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Sam Dismuke

Ancient Philosophy
Prof. Wider

Aristotles Nicomachean Ethics


As human beings we come into this world with a sort of Tabula Rasa, a blank slate for
which our experiences and morals become written upon. Its from this slate, as I believe, we
learn how to conduct ourselves and interact with others as developing agents of reason. Still,
how do we measure these morals, and more importantly how do we satisfy human morality?
Although Aristotles Nicomachean Ethics was written over 2,000 years ago, his ethics offers not
only a tangible insight to moral standards as virtues but as serve as guidelines on how one ought
to live. That being said, contrary to the action-guiding objections, Aristotles virtue ethics
provides a solid moral framework along with a sense of empowerment over our actions to which
we are held accountable for.
In order to understand Aristotles ethics we must first concede to his notion of goodness
as described in the opening sentence of the Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle notes, Every art and
every kind of inquiry, and likewise every act and purpose, seems to aim at some good; and so it
has been well said that the good is that at which all things aim,"(Book I.1) and from this we can
make sense of his meaning good. This view of good can clearly be established as we
examine our everyday life. That is to say, we call an object or action good if it satisfies a certain
need. In turn, once that need is satisfied the action or result can be considered good if it further
fulfills yet another need or end. For example, a student studies for a final exam(action)in order
to get a good grade(end) where by a good grade(action) will satisfy passing their class and
graduation(end) and furthermore, graduation(action) will lead to a great careerso on and so
forth. Thus, we see that every new beginning starts from some other beginnings end and its from
these instrumental ends that Aristotle begins to ponder the ultimate end or the highest good.

Sam Dismuke
Ancient Philosophy
Prof. Wider

Simply put, all things or actions start with the end in mind. Additionally, Aristotle states, If there
is some end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake [that which motivates all other
actions or ends], and if we do not choose everything for the sake of something [then]clearly
this must be the good and the chief good.(Book I.7)This statement offers great value, because it
implies that there is an end within itself and this end would be that which is absolutely good.
Furthermore, knowledge of this good would be of great importance, for it would provide an aim
for life and a standard by which to evaluate all other activities and thoughtswhat one ought to
do.
What does it mean to live a good life and what is the ultimate aim of human life? Once
again, if all things, including humans, aim toward some good, surely we must aim at the chief
goodthe highest good. Thus, understanding and gaining knowledge of this absolute goodness
must be considered when we discuss the good life, or eudemonia. Aristotles teleological theory
aids in describing the chief good and tells us that for both the general run of men and people of
superior refinement say that it is happiness, and identify living well and doing well with being
happy.(Book I. 4) In other words, happiness is the one thing that all human aspire towards for
the sake of itselfan end within itself. Still, happiness and the good life can vary from one
person to another. For some, happiness consists of the hedonistic and sensual pleasures. Others
identify happiness with honors and some others believe happiness is found in contemplation. So,
which life or form of happiness is most desirable? Presumably, its one where happiness is
determined in a sense of its function. For example, a good scalpel has a function, to cut, and it
performs its function well when it cuts well. Additionally, just as good axe chops wood, and a
doctor heals, the good and the 'well' are thought to reside in the function, so too does it for man.

