose one decides to be generous to a person in need of money. The opposing vices are giving him nothing and giving him far more than he asks for, or even everything you have. The generous amount is what you can afford, not half what you have. (In some cases, his needs and what you can afford might prompt you to give him more than half of what you have! – it will depend entirely on the case.)

Nicomachean ethics quotes

  • “One swallow does not make a summer, neither does one fine day; similarly one day or brief time of happiness does not make a person entirely happy.”
  • “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.”
  • “Without friends, no one would want to live, even if he had all other goods.”
  • “Philosophy can make people sick.”
  • “Freedom is obedience to self-formulated rules.”
  • “These virtues are formed in man by his doing the actions ... The good of man is a working of the soul in the way of excellence in a complete life.”
  • “Bad people...are in conflict with themselves; they desire one thing and will another, like the incontinent who choose harmful pleasures instead of what they themselves believe to be good.”
  • “The self-indulgent man craves for all pleasant things... and is led by his appetite to choose these at the cost of everything else.”
  • “The pleasures arising from thinking and learning will make us think and learn all the more.  ”
  • “The beauty of the soul shines out when a man bears with composure one heavy mischance after another, not because he does not feel them, but because he is a man of high and heroic temper.”
  • “With the truth, all given facts harmonize; but with what is false, the truth soon hits a wrong note.”
  • “We must not listen to those who advise us 'being men to think human thoughts, and being mortal to think mortal thoughts' but must put on immortality as much as possible and strain every nerve to live according to that best part of us, which, being small in bulk, yet much more in its power and honour surpasses all else.”
  • “The life of money-making is one undertaken under compulsion, and wealth is evidently not the good we are seeking; for it is merely useful and for the sake of something else.”
  • “Virtue lies in our power, and similarly so does vice; because where it is in our power to act, it is also in our power not to act...”
  • “Happiness does not lie in amusement; it would be strange if one were to take trouble and suffer hardship all one's life in order to amuse oneself”
  • “Even in adversity, nobility shines through, when a man endures repeated and severe misfortune with patience, not owing to insensibility but from generosity and greatness of soul.”
  • “He is happy who lives in accordance with complete virtue and is sufficiently equipped with external goods, not for some chance period but throughout a complete life.”
  • “Happiness then, is found to be something perfect and self sufficient, being the end to which our actions are directed.”
  • “Wealth is evidently not the good we are seeking; for it is merely useful and for the sake of something else.”
  • “What is evil neither can nor should be loved; for it is not one’s duty to be a lover of evil or to become like what is bad; and we have said that like is dear to like. Must the friendship, then, be forthwith broken off? Or is this not so in all cases, but only when one’s friends are incurable in their wickedness? If they are capable of being reformed one should rather come to the assistance of their character or their property, inasmuch as this is better and more characteristic of friendship. But a man who breaks off such a friendship would seem to be doing nothing strange; for it was not to a man of this sort that he was a friend; when his friend changed, therefore, and he is unable to save him, he gives him up.”
  • “Moral experience—the actual possession and exercise of good character—is necessary truly to understand moral principles and profitably to apply them.”
  • “How can a man know what is good or best for him, and yet chronically fail to act upon his knowledge?”
  • “men cannot know each other till they have ‘eaten salt together’;”
  • “The beginning seems to be more than half of the whole.”
  • “The man who shuns and fears everything and stands up to nothing becomes a coward; the man who is afraid of nothing at all, but marches up to every danger becomes foolhardy. Similarly the man who indulges in pleasure and refrains from none becomes licentious (akolastos); but if a man behaves like a boor (agroikos) and turns his back on every pleasure, he is a case of insensibility. Thus temperance and courage are destroyed by excess and deficiency and preserved by the mean.”
  • “It is well said, then, that it is by doing just acts that the just man is produced, and by doing temperate acts the temperate man; without doing these no one would have even a prospect of becoming good.”
  • “bad men... aim at getting more than their share of advantages, while in labor and public service they fall short of their share; and each man wishing for advantage to himself criticizes his neighbor and stands in his way; for if people do not watch it carefully the common weal is soon destroyed. The result is that they are in a state of faction, putting compulsion on each other but unwilling themselves to do what is just.”
A History of Western Philosophy Book by Bertrand Russell
Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, rev. edn, ed. H. Tredennick and Jonathan Barnes, trans. J. A. K. Thomson, London: Penguin Classics, 2004
Barnes, J. (ed.), The Complete Works of Aristotle. Available online:
Ackrill, J. L., Aristotle the Philosopher, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981
Anagnostopoulos, G. (ed.), A Companion to Aristotle, Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2009 Barnes, J. (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Aristotle, Cambridge: 
Cambridge University Press, 1995 
Ross, W. D., Aristotle, London: Methuen, 1923
Shields, C., Aristotle, 2nd edn, London: Routledge, 2014

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