Ethics: Review of Main Concepts
Virtue and Happiness
The word happiness in the Ethics is a translation of the Greek term eudaimonia,
which carries connotations of success and fulfillment. ForAristotle, this happiness
is our highest goal. However,Aristotle does not say that we should aim at
happiness, but rather that we do aim at happiness. His goal in the Ethics is not to
tell us that we ought to live happy, successful lives, but to tell us what this life
consists of. Most people think of happiness as physical pleasure or honor, but this
is because they have an imperfect view of the good life.
The conception people have of happiness frequently does not line up with true
happiness because people are generally deficient in virtue. Virtue is a disposition
to behave in the right manner, which is inculcated from a young age. Aperson
with the virtue of courage, for instance, will not only show confidence in the face
of fear, but will think of this courage as a good thing. Behaving courageously will
make the virtuous person happy and will be one part of living a generally good
life. By contrast, a person who has been poorly brought up and exhibits the vice of
cowardice will find happiness in the avoidance of danger and thus will have an
imperfect view of the good life.
A question of high importance in any investigation of ethics is how we can teach
people to be good. Aristotle is quite clear that he does not think virtue can be
taught in a classroom or by means of argument. His Ethics, then, is not designed to
make people good, but rather to explain what is good, why it is good, and how we
might set about building societies and institutions that might inculcate this
According toAristotle, virtue is something learned through constant practice that
begins at a young age. We might understand his outlook better if we recognize the
meaning of the word arete, which is rendered as “virtue” in most English
translations. This term more generally means “excellence,” so a good horseman
can exhibit arete in horsemanship without necessarily implying any sort of moral
worth in the horseman. It should be obvious to anyone that excellence in
horsemanship cannot be learned simply by reading about horsemanship and
hearing reasoned arguments for how best to handle a horse. Becoming a good
horseman requires steady practice: one learns to handle a horse by spending a lot
of time riding horses.
ForAristotle, there is no essential distinction between the kind of excellence that
marks a good horseman and the kind of excellence that marks a good person
generally. Both kinds of excellence require practice first and theoretical study second, so the teaching of virtue can be only of secondary importance after the
actual practice of it.
The Doctrine of the Mean
One of the most famous aspects of the Ethics isAristotle’s doctrine that virtue
exists as a mean state between the vicious extremes of excess and deficiency. For
example, the virtuous mean of courage stands between the vices of rashness and
cowardice, which represent excess and deficiency respectively.
ForAristotle, this is not a precise formulation. Saying that courage is a mean
between rashness and cowardice does not mean that courage stands exactly in
between these two extremes, nor does it mean that courage is the same for all
people. Aristotle repeatedly reminds us in the Ethics that there are no general laws
or exact formulations in the practical sciences. Rather, we need to approach
matters case by case, informed by inculcated virtue and a fair dose of practical
Aristotle’s claim that virtue can be learned only through constant practice implies
that there are no set rules we can learn and then obey. Instead, virtue consists of
learning through experience what is the mean path, relative to ourselves, between
the vices we may be liable to stumble into.
The Unity of the Virtues
ForAristotle, virtue is an all-or-nothing affair. We cannot pick and choose our
virtues: we cannot decide that we will be courageous and temperate but choose not
to be magnificent. Nor can we call people properly virtuous if they fail to exhibit
all of the virtues.