Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics is well-known, and instead of attempting to parse out some intimate detail or conflict, I’m going to try and lay it out briefly, then consider it realistically – for Aristotle himself did not see this as a purely theoretical endeavor. Take caution in reading what I write on Aristotle’s ethics, however; the Nicomachean Ethics was written for those who already have some kind of virtuous disposition, even if not yet fully developed, and one prerequisite for this is having been ‘raised well*.’ I attempted to read the Ethics as something at least partially esoteric (for this demographic of those who were ‘raised well’) but gave up after the first book since it was clearly a useless, misguided effort.
To start his inquiry, Aristotle looks at what is best for human beings; what is the end of being human**? This question isn’t merely theoretical for Aristotle because the point of asking is to uncover how we can better flourish as humans. The highest good for human beings is happiness, or eudaimonia (‘living well’). Why is this the highest good? Happiness is something we do for its own sake, and not as a means to another end. Happiness is not pleasure per se, but Aristotle will allow that pleasure is a good, just not the good; indeed, pleasures often conflict with each other. We seek things like health and money because they help us ‘live well.’ But what ‘good’ does living well consist of, that is, what is the function of being human? The good of being human has to be unique to humans; what separates us from the animals is our rational soul (though we have the animalistic capacities as well, e.g., perception). Therefore it is using reason – the activity of the rational soul – and doing it excellently (which requires virtue), that is, reason and virtue in accordance with one another, that Aristotle identifies as the highest human good.
Virtue itself is not a solitary action, but rather the disposition of a person. One’s disposition is formed by habits, and if our inclinations are virtuous, then these habits have cultivated a disposition to have ‘appropriate feelings.’ There is something of a sliding scale and virtue is always somehow mediate between excess and deficiency, though what the proper mean is between these two extremes is heavily dependent upon the circumstances. There is an appropriate amount of joy or anger or sadness to feel in a situation, but that amount is determined by the context. For this reason, Aristotle insists that it is not possible to lay out universal laws in ethics, there is no ‘decision procedure’ provided by this theory (nor is this possible from any theory, he will hold). This is, of course, a dramatic contrast to Kant’s moral theory in almost every way.
One immediate question we might have, even if we accept that there are no universal laws governing moral decisions/action, is how this can be a comprehensive theory when the idea of a virtuous mean between excess and deficiency does not seem to apply to many cases. Let’s say I’ve walked into a public bathroom and found a lady’s purse on the sink. There is no identification inside, only a few hundred dollars in cash***. It doesn’t seem like my choice of action has anything to do with excess or deficiency: I could just leave the bag, or I could bring it to someone who works in the establishment, or I could leave a note, or I could just take the cash. Do any of these express a kind of excess or deficiency in emotion? Perhaps Aristotle would respond by saying the virtuous agent would decide based on a reasoned, mediate response that is concerned to an appropriate extent with the relevant factors of the situation – how important is it that I take action? What action will be most beneficial to the community?As you might suspect, I remain unsatisfied in this respect.
Another concern we might raise is whether or not one can live a happy life without some of the emotions and characteristics that he specifically describes. Is it possible to be happy and live well**** having never felt fear or anger, or is it entirely necessary that we have felt them, and to be virtuous, felt them to the proper degree? Aristotle claims some amount of wealth and honor are necessary to the virtuous agent, but am I excluded from the possibility of happiness if I have never felt concern for these things? To answer, Aristotle would have show that the emotions he addresses are necessary components of living well, but this is a project he does not take on.
Despite all this, I must admit some strong sympathies with this flavor of moral theory (i.e. that circumstances are crucial in determining the virtuous response, and that virtue seems to lie between excess and deficiency, at least to some extent), though they are sympathies joined with hesitation and doubts. We have now a picture of the virtuous agent: one who acts appropriately in a given situation, and who is disposed to proper emotions as a result of habits and being brought up well. The virtuous agent, having just this quality, must also possess a kind of practical wisdom: “virtue makes the goal right, practical wisdom the things leading to it.” Aristotle devotes a significant portion of the discussion in the later books to practical virtues, and practical wisdom is evidently the ability to properly determine the action(s) that are most appropriate for obtaining the end one is aiming for.
Before I express my doubts at how realistic this ethical vision is, it is worth noting that Aristotle concludes the Nicomachean Ethics by claiming that the life of the philosopher is superior to all others; that is, the life devoted to knowledge or theoria is the best available to human beings. This is slightly surprising, given that such a life is one that is not primarily ethical (the ethical life being a matter of praxis rather than theory). The life of the philosopher is spent learning the causal principles of the universe, and then devoting that life to the exercise of this knowledge. I think it is reasonable to argue that Aristotle is not making a huge departure from his previous discussions, and he assumes that ethical virtues will be necessary to the philosopher even if they are not the ultimate end of such a life. The life second-best to that of a philosopher is that of a politician, who does in fact exercise ethical virtues and practical wisdom as an ultimate end. The political life is defective primarily insofar as it lacks philosophical reflection and understanding.
Given that I understand ethical virtues as Aristotle has described them to be necessary to his vision of living well – both for the philosopher and the politican – I remain skeptical that such a disposition is at all possible or even coherent. It is not clear to me what determines the ‘appropriateness’ of a response to a given situation that requires acting in accordance with the ‘virtuous mean’ between excess and deficiency, other than it is as the virtuous agent would do, which seems highly ambiguous. As noted above, Aristotle is not giving universal principles of morality nor is there some decision-making procedure to be found in the Nicomachean Ethics. We study ethics because this is how we uncover the nature of living well; in order to live ethically, to become a virtuous agent, we have to practice exercising ethical virtues (which are learned, complex skills) so that we become experts in applying our general understanding of what it is to live well in particular circumstances.
Such a life would certainly be demanding on the agent, but I expect any reasonable moral theory would be similar in this respect – becoming virtuous is and ought to be hard work. I am more concerned with the fact that this type of virtuous life, that is, happiness, seems problematic at best or impossible at worst. Say, for the sake of argument, that I was indeed ‘raised well.’ I have spent my years developing habits that give me a kind of temperance and justice, so I both act and feel well; I am able to respond appropriately to ethical dilemmas that arise in my comfortable, well-raised, moderately wealthy, sufficiently honorable life. But now, having these ethical virtues and having gained knowledge of the universe such that I can devote my life to philosophical understanding and activities, I find myself walking down the street when a child comes up begging for money. Maybe I even know that the virtuous thing to do is to give him some money, or to not give him anything, but whatever I do, this action is virtuous. Am I thus happy? Have I achieved happiness because I have lived and consequently acted in this way? Does my wisdom and temperance really mean that as I watch this child scamper away, with my money or without, that I have lived well? If I am living a philosophical life, as Aristotle describes it, and therefore concern myself with theoria, and exercise ethical virtues (though not as an ultimate end), does this mean I turn my eyes from the suffering of the world in favor of contemplating the universe? Does this life, which could have so easily had no difference in the lives of others in the world, achieve happiness? Is this truly a virtuous life?
*I am not sure what this means precisely, but I am sure that I don’t qualify.
**One might say that Aristotle’s first problem comes from this assumption that there is an end or function to ‘being human,’ or at least that there is one that is uniform for all people.
***This actually happened to me. It was at a roadstop on Hwy 1 in California. There was no ID in the purse and only some cash in an envelope with a Chinese bank on it, and a pair of reading glasses. It was a shady place and I didn’t want to leave the bag with the people at the counter, so I left a note with my phone number. Lo and behold, a few hours later I got a call and when I got to San Francisco I mailed the bag down to the lady in LA.
****Virtuous activity = happiness
I am aware I have been careless in using ‘virtue’ here, as Aristotle makes a distinction between intellectual and ethical virtues, and both are important in the Ethics, however, except where obvious by the context (which I think is nowhere), you can assume I am referring to ethical virtues.