Christopher Megone, Department of Philosophy, University of Leeds, UK
Encyclopedia of Applied Ethics (Second Edition), 2012, Pages 189-204
Aristotelian ethics develops as a systematic response to two key questions: “What is eudaimonia or happiness (the ultimate good for a whole human life)?” and “Does virtue pay?” Aristotle defends the view that virtue pays by arguing that the active life of ethical virtue, not a life of wealth or pleasure, for example, constitutes eudaimonia. In developing this position, Aristotle grounds his account of eudaimonia in his account of human nature and articulates in detail both what virtue is and how it is acquired. He also discusses the role of other internal and external goods in happiness. The resultant theory is a virtue theory in which the virtuous (right) action is that which the phronimos (practically wise man) would do. The richness of his account of virtue and its acquisition allows this to be an informative approach to issues in applied ethics. Details of the picture are also relevant to a wide range of specific applied questions.
Character; Choice; Friendship; Happiness (Eudaimonia); Habituation; Human nature; Pleasure; Practical wisdom; rationality; Ultimate good; Virtue; Wealth
Aristotle certainly wrote two works on ethics, the Nicomachean Ethics (NE) and the Eudemian Ethics. He may also have written the Magna Moralia. Although it is a matter of dispute, the NE is widely believed to be the most definitive account of his views and this article will draw primarily on that text. However, Aristotle was a systematic thinker. He recognized that in addressing central questions in ethics he also needed to attend to issues in the philosophy of mind and action, metaphysics, and political philosophy. Hence a discussion of his ethics must also draw, from time to time, on works such as De Motu Animalium, Metaphysics (MP), Physics (Phys.), and Politics (Pol.).
What follows has been divided into six main sections. These examine:
1. The broad outlines of an Aristotelian approach;
2. His views on method in ethics, views that obviously determine the nature of his discussion;
3. The answers he develops to the central questions he sets himself, answers focusing on the importance of what are sometimes termed internal goods: virtues of character and of the intellect;
4. His account of external goods such as wealth, friendship, and a good family, as well as another internal good, pleasure;
5. Some prominent features of the theory; and
6. The practical implications of Aristotelian ethical theory and specifically its influence on some contemporary debates in applied ethics.
Aristotle’s Approach to Ethics
Aristotle followed Plato and Socrates in the questions he identified as central to the study of ethics. Socrates’s key question is: “What kind of life should one live?” In the NE Aristotle raises this question in terms of the notion of an ultimate good. He observes that if there is some ultimate good at which we all aim in actions it will be of no little importance to discover it (NE, 1094a 1–26). He then notes that all reach verbal agreement that the ultimate human good is a life of eudaimonia (NE, 1094a 14–20). Despite this verbal agreement, there is disagreement as to what eudaimonia consists in. So Aristotle’s key question is, in effect: “What does eudaimonia consist in?”
Two remarks about this approach are worth making at the outset. First, the question of what Aristotle means by eudaimonia is a matter of some dispute. What has already been said is simply that there is general agreement that it is the ultimate human good. Second, Aristotle initiates discussion of this issue with the claim that all human action aims at some good. This, too, needs examination, but this starting point already shows how for him an understanding of ethics is tied to a full understanding of the nature of human action.
Aristotle also has in mind, like Socrates and Plato, a second question: “Does virtue pay?” He does not raise this question explicitly, but it is implicit in his investigation of the relation between the life of virtue and that of eudaimonia. The question of whether virtue pays is much like the contemporary question: “Why be moral?”, save that it is expressed here in terms of the language of virtue. In adopting that language, then, Aristotle is following Socrates and Plato in developing an approach to ethics that focuses on the virtues. He is a virtue theorist. But he is not merely following authorities. Talk of virtues such as justice and courage was central to the everyday language of praise and blame in his time, with vices and other defects of character equally relevant. That language still makes sense too. In day-to-day life, cries for justice are heard worldwide and those who are courageous, or just, or wise, are still commonly thought admirable. In addressing the question of whether virtue pays, the Greek thinkers recognized that reflection needs to explain to us why it is justifiable to admire the virtuous. If such common attitudes are to be retained, reflection needs to show that they are not mistaken.
