Philosophy Political Philosophy

Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics (Nicomachean Ethics)

In his famous Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argues that ethics aims at the achievement of excellent because this excellence produces happiness to the human soul and this is fundamentally good because happiness is our end and the goal that all human actions attempt to embody through the action itself (however flawed or whether it achieves an enduring happiness).  For Aristotle, who links eudemonia with personal character—which is formed through wisdom—understanding virtue ethics is more than just about being a moral or noble exemplar: It is deeply linked with his understanding of metaphysics and ontology and the end to which human existence is for (happiness through virtue).

Aristotle, like most of the classical philosophers, believes happiness to be the end for which human life exists.  As such, all aspects of human life and engagement aims at happiness.  Ethics should be concerned with the question of what constitutes good character, which is why we remember his ethics as a form of virtue ethics.  But good character demands knowledge, just like how Aristotle maintains happiness is related to wisdom/knowledge. Aristotle will argue that the only way to have happiness through virtue, which is principally the peace of the soul (rational intellect), is through the acting that comes with knowledge.  This is also why Christianity will build upon Aristotle’s virtue ethics.  Knowledge is good, but knowledge is supposed to translate into action.  How do you act?

Book I

The first book of the Ethics is where Aristotle reiterates his longstanding commitment to eudemonistic teleology – happiness is humanity’s highest end.  Therefore, there must be some chief good toward which every one of our actions tends – that is, an end which it is done for its own sake.  For Aristotle, the end to all actions is for the end of happiness.  Humans act the way they do, erroneously or otherwise, on the belief that their actions will bring about happiness for themselves.

Aristotle’s famously describes that ethics is the “ethics of the mean.”  There is a pole in ethics, in other words.  In Aristotle, excess, mean, and deficiency are the three mediums in the pole – mean being that which is in the center and the ideal aim of ethics that leads to happiness.  Excess is the result of improper knowledge or over ego (overconfidence).  For instance, he who is rash (irrational) will charge into an impossible situation and likely die.  Thus, Aristotle links excessiveness with irrationality, which includes overconfidence.  On the other hand, the coward, who lacks moral fortitude, suffers from deficiency of character or virtue.  He may know what to do, but is, for other reasons, unable to translate that knowledge into action.  The result is the deficient person becoming upset, or alienated, with himself as a result of his (in)action.  (Inaction is a conscious decision in Aristotle’s philosophy because Aristotle rejects causal determinism in choice theory.)

Thus, the task of ethics is linked with knowledge, and through this knowledge one will cultivate arête, or excellence, which guides their actions.  In engaging in such actions, having found the mean, one will be happy with what they have done.

Aristotle goes through examples; the master science of human affairs is that which includes both individual and community behavior because man is a social/political animal.  This is the world of the polis, or community.  The latter’s first principle is the general good for all humankind.  Since ethics and politics are closely connected, or interrelated, we must rely on experience and advice of older individuals when it comes to determining what the ultimate principles for these might be.  Most people think that the highest attainable good must be happiness, by which is meant living well (wealth, honor, glory, health, etc.).  This might sound fun, Aristotle tells us, but none of these could be correct since each of these is pursued for its own sake.  This reaches back to Plato’s Republic in Books I and II over discussions of the Good.  Like Plato, Aristotle agrees that the theories of justice and the good are insufficient as presented by the likes of Cephalus, Polemarchus, and Thrasymachus, since wealth, honor, glory, and other such external goods are exactly that – things external to us and so they can never satisfy our desire for happiness because only being at happy rest with our nature can satisfy the happiness that we seek.

According to Aristotle, the Good must be that for whose sake everything else is done, or something final, ultimate, something without which life itself would not be worth living.  The only such element we might be able to point to is happiness.  So, what is happiness then according to Aristotle?

Happiness is part of human nature.  It is the Final Cause to human existence.  Happiness is part of human nature, Aristotle claims that happiness is related to the agency that comes with human nature – which is reason and intelligence.  Thus, happiness must also be the exercise of the faculties of the soul (the rational part of the mind) in accordance with virtue during one’s lifetime and during the moments of agency that demand action by the rational agent.  Here we see that Aristotle has, as I mentioned already, linked knowledge with action theory, and thus knowledge is the key to the mean of virtue ethics and achieving eudemonia.  Lack of knowledge leads one to doing the wrong action in a given situation from which no happiness emerges in the aftermath (i.e. one is not satisfied with how they acted).

