Morality and the Human Condition, #11–Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics.

By Robert Hanna


Table of Contents

II. The Standard Conception of Morality

II.1 The Moral Question and The Meaning Question

II.2 How Ethics Relates to Morality

II.3 How Morality Relates to Rationality

II.4 Six Famously Hard Cases

III. Three Classical Challenges to the Standard Conception of Morality

III.1 Moral Relativism

III.2 Eight Logical Principles of Human Rationality

III.3 Moral Skepticism

III.4 Psychological and Moral Egoism

IV. Morality and Religion

IV.1 God and The Divine Command Theory

IV.2 Does an Essentially Rational God Exist?

IV.3 Religion and Morality

V. Three Classical Moral Theories

V.1 Aristotelian Virtue Ethics

V.1.1 Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, books 1–3: A Brief Exposition

V.1.2 Four Worries about Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics

V.1.3 Contemporary Virtue Ethics

V.2 Millian Utilitarianism

V.2.1 Not-So-Happy Little Campers: Ten Big Problems for Millian Utilitarianism

V.3 Kant’s Ethics of Persons and Principles

V.3.1 Ten Basic Ideas

V.3.2 Three Classical Worries about Kant’s Ethics

V.4 All-Things-Considered Conclusion of This Section

VI. Pascal’s Optimism and Schopenhauer’s Pessimism

VI.1 Pascal’s Optimism About the Meaning of Life

VI.2 Schopenhauer’s Pessimism About the Meaning of Life

VI.3 Pascal or Schopenhauer? Optimism or Pessimism?

VII. Existentialism, the Absurd, and Affirmation

VII.1 Two Kinds of Existentialism

VII.2 Nagel and the Absurd

VII.3 Camus and Affirmation

VIII. The Ethics of Authenticity

VIII.1 Existential Ethics and the Concept of Authenticity

VIII.1.1 What is Authenticity?

VIII.1.2 Authenticity and Radical Freedom

VIII.1.3 Inauthenticity, Freedom-Refusers, and Freedom Deniers

VIII.2 Two Important Problems for Existential Ethics

VIII.3 Sartre on Principled Authenticity

IX. The Nature of Death

IX.1 The Ambiguity of “Death”

IX.2 The Nature of Our Own Death

IX.2.1 Nagel On the Nature of Our Own Death

IX.2.2 Suits Against the “Deprivation” Account of the Badness of Death

IX.2.3 Some Critical Worries About What Nagel and Suits are Saying About the Nature of Our Own Death

X. The (Im)Possibility of Human Immortality

X.1 Williams on the Tedium of Immortality

X.2 Fischer on How Human Immortality Could Be a Good Thing

X.3 Some Worries About What Williams and Fischer are Saying About Human Immortality

X.4 Human Life Without Immortality


But you can also read or download a .pdf version of the complete short course HERE.


V. Three Classical Moral Theories

V.1 Aristotelian Virtue Ethics[i]

Consider, e.g., of all the people you know, those you think most highly of.

So moral virtue exists.

Moral virtue in this sense is when a person is habitually disposed, by the internal state of her character, to have good feelings, think good thoughts, and do good actions.

So to be morally virtuous is to have a good character, and to have a particular moral virtue is to have a certain type of good character.

Virtue ethics in general says

that the highest human good is a morally good character, and therefore we ought to be morally virtuous.

And Aristotle’s virtue ethics in particular says

(i) that the highest human good is happiness (eudaimonia) and

(ii) that moral virtue is the essence of happiness (it both constitutes and controls or determines happiness), and therefore

(iii) we ought to be morally virtuous.

(Strictly speaking, Aristotle’s thesis (i), or the thesis of eudaimonism, is logically independent of virtue ethics: it’s possible to hold that the highest human good is happiness and also that happiness consists in something other than virtue.

So it’s possible to be a eudaimonist without being a virtue ethicist.

E.g., Utilitarians hold that the highest human good is happiness, but that happiness consists basically in pleasurable states of mind and the absence or reduction of pain (utility), and therefore we ought always to choose and act in such a way as to maximize utility.