A virtue theory such as Aristotle’s has access to a rich vocabulary for ethical reflection. Aristotle’s concern is not simply with right and wrong, but with courage and cowardice, wisdom and foolishness, justice and injustice. His discussion is also one that can allow that weakness of character, or strength of character (NE, 1145a 15–20), should be accounted for by an adequate moral theory. In these sorts of ways, his approach has been held to be more sensitive than rival contemporary theories to the nuances of everyday moral debate.
Aristotle’s ethics, then, has a broad framework provided by the two questions noted above. Within that framework other questions arise. First, in examining what eudaimonia consists in he takes account of prominent existing views. In Republic (540a–b), Plato had indicated that the life philosopher kings would really wish to pursue was one of intellectual inquiry or reflection. Predecessors had also debated the value of pleasure in a good life and the importance of other external goods such as wealth and friendship. Thus Aristotle is interested in the role of all these competitors in a eudaimon life. This arises directly from attending to his first question, but his answer to that leads him to discussion of the nature of both friendship and pleasure; and to focusing on the role of theoria (contemplation, or reflective understanding, perhaps) within eudaimonia.
Second, while Aristotle needs to spell out the nature of eudaimonia, clearly any account of its relation to virtue requires him to also provide a definition of virtue. Thus he faces the Socratic “What is it?” question both in relation to virtue as a whole and with regard to specific virtues. Similarly, he also needs to address the question of the relation between the virtues, whether they constitute a unity, or are in some sense identical. Then, in developing a full account, he must focus on the role of seminal virtues such as justice and courage, as well as practical wisdom (phronesis), an intellectual virtue particularly important for ethical virtue.
Third, the discussion of virtue leads to a discussion of motivation for action. In the early Platonic dialogues, what seems to be a Socratic account of virtue is developed, one in which all desires aim at the good and virtue is thus identified with knowledge (of the good), a position leading Socrates to reject the possibility of weakness of will (as reported by Aristotle (NE, 1145b 21–35)). In Republic (434e–444e), Plato develops a moral psychology that makes room for such a phenomenon, and thus will require a different account of virtue. Despite their differences, what both these predecessors make clear is that there is a tight connection between virtue and action, and in particular that an adequate account of virtue will involve a properly developed moral psychology. Aristotle follows them, too, in taking it as a constraint on the adequacy of a theory that it should give a satisfactory psychological account of defective conditions such as weakness of will and vice. Thus Aristotle’s account focuses on the nature of (ethical) motivation and in particular the role of reason and desire in action, and so their part in a defensible definition of virtue.
Finally, Aristotle notes at the outset of NE that ethics is a branch of political philosophy (NE, 1094a 24–8). Thus for him the investigation of eudaimonia raises the question of the relation between the achievement of the ultimate good and the kind of society a citizen inhabits. This was of course a key theme of Plato’s Republic. Aristotle takes the matter further through a discussion of human nature, and proper human development, taken up also in the early chapters of Politics (1252a 1–1253a 39). For Aristotle too, therefore, discussion of the virtuous individual intertwines with reflection on the just society.
If these are the issues that Aristotle’s ethical theory embraces in addressing his two main questions, an outline of his approach may conclude by indicating the general nature of his response to those questions.
Taking the two questions above in reverse order, Aristotle defends the view that virtue does indeed pay. He shows this by arguing that the active life of practical virtue, not a life of wealth or pleasure, for example, constitutes eudaimonia.
To defend more fully this claim that virtue is worthwhile, Aristotle develops his conceptions of both eudaimonia and virtue. His account of eudaimonia rests on an argument he introduces concerning human nature. This is because in his view the ultimate human good is produced when a human fulfills his nature, realizes (or actualizes) his distinctively human potential. (In an Aristotelian metaphysical picture, members of a biological kind such as humans consist of a set of powers or potentials which are realized or actualized over time. Thus we might say that a human infant has the potential to speak a language and if properly nurtured and educated the developing human will realize or actualize that potential, becoming a fluent speaker. In what follows I will use the terminology of ‘realizing’ potential.) The distinctively human potential (or essential potential) is the potential to live a life guided by reason. So the ultimate human good is achieved when an individual fully realizes his potential for rationality. Thus Aristotle’s answer to the first question is that eudaimonia consists in a maximally rational life.