Sam Dismuke
Ancient Philosophy
Prof. Wider

Turning our attention toward the task or function of humans, we shall begin to unveil
Aristotles virtue ethics in sight of eudemonia. Aristotles inquiry into what the human function
is argues that function must be an activity in which only humans can engage in. Excluding the
function of nutrition and growth, or perception (existing in plants and animals as well), he states
that rational activity, "an active life of the element that has a rational principle," (Book I.7) is the
only activity peculiar to humans. Therefore, fulfillment of human function is to preform acts
dictated by reason and if these act are done by reason(associated with the good), then any action
well performed when it is performed in accordance with the appropriate excellence turns out
to be activity of soul in accordance with virtue.(Book I.7) Thus, as Aristotle and modern logic
would have it, to be a good person is to preform acts of virtue. Since happiness, an activity of the
soul, can be achieve by way of virtue(s), it is imperative we determine the nature of excellence or
virtue.
In Book I.Chapter XII, Aristotle begins his examination of virtue by delving into the soul.
Its clear that an understanding of the soul is necessary, for happiness is an activity of the soul in
accordance with virtue. First, the soul can be divided in half consisting of both the irrational and
rational elements. Secondly, the irrational part can be further divided into the vegetative (growth
and nourishment) and the appetitive elements. While the vegetative element, common to all
living things, is not relevant to Aristotles virtue ethics, the appetitive element is surly significant
to our empowerment. Although irrational, the source of all impulses and desires stem from the
appetitive element which relates to the rational (virtuous) soul in so far as it listens to and obeys
it; this is the sense in which we speak of 'taking account' of one's [actions]. (Book I.13) Thus,
the rational part of the soul is said to controls these impulses, so a virtuous person with greater
rationality is better able to control his or her impulses. Finally, according to Aristotle, this
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Sam Dismuke
Ancient Philosophy
Prof. Wider

division of the soul allows for further distinction of virtues where some are intellectual and
others moral; philosophic wisdom and understanding and practical wisdom being intellectual,
[whereas] liberality and temperance [are] moral.(Book I.13) It is here, within the moral virtues,
that humans can begin to accurately understand how to live a good life in pursuit of happiness.
If patience is a virtue, as the old proverbial phrase states, then how do we achieve it?
As Aristotle claims, virtue, then, being of two kinds, intellectual and moral, intellectual virtue in
the main owes both its birth and its growth to teaching (for which reason it requires experience
and time), while moral virtue comes about as a result of habit, whence also its name (ethike) is
one that is formed by a slight variation from the word ethos (habit). (Book II.1) That is to say,
Intellectual virtues are the result of learning and are good in and of themselves and can
essentially never be in excess. On the other hand, moral virtue is formed by doing as a direct
result of our desires or actions and can often be taken into excess. The same factors that produce
any excellence or virtue can also destroy it. Consequently, if achieving a virtue is a matter of
exercising actions or habits, then it can be said that the production of good or bad habits are
predicated on how often the action is performed. Therefore, our definition of virtues is described
as those means between two extremes (vices). For example, in the face of fear (emotion) one can
find courage (virtue) as a mean between the vices of cowardice (excess fear) and rashness
(deficiency of fear).
Human virtue, as previously discussed, is a disposition to behave in the right manner and
as a mean between the extremes of deficiency and excess, which are vices. Still, Aristotle
believes that with some actions, such as murder or adultery, there is no virtuous meanthese
actions are always wrong. In Book II. 5-9, Aristotle continues to lists some of the principle
virtues along with their corresponding vices of excess and deficiency in a table of virtues and
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Sam Dismuke
Ancient Philosophy
Prof. Wider

vices. This is the crux of matter in his Doctrine of The Mean (golden mean) which does not serve
as rules or calculations, but rather as guidelines to circumstances. It posits that you cannot have
an excess or defect of a virtue, so you cannot have too much courage. The mean applies to the
action or emotion one is considering and not to the virtue achieved if one has the right amount of
the action or emotion.1 Furthermore, in reference to the appetites and desires which are closely
associated with what one ought to do, the virtuous life consists in following the doctrine of the
"golden mean." Also, it should be noted under this principle that an activity is good only insofar
as it is present in the right amount. Too much or too little is to be avoided but "the right amount
for the right person, in the right place, and at the right time" hits the targeted mean. To this, I
maintain my thesis in the fact that the power and ability to express virtue (within the mean) lay
solely in the hands of the individual, who must determine for himself just what is the proper
amount in his particular situation.
At this point, Im compelled to briefly discuss an objection to Aristotles virtue ethics in
accordance to its guidelines. Furthermore, I shall use book III of the Nicomachean Ethics to help
counter these objections. As previously indicated, to live a moral life one should practice, live
and make habit of virtues via our ability to reason. Also, it can be assumed that reason along with
the golden mean, well equips an individual to handle certain moral situations and assume
responsibility. However, critics of Aristotles virtue ethic believe that the duty of normative
ethics should be to provide a clear and calculated answer to all ethical dilemmas, such as
abortion. That is to say, the existence of rigid rules, unlike virtue ethics, is strength, not a
weakness because they offer clear direction on what to do. As long as an individual knows the
principle or governing rule, it can be applied to all situations including abortion. In sum, critics
believe a theory that fails to be action-guiding is no good as a moral theory. 2

