aristotelian ethics


  • [9] Practical ethics Aristotle believed that ethical knowledge is not only a theoretical knowledge, but rather that a person must have “experience of the actions in life”
    and have been “brought up in fine habits” to become good (NE 1095a3 and b5).

  • Ancient commentators agree that what Aristotle means here is that his treatise must rely upon practical, everyday knowledge of virtuous actions as the starting points of his
    inquiry, and that he is supposing that his readers have some kind of experience-based understanding of such actions, and that they value noble and just actions to at least some degree.

  • (Nevertheless, like Plato he eventually says that all the highest forms of the moral virtues require each other, and all require intellectual virtue, and in effect that the
    most eudaimon and most virtuous life is that of a philosopher.

  • Aristotle’s well-known function argument is less commonly accepted today, since he seems to use it in order to develop a claim about human perfection from an observation from
    what is distinctive about man.

  • Apart from this difference, Aristotle explicitly stated that his presentation was different from Plato’s because he started from whatever could be agreed upon by well brought-up
    gentlemen, and not from any attempt to develop a general theory of what makes anything good.

  • And, since Aristotle thinks that practical wisdom rules over the character excellences, exercising such excellences is one way to exercise reason and thus fulfill the human

  • But despite the importance of practical decision making, in the final analysis the original Aristotelian and Socratic answer to the question of how best to live, at least
    for the best types of human, was, if possible, to live the life of philosophy.

  • [citation needed] Aristotle’s ethics, or study of character, is built around the premise that people should achieve an excellent character (a virtuous character, “ethikē aretē”
    in Greek) as a pre-condition for attaining happiness or well-being (eudaimonia).

  • There is some dispute, however, about exactly how such common conceptions fit into Aristotle’s method in his ethical treatises,[11] particularly since he also makes use of
    more formal arguments, especially the so-called “function argument,” which is described below.

  • Aristotle first used the term ethics to name a field of study developed by his predecessors Socrates and Plato which is devoted to the attempt to provide a rational response
    to the question of how humans should best live.

  • Aristotle also claims that the right course of action depends upon the details of a particular situation, rather than being generated merely by applying a law.

  • )[7] • Rather than discussing only four “cardinal virtues” of Plato (courage, temperance, justice, and prudence), all three of the ethical works start with courage and temperance
    as the two typical moral virtues which can be described as a mean, go on to discuss a whole range of minor virtues and vices which can be described as a mean, and only after that touch upon justice and the intellectual virtues.

  • As Aristotle argues in Book II of the Nicomachean Ethics, the man who possesses character excellence will tend to do the right thing, at the right time, and in the right way.

  • [6] (From this starting point however, he built up to similar theoretical conclusions concerning the importance of intellectual virtue and a contemplative life.

  • Aristotle emphasized that virtue is practical, and that the purpose of ethics is to become good, not merely to know.

  • [10] Elsewhere, Aristotle also seems to rely upon common conceptions of how the world works.

  • According to Aristotle in his Metaphysics, Socrates was the first Greek philosopher to concentrate on ethics, although he apparently did not give it this name, as a philosophical
    inquiry concerning how people should best live.

  • Aristotle regarded ethics and politics as two related but separate fields of study, since ethics examines the good of the individual, while politics examines the good of the
    City-State, which he considered to be the best type of community.

  • Or, as Aristotle explains it, “The function of man is activity of soul in accordance with reason, or at least not without reason.”

  • [18] Aristotle also says, for example in NE Book VI, that such a complete virtue requires intellectual virtue, not only practical virtue, but also theoretical wisdom.

  • Aristotle claims that a human’s highest functioning must include reasoning, being good at what sets humans apart from everything else.

  • In Book III of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argues that a person’s character is voluntary, since it results from many individual actions which are under his voluntary

  • Aristotle therefore describes several apparently different kinds of virtuous person as necessarily having all the moral virtues, excellences of character.

  • With respect to practical activity, in order to exercise any one of the practical excellences in the highest way, a person must possess all the others.

  • Aristotle’s writings have been read more or less continuously since ancient times,[1] and his ethical treatises in particular continue to influence philosophers working today.

  • In Book I of the Nicomachean Ethics he goes on to identify eudaimonia as the excellent exercise of the intellect, leaving it open[citation needed] whether he means practical
    activity or intellectual activity.

  • The authenticity of the Magna Moralia has been doubted,[3] whereas almost no modern scholar doubts that Aristotle wrote the Nicomachean Ethics and the Eudemian Ethics himself,
    even if an editor also played some part in giving us those texts in their current forms.

  • Aristotle dealt with this same question but giving it two names, “the political” (or Politics) and “the ethical” (Ethics), with Politics being the more important part.

  • For example, Aristotle thinks that the man whose appetites are in the correct order actually takes pleasure in acting moderately.

  • Aristotle describes popular accounts about what kind of life would be a eudaimonic one by classifying them into three most common types: a life dedicated to pleasure; a life
    dedicated to fame and honor; and a life dedicated to contemplation (NE I.1095b17-19).

  • Aristotle emphasized the practical importance of developing excellence (virtue) of character (Greek ēthikē aretē), as the way to achieve what is finally more important, excellent
    conduct (Greek praxis).

  • The argument he develops here is accordingly widely known as “the function argument,” and is among the most-discussed arguments made by any ancient philosopher.

  • It is sometimes referred to in comparison to later ethical theories as a “character based ethics”.

  • In other words, one must recognize what is good for the community and one must undertake a good course of action.