Aristotle continues, in relation to his view that humans are social animals, that happiness requires certain external conditions (which allow for experience), such as possessions, friendship, and least some degree of political self-control.  (Freedom = happiness in Aristotle’s political philosophy.)  A person must be reasonably healthy, wellborn, handsome, live a long life, have children, and come from a stable family.  Without these characteristics one is unable to practice and participate in the highest types of human good, which are the cardinal virtues of temperance and justice.  Aristotle is not arguing, here, that people who don’t have such characteristics will be unhappy.  He simply maintains that those characteristics help one in the struggle for happiness, since these external conditions are relatable to our social animus.

He continues to claim, as he does in Politics, that happiness is possibly only in a community.  This does mean that those who are a-social won’t be happy, precisely because they’re fighting against their own nature which desires sociality.  Unlike Hobbes and Locke, Aristotle maintains that humans are social animals through and through.  We desire togetherness.  We desire companionship.  We desire love.  We desire beauty.  We desire knowledge.  This demands community and togetherness, rather than retreat from the world.  (This is Aristotle’s problem with Plato, Platonic rationalism may lead to the life of the hermit philosopher, which is oppositional to humanity’s desire through the social animus.)

Continuing, Aristotle claims happiness as the highest value, higher than courage, honor, or excellence – though, in his hierarchal schema, to be courageous, honorable, and excellent in conduct leads to happiness.  We must remember that everything stacks and builds in Aristotle’s philosophy.  Knowledge is the base for the mean.  From knowledge grows courage.  From knowledge and courage grows honor.  From knowledge, courage, and honor emerges excellence.  It keeps expanding and stacking upward toward happiness.  The end to courage is not courage, but happiness.  The end to honor is not honor, but happiness.  Therefore, happiness is higher in value than courage or honor, etc.  Courage and honor find their fulfillment in happiness.  Much like his metaphysics, Aristotle’s ethics is the ethics of fulfillment (in happiness).  One does act honorably for the sake of honor itself, but for the sake of happiness.  This, Aristotle tells us, is the reason why happiness is the end to which ethics is directed.

The soul plays an important part in Aristotle’s ethics because the soul is the rational part of the mind.  He states that the soul has both rational and unrational (phenomenological) elements to it (we see, in this, his hylomorphism of combining Form and Matter together).  For instance, the non-rational part is the vegetative, that part of the mind that is wired for sleep, consumption, and sexual reproduction and this is common to all animals, human and non-human alike.  However, the rational part of the soul is composed of two parts, namely to reason about the world (experience) and the other to listen to reason offered by others, much like how one would listen to a wise man or one’s parents.  (Here we see an element of the Socratic dialectic in Aristotle.)  The rational part of the soul is the part that has the capacity for learning and knowledge, and this is what helps us act in each situation having once attained knowledge.

Book II

As Aristotle transitions into Book II, he begins to discuss the nature of the intellectual virtues, which is the result of teaching, and the moral virtues, which are the result of habit (ethos, from which ethics derives from).  Thus, ethics is the about the cultivation of habit from the moral virtues.  This is why ethics is “about being moral,” because ethos is located in the nexus of the moral virtues.  We are not born with moral virtue; we cultivate, grow, and acquire them through knowledge and putting into practice that knowledge which is the beginning of the cultivation of moral virtue through habit.  This leads many to believe that Aristotle offers up a proto-blank slate from which moral virtues can be cultivated universally among all humans – though few humans will achieve this.

Thus, Aristotle argues that we ought to study ethics not in order to know what virtue is in of itself, but only to become good ourselves.  The study of ethics is about becoming good, not simply knowing the good (this is his rejection of Plato, or better understood, building from Plato and moving it to the logical conclusion demanded if humans are social animals: knowledge leads to action, action is the beginning of becoming good).  Accordingly, we must study different kinds of actions and learn how they are to be done.  And while every action is different because of the actors and the circumstances that extenuate to them (casuistry), there are some general rules we can establish: (1) moral virtues are destroyed by too much (excess) or too little (deficiency) of one kind of action, (2) pleasure and pain are a test of virtue; thus, if one takes pleasure in facing danger he is rash (excess), and if he or she finds such experience painful, he or she is a coward  (deficiency).  Thus, we see the rule to Aristotle’s ethics is about finding “the happy mean.”   On this note, we should be made aware that the intellectual virtues are: reason, wisdom, skill, and knowledge, which when brought together in a harmony leads to phronesis, or practical wisdom in every day action and life.

