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Aristotle (384–322 B.C.)

Nicomachean Ethics: Books V to X

Nicomachean Ethics: Books I to IV

Nicomachean Ethics: Books V to X, page 2

page 1 of 2


The term justice can apply both to a general disposition in a person as well as to questions concerning exchanges and illegal infractions. Justice is a distinct kind of virtue because it encompasses all the other virtues and because it treats the interactions between people rather than just the dispositions of an individual person. Aristotle distinguishes between distributive justice, which deals with the distribution of goods among members of a community, and rectificatory justice, which deals with unjust gains or losses between two people, through trade, theft, or assault. Distributive justice accords goods and honor proportionately, giving most to those who deserve most, whereas rectificatory justice aims to restore imbalances. No one willingly suffers an injustice, and it is not possible to treat oneself unjustly. While the laws are a good guideline, they do not cover every particular case. On occasion, agreed-upon equity must settle cases that the laws do not.

Acting morally requires not only that we have all the moral virtues but also that we have the intellectual virtue of prudence, or practical reason. Prudence is one of five intellectual virtues, the other four of which are scientific knowledge, intuition, wisdom, and art or technical skill. Prudence is the kind of intelligence that helps us reason properly about practical matters. Having the right motives is a matter of having all of the moral virtues, but choosing the right course of action is a matter of prudence.

As well as plain, unthinking brutishness and vice, which are the opposite of virtue, people may also do wrong through incontinence, or a lack of self-control. Incontinence is not as bad as vice, since it is partially involuntary, but it is also harder to remedy, since it is unreasoned. Though we are led into incontinence from an excessive desire for pleasure, pleasure is generally a good thing. Our pursuit of the good life is itself the pursuit of pleasure, and pleasure only leads us astray when we have a defective character.

Friendship is an essential component of the good life. The best kind of friendship is one in which two people are attracted to each other because they admire each other’s virtue and where each friend takes more interest in giving love than in receiving. Inferior kinds of friendship are based on utility or pleasure. Our attitude toward ourselves reflects our attitude toward our friends: people who love and respect themselves are likely to treat their friends well. Self-love is more important than friendship, and people only look down on it because people who love themselves imperfectly seek honor or pleasure for themselves rather than goodness. Since friendship is essential to the good life, not even wholly self-sufficient people can be truly happy without friends.

Friendship is closely tied to justice, since both have to do with how we treat others, and Aristotle’s discussion of friendship reaches outward to encompass other forms of human interaction such as family relationships and government. The three good kinds of government are monarchy, aristocracy, and timocracy, which is a kind of democracy with a basic property requirement for voting rights. They are analogous, respectively, to a father–son relationship, a husband–wife relationship, and a brother–brother relationship. Corrupted monarchy becomes tyranny, corrupted aristocracy becomes oligarchy, and corrupted timocracy becomes democracy, by which Aristotle means a kind of mob rule.

The highest goal of all is rational contemplation, and the good life consists in pursuing this activity above all others. No one can live a life of pure contemplation, but we should aim to approximate this ideal as best as possible. Pleasure accompanies and perfects our activities, and a good person will feel the highest pleasure in this activity of rational contemplation. The practical sciences of ethics and politics are guides for dealing with our everyday lives and arranging things so that we can find the surest path to the good life.


by shandathartley, November 05, 2013



6 out of 24 people found this helpful

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by kiki611978, February 01, 2014

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