Every human action aims at some good, and the good which is chosen for its

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Book One:

Section 1:

Every human action aims at some good, and the good which is chosen for its

own sake rather than as means to an end is the highest good. Ethics is a part of

politics, which is the most authoritative and architectonic science. An inquiry

into ethics should not be expected to have the same sort of precision as a

mathematical inquiry, because the nature of the subject-matter is different. A

proper student of ethics must already have substantial life experience and

training in virtue; otherwise he will not profit from the subject because he is

more inclined to listen to his passions than to reason.

Section 2:

The highest good is happiness, which means living well. There is a dispute as to

what constitutes happiness‹whether it is pleasure, honor, health, wealth,

knowledge or something else. If a student's ethical habits are not good, he will

be hindered from accepting ethical knowledge.
Section 3:

Some think that happiness is to be found in pleasure, others that it is to be found

in honor, and others that it is to be found in contemplation. Happiness is not

found in living for pleasure because such a life is slavish. Nor is it found in

seeking honor because honor depends not on the person but on what others

think of him. The contemplative life will be examined later.

Section 4:

The Good cannot is not a universal Idea, as the Platonists claim, because this

universal Idea does not encompass the range of things are considered good and

had no practical ramifications.

Section 5:

Each actions aims at some end specific to it. Some ends are for the sake of

other things, but the highest good must be complete, an end in itself. The highest

good should also be self-sufficient. Happiness fits these criteria.

Section 6:

To decide what happiness is, it is necessary to determine what the function of

man is, because excellence consists in performing one's function well. Man's

function is that which sets him apart from all other beings, an action which only

human beings can perform. Thus the function of man is activity of the soul

according to reason. Acting according to reason means acting virtuously.

Therefore to good for man is activity of the soul "according to the best and most

complete virtue."

Section 7:

Happiness is the first from principle from which our inquiry will advance.

Precision in its definition should be sought in accordance with the nature of the


Section 8:

There are three types of goods: external, those of the soul and those of the

body. Those of the soul are most important, and a person's actions fall into this


Section 9:

Our definition of happiness includes all the other things that people commonly

think of as the good‹virtue, prudence, wisdom, pleasure, etc. Noble actions are

inherently pleasant to a virtuous man. The good, the noble and the pleasant are

all interconnected, because they all go along with the best activities, the best of

which is happiness. Happiness also requires a minimal amount of external

Section 10:

The end of politics is the highest good, and consequently politics must try to

cultivate dispositions to noble actions in citizens. Strictly speaking, only human

beings with full use of reason (not animals or even small children) can be

considered happy because happiness is action in accordance with reason.
Section 11:

Happiness consists in a complete life lived according to virtue. It is difficult to

say whether the happiness of a person after death should depend on the

fortunes of his descendants. Another difficulty is that a noble person may suffer

external misfortunes which lessen his happiness. However, a virtuous person

will endure misfortunes much better than an ignoble one. Therefore regardless

of external circumstances no happy person will ever wretched, because to be

wretched one must do something hateful or bad.

Section 12:

Happiness is the principle of actions and the cause of all good things. It is thus

worthy of honor.
Section 13:

Because happiness is an activity of the soul according to virtue, it is necessary

to examine human virtue. Something is considered to have reason in two

senses: that which has reason in itself and that which listens to reason. These

two senses are the origin of the distinction between intellectual and ethical

virtues, respectively.


Aristotle begins his study on ethics by asserting that there is some ultimate good

which is both complete and self-sufficient, and defines this good as happiness.
There must be one final end of all human actions, because a human action by

definition is one that is done on purpose and for a definite goal. Note that there

are some actions performed by human beings‹such as digestion or

respiration‹which are not human actions per se. A human action is the type of

action that separates human beings from animals, because it involves the use of

reason and intelligence. An action may be performed for a limited goal, but that

goal is a means to larger goal which is a means to another even larger goal, and

so on, until one reaches the final goal which is desired for its own sake. All

lesser goods, such as wealth, honor, fame, glory, pleasure, et cetera are not

desired for themselves but in order to attain happiness. That this supreme good

is happiness has never really been a cause of dispute, for according to Aristotle,

"we may almost say that the great majority of mankind are agreed about this;

for both the multitude and persons of refinement speak of it as Happiness, and

conceive Œthe good life' or Œdoing well' to be the same thing as being happy."