Since virtue is related to action, it must also be related to emotion Aristotle tells us.  And since pleasure and pain are a result of every action and every emotion, virtue must be related in some way to the two.  This is not to say that every virtuous action is a pleasant one, however, since other factors must always be taken into the equation whenever presented (which is why we need knowledge).  For example, when a man goes after a certain pleasure at the wrong time or in the wrong manner, he becomes corrupt.  His passions have gotten the better of him and he has fallen prey to rashness because will has overwhelmed his rationality.

But if pleasure is not the criterion by which we can evaluate the rightness of an action, what does determine whether we act virtuously or not?  Aristotle begins to hash this out by claiming there are three factors involved in making the right choice: (1) the noble, (2) the beneficial, and (3) the pleasurable.  So, it is not pleasure alone, but it is the pleasure that stems from nobility and beneficiality.  Choosing the wrong course of actions result in the base, harmful, and painful according to Aristotle.  We again see how it’s all a harmonious waltz trying to find the mean in Aristotle’s ethics, and in finding the mean happiness results and contentment with one’s self derives.

Aristotle then turns to knowledge.  One acts virtuously not on account of the virtuousness of the action itself, but on the actor’s knowledge.  He who is virtuous must know what he is doing, consciously choose to act in the manner that he does, and in doing so chooses to act for itself because it is the right thing to do in relationship to his knowing.

Virtue, then, is a matter of personal motivation as much as it is part of knowledge.  It must be one of three elements of the soul: emotion, rationality, and disposition of habit.  Virtue is not an emotion since we do not praise or blame people for feeling pleasure or anger, nor is virtue a capacity of power since we are not praised or blamed for our capacity to indulge our emotions.  Virtue is something acquired, something cultivated, something known through experience and the cultivation of arête that stems from knowing that propels one into right and proper action based on that knowledge which produces habit.  “You should know better,” is a phrase we’ve inherited from Aristotle’s ethical philosophy.


Casuistry is the result of Aristotle’s ethics.  This is not relativism per moral relativism.  I.e. that virtues and morals change over time and place.  It corresponds with the growth of knowledge, awareness, as well as the external conditions that apply to a given context and situation.  There must be a proper time, place, and set of conditions that one must be knowledgeable over and about in order to engage in the action.  Context matters to moral actions to Aristotle.  Thus, Aristotle is not a moral universalist arguing that we should act in the same manner no matter whatWe must, through knowledge, and our cultivated disposition of habit, know when to act, how to act, and when the right moment to act is.  That demands the cultivation of virtue.  Only this leads to the happiness in moral agency, the end to which ethical agency is aimed.  Aristotle’s ethics, historically, exerted a major influence over the development of Catholic moral philosophy which, with the added cosmopolitanism of Stoicism, meant we must know ourselves, others, our subjective needs, their subjective needs which are always different per individual, in context of our broader surroundings.

Thus, we see why virtue ethics is so demanding.  It not only demands knowledge through the cultivation of rationality which leads to acting which forms habit, it also demands awareness of situation.  In the face of all that is demanded and required from Aristotle’s conception of virtue ethics, it is no surprise humans prefer to retreat into Epicurean hedonism.  It’s simply easier than the demanding road Aristotle sets before us.  This is why so few people are truly virtuous and happy with how they act and live in the world.

This post is adapted from a post on Hesiod’s Corner, September 13, 2017.


Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor of VoegelinView and a writer on art, culture, literature, politics, and religion for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Diseases, Disasters, and Political Theory. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and theology (biblical & religious studies) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.


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    1. I certainly would side with Aristotle on the “hard matter,” since Plato is rather vague on most things (I say this as a published Plato scholar and writer on Plato). But Aristotle is oftentimes just such a bore to read. I just don’t find him or his works all that enthralling. :p


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