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Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics1

Abstract

Our understanding of the moral philosophy of Aristotle is hampered by a number of modern assumptions we make about the subject. For a start, we are accustomed to thinking about ethics or moral philosophy as being concerned with theoretical questions about actions—what makes an action right or wrong? Modern moral philosophy gives two different sorts of answers to this question. One is in terms of a substantial ethical theory—what makes an action right or wrong is whether it promotes the greatest happiness, or whether it is in accordance with or violates a moral rule, or whether it promotes or violates a moral right. The other sort gives a meta-ethical answer—rightness and wrongness are not really properties of actions, but in describing actions as right or wrong we commend or object to them, express our approval or disapproval or our emotions concerning them. But the ancient Greeks start with a totally different question. Ethics is supposed to answer, for each one of us, the question ‘How am I to live well?’ What this question means calls for some discussion.

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I am grateful to Gavin Lawrence for his detailed and helpful criticism of an earlier draft of this paper and for much discussion on the topics discussed herein over the years. All references to the Nicomachean Ethics have been given in terms of the so-called ‘Bekker numbers’ which are standardly used for giving exact references to Aristotle's writings. They also enable one to identify a passage on the page of any good translation, for instance the current Penguin edition of the Ethics introduced by Jonathan Barnes.

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2 Etymologically it means ‘well (eu) demoned/genuised’, i.e. blessed with a good genius or attendant spirit (daimori).

3 Though perhaps not incomprehensible, if we can understand a certain sort of neuroticism in which the person seems bent on misery and selfdestruction. Aristotle appears not to recognize the existence of such people.

4 The translation of some of Aristotle's terms for virtues makes them sound a little odd, and they are best understood by noting what vices they are opposed to. So, for instance, ‘temperance’ is not a matter of eschewing alcohol, but having the right disposition in respect of alcohol and food and sex—being neither an alcoholic, nor a glutton, nor sexually licentious. Of the virtue called, in translation, ‘patience’, Aristotle himself remarks that it doesn't really have a name, but we can readily grasp it by seeing that it is opposed to the vices of being bad tempered in various ways on the one hand, and poor spirited on the other. It is also important to realize that the term we translate as ‘virtue’ (arete) has not specifically moral overtones and is better translated as ‘excellence’. So it should come as no surprise to us that Aristotle's list contains non-moral virtues or excellences such as wittiness. But we need not even take many of these very seriously as excellences, for in his other ethical work, the Eudemian Ethics, Aristotle makes a point of denying that they are excellences (of character) on the grounds that they do not involve choice (EE1234a25). Finally, we should note that Aristotle's list is openended—he nowhere claims that it is exhaustive—so it is open to us to add to it virtues with which we are more familiar, e.g. benevolence, compassion, honesty, kindness.…

5 Cf. for example, 1106bl–22 and 1109a20–29. Note in the latter passage the comparison with finding the centre of a circle, which is a better image than finding a midpoint (‘mean’) between just two opposing vices.

6 It is important to note that the only similarity I am claiming between the two cases is on this point. Giving up smoking, etc., is not constitutive of flourishing physically the way exercising the virtues is constitutive of flourishing as a human being, and there are other disanalogies too.

7 We might of course think of further alternatives—what for instance of the life of the entirely selfish but dedicated great artist? Aristotle does recognize an analogous alternative in Book 10. There he argues that the best life consists in intellectual activity (contemplation) not in the practical activity necessitated by the exercise of the (moral) virtues. And this apparently allows that, if I am to live well, I should not acquire and practise the virtues but acquire some other set of character traits which best armed me for becoming a successful contemplator. How this can be reconciled, if at all, with what has been said in the earlier books of the Ethics is a major problem in Aristotelian scholarship and raises questions that are interesting in their own right. Are there ways of flourishing which actually necessitate vice or must any flourishing human life resemble the fully virtuous one to some extent? (Cf. footnote 11 below.)

8 Phillips D. Z., ‘Does it Pay to be Good?’, Proc. Arist. Soc. n.s. 65 (19641965).

9 McDowell John, ‘The Role of Eudaimonia in Aristotle's Ethics’, reprinted in Essays on Aristotle's Ethics, Rorty Amelie (ed.) (California: University of California Press, 1980), 369370.

10 Aristotle explicitly acknowledges the existence of such cases in his section on ‘mixed’ actions (Book 3, ch. i). The characteristic of these is that what is chosen—say death or torture or the enduring of disgrace—is something that considered ‘in itself’ is not a good, not the sort of thing that anyone would go for. In so far as he takes something that he recognizes not to be a good but an evil the agent acts involuntarily and can be pitied.

11 Pending further specification of such people this is still a possibility; it is not obvious so far that what they should do is acquire and practise the vices. Cf. the question raised at the end of footnote 7 above.

1 I am grateful to Gavin Lawrence for his detailed and helpful criticism of an earlier draft of this paper and for much discussion on the topics discussed herein over the years. All references to the Nicomachean Ethics have been given in terms of the so-called ‘Bekker numbers’ which are standardly used for giving exact references to Aristotle's writings. They also enable one to identify a passage on the page of any good translation, for instance the current Penguin edition of the Ethics introduced by Jonathan Barnes.

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Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplements
  • ISSN: 1358-2461
  • EISSN: 1755-3555
  • URL: /core/journals/royal-institute-of-philosophy-supplements
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