Sam Dismuke
Ancient Philosophy
Prof. Wider

While virtue ethics tends to provide less guidance than other normative ethics, Aristotle
clearly warns us that the pursuit of ethics itself is imprecise and complex; for it has and possibly
always will be. Therefore, guidelines that are flexible and situation-sensitive should reflect the
imprecise nature of its ethos. Let face it, for many of us one size does not fit all and it only
seems correct to measure a moral act based on the guidelines set forth by Aristotle. Additionally,
virtue ethics empowers an individual by allowing them to use their judgment and make rational
choices to accommodate the complexity of all moral situations which they may encounter. Our
judgment is just that, its our own and that our own judgment is something that we as humans
can be held accountable for. I believe that this is the very essence of what builds character; those
moral and ethical qualities that hold individuals accountable for good or worse. In fact, the
American judicial system and magistrates all over the world use their superior reason to judge
an individuals character based on accountability. In sum, virtue ethics empowers individuals to
use reason (controlling the appetite) while providing a sensible guideline to practical issues that
are reflective of the moral character. Further, it seems unlikely that we will satisfy morality by
applying the same rigid rule to several varying situations.

Now, undoubtedly I shall come full circle and discuss the nature of ones character as
expressed by their actions and accountability. Since virtue is concerned with passions and
actions, and on voluntary passions and actions praise and blame are bestowed, on those that are
involuntary pardon, and sometimes also [pitied], (Book III.1) we must distinguish between
involuntary, non-voluntary and voluntary actions. Those acts that are performed under
compulsion or through the result of Ignorance are considered to be involuntary, furthermore; an
act is consider compulsive if the agent does nothing to contribute to the action(i.e. man being

Sam Dismuke
Ancient Philosophy
Prof. Wider

swept away by the wind). Those acts in which we express free will or which are in ignorance of
correct moral choices are considered to be voluntary. For example, choosing to get drunk (free
will) is a voluntary action, yet kill an innocent drive in ignorance to your drunkenness would still
be considered toward the voluntary. In mixed situations, such as the previous example, can be
considered to be non-voluntary and are harder to distinguish. For example, having a gun to your
head and being forced to pull the trigger and murder a child. In any case, It seems the best
measure of moral goodness is choice [influenced by reason], because unlike actions, choices are
always made voluntarily. We make choices about the means we use to achieve a desired end.1
Hence, our rational deliberation of these choices expresses our control over our actions and
feelings. Since a virtue and its extremes (vices) solely lie within human control, the choosing of
ones character (good or bad) lies within his own actions and accountability.
In sum, Aristotles Nicomachean Ethics describes that all human activity is directed
toward some end which ultimately is happinesseudemonia. One attains happiness by a
virtuous life and the development of reason. This developed reason allows us to act in
accordance with moral virtues that are between extremes of excess and deficiency. further, moral
virtue is acquired by knowledge, habituation, and self-discipline over our appetitive element. It is
this self-control in which a virtuous man is required to choose that empowers his judgment; for
we as humans have a personal moral accountability which defines our character and how we
[might] ought to live our lives.

Sam Dismuke
Ancient Philosophy
Prof. Wider

Bibliography

1. In Class hand out: Wider. Aristotle's Moral Virtue as Mean. University of MichiganDearborn, 2011. Print.
2. "Virtue Ethics [Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy]." Internet Encyclopedia of
Philosophy. Web. 26 Nov. 2011. <http://www.iep.utm.edu/virtue/>.

Kolak, Daniel, and Garrett Thomson. The Longman Standard History of Ancient Philosophy.
New York: Pearson/Longman, 2006. Print.