Virtue and Aristotle Essays

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Aristotle: Ethics and the Virtues
The Goal of Ethics
Aristotle applied the same patient, careful, descriptive approach to his examination of moral philosophy in the Εθικη Νικομαχοι (Nicomachean Ethics). Here he discussed the conditions under which moral responsibility may be ascribed to individual agents, the nature of the virtues and vices involved in moral evaluation, and the methods of achieving happiness in human life. The central issue for Aristotle is the question of character or personality — what does it take for an individual human being to be a good person?

Every activity has a final cause, the good at which it aims, and Aristotle argued that since there cannot be an infinite regress of merely extrinsic goods, there must be a highest good at which all human activity ultimately aims. (Nic. Ethics I 2) This end of human life could be called happiness (or living well), of course, but what is it really? Neither the ordinary notions of pleasure, wealth, and honor nor the philosophical theory of forms provide an adequate account of this ultimate goal, since even individuals who acquire the material goods or achieve intellectual knowledge may not be happy.

According to Aristotle, things of any variety have a characteristic function that they are properly used to perform. The good for human beings, then, must essentially involve the entire proper function of human life as a whole, and this must be an activity of the soul that expresses genuine virtue or excellence. (Nic. Ethics I 7) Thus, human beings should aim at a life in full conformity with their rational natures; for this, the satisfaction of desires and the acquisition of material goods are less important than the achievement of virtue. A happy person will exhibit a personality appropriately balanced between reasons and desires, with moderation characterizing all. In this sense, at least, "virtue is its own reward." True happiness can therefore be attained only through the cultivation of the virtues that make a human life complete.

The Nature of Virtue
Ethics is not merely a theoretical study for Aristotle. Unlike any intellectual capacity, virtues of character are dispositions to act in certain ways in response to similar situations, the habits of behaving in a certain way. Thus, good conduct arises from habits that in turn can only be acquired by repeated action and correction, making ethics an intensely practical discipline.

Each of the virtues is a state of being that naturally seeks its mean {Gk. μεσος [mesos]} relative to us. According to Aristotle, the virtuous habit of action is always an intermediate state between the opposed vices of excess and deficiency: too much and too little are always wrong; the right kind of action always lies in the mean. (Nic. Ethics II 6) Thus, for example:

with respect to acting in the face of danger, courage {Gk. ανδρεια [andreia]} is a mean between the excess of rashness and the deficiency of cowardice;

with respect to the enjoyment of pleasures, temperance {Gk. σωφρσυνη [sophrosúnê]} is a mean between the excess of intemperance and the deficiency of insensibility;

with respect to spending money, generosity is a mean between the excess of wastefulness and the deficiency of stinginess;

with respect to relations with strangers, being friendly is a mean between the excess of being ingratiating and the deficiency of being surly; and

with respect to self-esteem, magnanimity {Gk. μεγαλοψυχι&alpha [megalopsychia]} is a mean between the excess of vanity and the deficiency of pusillanimity.

Notice that the application of this theory of virtue requires a great deal of flexibility: friendliness is closer to its excess than to its deficiency, while few human beings are naturally inclined to undervalue pleasure, so it is not unusual to overlook or ignore one of the extremes in each of these instances and simply to regard the virtue as the opposite of the other vice.