Aristotle then produces and defends a conception of practical virtue such that a life of practical virtue will exhibit rationality maximally (at least in the practical sphere). Thus he argues that the virtues are states of character that enable the agent to reason (practically), and so act, fully rationally.
Thus it is that the virtuous life produces eudaimonia. The virtuous life is the fully rational life and humans are such that the ultimate human good, eudaimonia, is realized in a fully rational life. Thus practical virtue and eudaimonia are linked, in Aristotle’s view, by the concept of rationality, and his conception of human nature as having a goal or telos, such that the flourishing human fully develops that rationality.
As noted earlier, Aristotle is aware of the widely held views that pleasure, wealth, friendship, and good family are valuable, and he seeks to accommodate these views within his theory. Thus he argues that the fully virtuous life is indeed pleasurable, providing an argument that depends on an analysis of the nature of pleasure. He also indicates the relevance of wealth and family for virtue. Finally he analyzes friendship suggesting that its paradigm form is friendship of the virtuous, and indicating that its significance is related to the importance of the state in the realization of an individual virtuous life.
To begin with, though, Aristotle’s remarks on method in ethics need attention. They help to explain how he arrives at his position, as well as revealing what he takes to be the purpose of ethical theory. Both these points are relevant to the use of Aristotelian theory in applied ethics.
Aristotle’s Method in Ethics
In NE I and VII, Aristotle makes various methodological remarks concerning the study of ethics. His views can be divided into three categories. First, he notes some constraints on the study of ethics, in particular on what sort of results can be expected in ethical inquiry. Second, he remarks on the sort of student that can benefit from engaging in ethical inquiry. These remarks are made in the light of both where ethical discussion must begin and what its purpose is. Finally he offers a suggestion on how to assess the conclusions of a discussion. All these ideas provide insights into the nature of the philosophical study of ethics (and thus of applied ethics), as well as aiding the understanding of Aristotle’s own preferred theory.
Precision in Ethics
Aristotle begins by remarking that different degrees of precision or clarity can be expected in different areas of study, so it will be sufficient in ethics to indicate the truth roughly and in outline. He illustrates his general idea here by noting that persuasive reasoning is evidently not adequate in mathematics, while on the other hand one should not expect demonstrative proofs of a rhetorician. Why should imprecision be expected in ethics? He appeals to the imprecision in its subject matter. Fine and just acts exhibit much variety and fluctuation; and even good things fluctuate in the sense that they sometimes harm people: the courageous sometimes die as a result of their courage (NE, 1094b 10–27).
It is not clear exactly how these remarks are to be taken. There has been some discussion as to what sort of knowledge Aristotle thinks possible in ethics, and whether he thinks it comparable with scientific knowledge. Questions have also arisen as to whether these remarks support some kind of relativist interpretation of his theory. However, he continues to talk of indicating the truth in ethics, as if there were truths here as in other areas of inquiry, mathematics, for example, but their content was less precise. Perhaps his key point is that even though results in ethics do not take the same form as those of mathematics, there is no reason to think it any less possible to discover truths and attain knowledge.
At a more practical level, the remarks suggest that it will be hard to spell out what justice, for example, requires, in terms of general rules such as “always return what you borrow” or “always keep promises.” They also suggest that it might be hard to produce any systematic method, such as the classical utilitarian calculus, in the light of which to determine what act is correct on any occasion. Such a calculus does not suppose a system of rules, so is consistent with variety in that way, but it does suggest that there is a reliable universal guide to what is good, while Aristotle seems to be claiming that such attempted generalizations are always defeasible. Some of these ideas are developed more explicitly in NE V and IX.
Precision and Casuistry in Ethics
In discussing epieikeia (equity) in NE, V, 10 and friendship in NE, IX, 2, Aristotle makes clear that in ethical matters universal laws are not possible. Certain matters of distributive justice arise at the level of the state, and for these issues laws are needed. But even if these laws are made by just rulers Aristotle suggests they will break down: “… all law is universal but about some things it is not possible to make a universal statement which shall be correct.” He indicates that in such cases the law must take the usual case, even though it is not ignorant of the possibility of error. And, as in book I, he holds that the law in such cases will be correct, “for the error is not in the law, nor in the legislator, but in the nature of the thing” (NE, 1137b 13–19). In other words, laws are needed since they will be true for the most part and thus worth having, but the ethical realm is subject to so much variation in detail that even the best generalizations will break down.
