Aristotle: Virtue Ethics

I. The Highest Good is Happiness.

Aristotle begins with the claim that every activity aims at some end. This claim is straightforward -- it means that everything you do (every activity), you do for some purpose (some end). So you go to school (activity) to get a job (end). You learn carpentry (activity) in order to build wooden objects (end).

Sometimes, Aristotle notes, the end in one activity-end formula can become an activity in another.


1. You practice carpentry (activity) in order to build wooden objects (end).

Here the end -- building wooden objects -- can itself become an activity, namely where:

2. You build wooden objects (activity) to sell them for money (end). 
So, Aristotle notes, just about all things are not only pursued for the sake of something else, but the 'something else' itself is pursued for the sake of still yet some other thing. Does this continue on to infinity? Is there ever an endpoint? Is there anything that we pursue for the sake of itself and not for the sake of some further thing or end?

Aristotle thinks there is one thing that fits this description: happiness.

If the pursuit of happiness is never pursued for the sake of some other thing, then according to Aristotle it is the "highest of all goods" or the "complete good" or the "good that is self-sufficient". That means happiness is an “end in itself” in Kantian terms (see Kant later in the course).

Is Aristotle right? Think about it. Take any activity, and if we ask "what for?" eventually we will reach happiness as the ultimate goal, and then stop.


1. You practice carpentry (activity) in order to build wooden objects (end).
2. You build wooden objects (activity) in order to sell them for money (end).
3. You acquire money (activity) in order to buy things that are needed like food, clothes (end).
4. You acquire things that are needed (activity) like food, clothes, in order that you do not starve or freeze (end).
5. You strive not to starve or freeze (activity) in order that you are not in pain (end).
6. You strive to not be in pain (activity) in order that you may achieve a state of pleasure (end).
7. You strive to acheive a state of pleasure in order that you may be happy (end).

According to Aristotle,

(a) All activities -- if we proceed on to ask "why?" in the sense answered by 1 to 7 -- have happiness as their eventual aim and goal.
(b) Happiness itself is the final goal, so it never serves itself as an activity for some other end.

II. Characteristics of the Good

A. Aristotle claims that in any "activity -- end" formula (usually referred to as a "means --> end" formula) two things are true:

(a) the end is more valuable than the activity
(b) the end pursued in itself (the end not pursued for the sake of something else) is more complete than an end pursued for the sake of something else.

So since happiness is the only thing we pursue for itself, (1) it is more valuable than any activity and (2) it must be the most complete good, since we pursue it for itself, and so it is more complete than all other ends which exist.

B. The Virtues (like courage, understanding, benevolence, etc), stand midway between happiness and craft.

This means:

1. We sometimes choose them for themselves. So we choose honor because it is good to be honorable. In this sense the virtues seem to be a part of what happiness is, since Aristotle seems to imply that we choose them for their own sake, and this quality is only found with respect to happiness itself.

But, he also says:

2. We always choose the virtues to be happy. Here it sounds as if the virtues are an activity, and the end is happiness.

What should be noted here -- and to some degree unresolved -- is the relationship between the virtues and happiness. Do we (or should we) choose virtue for its own sake (as [1] implies) or do we (should we) choose it in order to be happy (as [2] implies)? 

The difference is important. If Aristotle means (1), then his theory is somewhat similar to Confucius's theory of "morality for morality's sake". If it is (2), then he differs from Confucius in an important way, as the purpose of virtuous behavior will be more obviously self-interested in the sense of being motivated by happiness.

III. The Activity of the Human Soul is to Express Virtue

Everything that is animate, Aristotle contends, has a "function". A function is “what the thing is meant to do, or what is good for the thing”. Talk about functions is of central importance for Aristotle, since “what X is meant to do with respect to X's function” and “what is good for X”/"what X ought to do" are the same. So morality becomes an expression of one's function. If it turns out (as Aristotle believes) that the completion of man's function requires that the man live virtuously, then the man ought to be virtuous.

More on functions:

Ex. Let's take the eye. The eye is made for seeing. So its function is to see. So the eye is “good” when it participates in its function well, i.e., when it sees well. In a sense, you could say that the eye is virtuous when it sees things clearly (since seeing well is the function of the eye).

Aristotle is more concerned, however, with man himself. What about the function of man? To discern this you need to figure out the function that is particular to human beings. Whatever the human function is, it must be a kind of activity that is exclusive to man. As such, you can’t say that the function of man is “to perceive or sense things” since this capacity is shared with animals. You can’t say the function of man is “to live and survive” (in this sense Aristotle would disagree wholeheartedly with Darwin) because this is shared with all living things. So you must find the function of humans that defines humans, i.e., that makes humans particular things, or a particular species.

