Some Notes on Aristotle’s Moral Theory



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Some Notes on Aristotle’s Moral Theory
Short Biography

Aristotle (384 BCE – 322 BCE) was an ancient Greek philosopher born in Stagira in 384 BCE. He was taught by his father, but he was orphaned at the age of ten, at which point his uncle took over his education. At the age of 18 he went to the Academy, the school founded by Plato, and became one of Plato’s favorite students. (Aristotle’s philosophy is often contrasted with Plato’s: unlike Plato, he was much more interested in investigating the actual natural world than he was in engaging in a priori reflection about such abstract things as “The Forms” which were Plato’s main concern.) Later in life, Aristotle became the private tutor of Alexander the Great. Around 335 BCE Aristotle founded his own philosophical school, known as the Lyceum. The philosophers he trained there were sometimes called the peripatetics; many people speculate that they were called this because Aristotle would discuss philosophical questions while walking around the grounds of the Lyceum. Aristotle wrote most of his works in the latter part of his life, while teaching at the Lyceum. His most important work in ethics is his Nicomachean Ethics.


[Don’t study or memorize any of this biographical stuff.]


Aristotle’s Moral Theory

Unlike Kant and the Utilitarians we have, up until this point, been studying, for Aristotle, the central/primary ethical question is neither “what ought I to do?” or “how ought I to behave?”, but, rather, “what type of person ought I to be?”. This fact makes Aristotle’s moral theory as different, arguably, from both Kantians and Utilitarians as they are from each other.


Aristotle begins his discussion with an inquiry into what human good is. He notes straightaway that everyone agrees that happiness is the human good, but he says people disagree about what happiness consists in. Some think that happiness is pleasure, others think it is honor, and yet others think it is virtue. Aristotle disagrees with all of these views. He rejects out of hand the view that being happy is a matter of having pleasure. He dismisses the idea that being happy is a matter of being honored because being happy, we think, is an intrinsic state, whereas being honored is extrinsic (i.e., whether you are honored depends on what other people think of you, whereas being happy, we think, doesn’t depend on facts about other people). And he also thinks that being happy isn’t just a matter of having virtue because, he notes, being virtuous is consistent with being completely inactive. (Aristotle also considers and rejects Plato’s theory of happiness.) Finally, Aristotle settles on the view that: “happiness is an activity of soul in accordance with perfect virtue”. But he immediately qualifies this by saying:
But we must add ‘in a complete life’. For one swallow does not make a summer, nor does one day; and so too one day, or a short time, does not make a man blessed and happy.
This leads us to Aristotle’s theory of the good:
Aristotelian Theory of Value: Lives are the kinds of things that can be good or bad and a life is good (bad) to the degree that it is filled with virtuous (vicious) activity performed virtuously (viciously).

In Aristotle’s view the human soul (and by ‘soul’ he did not mean the kind of incorporeal thing that many people mean by ‘soul’; rather, for Aristotle, the soul is just the animating force of a living being) is divided into three parts:




  1. vegetative part

- responsible for growth, digestion, breathing, and all other involuntary

bodily activities



  1. appetitive part

- responsible for desires, motivations, passions, emotions, etc.

  1. rational part

- responsible for reasoning and all our other intellectual faculties
The first two parts constitute what Aristotle called “the irrational part of the soul” whereas the last part constituted, obviously, “the rational part of the soul”. The excellences of the vegetative part of the soul are not particularly human (because we share them with other non-human living things) and thus are not relevant to Aristotle’s inquiry.
Aristotle is concerned with the excellences of the appetitive and the rational parts of the soul; these he calls virtues. Excellences of the appetitive part of the soul he calls moral virtues and excellences of the rational part of the soul he calls intellectual virtues. One crucial difference between these types of virtue is that, according to Aristotle, whereas intellectual virtue can be taught, moral virtue cannot. Rather, moral virtue can only be acquired via habit. Moral virtue cannot be taught, according to Aristotle, because he thinks that there simply aren’t any general moral principles that one can use to apply in any situation in which one might find oneself to figure out what to do.
[We won’t focus on the intellectual virtues. Our main focus is on the moral virtues.]
Another crucial point about the moral virtues for Aristotle is that they are not innate; no one is born with any of the moral virtues. He says:
From this it is also plain that none of the moral virtues arises in us by nature…. Neither by nature, then, nor contrary to nature do the virtues arise in us; rather we are adapted by nature to receive them, and are made perfect by habit.
So, for Aristotle, though no one is born with any of the virtues, we are all born with a capacity to acquire the virtues, and we acquire the virtues by habit.
But how, exactly, do we acquire the virtues, then? For Aristotle, we get the virtues by exercising them. Huh? What can that mean? Here is Aristotle’s point. To acquire a virtue, you need to act in those ways you would act if you had the virtue. Then after a while, after habitual performance of these kinds of acts, over time you will develop the virtue. Here is a revealing passage:
Actions, then, are called just and temperate when they are such as the just or the temperate man would do; but it is not the man who does those that is just and temperate, but the man who also does them as just and temperate men do them. It is well said, then, that it is by doing just acts that the just man is produced, and by doing temperate acts the temperate man; without doing these, no one would have even a prospect of becoming good.
So, here, I take it, is the picture. We are all born not virtuous (not vicious either). If we habitually perform virtuous acts (how you might ask? By imitating those who we know are virtuous, acting in the ways they would act in the situations we find ourselves in), then over time we will acquire the virtues ourselves. (How and when does this acquisition take place? Aristotle doesn’t say.) So before we acquire the virtues, we perform virtuous acts (by imitating those acts of the virtuous people), but before we acquire the virtues ourselves, our performances of those acts are not virtuous performances of those acts. So before we acquire the virtues, if we imitate virtuous people, we perform virtuous acts, but we don’t perform those virtuous acts virtuously. It is only once we acquire the virtues (the particular virtuous character traits) that we can perform virtuous acts virtuously.
An action is a virtuous act if and only if it is of a type that a virtuous person would perform in that situation
An action is a virtuous action performed virtuously if and only if it is