It is important to note that the Greek word "eudamonia" which is usually

translated as "happiness" has no fully accurate translation in English and is not a

state of being but an action of living well, and can also be translated as

"blessedness" or "well-being."

The debate among philosophers, however, begins when considering what

constitutes happiness. Aristotle holds that the happiness of man can be defined

by determining the function proper to man. This function cannot be one which

plants and animals also perform, because it must be particular to human beings.

Therefore, man's function must be a part of the practical life of the rational part

of man, the term practical implying purposeful conduct, which is possible only

for rational beings. It follows, then, that happiness consists in the action of the

rational part of man, the soul. The ultimate good of man should naturally flow

from performing his function well; therefore, as Aristotle theorizes, "the Good of

man [and, by extension, the definition of happiness] is the active exercise of his

soul's faculties in conformity with excellence or virtue, or if there be several

human excellences or virtues, in conformity with the best and most perfect

among them." To constitute true happiness this action must persist with

continuity throughout a lifetime.

This chapter also brings up several noteworthy features of Aristotle's thought in

general. First of all, he insists on seeking precision in an inquiry only within the

limits set by the nature of the inquiry itself. Therefore while one should expect

perfect precision in a subject like mathematics, one should not expect ethics to

be so exact, or doubt the validity of conclusions about ethics because their

precision is not at the level of mathematical precision.

Second, the idea that a person needs to be virtuous in order to understand ethics

is an important feature in Aristotle's argument. Studying ethics requires the use

of practical reason and ought to result in actions that accord with ethical

principles. If a person does not live virtuously, his reason is not disposed to

accept the logic of ethical arguments and is even less disposed to put ethical

principles into action, which is an imperative of practical reason. Practical

rationality, connected with the virtue of "phronesis," most commonly translated

as prudence, is discussed in greater depth in Chapter Six.

Finally, for those with an interest in the differences between Platonic and

Aristotelian thought, section four is particularly important. While Plato considers

the only true Good to be the universal form which exists only in the realm of

ideas, Aristotle rejects Plato's characterization. Aristotle thinks that the good is

the end of human action in general and should therefore have practical

ramifications for the way a person should act.

A final note on this chapter is to call attention to the classical conception of

virtue in general, as it is quite at odds with the modern conception. Aristotle,

along with other classical (and also medeival) philosophers saw the need to act

in accordance with virtue not as the result of external societal or cultural

constraints upon a person but rather as an integral part of the person's nature.

Acting virtuously is therefore simply acting as a human being is designed to act,

and will therefore result in that person's living well‹that is, happiness. A second

feature of the classical conception of virtue which is alluded to in the first

chapter is the idea of the unity of the virtues. All of the virtues reinforce each

other and overlap in many ways, such that growth in one virtue is to some

extent growth in all virtues and vice versa. Justice (discussed more fully in

Chapter 5) is the integration of all the virtues. Because the virtues are united,

there can never be a genuine conflict between them. Finally, virtue is

considered to be the goal of politics in Aristotle's philosophy. Aristotle's work,

The Politics, is based upon this idea and is inseparable from his entire ethical

theory. To be fully understood, The Nicomachean Ethics and The Politics must

be studied in reference to one another because each depends on and completes

the other.

Book Two:

Section 1:

Ethical virtues are acquired by habituation; they do not arise in us from birth, but

we by nature have the capacity to receive and perfect them. A good

government attempts to legislate such that it helps to habituate its citizens to act

virtuously. The way to become habituated in virtue is to perform virtuous

actions beginning from one's early youth.
Section 2:

Statements prescribing virtue cannot be precise because the action must be

proper to the occasion. Virtue is to be found in the mean between extremes of

vice. If a virtue truly becomes a habit, acting according to that virtue will be

pleasant. Right education should make us take pleasure in what is good and be

pained by what is bad.

Section 3:

Some will question how virtue can be acquired by habit because to acquire the

virtue a person will already need to act virtuously in order to become habituated

to it. Yet to act virtuously and to be virtuous are different things. Being virtuous

requires three things: 1) that a person knows what he is doing, b) that he intends

to do what is he is doing and that he intends it for its own sake, and c) that he

acts with certainty and firmness.
Section 4:

Virtues and vices are not feelings. They are not acquired without deliberate

choice. Neither are they powers, because we possess powers by nature.

Virtues are habits.