Notice that Aristotle’s biology differs from the one we use today. People don’t define species by functions anymore. Biologists use other descriptive criteria, like “four legged”, “warm blooded”, etc. Instead, Aristotle uses functions to delineate one species from the next.

So what is particular to humans? Well, Aristotle contends that only humans have reason. To see this he draws up a picture of the "soul" ("soul" has no religious connotations for Aristotle -- rather all living things, including plants and ameobas, have souls).

The soul of man, Aristotle says, has three parts.

1. The Contemplative. This is the pure rational part. It does the thinking, reasoning, etc.
2. The Appetitive. This part has a rational element. This part has to do with our appetites and desires. This part can be corrected and controlled by reason.
3. The Vegitative. This part has no rational element. This part takes care of things like breathing, growing, digesting, etc.  This part cannot be controlled or corrected by reason.

Now Aristotle thinks that whatever the human function is, it must be identified with something in the human soul. So where would the human function belong? It can’t belong to part (3), since this part is shared with all living things (and so doesn't differentiate humans from other living things). So it must be (1) and (2).

The reason it is (1) and (2) is this: humans have reason, and other living creatures do not have reason. As such, Aristotle argues that  the human function is a certain kind of life where the entity lives in accord with reason.

When a person’s soul lives in accord with reason, this is called VIRTUE.

So, the function of human beings is to live virtuously, which means that the human being must live a life in accord with reason.

IV. Virtues of Character

Now we need to look at virtue itself, and view its' relationship with reason.

A. First, Aristotle argues that there are two kinds of virtues.
1. Virtues of thinking (in accord with the contemplative part of the soul). Such virtues are things like "wisdom". Virtues of thinking need time and experience to be cultivated, and can be taught to a person simply by study.

2. Virtues of character (in accord with the appetitive part of the soul). Such virtues are things like "temperance" and "courage". Virtues of character require habituation to be cultivated, and cannot be taught to a person simply be study. A person must actually habituate oneself to doing the right acts to have any chance to acquire these virtues.

B. Second, the capacity for virtue is natural, but the possession of virtues is not a matter of nature.

Why does he think that virtues themselves do not arise in us by nature?

The most important reason Aristotle has is that he believes that many virtues (like virtues of character) can only arise in us through proper habituation. So by a process of habituation, a person can come to possess a virtue that he/she once lacked. But, Aristotle notes, if a person is virtuous by nature, then this cannot be possible because what is natural cannot be changed by habituation.

Ex. A rock cannot be taught through habituation to not fall when dropped. Since this is so, the virtues in us do not arise (or cease to exist) due to nature. If they did, habituation would be irrelevant.

So then what does he mean when he says that the capacity for virtue is in fact natural? What he means here is that we are constituted by nature such that we can acquire virtues. That said, whether we do acquire them or not will be a matter of whether we have habituated ourselves correctly or not.

C. Third, that Bad and Good Characters are Formed by Habit

Both bad and good people are formed in the same way – through habit. If a man builds houses badly, and continues to do so, he will by habit become a bad carpenter. Similarly, if he builds them well, then by habit he will become a good carpenter.

Same with character. If a man does not follow reason's dictates, and fails to live virtuously, then by habituation this person develops a bad character. Similarly for a good character, but then living in accord with reason.

V. How do We Become Good, if Becoming Good Requires Habituation?

Aristotle recognizes that his argument seems to lead to a contradiction or paradox. Here is it's form:

(1) To be just, one must do just acts.
(2) To do a just act, one must be just.

Obviously this is a problem. Aristotle is an agent ethicist -- he thinks that "doing just things" requires that the agent have a just character. But an agent gets a just character only by doing just things! Paradox! What it seems to imply is that a person can be just before they have a just character, which is the opposite of what Aristotle thinks. So how do we solve the problem?

To see how Aristotle solves the problem, let's look more at what it means to be virtuous.

Aristotle would say that when a child does something that we normally would call just, we cannot call the child just. For the child is not. The child lacks understanding about what it is doing, or why he/she should do it. It is simply told to do this by its parents. So you cannot call the child “just” at this point.