It is also possible to be virtue ethicist but not a eudaimonist.

E.g., Stoic ethics holds that the highest human good is a morally good character but that happiness just isn’t possible in this vale of tears, so the morally best kind of life is that which also maintains an attitude of ataraxia or resolute detachment from anxiety, distress, and emotional upheaval.)

V.1.1 Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, books 1–3: A Brief Exposition

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, books 1–3, has the following profile:

Book 1: The highest human good

Book 2: The nature of moral virtue

Book 3: The internal conditions of moral virtue

I’ll give a brief exposition of the contents of each book.

Book 1: The highest human good

Aristotle has a teleological theory of nature in general and of human nature in particular.

Teleology is end-directedness, goal-directedness, or purposiveness, and therefore to say that something, some process, or some act is teleological is just to say that it has some end, goal, or purpose.

The cause of, or causal route to, a given end is the means to that end.

So all teleological reasoning concerns ends and means.

According to Aristotle, all things, processes, and acts aim toward some good or another as ends, some of which are merely means to other ends, and some of which are good for their own sake, and the total series of means and ends cannot be without a termination.

Therefore, there is always some highest good for the sake of which everything else is done.

The common opinion, according to Aristotle, is that the highest human good is eudaimonia or happiness (sometimes also translated as “flourishing”), because human happiness is the end for the sake of which everything else is done, and therefore all human beings by nature seek to be happy.

But what is happiness?

Happiness isn’t the same as pleasure, since it is possible to experience pleasure but also be unhappy (e.g., hollow pleasures), and therefore pleasure isn’t sufficient for happiness.

And happiness isn’t the same as being honored by others, since one could be honored by others but also be unhappy (e.g., being famous and unhappy), and therefore being honored isn’t sufficient for happiness.

Happiness also isn’t the same as having health, good looks, or wealth, since one can be healthy, good looking, or wealthy but also be unhappy, and therefore being healthy, good looking, or rich isn’t sufficient for happiness.

So too happiness isn’t merely momentary, but on the contrary must be spread out over time or durational.

Correspondingly, happiness isn’t merely potential or passive, but on the contrary must consist in actuality and activity.

Nor is happiness dependent on anything outside itself: on the contrary, it must be self-sufficient.

Now, says Aristotle, the earlier arguments showed that we could not identify happiness with pleasure, honor, health, good looks, etc.

But it doesn’t follow from this that these aren’t parts of happiness.

Or otherwise put, merely because they aren’t individually sufficient for happiness, it doesn’t follow that they aren’t individually necessary for happiness.

In fact, then, pleasure seems to be a necessary part of happiness — namely, its internal or psychological component.

Being honored also seems to be a necessary part of happiness — its external or social dimension.

So too, having enough money and property seems also to be required for happiness — happiness needs the right equipment.

And being healthy and reasonably attractive to others seem also to be required for happiness — its physiological or physical component.

Moreover, as we already saw, happiness must be actualized and active rather than merely potential or passive.

Also happiness must occur over a whole life, not merely a part of a life.

Not only that, it might even be the case that bad things can happen after death that saliently affect or qualify one’s happiness (e.g., misfortunes that befall one’s family or nation, or distressing revelations about one’s private or public life) — although it seems unlikely that one could convert a happy life into an unhappy life by bad things happening after one’s death.

But in any case, since our happiness has to be complete and self-sufficient in this inherently luck-pervaded world, hence our happiness is inherently fragile,[2] it requires good luck.

So far we’ve been investigating the necessary conditions of happiness, but we haven’t yet encountered a necessary and sufficient condition of happiness, or the essence of happiness.

Now for Aristotle, the essence of something is also its intrinsic constitution and its global structure.

The essence of X can then be distinguished from the matter or stuff out of which X is made, and also from the particular parts out of which it is made.

Moreover, since Aristotle is a teleologist, he holds that the natural world is fundamentally dynamic.

Nature, including human nature, is fundamentally active, forceful, in process, and purposive.

So to know the essence of X is also to be able to control and determine the activity of X.

According to Aristotle, everything that exists has an essence of the sort described just above, which is the thesis of “Aristotelian essentialism.”