Section 5:

Virtue is what makes a thing perform its function well, so the virtue of a man is

the habit from which he becomes good. Virtue is a mean between two

extremes, and the specific mean will depend on the person. Ethical virtue is

concerned with feelings and actions. It is necessary to have the right feelings at

the right times for the right things and for the right purposes. A person can err

by going toward either excess or deficiency.
Section 6:

Ethical virtue "is a habit disposed toward action by deliberate choice, being at

the mean relative to us, and defined by reason as a prudent man would define

it." Some actions or feelings are simply bad, such as maliciousness, envy,

adultery, theft and murder.
Section 7:

Actions deal with particulars, so it necessary to consider the virtues specifically.

The mean between fear and rashness is bravery. With regard to pleasures and

pains, the mean is temperance. With regard to property the mean is

munificence or generosity. With regard to honor and dishonor, the mean is

magnanimity, the excess is vanity and the deficiency is low-mindedness. With

regard to anger, the mean is good temper, and the extremes are irascibility and

inirascibility. The mean between boastfulness and self-depreciation is truth. The

mean between buffoonery and boorishness is wit. The mean between

complaisance or flattery and quarrelsomeness is friendliness. A sense of shame

is not a virtue. Righteous indignation is a mean between envy and malicious


Section 8:

The person at either extreme of vice thinks that the virtuous person is at an

extreme. A rash man, for example, thinks a brave man is a coward. Of the two

vices on either extreme of virtue, one of them is more directly opposed to the

virtue, while the other is merely a deficiency or excess. For example, cowardice

is actually opposed to bravery, while rashness is an excess of bravery.

Section 8:

It is difficult to be virtuous. A person aiming at the mean should avoid the vice

which is more directly contrary to the mean, and also take into account the

vices to which we are more inclined. It is necessary to guard against pleasure,

because pleasure cannot be judged impartially.

Aristotle identifies ethical virtue as "a habit, disposed toward action by

deliberate choice, being at the mean relative to us, and defined by reason as a

prudent man would define it" (1107a). A crucial distinction exists between being

virtuous and acting virtuously. To qualify as virtuous, one must not merely act

virtuously, but also know he is acting virtuously, intend to do what he does for

its own sake, and act with certainty and firmness (1105b). Acting virtuously,

however, is the primary means to becoming virtuous. For, according to

Aristotle, "virtues arise in us neither by nature nor contrary to nature; but by our

nature we can receive them and perfect them by habituation" (1103a).

The necessity of forming good habits in order to become virtuous leads Aristotle

to consider law and education as crucial means of making the citizens virtuous.

While the details regarding law-making are reserved for The Politics, in

Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle provides an explanation of why good laws are

necessary to form virtuous citizens. By setting certain minimal standards of

conduct, the law provides the requisite amount of coercion essential for inducing

a man to conquer his passions and to act virtuously. As Aristotle states, "It is

difficult for one to be guided rightly towards virtue from an early age unless he

is brought up under such [i.e., right] laws; for a life of temperance and

endurance is not pleasant to most people, especially the young. For these

reasons, the nurture and pursuits of the young should be regulated by laws, for

when they become habitual they are not painful" (11079b).

Through virtuous action, one will then realize the natural pleasure concomitant

in virtue, and begin to become truly virtuous. Therefore "we should be brought

up from our early youth in such a way as to enjoy and be pained by the things

we should" (1104b). Yet laws are necessary not only for the young, but for all

people. Aristotle points out toward the end of the book that "laws would be

needed for man's entire life, for most people obey necessity rather than

argument, and penalties rather than what is noble" (1179b).
One may argue that it is not the responsibility of the city to make laws

encouraging citizens to act virtuously, but rather that moral education belongs

more properly to an individual household. Yet in Aristotle's view, "virtue must

be a care for every city," because "the city exists not only for the sake of living

but rather primarily for the sake of living well" (Politics 1280bl). In addition,

virtuous citizens are necessary for the city's stability and security. Although

Aristotle does not deny the important role of parental guidance, he asserts that

while "parental command possesses neither strength nor necessity, . . . the law

has compelling power" (1180a).
If one does not acquire the proper habits, the most eloquent attempts to

persuade and exhort him to become virtuous will simply fall on deaf ears.