Requirements for acting virtuously:

1. The agent must know they are doing a virtuous act (they understand why the act ought to be done)
2. They are motivated by the virtuosity of the act (they have the right intentions).
3. They must decide for themselves to do it (they must be free)
4. The act must proceed from a firm and unchanging state (the person has habits consistent with that act).

The child lacks all of these.

Why? Let's look at each.

First, the child does not know they are doing a virtuous act. They do not understand the act, or why it ought to be done. They are merely repeating a type of behavior that they have been instructed to do.

Second, the child is not motivated by the virtuosity of the act. This is evident, since the child does not even know why the act is virtuous.

Third, the child did not decide for themselves what to do. Motivation for behavior that stems merely from punishment and reward is not free.

Fourth, and most importantly, the act did not proceed from a firm state. This means that the act did not proceed from the child’s character. Character is developed by habituation. The child has not yet formed a habit for doing this behavior.

Now how is it that a person can become just only by doing just acts? Look at (4). I can teach a child to mimic just acts -- the kinds of acts that a really just person would do -- and by doing so I can lay the foundation for that child to acquire the right habits of character. When Aristotle says that the child is 'doing just acts' he really means that 'they are just by analogy', namely, because they are analogous to the acts that a really just person would do. So the child is not really just already. He is jut mimicing. After acquiring these habits, of course, the child will have to go on to understand what he/she is doing, and why it is virtuous.

This requires reason, and this is the connection between reason and virtue. Let's turn more now to that connection.

VI. Virtue is a State between Two Extremes

So what is a virtue?

1. It is not a feeling. We are not called virtuous because we have certain feelings. Nor are we praised and blamed for having certain feelings, but we are praised and blamed for having certain virtues or vices.

2. It is not a capacity. We are not praised or blamed for having a capacity. As well, capacities are natural things, and we are not good or bad by nature, but by habituation.

3. It IS a state. It is a "way of being". A state is a kind of “character” (having a certain character is actualizing a "way we can be").

So what is the right state for us?

A. Virtue is The “Mean” and the “Mean Relative to Us”.

What is Virtue for Me?

Let’s look at one type of character, and its extremes.

COURAGE: Courage lies between two extremes. Excessive courage is called “rashness”. Not having any courage is called “cowardice”.

So the virtue or right state of character lies in the middle ground. Somewhere between rashness and cowardice lies the virtue of courage. But Aristotle says that the virtue of courage is not exactly the same for each person, because the mean is relative to the individual. So, within a certain range, for one person courage might be slightly more towards rashness, and for another it might lie slightly in the other direction. But for no person can the virtue be either of the extremes.

Knowing what virtue is (what state of character that I ought to actualize) requires a great deal of knowledge and use of reason. I must know:

1. Who I am
2. Who the people are involved in the situation
3. What the situation is

Say that I am in a war and I encounter the enemy. If I weight 90 lbs and have 0 black belts, should I take on an enemy weighing 320 and having 4 black belts? Obviously not. If I did attack such a foe, it would be rash . Clearly I would not be acting in accord with what reason prescribes as virtue or courage for me. However, if I weigh 250 and have 3 black belts, attacking such a foe would not be rash, it would be courageous. If the 250 lb man acts as the 90 lb man ought, he will be likewise acting cowardly.

So knowing what virtue is for you requires knowing a lot about the situation at hand and having a good capacity for reason.

Rashness and Cowardice are both Vices. For Aristotle the extremes of any kind of state of character are vices. Usually one is worse than the other. In this case, cowardice is worse than rashness, though both are vices.

What we must do is discover (for a whole range of kinds of acts) what the mean is relative to us. When we habituate ourselves to act in that way, we are developing a virtuous character, a character which is disposed to analyze the situation accordingly using reason, and to act virtuously. Discovering what the mean is relative to us requires reason, and this is why reason is integral to virtue.

(Some kinds of acts, however, admit of no mean whatsoever, and are always vices. Examples: adultery, torture, etc.)

B. The Relationship Between Pleasure and Virtue

Aristotle has an interesting take on PLEASURE.

He says that we normally feel pleasure in doing the wrong thing, by nature. So by nature we feel pleasure in running from a field of battle, or in eating too much.

What habituation congruent with virtue does, for one, is to redefine pleasure for us (what it is associated with). When I habituate myself to act bravely, I initially feel some pain from doing this. But once bravery becomes a habit, I begin to get pleasure out of acting this way, since there is always pleasure associated with acting in accord with a habit. So eventually if the habit becomes rigorous enough, I will get a sense of pleasure from acting virtuously, and a sense of pain from acting in accord with the vices.