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All human activities aim at some
end that we consider good. Most activities are a means
to a higher end. The highest human good, then, is that activity
that is an end in itself. That good is happiness. When we aim at happiness,
we do so for its own sake, not because happiness helps us realize
some other end. The goal of the Ethics is to determine
how best to achieve happiness. This study is necessarily imprecise,
since so much depends on particular circumstances.
Happiness depends on living in accordance with appropriate
virtues. Virtue is a disposition rather than an activity. That is,
a virtuous person is naturally disposed to behave in the right ways
and for the right reasons, and to feel pleasure in behaving rightly.
Virtue is a mean state between the extremes of excess and deficiency.
This mean varies from person to person, so there are no hard and
fast rules as to how best to avoid vice.
Only voluntary actions are praiseworthy or blameworthy.
We can define voluntary action as any action that originates in
the agent and not in some outside force like a push or a stumble.
There are borderline cases, however, as when someone is compelled
to behave dishonorably under severe threat. Voluntary action
is characterized by rational deliberation and choice, where the
agent determines the best course of action by reasoning how best
to achieve desirable ends.
One by one, Aristotle discusses the various moral virtues
and their corresponding vices. Courage consists of confidence in
the face of fear. Temperance consists of not giving in too easily
to the pleasures of physical sensation. Liberality and magnificence
consist of giving away varying amounts of money in appropriate and
tasteful ways. Magnanimity and proper ambition consist of having
the right disposition toward honor and knowing what is one’s due.
Patience is the appropriate disposition toward anger, though it
is sometimes appropriate to show some degree of anger. The
three social virtues of amiability, sincerity, and wit make for
pleasant and engaging interaction with others. Modesty is not properly
a virtue, but an appropriate disposition toward shame, which is
admirable in the young.
Justice in a sense encompasses all the other virtues,
since being just consists of exhibiting virtue generally. In human
affairs, there are two primary forms of justice: distributive and
rectificatory. Distributive justice deals with the distribution
of wealth or honors among a group of people and should be given
according to merit. Rectificatory justice deals with exchanges between
two or more people and should always aim at restoring a sense of
balance and equality between the people concerned. It is impossible
to treat oneself unjustly or to suffer injustice willingly. 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.
While the moral virtues dispose us to behave in the correct
manner, it is necessary also to have the right intellectual virtues
in order to reason properly about how to behave. There are five
intellectual virtues. Three of them—scientific knowledge, intuition,
and wisdom—consist of contemplative reasoning, which is detached
from human affairs. The other two—art or technical skill and prudence—consist
of calculative reasoning, which helps us make our way in the world.
Prudence is the intellectual virtue that helps us reason properly
about ethical matters.
Incontinence is a peculiar form of badness. Unlike vice,
incontinence does not involve willing bad behavior. Rather, it consists
of knowing what is good but lacking the self-control to do good. Incontinence
is not as bad as vice, since it is partially involuntary.
There are three kinds of friendship: friendship based
on utility, friendship based on pleasure, and friendship based on
goodness of character. The first two kinds of friendship are based
on superficial qualities, so these sorts of friendship are not generally
long lasting. Friendship based on goodness of character is the best
kind of friendship, because these friends love one another for who
they are and not for what they stand to gain from one another. Friendship
generally exists between equals, though there are cases, like the
father-son relationship, which rely on unequal exchanges.
Political institutions rely on friendly feelings between
citizens, so friendship and justice are closely connected. There
are three forms of constitution based on different kinds of relationships.
Of the three, monarchy is preferable to aristocracy or timocracy.
Ideally, our feelings for our friends should reflect our
feelings for ourselves. Self-love is more important than friendship,
since only people who treat themselves with appropriate care and
respect can achieve proper virtue and happiness. Though a happy
person is theoretically self-sufficient, friendship is an important
and essential aspect of the good life.
Pleasure accompanies and perfects our activities. A good
person will feel pleasure in doing good things. The highest good
of all is rational contemplation. A life that consists exclusively
of contemplation is obviously impossible, but we should aim to approximate this
ideal as closely as possible. The practical sciences, then, help
us find the right path toward this highest good and help us deal
with the practical matters of everyday life that inevitably occupy
a great deal of our time and attention.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Nicomachean Ethics!