So happiness must also have an essence of that sort.

But what is the essence of happiness?

Aristotle starts from the idea that everything has a proper function and a corresponding kind of active excellence: this is its “virtue” or aretê.

Human beings as a species or natural kind have a proper function and an active excellence, namely moral virtue.

So happiness according to Aristotle is morally virtuous activity, or activity in accordance with moral virtue.

And since happiness is the highest human good, then it follows that we all ought to choose and act in a morally virtuous way.

Book 2: the nature of moral virtue

Virtue is neither a faculty nor a passion.

Our faculties are pre-given, pre-formatted, and fixed mental capacities (apparently from birth, in which case they’re innate), whereas a virtue must be acquired and learned.

And passions are passive or externally-caused reactions to things, whereas virtue is necessarily connected with intentional action.

So a virtue is a state of character, a dominant personality trait, and a disposition to act in a certain way or style.

But more precisely, to be morally virtuous is to be an all-around morally good human person, and a morally exemplary human person, as opposed to the mere ability to do good or right acts.

Obviously, however one could not be an all-around good and morally exemplary human person unless one acted well.

But it’s possible to do good or right things for the wrong reasons, hence in a sense to do those good or right things accidentally.

So acting well in a moral sense — that is, acting virtuously in a moral sense — is doing good or right things for the right reasons, that is, non-accidentally and for the sake of those good and right things.

There are many different types of moral virtue: benevolence, courage, generosity, leadership, truthfulness, etc.

Nevertheless, Aristotle also seems committed to the idea that there is a relatively small finite number of virtues, and that they can be determinately described and analyzed.

One becomes virtuous by doing virtuous things, for the right reasons.

Virtue is therefore a certain sort of good moral track record together with the various dispositions to which this good track record gives rise.

This requires a long period of training, so people with a bad upbringing will have a hard time becoming or being virtuous.

Virtues are closely bound up with pleasures and pains, although as we saw above, neither identical to pleasures (or pains for that matter) nor reducible to them.

This inherent connection between pleasure and moral virtue has three aspects.

First, virtuous activity typically brings pleasure to the agent.

Second, pleasure and pain are fairly good indicators of good and bad choices, acts, and things, respectively.

Third, vicious or bad acts are often brought about through excessive attraction to pleasure and/or the avoidance of pain.

Here’s Aristotle’s definition (i.e., essential description) of moral virtue:

Moral virtue is (1) a state of character, (2) concerned with choice, (3) lying in a mean (the mean relative to us), (4) this being determined by a rational principle or a reason, and (5) by that principle which the person of practical wisdom (phronesis) would determine it.

The relevant sort of rationality here is good or sound practical judgment, rather than merely a logical thinking capacity or a calculative capacity.

Good or sound practical judgment cannot be reduced to a formula, but is instead necessarily bound up with hitting the mean between excess and defect, relative to a context of choice and action.

Good or sound practical judgment also is necessarily bound up with being able to follow the lead of either exemplary cases of morally virtuous choices and acts in the history of one’s own moral community, or the public acts of contemporary legitimate moral authorities or experts in one’s own moral community, by means of non-slavish imitation, rather than being bound up with merely individualistic, private reasoning.

Indeed, non-slavish, imitative appeals to exemplary historical cases of moral virtue, and/or to contemporary legitimate moral authority or expertise, function as an adequate rational justification for choosing or acting in a certain way, that is,

I rationally justifiably choose or act in a certain way because it’s just the sort of thing that historically famous virtuous persons in my community actually did or that contemporary legitimate moral authorities or experts would do.

Book 3: the internal conditions of moral virtue

The internal conditions of moral virtue are the conditions of morally good choice and action, and also the conditions of moral responsibility.

Moral responsibility entails that a choice or act is voluntary.

In turn, my choice or act X is voluntary if and only if

(i) X has an internal source in my own psychology

(ii) I have the ability to choose or do X, and

(iii) I have knowledge of the relevant particular facts about X.

If any of these conditions fails, then my choice or act is involuntary, and therefore not something for which I am responsible.

