Nicomachean Ethics

by: Aristotle

Study Questions

1

In what ways does the Greek concept of eudaimonia differ from our own concept of happiness?

Primarily, the Greek concept of eudaimonia is a much more public matter than our concept of happiness. We tend to think of happiness as an emotional state, whereas the Greeks treat eudaimonia as a measure of objective success. It would be unthinkable for a Greek that a beggar could have eudaimonia, while a successful businessman and eminent public figure could suffer from depression and still have eudaimonia.

2

What is Aristotle’s Doctrine of the Mean? In what ways is it different from the Christian conception of virtue?

The Doctrine of the Mean maintains that virtue is a mean state between the vicious extremes of excess and deficiency. While this does not provide us with a strict formulation, it does make clear that finding the virtuous path is a matter of steering a middle course between the vices of too much and too little. Because both excess and deficiency are vices, Aristotle’s virtues and vices are listed in threes: a vice of excess and a vice of deficiency to accompany each virtue.

By contrast, Christian conceptions of virtue are generally based on polar oppositions and are classed in pairs. For instance, the virtue of humility is contrasted with the vice of pride. The marked difference between Aristotle’s and the Christian beliefs, then, is that for Aristotle, vice and virtue are intimately connected. The virtuous disposition that might lead a person to be courageous can be taken just a little too far and become the vice of rashness. A Christian virtue cannot be “taken too far” and become a vice, since vice is an opposite to virtue in the Christian view.

3

How does Aristotle define moral responsibility? Why does he not define free will? How might he define free will?

Aristotle gives us a negative definition of moral responsibility. He tells us that we are responsible for those actions we do voluntarily, and then tells us that involuntary actions are those done out of ignorance or compulsion. There are some gray areas as to what counts as excusable ignorance and what counts as forgivable compulsion, but we are told effectively that we are responsible for all our actions that are not performed in ignorance or under compulsion.

Aristotle’s interest is solely in when and how to assign praise and blame. He is not concerned with the metaphysical or psychological questions of what motivates blameworthy action or to what extent it is preventable. As such, he takes no interest in the question of free will.

It would be anachronistic to assign a theory of free will to Aristotle, since the will generally finds no significant application in his philosophy. However, it might make sense to borrow from his distinction between voluntary and involuntary action, and suggest that free will consists of the freedom to act voluntarily.