  1. a virtuous act, and

  2. it is performed from the stable virtuous character trait itself.

But what, you might ask, are the moral virtues? Well, Aristotle spends a lot of the Nicomachean Ethics discussing a lot of the different individual moral virtues. Here is a list of some of the virtues: Courage, Temperance, Liberality, Patience, Wittiness, Friendliness.


Now we come to a crucial Aristotelian doctrine. For Aristotle, the virtues are character traits that always are situated in a middle ground between two vices (one of excess, and the other of deficiency). This is his famous Doctrine of the Mean. He illustrates this doctrine with an analogy:
[E]xercise either excessive or defective destroys strength, and similarly drink or food which is above or below a certain amount destroys the health, while that which is proportionate both produces and increases and preserves it. So too is it, then, in the case of temperance and courage and the other virtues. For the man who flies from and fears everything and does not stand his ground against anything becomes a coward, and the man who fears nothing at all but goes to meet every danger becomes rash; and similarly, the man who indulges in every pleasure and abstains from none becomes self-indulgent, while the man who shuns every pleasure, as boors do, becomes in a way insensible; temperance and courage, then, are destroyed by excess and defect, and preserved by the mean.”
Here is my best formulation of this famous doctrine:
The Doctrine of the Mean: The virtues are those character traits that lie at the mean along a continuum of character traits of a certain type, at the opposite ends of which lie the corresponding vices of excess and deficiency, respectively.
So, for example, here is how Aristotle would see the above-mentioned virtues situated in between their corresponding vices:
Vice of Deficiency Virtue Vice of Excess

Cowardice Courage Rashness

Insensibility Temperance Licentiousness

Illiberality Liberality Prodigality

Lack of Spirit Patience Irascibility

Boorishness Wittiness Buffoonery

Cantankerousness Friendliness Obsequiousness
[You do not need to memorize these virtues. Just understand the Doctrine of the Mean and be familiar with one or two virtues (the ones closer to the top, preferably) and how they relate to their corresponding vices.]
Note: The Doctrine of the Mean is not the view that in any situation what you should do is the “middle of the road” action. Rather, it is a thesis about the relation of the virtues and their corresponding vices.
So, to return to Aristotle’s theory of the good, to live a good life, according to Aristotle, one must live a life filled with the performance of actions done from the kinds of character traits listed above under the “virtue” column.
But what about Aristotle’s Criterion of Morally Permissible Action? Well, he doesn’t really offer one explicitly. But I think the best account of it is as follows:
Aristotelian Criterion of Morally Permissible Action: An action is permissible in a certain situation if and only if it is the kind of action a virtuous person would perform in that situation.

This leads us, finally, to one of Aristotle’s most controversial doctrine: the unity of the virtues:


The Unity of the Virtues Thesis: one cannot fully have one of the virtues unless one also fully had all of the other virtues as well.
This is an extremely controversial thesis for it seems rather unintuitive. We can, it seems, imagine people who fully possess one of the virtues but utterly lack others. For instance, it seems possible that there be someone who is perfectly courageous but who is not temperate at all. For various complicated/sophisticated reasons, however, Aristotle thinks that the Unity of the Virtues Thesis is true.


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