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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
Happiness is the principle of actions and the cause of all good things. It is thus
worthy of honor.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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."
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
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."]
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
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.
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