Summary: Aristotle is considered the grandfather of the philosophical school of “virtue ethics.” His Nicomachean Ethics was enormously influential, and his “golden mean” theory of virtue deserves a fresh look.
To Aristotle, the subject of ethics was down-to-earth:
“…not being a subject of merely intellectual interest — I mean we are not concerned to know what goodness essentially is, but how we are to become good people, for this alone gives the study its practical value.”
The purpose of ethics, he thought, was to teach people how to make the correct choices. The correct choices are those that lead to the best life. The best life is that of the activity called eudaimonia — a difficult-to-translate term sometimes rendered in English as “flourishing” or “thriving” or occasionally just “happiness” (but don’t confuse this with simple hedonism).
Life, Aristotle believed, is fuzzy and complex and does not lend itself to easy, simple, black-and-white answers. Luck and fate seem to come into play as much as intention and skill. But yet there are some things that are potentially in our control, and there are some generalizations we can make about inherently valuable personal characteristics.
These characteristics — or virtues — are habitual tendencies to make good choices. As such, they are best learned when you are young, and Aristotle felt that it should be a key task of political science to ensure that society is organized such that people are brought up to practice the virtues.
A virtue is not just a means to an end, in Aristotle’s view, but is an example of that end. A person who exhibits a virtue is like a lion who exhibits hunting prowess or a tree that exhibits a strong trunk: it’s the same sort of evidence of being a flourishing example of a creature of its kind.
A virtuous person takes pleasure in being virtuous. So virtue in Aristotle’s framework is not a sort of scolding nun in the corner telling you to eat your vegetables and stop playing with yourself. It is not something that forces unpleasant duty upon you when you were just about to serve yourself a forkful of pleasure. Instead it is the cultivation of a healthy attitude in which your appetites properly match your enlightened self-interest.
A signature part of Aristotle’s ethics is his “golden mean” theory. He believed that each virtue was located at a sweet spot along a continuum of possible behaviors, whereas each extreme on this continuum was a contrasting vice. So for example, courage is a virtue that can be found between the vicious extremes of cowardice on the one hand (being too-susceptible to fear), and foolhardiness on the other (being too-insensitive to fear).
So whereas a lot of people discuss virtues as though the important thing were to get bigger-better-stronger-more, Aristotle was more concerned with making careful adjustments to make sure you are well-balanced.
It’s necessarily imprecise trying to translate the Greek words Aristotle used for his list of virtues into English, but this will give you some idea of which ones he focused on:
- courage (proper response to fear/threat)
- temperance (proper response to pleasure/appetite)
- magnificence (a sort of large-scale but tasteful, civic generosity)
- great-souledness (a sort of extreme self esteem/self worth)
- good temper (mercy, mildness, patience, gentleness — proper response to anger)
- amiability (courtesy, friendliness)
- straightforwardness (particularly in how you represent yourself)
- shame (he calls it a “quasi-virtue” and contrasts it with shamelessness in particular)
- The intellectual virtues:
- science (deriving conclusions rationally)
- intuition (knowing sensible first principles)
- philosophy (wrestling with the big questions)
- art (working with practical, creative, how-to, hands-on knowledge)
- wisdom (choosing the right means for wise ends)
This was much more expansive, and much more community-minded, than the “four cardinal virtues” of ancient Greece that Aristotle was building upon: prudence, justice, temperance, and courage.
Aristotle also has some interesting and insightful things to say about self control and its absence. Why sometimes do we know full well what the right thing to do is, but we do something else instead?
If you ever want to tackle the Nicomachean Ethics yourself, I recommend this free, quality eBook version.