Aristotle implies this idea in his choice of a virtuous audience for the

Nicomachean Ethics. The philosopher states that "he who is to listen effectively

to lectures concerning noble and just things . . . should be brought up well in

ethical habits." Without having experienced the natural pleasure of virtue, one

will simply not understand Aristotle's arguments. Law is therefore necessary

because it forces one to act virtuously, thereby making virtue's pleasantness

apparent from experience and allowing one to understand the intrinsic

choiceworthiness of virtuous action.

Yet though law is necessary, it is inherently insufficient as a means of

generating true virtuousness. After all, virtue requires that one perform noble

actions for their own sake with certainty and firmness, and be aware of the

nobility of the action. In addition, a truly virtuous person will take pleasure in

acting virtuously. Obviously, law, in the specific sense of the word, cannot go

beyond merely forcing one to act virtuously. Expanding the meaning of law to

include the education which the regime provides, however, greatly broadens its

efficacy. For once law has begun to habituate a person to acting virtuously,

education can provide a means to learn the reasons why moral actions are

choiceworthy in themselves. Law, then, prepares an audience to understand

ethical teachings by assuring that they will have experienced virtuous action,

thereby opening their minds to the persuasion of reason.

Both laws and education fall short, however, in leading people to true virtue. For

virtue "is a kind of moderation, having the mean as its aim," yet "this is neither

just one thing nor the same for everyone" (1106b). As an example, Aristotle

points out that in deciding proportions of food, the specific needs and

circumstances of the individual must be taken into account. An athlete, for

instance, obviously needs to eat more than a sedentary man does. In deciding

what is virtuous, one must likewise find a mean specific to oneself, though for

all this mean lies between the same two extremes of vice. The deficiency of

laws, then, lies in their universal nature. One simply cannot make laws which

specifically dictate the mean proper to each person; a law can only provide a

broad and general guideline. Education, though more informative than law, is

similarly inadequate. While education can provide more detailed, particularized

instruction and can also refine the student's reason to aid him in choosing the

correct mean, the individual can only find the mean through trial and error in the

experiences of his own life. The virtue which one must develop in order to

attain moral virtue and to find the correct mean in all of one's actions is

prudence, which is discussed in further detail in Chapter Six.
Book Three:

Section 1:

Since only voluntary actions can be considered virtuous, it is necessary to

examine what it means for an action to be voluntary. An involuntary action is

something done by force or through ignorance. An action done through fear or

for the sake of some noble deed is more voluntary than involuntary, although

they are mixed. For an action to be involuntary, there must be some external

principle causing the action and the person must not contribute anything to the

Section 2:

An action done through ignorance is not necessarily involuntary. If the person

regrets the action which he did in ignorance, it was involuntary. But if he does

not regret the action, it cannot be considered completely involuntary even if he

did it in ignorance; we will therefore call it "nonvoluntary."
Section 3:

A voluntary action is one in which the agent of the action knows the particulars

on which the action depends. An action performed through temper or desire is

still voluntary.

Section 4:

Intention is crucial for virtuous actions and for judgment of character. Intention

is not the same as volition, because non-rational beings can act with volition but

not with intention. Intention is not a desire, a wish or an opinion. It is something

previously deliberated upon, and is formed with reason or thought. [The Greek

word which Aristotle uses for intention is "proaireton" which is compound verb

literally meaning, "to choose before."]
Section 5:

People don't deliberate about matters over which they have no control, but

rather about things which they themselves can do. We deliberate about things

which are possible, which have an unclear outcome and in which there is

something indeterminate. We deliberate about means, not about ends;

deliberation occurs after an end has been posited and it is necessary to

determine the means by which to achieve it. Thus not all inquiry is deliberation,

but all deliberation is a type of inquiry. The object of deliberation is the same as

that of intention, but the object of intention is the specific reason for which a

person acts. Intention is a deliberate desire of things which are in our power to

bring about.
Section 6:

The object of a wish is, in the unqualified sense, the good, but for each person it

is the apparent good. For a virtuous man the object of the wish is the truly good,

but for a bad man it may not be. A virtuous man judges things rightly. But the

majority of people are deceived in their judgment of the good because of

pleasure‹they consider the pleasant as equivalent to the good and the painful as

equivalent to the bad.
Section 7:

Actions concerning the means to an end are in accordance with intention and

are voluntary; the activities of virtues are also concerned with these things.

Therefore virtue is also in our power, as is vice. It is unreasonable to think that

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