In NE, IX, 2 Aristotle spells this out with a series of cases. For example, he asks whether one should show gratitude to a benefactor or oblige a friend, if one cannot do both, and observes that all such questions are hard. The reason is that they admit of “many variations of all sorts in respect both of the magnitude of the service and of its nobility and necessity” (NE, IX, 2). Nonetheless he again emphasizes the value of generalizations, noting that for the most part we should return benefits rather than oblige friends (NE, 1164b 25–33).
The main point here is the nature of the results one might expect to attain in the study of ethics. One cannot expect to discover completely reliable universal rules either about what acts are required of agents or even about the reliability of goods such as courage. The main reason for this is the enormous variation in the details of the situations agents confront. Nonetheless, Aristotle also indicates that we can expect to find truths in ethics, and that the truth will be constituted in part by generalizations that are broadly reliable. Clearly, these remarks have direct implications for practical decisions. If laws break down in this way, what is to be done in the unusual case? If Aristotle holds that there are truths in this area, how are they to be discerned? In other words, the remarks above raise questions as to what sort of practical implications Aristotle thinks an ethical theory can have. This will be addressed in the section titled “Eudaimonia, Pleasure, and External Goods” but, broadly speaking, Aristotle’s remarks in NE, V, 10 indicate that he favors a casuistical approach to those cases where the usually reliable generalization breaks down.
Starting Points, End Points, and Suitable Students of Ethics
In NE I, 3 Aristotle argues that a young person is not a suitable student of ethics, for two reasons. First, the young lack relevant true beliefs that are necessary if one is to start doing ethics, they are ignorant of the actions of life; and, second, they are unlikely to benefit from the study of ethics because they tend to be ruled by their passions. In the next chapter, he adds that if a student is to benefit from lectures on ethics, he must be well brought up, that is, he must have a grasp on the “that” in ethics, or at least be capable of grasping it when advised by others. The reason for this is that in ethics we must begin with those things that are evident to us (as opposed to what is evident without qualification) (NE, 1094b 27–1095b 13). These remarks as to how one should begin an inquiry in ethics can be supplemented by what Aristotle says when investigating weakness of will in NE, VII, 1. Here he notes that we must begin by setting the apparent facts before us (NE, 1145b 2–3).
These ideas about starting points in ethics are important. Very roughly, the idea here is that an inquiry cannot begin in a vacuum but must take as its starting point certain widely held or prominent beliefs. The inquiry then proceeds by examining these beliefs. This certainly seems to be the procedure adopted in the investigation of acrasia in NE, VII, following the passage referred to above, and also in the initial inquiry into the nature of eudaimonia in NE I, 4-5 (noted already), where Aristotle reviews and examines certain widely held beliefs about it.
If so, Aristotle requires that a student of ethics should already hold beliefs of a certain sort in advance of study. The objective will then be to examine those beliefs and, if a standard dialectical method is adopted here, to seek knowledge (or understanding) by uncovering the explanations (the whys) for those beliefs. (The position thus draws a distinction between beliefs, or opinions, and knowledge, or understanding. At the outset of an inquiry, the investigator begins with widely held beliefs. If the inquiry is successful he will attain knowledge. The beliefs will be justified in the sense that he will have discovered explanations for the propositions believed.)
But what sort of beliefs must the student possess at the beginning? First they must be beliefs acquired through experience of actions (experience of circumstances in which significant choices have to be made), and second they must be the sort of beliefs that are acquired through a good upbringing. Some writers have supposed Aristotle to be very demanding here. They suggest that philosophical ethics is only for those who are already good. On this view a well-brought-up young person’s experience of actions will enable him already to have entirely true beliefs as to what the good person should do on any given occasion. Thus, it is said, the study of ethics will simply deepen the student’s reflective appreciation of why the life he correctly believes to be good is good.
Such a view suggests that Aristotelian ethical theory will provide no practical advice at all. For the only possible students are those who need no practical advice. The “that” they must already grasp, prior to philosophical reflection, is what is required of them in any particular circumstance. But there are reasons to doubt this interpretation. Common-sense reflection suggests that if Aristotle had held this view he would have had no students at all. For it seems unlikely that there is any human who has true beliefs as to exactly what the right thing to do is in all possible circumstances.
Furthermore, attention to the cases in NE where Aristotle adopts his method show him considering a range of widely held beliefs. This indicates that suitable students need only be in a position to recognize these as possible beliefs, and perhaps be inclined toward one of them. For example, in the examination of eudaimonia in NE, I, 5, the starting points, presumably the “that” some of which a student must know in advance, include the ideas that the ultimate good is wealth or pleasure, which seem unlikely beliefs for someone who only ever makes good choices.
Also telling is the other reason given above for rejecting the young as students of ethics. Those who are young in age or young in character will be dominated by their passions, so incapable of changing their acts in line with any knowledge their study brings. Yet, Aristotle notes, the point of ethical inquiry is action and not knowledge, a point reiterated in the discussion of virtue (NE, 1095a 4–11 and 1103b 26–29). The significance of this claim can be backed up by attention to an earlier remark that knowledge of eudaimonia will make us more likely to hit upon what is right (NE, 1094a 22–24). Taken together, these assertions suggest that ethical inquiry (well-conducted) is likely to make us change our actions (for the better) in particular circumstances. At least ethical inquiry is intended to achieve that. But if the students of ethics were all wholly virtuous already, ethical inquiry could not make them more likely to do the right actions. All their actions would already be correct.
However, if the requirement is not that students should already have entirely virtuous beliefs, what must a young person who is well brought up believe, prior to studying ethics? One possible interpretation would take Aristotle to be setting down a minimal requirement, that experience of the actions of life must have given suitable students a sense of right and wrong, or good and bad, enough to grasp the significance of these distinctions. Lacking this, the prospective student would be unable to see the point of investigating the ultimate human good.
An alternative interpretation would be that the potential ethicist must already have some correct beliefs about which acts are right, which are wrong, not just the simple view that there is a distinction. On this second view, what will need explaining is why certain correct acts are right, why others are wrong, and this is the sort of thing one might expect a conception of the ultimate good to explain.
These reflections suggest that the “that,” possessed by a suitable student, might include beliefs of an abstract (meta-) level, for example concerning the link between virtue and happiness, or the occurrence of weakness of will; and beliefs as to what virtue requires, or what right action is in a particular case, for example how the courageous person will act in certain circumstances. Furthermore, the student of ethics may be mistaken about at least some of these, of both types, prior to study.
Suppose then that a suitable student must have beliefs of this sort. Inquiry proceeds by examining these beliefs. How, then, does Aristotle determine when such an examination has produced satisfactory results? What is the objective of ethical inquiry? The remarks already referred to in NE I, 4 suggest the goal is to arrive at a grasp of what is evident without qualification, and that this involves reaching the whys, explanations for the starting beliefs. But if so, how are different possible explanations to be assessed? In NE VII, 1 he indicates that the best explanation will preserve as true as many as possible of the widely held beliefs, and the authoritative beliefs, canvassed at the outset, but also explain the conflicts found among the starting beliefs (NE, 1145b 3–7).
Aristotelian Method and Conservatism in Ethics
It might be suggested that this view about the objective of ethical inquiry has rather conservative tendencies. It constrains ethical theory to retain as many as possible of the widely held and authoritative beliefs existing prior to the inquiry. In this respect, Aristotelian ethics might seem to differ in outlook from the position of classical utilitarians such as Bentham and Sidgwick whose aim was to put ethics onto a scientific base, providing a scientifically reliable method for determining what to do. For them it was possible that the method, once discovered, might lead to large-scale revisions of practice.
But the degree of conservatism implied by the Aristotelian method will in fact depend on the nature of the preexisting beliefs. Given a high degree of uniformity among these beliefs, then the method suggests that the theory should at most explain those beliefs, and thus confirm them. Take an example from applied ethics. Suppose that in medical practice there is widespread agreement about the importance of informed consent from patients, then the Aristotelian will simply expect ethical theory to explain that belief and will reject any theory that suggests the belief is false.
