Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (NE)—Western philosophy’s first systematic treatment of ethics as a self-contained subject—is, above all, Aristotle’s answer to a single question: What is the ultimate goal of human life?
Aristotle’s answer—running contrary to modern conceptions of ethics as moral duty or the mathematical calculation of the greatest good—is perhaps the West’s most profound and complete statement of virtue ethics. As such, the NE is best thought of as a guide to becoming a better person through the cultivation of virtuous habits of thought and action.
While the NE is dense and complex—and cannot be summarized in a single post—three overarching principles emerge from the text that can help us to cultivate a more rewarding and morally-fulfilling life.
Let’s begin with the ultimate goal of human life itself: the attainment of happiness, or human flourishing.
1. The ultimate goal of human life is happiness
Here’s how Aristotle opens the NE:
“Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim. But a certain difference is found among ends; some are activities, others are products apart from the activities that produce them. Where there are ends apart from the actions, it is the nature of the products to be better than the activities.”
Aristotle is claiming that all activities are pursued for some end or goal, and that it is in the nature of the goal to be superior to the activity. Using shipbuilding as an example, Aristotle shows us that the finished product, the ship, is superior to the activities necessary to build the ship because the activities are pursued for the sake of the ship. Likewise with medicine; medical care is administered for the sake of restoring health, so the patients’ health is superior to the services rendered to promote it.
The general formula is as follows: if X is performed for the sake of Y, then Y is superior to X. What Aristotle wants to know is this: is there an ultimate end or goal that all activities are pursued for the sake of—something that all humans seek and something that is pursued solely for its own sake. This greatest good, if it exists, must meet four criteria:
- Universality – the greatest good must be universally sought by everyone.
- Ultimacy – the greatest good must be pursued for its own sake and not for the sake of something else. (If everything was pursued for the sake of something else, with no end, there would be no ultimate meaning to any of our actions.)
- Self-sufficiency – the greatest good provides no further need.
- Preferability – the greatest good is preferred to every other good.
Are there any human goods that can meet all four criteria? Aristotle is able to eliminate several candidates at once: pleasure, for instance, cannot be the greatest good because it is not self-sufficient; a life of sensual overindulgence is often deeply unsatisfying in the long-term. A life of endless wealth and fine food and drink is empty without friendships or higher goals.
Money also cannot be the greatest good, because money is never pursued for its own sake but only as a means of acquiring something else. Reputation, likewise, cannot be preferable or self-sufficient as it relies more on the thoughts and opinions of other people than on the actions worthy of praise.
In eliminating these popular candidates, there seems to be one, and only one, good that can meet all four criteria: happiness. Aristotle used the Greek word eudaimonia, and while this is often translated as happiness, perhaps a better translation is “human flourishing.” Either way, we can use the terms interchangeably so long as we understand that happiness in this sense indicates a lasting, stable feeling of contentment rather than a changing mood.
Everyone seeks happiness, which is pursued for its own sake and is preferred to all other goods. Happiness is also self-sufficient and ultimate, and we know this because one often pursues money, wealth, power, and fame because one thinks these things will bring happiness, whereas the reverse is not true: no one pursues happiness as a means to money, wealth, or fame.
Happiness, or flourishing, then, is the ultimate human good; the question is, how can this be obtained?
2. Finding happiness through virtuous activity
For Aristotle, happiness is the ultimate good of human life, and happiness is attained through the “rational activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.” Let’s see how Aristotle arrives at this definition.
To understand the importance of virtue for Aristotle, we must first understand three related concepts. They are:
- Goodness – the quality of carrying out a function well for any X.
- Function – what X alone can achieve, or can achieve better than anything else.
- Virtue – the traits X possesses to carry out its function well.
A simple example will demonstrate how these elements are related. Think of, for example, what makes for a good knife. A good knife carries out its proper function (cutting) well by virtue of its sharpness. A knife is the instrument of choice when it comes to cutting because it can cut better than any other tool (cutting is its function). A good knife is a knife that performs its function well (cuts easily rather than poorly), and a knife cuts well only by virtue of the possession of certain traits or virtues (sharp edges).
Just as we can ask what makes for a good knife, we can ask what makes for a good human. For Aristotle, a good human carries out her proper function (reasoning) well by virtue of her actions. To be a good human, one must not simply possess knowledge of right or wrong; one must necessarily act in the appropriately virtuous way, consistently and over the span of a full lifetime.
According to Aristotle, reasoning or rational contemplation is the function that humans can perform better than any other animal. While we share with other plants and animals the “nutritive,” “perceptive,” and “locomotive” capacities for perception, nutrition, growth, movement, and emotions, humans alone possess the rational capacity to reflect on and modify their actions and behaviors.
This distinguishing characteristic of the human race is therefore the best criterion by which we can judge the goodness of a human. A good human simply carries out her rational function well by activating virtuously—and doing so consciously.
We know that reason is the proper function of a human because all other activities unique to humans are rationally directed. Playing guitar, for example, is a unique human activity, but we cannot use this as the ultimate distinguishing characteristic of humans because it is dependent on one’s rational faculty to decide to play guitar in the first place, and to rationally learn and apply the requisite skills of guitar playing.
