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Aristotle:Ethics

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Aristotle:EthicsandtheVirtues
TheGoalofEthics
Aristotleappliedthesamepatient,careful,descriptiveapproachtohisexaminationofmoral
philosophyinthe(NicomacheanEthics).Herehediscussedtheconditionsunder
whichmoralresponsibilitymaybeascribedtoindividualagents,thenatureofthevirtuesandvices
involvedinmoralevaluation,andthemethodsofachievinghappinessinhumanlife.Thecentral
issueforAristotleisthequestionofcharacterorpersonalitywhatdoesittakeforanindividual
humanbeingtobeagoodperson?
Everyactivityhasafinalcause,thegoodatwhichitaims,andAristotlearguedthatsincethere
cannotbeaninfiniteregressofmerelyextrinsicgoods,theremustbeahighestgoodatwhichall
humanactivityultimatelyaims.(Nic.EthicsI2)Thisendofhumanlifecouldbecalledhappiness
(orlivingwell),ofcourse,butwhatisitreally?Neithertheordinarynotionsofpleasure,wealth,
andhonornorthephilosophicaltheoryofformsprovideanadequateaccountofthisultimategoal,
sinceevenindividualswhoacquirethematerialgoodsorachieveintellectualknowledgemaynot
behappy.
AccordingtoAristotle,thingsofanyvarietyhaveacharacteristicfunctionthattheyareproperly
usedtoperform.Thegoodforhumanbeings,then,mustessentiallyinvolvetheentireproper
functionofhumanlifeasawhole,andthismustbeanactivityofthesoulthatexpressesgenuine
virtueorexcellence.(Nic.EthicsI7)Thus,humanbeingsshouldaimatalifeinfullconformity
withtheirrationalnaturesforthis,thesatisfactionofdesiresandtheacquisitionofmaterialgoods
arelessimportantthantheachievementofvirtue.Ahappypersonwillexhibitapersonality
appropriatelybalancedbetweenreasonsanddesires,withmoderationcharacterizingall.Inthis
sense,atleast,"virtueisitsownreward."Truehappinesscanthereforebeattainedonlythroughthe
cultivationofthevirtuesthatmakeahumanlifecomplete.

TheNatureofVirtue
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EthicsisnotmerelyatheoreticalstudyforAristotle.Unlikeanyintellectualcapacity,virtuesof
characteraredispositionstoactincertainwaysinresponsetosimilarsituations,thehabitsof
behavinginacertainway.Thus,goodconductarisesfromhabitsthatinturncanonlybeacquired
byrepeatedactionandcorrection,makingethicsanintenselypracticaldiscipline.
Eachofthevirtuesisastateofbeingthatnaturallyseeksitsmean{Gk.[mesos]}relative
tous.AccordingtoAristotle,thevirtuoushabitofactionisalwaysanintermediatestatebetween
theopposedvicesofexcessanddeficiency:toomuchandtoolittlearealwayswrongtherightkind
ofactionalwaysliesinthemean.(Nic.EthicsII6)Thus,forexample:
withrespecttoactinginthefaceofdanger,
courage{Gk.[andreia]}isameanbetween
theexcessofrashnessandthedeficiencyofcowardice
withrespecttotheenjoymentofpleasures,
temperance{Gk.[sophrosn]}isameanbetween
theexcessofintemperanceandthedeficiencyofinsensibility
withrespecttospendingmoney,
generosityisameanbetween
theexcessofwastefulnessandthedeficiencyofstinginess
withrespecttorelationswithstrangers,
beingfriendlyisameanbetween
theexcessofbeingingratiatingandthedeficiencyofbeingsurlyand
withrespecttoselfesteem,
magnanimity{Gk.&alpha[megalopsychia]}isameanbetween
theexcessofvanityandthedeficiencyofpusillanimity.
Noticethattheapplicationofthistheoryofvirtuerequiresagreatdealofflexibility:friendlinessis
closertoitsexcessthantoitsdeficiency,whilefewhumanbeingsarenaturallyinclinedto
undervaluepleasure,soitisnotunusualtooverlookorignoreoneoftheextremesineachofthese
instancesandsimplytoregardthevirtueastheoppositeoftheothervice.
Althoughtheanalysismaybecomplicatedorawkwardinsomeinstances,thegeneralplanof
Aristotle'sethicaldoctrineisclear:avoidextremesofallsortsandseekmoderationinallthings.
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Notbadadvice,surely.SomeversionofthisgeneralapproachdominatedWesterncultureformany
centuries.
VoluntaryAction
Becauseethicsisapracticalratherthanatheoreticalscience,Aristotlealsogavecareful
considerationtotheaspectsofhumannatureinvolvedinactingandacceptingmoralresponsibility.
Moralevaluationofanactionpresupposestheattributionofresponsibilitytoahumanagent.Butin
certaincircumstances,thisattributionwouldnotbeappropriate.Responsibleactionmustbe
undertakenvoluntarily,onAristotle'sview,andhumanactionsareinvoluntaryundertwodistinct
conditions:(Nic.EthicsIII1)
First,actionsthatareproducedbysomeexternalforce(or,perhaps,underanextremeduress
fromoutsidetheagent)aretakeninvoluntarily,andtheagentisnotresponsibleforthem.Thus,if
someonegrabsmyarmandusesittostrikeathirdperson,Icannotreasonablybeblamed(or
praised)morallyforwhatmyarmhasdone.
Second,actionsperformedoutofignorancearealsoinvoluntary.Thus,ifIswingmyarmfor
exerciseandstrikethethirdpartywho(unbeknownsttome)isstandingnearby,thenagainIcannot
beheldresponsibleforhavingstruckthatperson.NoticethatthesortofignoranceAristotleis
willingtoregardasexculpatoryisalwaysoflackofawarenessofrelevantparticulars.Striking
otherpeoplewhileclaimingtobeignorantofthemoralruleunderwhichitiswrongtodosowould
notprovideanyexcuseonhisview.
Aswe'llsoonsee,decisionstoactvoluntarilyrelyupondeliberationaboutthechoiceamong
alternativeactionsthattheindividualcouldperform.Duringthedeliberativeprocess,individual
actionsareevaluatedinlightofthegood,andthebestamongthemisthenchosenfor
implementation.Undertheseconditions,Aristotlesupposed,moralactionsarewithinourpowerto
performoravoidhence,wecanreasonablybeheldresponsibleforthemandtheirconsequences.
Justaswithhealthofthebody,virtueofthesoulisahabitthatcanbeacquired(atleastinpart)as
theresultofourownchoices.
DeliberateChoice
Althoughthevirtuesarehabitsofactingordispositionstoactincertainways,Aristotle
maintainedthatthesehabitsareacquiredbyengaginginproperconductonspecificoccasionsand
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thatdoingsorequiresthinkingaboutwhatonedoesinaspecificway.Neitherdemonstrative
knowledgeofthesortemployedinsciencenoraestheticjudgmentofthesortappliedincraftsare
relevanttomorality.Theunderstanding{Gk.[dinoia]}canonlyexplorethenatureof
originsofthings,onAristotle'sview,andwisdom{Gk.[sopha]}canonlytracethe
demonstratableconnectionsamongthem.
Butthereisadistinctivemodeofthinkingthatdoesprovideadequatelyformorality,according
toAristotle:practicalintelligenceorprudence{Gk.[phrnsis]}.Thisfacultyalone
comprehendsthetruecharacterofindividualandcommunitywelfareandappliesitsresultstothe
guidanceofhumanaction.Actingrightly,then,involvescoordinatingourdesireswithcorrect
thoughtsaboutthecorrectgoalsorends.
Thisisthefunctionofdeliberativereasoning:toconsidereachofthemanyactionsthatare
withinone'spowertoperform,consideringtheextenttowhicheachofthemwouldcontributeto
theachievementoftheappropriategoalorend,makingadeliberatechoicetoactinthewaythat
bestfitsthatend,andthenvoluntarilyengagingintheactionitself.(Nic.EthicsIII3)Although
virtueisdifferentfromintelligence,then,theacquisitionofvirtuereliesheavilyupontheexercise
ofthatintelligence.
WeaknessoftheWill
Butdoingtherightthingisnotalwayssosimple,eventhoughfewpeopledeliberatelychooseto
developvicioushabits.AristotlesharplydisagreedwithSocrates'sbeliefthatknowingwhatisright
alwaysresultsindoingit.Thegreatenemyofmoralconduct,onAristotle'sview,ispreciselythe
failuretobehavewellevenonthoseoccasionswhenone'sdeliberationhasresultedinclear
knowledgeofwhatisright.