  • The highest good[edit] In his ethical works, Aristotle describes eudaimonia as the highest human good.

  • Courage is “moderation or observance of the mean with respect to feelings of fear and confidence.” Courage is “observance of the mean with regard to things that excite confidence
    or fear, under the circumstances which we have specified, and chooses its course and sticks to its post because it is noble to do so, or because it is disgraceful not to do so.” Concerning warfare, Aristotle believes soldiers are morally significant
    and are military and political heroes.

  • These are then separated into three classes: • Theoretical o Sophia – wisdom (rational intuition and scientific knowledge directed toward the highest and most valuable objects)
    o Episteme – scientific knowledge of objects that are necessary and unchanging o Nous – rational intuition of first principles or self-evident truths • Practical o Phronesis – practical wisdom/prudence • Productive o Techne – craft knowledge,
    art, skill Subjacent intellectual virtues in Aristotle: • Euboulia – deliberating well, deliberative excellence; thinking properly about the right end.

  • Some critics consider the Eudemian Ethics to be “less mature,” while others, such as Kenny (1978),[4] contend that the Eudemian Ethics is the more mature, and therefore later,

  • Three ethical treatises Three Aristotelian ethical works survive today which are considered to be either by Aristotle, or from relatively soon after: • Nicomachean Ethics,
    abbreviated as the NE or sometimes (from the Latin version of the name) as the EN, consisting of 10 books.

  • We are not studying in order to know what virtue is, but to become good, for otherwise there would be no profit in it.

  • He explained that it was necessary not to aim at too much accuracy at the starting point of any discussion to do with controversial matters such as those concerning what is
    just or what is beautiful.

  • Such a failure to act in a way that is consistent with one’s own decision is called “akrasia”, and may be translated as weakness of will, incontinence, or lack of self-mastery.

  • Aristotle develops his analysis of character in Book II of the Nicomachean Ethics, where he makes this argument that character arises from habit—likening ethical character
    to a skill that is acquired through practice, such as learning a musical instrument.

  • We should not follow popular advice and, being human, have only mortal thoughts, but should become immortal and do everything toward living the best in us.

  • He identifies two different ways in which the soul can engage: reasoning (both practical and theoretical) and following reasoning.

  • In his discussion of particular justice, Aristotle says an educated judge is needed to apply just decisions regarding any particular case.

  • [2] Like many ethicists, Aristotle regards excellent activity as pleasurable for the man of virtue.

  • For a person to become virtuous, he can’t simply study what virtue is, but must actually do virtuous things.

  • In fact, virtue ethics takes its inspiration from Aristotle’s approach to ethics—in particular, sharing his emphasis on character excellence, and ethical psychology.

  • In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle says explicitly that one must begin with what is familiar to us, and “the that” or “the fact that” (NE I.1095b2-13).

  • Fragments also survive from Aristotle’s Protrepticus, another work which dealt with ethics.

  • Aristotle’s Ethics also states that the good of the individual is subordinate to the good of the city-state, or polis.

  • [20] In modern times, Aristotle’s writings on ethics remain among the most influential in his broad corpus, along with The Rhetoric, and The Poetics, while his scientific
    writings tend to be viewed as of more strictly historical interest.


Works Cited

[‘”Roman Aristotle,” in Philosophia Togata II: Plato and Aristotle at Rome, Oxford University Press (Oxford: 1997), pp. 1–69.
2. ^ Nicomachean Ethics, trans. T. H. Irwin, Introduction. Hackett Publishing Company (Indianapolis: 1999) xv.
3. ^ But for
an argument that the Magna Moralia’s philosophical content (if not the language) is authentically Aristotle’s, see: John M. Cooper, “The Magna Moralia and Aristotle’s Moral Philosophy,” in The American Journal of Philology 94.4 (Winter, 1973):
pp. 327–49.
4. ^ The Aristotelian Ethics: A Study of the Relationship between the Eudemian and Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle, (Oxford 1978).
5. ^ Cicero mentioned him in De Finibus.
6. ^ NE Book I, EE Book I
7. ^ NE end of Book VI and end
of Book X. Also see Burger (2008).
8. ^ Burger (2008)
9. ^ NE Book X
10. ^ See M.F. Burnyeat, “Aristotle on Learning to be Good,” in Essays on Aristotle’s Ethics, ed. Rorty (1980) pp. 71–72.
11. ^ Martha Nussbaum, for example, has argued
that Aristotle’s so-called endoxic method, described at NE VII.1145b1 ff. is in fact Aristotle’s general philosophical method. See Nussbaum, Fragility of Goodness (Cambridge: 1986/2001) pp. 240 ff.
12. ^ As noted by Rachel Barney, “Aristotle’s
Argument for a Human Function,” in Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 34 (Summer 2008) p. 3.
13. ^ As noted by Jennifer Whiting in an article that defends the argument. See Whiting, “Aristotle’s Function Argument: A Defense” Ancient Philosophy
8, p. 35.
14. ^ It is mentioned within the initial discussion of practical examples of virtues and vices at Book IV.1123b.
15. ^ This description occurs for example during the special discussion of the virtue (or virtues) of justice at 1129b in
Book V.
16. ^ Mentioned in this way at 1144b in Book VI.1144b.
17. ^ Book VIII.1157a
18. ^ Eudemian Ethics Book VIII, chapter 3.
19. ^ EE III.vii. Also see MM.
20. ^ Sytsma, David (2021). “Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Protestantism”.
Academia Letters. 1650: 1–8. doi:10.20935/AL1650. S2CID 237798959.
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