More precisely, my choice or act X is involuntary if and only if

either (i) I choose or do X only because of some inner or outer irresistible force that overrides my ability to stop myself from choosing or doing it,

or (ii) I choose or do X only through my ignorance or the relevant particular facts about X.

Aristotle connects the notion of responsible choice and action directly to the notions of moral praise and blame.

Moral praise and blame can attach only to choices and/or acts for which the agent is responsible, and therefore are voluntary.

If the choice or act is involuntary, and the results are bad, then it can be the target of either pardon or pity, or both.

Some choices or acts with bad results may be voluntarily done, but still carry reduced moral responsibility, simply because they are in some non-compulsive way forced or done under duress.

E.g., you are forced to kill someone by an evil tyrant; or the captain of a ship is forced to throw his cargo overboard in a storm to prevent the ship from sinking.

But some choices or acts, even if not strictly compelled, are so awful that even if chosen or done by means of force or duress still seem to carry full moral responsibility.

E.g., killing your own parents, siblings, partner, or children.

We’ve already seen that ignorance of particular facts about a choice or act entails non-responsibility, and therefore counts as a good excuse.

But not every kind of ignorance will count as a good excuse.

E.g., there are general rules of good choice and conduct that every rational human agent ought to know (e.g., that arbitrarily killing innocent people is wrong), and if you violate one or more of these rules you’re still responsible and can’t legitimately claim ignorance as a good excuse for choosing or doing these things.

This point solves a puzzle case, namely, the case of someone who gets very drunk and then destroys some property or hurts someone, then claims ignorance of the particular facts as an excuse.

Here there’s a violation of a general rule that every rational human agent should know: if you get drunk, and especially if you get very drunk, you may easily destroy something or hurt someone.

Aristotle’s theory of responsibility for choices and acts is strongly oriented towards evaluating the person, as opposed to evaluating the choice or act per se.

Therefore, even though you may be judged to be not morally responsible for some choice or act because it’s involuntary, nevertheless, you might still be judged to be a good or bad person.

Correspondingly, even though you may be judged to be morally responsible for some choice or act, nevertheless, if it’s deemed to be “out of character,” then you might not be judged to be good or bad as a person.

Consider, e.g., the chariot driver (or, to update it for us, the truck driver) who accidentally and involuntarily (hence without moral responsibility) kills a child, yet feels no distress whatsoever.

In this sort of case, says Aristotle, the chariot (truck) driver is pardoned but not pitied, and that driver is thought to be a worse person than a similar chariot (truck) driver who feels great distress for what they’ve done, even though they’re also not responsible.

One very tricky domain for any theory of moral responsibility is the case of choices or acts done out of passion or under other abnormal psychological conditions.

Aristotle is open to the idea that insanity is a good excuse, because it involves internal compulsion, but he also stresses that strong feelings on their own will not get you off the hook.

— They may, however, lead to “out-of-character” judgments that treat the person who chose or acted badly or wrongly, in a saliently different way from that in which the bad or wrong choice or act itself is treated.

So far, it may have seemed that for Aristotle, the voluntary is necessary and sufficient for a choice or act’s being a morally responsible one.

But Aristotle stresses that the voluntary on its own isn’t sufficient, since non-human animals and small children alike can desire and will things, and act voluntarily, but aren’t held morally responsible.

So what needs to be added to the voluntary is choice.

Choice, according to Aristotle, is a deliberated or reasoned desire aimed at some end.

Ends themselves aren’t chosen, but in fact are simply given by our desires — instead, we deliberate and reasononly about the means to our ends.

Are we morally responsible for our own characters, that is, for our own personalities?

Answering this question is difficult, because it seems that our characters determine which desires we will have and therefore which ends we will select.

But we don’t choose ends, so it seems that we can’t be held responsible for our good or bad desires.

And yet that seems absurd and false.

Aristotle’s solution to this puzzle is to hold us responsible for our characters only to the extent that our character is the result of things we’ve chosen and for which we are therefore responsible.

So we can morally judge good or bad choices, acts, and also characters or personalities formed through choices and chosen acts.


[ii] See, e.g., M. Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1986).


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