Incontinentagentssufferfromasortofweaknessofthewill{Gk.[akrsia]}that
preventsthemfromcarryingoutactionsinconformitywithwhattheyhavereasoned.(Nic.Ethics
VII1)Thismayappeartobeasimplefailureofintelligence,Aristotleacknowledged,sincethe
akraticindividualseemsnottodrawtheappropriateconnectionbetweenthegeneralmoralruleand
theparticularcasetowhichitapplies.Somehow,theoverwhelmingprospectofsomegreat
pleasureseemstoobscureone'sperceptionofwhatistrulygood.Butthisdifficulty,Aristotleheld,
neednotbefataltotheachievementofvirtue.
Althoughincontinenceisnotheroicallymoral,neitherisittrulyvicious.Considerthedifference
betweenanincontinentperson,whoknowswhatisrightandaimsforitbutissometimesovercome
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bypleasure,andanintemperateperson,whopurposefullyseeksexcessivepleasure.Aristotle
arguedthattheviceofintemperanceisincurablebecauseitdestroystheprincipleoftherelated
virtue,whileincontinenceiscurablebecauserespectforvirtueremains.(Nic.EthicsVII8)A
clumsyarchermaygetbetterwithpractice,whileaskilledarcherwhochoosesnottoaimforthe
targetwillnot.

Friendship
InaparticularlyinfluentialsectionoftheEthics,Aristotleconsideredtheroleofhuman
relationshipsingeneralandfriendship{Gk.[philia]}inparticularasavitalelementinthe
goodlife.
Forwithoutfriendsnoonewouldchoosetolive,thoughhehadallothergoods.
Differentiatingbetweentheaimsorgoalsofeach,hedistinguishedthreekindsoffriendshipsthat
wecommonlyform.(Nic.EthicsVIII3)
Afriendshipforpleasurecomesintobeingwhentwopeoplediscoverthattheyhavecommon
interestinanactivitywhichtheycanpursuetogether.Theirreciprocalparticipationinthatactivity
resultsingreaterpleasureforeachthaneithercouldachievebyactingalone.Thus,forexample,
twopeoplewhoenjoyplayingtennismightderivepleasurefromplayingeachother.Sucha
relationshiplastsonlysolongasthepleasurecontinues.
Afriendshipgroundedonutility,ontheotherhand,comesintobeingwhentwopeoplecan
benefitinsomewaybyengagingincoordinatedactivity.Inthiscase,thefocusisonwhatusethe
twocanderivefromeachother,ratherthanonanyenjoymenttheymighthave.Thus,forexample,
onepersonmightteachanothertoplaytennisforafee:theonebenefitsbylearningandtheother
benefitsfinanciallytheirrelationshipisbasedsolelyonthemutualutility.Arelationshipofthis
sortlastsonlysolongasitsutility.
Afriendshipforthegood,however,comesintobeingwhentwopeopleengageincommon
activitiessolelyforthesakeofdevelopingtheoverallgoodnessoftheother.Here,neitherpleasure
norutilityarerelevant,butthegoodis.(Nic.EthicsVIII4)Thus,forexample,twopeoplewith
heartdiseasemightplaytenniswitheachotherforthesakeoftheexercisethatcontributestothe
overallhealthofboth.Sincethegoodisneverwhollyrealized,afriendshipofthissortshould,in
principle,lastforever.
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Ratherconservativelyrepresentinghisownculture,Aristotleexpressedsomeratherpeculiar
notionsaboutthelikelihoodofformingfriendshipsofthesedistinctvarietiesamongpeopleof
differentagesandgenders.Butthegeneraldescriptionhassomevaluenevertheless,especiallyin
itsfocusonreciprocity.Mixedfriendshipsthoseinwhichonepartyisseekingonepayoffwhile
theotherseeksadifferentoneareinherentlyunstableandpronetodissatisfaction.
AchievingHappiness
Aristotleroundedoffhisdiscussionofethicallivingwithamoredetaileddescriptionofthe
achievementoftruehappiness.Pleasureisnotagoodinitself,heargued,sinceitisbyitsnature
incomplete.Butworthwhileactivitiesareoftenassociatedwiththeirowndistinctivepleasures.
Hence,wearerightlyguidedinlifebyournaturalpreferenceforengaginginpleasantactivities
ratherthaninunpleasantones.
Genuinehappinessliesinactionthatleadstovirtue,sincethisaloneprovidestruevalueandnot
justamusement.Thus,Aristotleheldthatcontemplationisthehighestformofmoralactivity
becauseitiscontinuous,pleasant,selfsufficient,andcomplete.(Nic.EthicsX8)Inintellectual
activity,humanbeingsmostnearlyapproachdivineblessedness,whilerealizingallofthegenuine
humanvirtuesaswell.

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