And so reason defines the proper function of a human, a function that is performed well through virtuous actions. But why virtuous action? Why not use reason for some other non-virtuous end?
It’s important to note that Aristotle is not interested in answering this objection, and is not prepared to convince you that you should act virtuously. Aristotle is arguing from (and not arguing to) the supposition that virtue is a good thing and that we all—as rational and social animals—recognize virtue when we see it. We should simply want to strive for the very things we admire in others—courage, generosity, temperance, wisdom, truthfulness, honor, etc. If one does not already view these traits as desirable, then no argument will convince them otherwise.
Our natural inclination is to admire virtuous traits in others, and, therefore, to naturally desire them in ourselves. The remainder of the NE is instruction on how to cultivate virtue—but only after one first accepts and commits to the project.
If you are unwilling to take this initial step—and to turn inward to focus on developing your own character—then according to Aristotle there is little hope of you becoming an admirable or virtuous individual and no further argumentation—based on either ethical duties or utilitarian calculations—will suffice to make you one.
3. Cultivating virtue through rational action
So far, Aristotle has established that happiness is the ultimate human good pursued for its own sake. Further, happiness is found in virtuous activity guided by reason, as reason is the distinguishing characteristic or function of the human race. A good human applies reason towards acting virtuously, as virtuous action is naturally admirable. But how does one know how to act virtuously?
Aristotle’s conception of virtue is famously referred to as the “golden mean,” but this term is potentially misleading as it seems to indicate a concrete arithmetic average. While Aristotle would agree that virtuous action lies in between the extremes of deficiency and excess, virtuous action tends to be closer to one extreme than the other depending on the individual and the circumstance.
For example, the virtue of courage is the middle way between the extremes of deficiency (cowardice) and excess (recklessness), but is in most cases closer to the extreme of recklessness than cowardice. Therefore, we shouldn’t think of virtue as an average but rather as a sliding scale between extremes whereby virtue typically lies closer to one end rather than the other.
Another example: friendliness is the mean between the extremes of deficiency (quarrelsomeness) and excess (obsequiousness), however the appropriate mean falls closer to obsequiousness than quarrelsomeness in most cases.
So how can this be put into practice? For Aristotle, there are no rigid rules of behavior that must be blindly followed at all times. If there were, then virtue would simply be a matter of thoughtless habit, which is a common mischaracterization of Aristotle’s ethics. Aristotle did not think virtue was a matter of absentminded habit and conformance to rigid rules; virtue is, rather, the rational contemplation of the appropriate mean in every circumstance. (In this manner Aristotle follows Plato’s conception of ethics as expressed in the Euthyphro dialogue, in that ethics is not a matter of obeying any kind of authority, dogma, or commandments, but rather virtuous action guided by reason).
This takes habitual practice and thought, but, over time, the practitioner becomes attuned to not only acting virtuously, but to preferring it on an emotional level rather than considering it a nuisance towards the attainment of pleasure or some other inferior good.
The question remains, however: How does one know if they are achieving the appropriate mean in any particular situation if there are no set rules to guide one’s actions?
First, Aristotle would remind us that ethics is not an exact science, and despite the fact that we may want it to be, it simply is not. As Aristotle said:
“It is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits; it is evidently equally foolish to accept probable reasoning from a mathematician and to demand from a rhetorician scientific proofs.”
Just as it would be unwise to expect imprecise reasoning from a mathematician, it is equally unwise to expect concrete rules and proofs from a moral philosopher.
But is Aristotle then adopting a relativistic position whereby all actions are ultimately judged to be equally as good as any others? The answer is no. The foundation of ethics for Aristotle is human nature, along with the emergent social conventions that facilitate socially beneficial interactions. Since we are rational and social animals, we have a natural affinity for certain behaviors, and that means that we can recognize, for the most part—and with the guidance of reason—when someone is acting virtuously or not.
Our task then, is not to establish inflexible ethical rules, but rather to cultivate the virtue we naturally recognize in others by rationally considering the appropriate mean between extremes in specific circumstances. (It’s crucial to note that this avoidance of extremes is also an avoidance of dogma, as dogmatism always approaches one extreme or another.)
Let’s take anger as an example. Anger is often a destructive and counterproductive emotion; however, it has its place and purpose. One must simply learn to feel and use anger in the appropriate manner at the appropriate time in the appropriate place, for example, to bring about some greater good or to provide the motivation to pursue social justice. As Aristotle said:
“Anyone can get angry—that is easy—or give or spend money; but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for everyone, nor is it easy.”
The same applies to all emotions and virtues. There can exist no universal guidelines for all situations; rather, we must rationally consider the mean in each circumstance guided by our reason and our nature as social animals. We can simply ask ourselves the following question: How would a reasonable and virtuous individual act in the given situation, and how can we emulate this by avoiding extremes in thought and behavior?
This requires constant vigilance, critical thinking, and the avoidance of extremes and dogmatism, NOT the conformance to rigid rules or blind obedience. In this sense, Aristotle is carrying on the Socratic idea that the unexamined life is not worth living—with an increased emphasis on the proposition that to live the good life requires not only contemplation, but also virtuous action.
The following is a good translation of the Nicomachean Ethics (NE):
And here is one of the best secondary sources: