Outline of Aristotle’s Ethics

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Aristotle / character / classical philosophy / ethics / eudamonia / happiness / justice / law / Plato / Politics / virtue


“We make war that we may live in peace.”
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics — 1177b (Book X, Chapter 7)

Let’s try to understand this work first through the method by which its project is assembled, the way the text functions.

In general Ta Ethika has three phases or stages of development: (a) a general, in-depth study of the “good” and the “good life”; (b) an analysis of moral virtue or excellence; and (c) an investigation into social ethics, or ethics within society.

These three moments are simultaneous — it is a deeply recursive text. Each ethical “moment” or “insight” relates inextricably to the other two. The third (justice) is, in an important sense, a medium (or “average”) between the other two (the study of the good and happiness; the analysis of virtue and excellence), which in a sense represent aspects or species of ethics. The themes of virtue, the good, and justice, are completely interwoven into one another, but also occur sequentially over the development of the work. Naturally, we find in the first book of the ethics an outline of the study of the good:

(1, 2) Goal-based ethics contrasted and complemented with character-centered ethics — presages discussion of the form of the good life, and virtue as a mean between two excessive or deficient goals or characters

(3) The essence and function of being human — a sort of “human-functional” argument for ethics (this is actually the most interesting one, and we will come back to it)

(4) Eudaimonia — “happiness” does not express the force Aristotle intends, it is both living and faring well — “bliss” may be closer, but it is also a lifestyle, the “best” kind of life there is, the “form” of the good life

(5) Critique of Plato’s theory of Forms: while the critique of the theory of the Forms seems to be presented last, it is in fact present from the very beginning of the discussion, even in the very logic Aristotle uses to introduce his analysis of morality along the two axes (goals — which move from potential to the real; character or virtue — whose structure is different — moves from the virtual to the actual.)

In other words, the two ‘species’ of ethics (the study of the good, the analysis of excellence) result from a primordial break with and within the idea of a universal good — whose force becomes transposed into the guiding concept of eudamonia, or “good life,” a negation of the universal good and the rediscovery of the good in life itself, in living well, in life “being good” to you.

The “good life” is all Aristotle thinks can be just — not a life of pleasure but not exactly the opposite either — a life of virtue, which only means: doing just and virtuous things, being a just and virtuous person. A single virtuous action in isolation can hardly be examined — this is declared very early on — so there is necessarily a certain degree of uncertainty, of imprecision, inherent in ethical analysis — the more you investigate particularities, the more difficult, even impossible it becomes to state generalities.

We now see why the third phase is necessary to resolve the divergence within ethics (as A understands it, between “character” and “goal.”) Only a science of justice or social virtue can repair the break or ‘first misunderstanding’ in ethics — the controversy over the abstract Form of the good — hence moral philosophy is a study which is already contained within an all-encompassing political science. Acts must be judged simultaneously from three perspectives: from the perspective of virtue or the mean (the “middle” position of the mind which can ethically determine the choice of actions and emotions,) but also from the perspective of the state (whose questions are different, and are questions of justice,) and finally also from the perspective of the individual (or life itself, the function of being-human.)

For Aristotle, reason humanizes us; in some sense, thought is our “function.” If we can conceive of a primary category of human function, it must be an activity of the soul which expresses reason. On this last point, Aristotle writes that if man is alive, and if the form of life which he is exercises the faculty and activity of a soul in association with a rational principle; and furthermore, if the function of a good man is to perform these activities well and rightly (i.e., in accordance with its own proper excellence) — from these points, he argues that it follows that the Good for man is exercising the faculties of his soul in conformity with excellence (or virtue.) Aristotle adds that we must act in conformity with the best and most perfect among these virtues, if there may be several.

This, then, is the path to achieving eudamonia — not merely living according to virtue, but being actively driven by them, and if there are many, only the best. The process is a mean or equilibrium between a condition of lack and of surplus. Ethics exists in a smooth space, on a continuum between blank nothingness and a black hole. Between a defective or ‘lacking’ quality and an excessive or ‘overflowing’ quality, there is a golden medium, a zone of equilibrium, not the center but the ‘in-between’ where the ‘just right’ quality glimmers. Not only do nothing to excess, but go further: find the mean. When Aristotle considers traditional Greek virtues, he finds them all to contain one sort of mean or another: courage (between cowardice and foolhardiness,) temperance (the virtue that controls emotion,) magnamity (which is an ‘in between’ of virtue itself, and places the virtues into their proper place.)

We come finally to the idea which would seem to complete and crown the work — the only virtue to have its own book — but which can be considered in some sense to be the primary virtue, without which all others are worthless. In this sense the notion of justice must also be present from the very beginning of ethics, as a “first” politics. This is because justice is absolute virtue, the comprehension of all the others. Particular justice cannot be rigorously distinguished from justice as a whole, but neither is it simply part of it; it is the same as justice (law) but has a different center or focus (fairness.) Aristotle offers a summary and clarification of this somewhat complex relationship: an unfair situation is always lawless; but not everything lawless is unfair.

Politics is large-scale ethics: a philosophy of human life will be incomplete without considering in its entirety the whole question of the management of a state. Ethics is, in a broad sense, an introduction to politics. Happiness is worthless without justice.

The Author

mostly noise and glare

1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Eudamonia and the Cardinal Virtues « Eudamoniac

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