However, the method need not be particularly conservative in those areas where there is widespread disagreement. In such cases, it will allow the theory to reject many people’s beliefs and in that respect be highly revisionary. A practical example might be the problem of abortion where some believe it to be wrong in all circumstances, some believe it to be permissible in all circumstances, and there is a huge variety of beliefs held along the spectrum between these polar positions. In such a case, the Aristotelian method might expect ethical theory to vindicate only a small proportion of the beliefs held. (Some might suggest that Aristotle’s defence of the importance of virtue in eudaimonia is another example of radicalism permitted by his method.) A different case might be where two widely held beliefs clashed, as when it is found that there is a quite general gap between the moral beliefs we assert and those we express in practice. A practical example might be the gap between widely expressed views about the horror of homelessness being found among people who do not take the homeless into their spare rooms. In this case, an ethical theory might highlight the conflict as well as leading to the vindication of either the asserted belief or the practice. In all these sorts of cases, then, Aristotelian method can support quite large-scale ethical change.
Aristotelian Ethical Theory: Eudaimonia, Human Nature, and Virtue
If these are the principles governing his examination of ethical issues, how does he apply them to his two central questions? What follows will explore how he develops a conception of eudaimonia that appeals to a conception of human nature and how he then develops an account of virtue that can show how the life of virtue is a life of eudaimonia.
Before turning to the detail, brief comment can be made on the general sort of ethical theory Aristotle advances. What has been said already indicates that Aristotelian ethical theory is a virtue theory, and it is there that its greatest relevance to applied ethics may be found. However, three other general features of the theory can be noted. First, it incorporates an objective conception of the ultimate good at which a human life should aim. Second, the theory is eudaimonist. Aristotle holds that the ultimate good at which a life should aim is eudaimonia, or happiness. This does not mean that the agent should aim at eudaimonia in every action. Virtuous action has its own distinctive motives. But eudaimonia is the point of life. A life goes better to the extent that it realizes eudaimonia and less well insofar as it diverges from this ultimate good. Thus explaining the relation between virtue and eudaimonia provides a reflective justification of the virtuous life. The conception of the virtues is constrained by this feature of Aristotle’s theory. In the end, if virtues are valuable, this can only be because they play a role in achieving this eudaimon life (though Aristotle also allows that “every virtue we choose indeed for themselves” (NE, 1097b 2–3)). So it must be possible to provide an account of what virtue is that reveals the way in which possession of virtue contributes to the eudaimon life.
This second general feature also has repercussions for applied ethics. For, since the virtues may figure in applications of the theory, this eudaimonist constraint on what virtues are will have a bearing on what acts the virtuous individual performs.
Third, Aristotle puts forward a perfectionist theory. He holds that eudaimonia, the ultimate good, is achieved in a life that perfectly realizes human nature. This aspect of the theory constrains both the account of eudaimonia and the account of the virtues. Thus it too has repercussions for applied ethics in the way that the second feature does.
Clarification of Aristotle’s views on eudaimonia requires that something be said on several points. First, why did Aristotle think there was such a thing as an ultimate good, which all agree verbally to be eudaimonia? Second, to what English concept, if any, does this Greek concept correspond? Of what is it that Aristotle is trying to produce a correct conception? Third, the application of his favored method to the investigation of the concept needs to be outlined.
The argument for an ultimate good
Aristotle’s argument for the existence of an ultimate good begins from the observation that every (rational) action aims at some good. If an objective is thought of as good, it will either be because it is instrumentally good, it is chosen for the sake of some further good toward which it contributes or because it is good in itself. So, when choosing what to do, an agent’s reasoning must always end at some objective thought good in itself, since instrumental goods always presuppose some further good. Aristotle’s next move has been debated, but can be coherently construed as the conditional claim that if there is some ultimate good at which we aim in all actions it will be of no little importance to discover it (NE, 1094a 1–26). In other words the fact that all our actions aim at objectives thought good in themselves leaves open the possibility that there is a single ultimate good. Thus Aristotle takes the argument to establish the point of investigating what the ultimate good is. But the argument’s distinction between instrumental goods and goods in themselves also leaves open whether the concept of an ultimate good is such that its ultimacy consists in it alone, in some sense beyond all other goods, being pursued for its own sake, or whether it can be ultimate while being simply a composite of a group of noninstrumental goods (all equally noninstrumental). In addition, therefore, this initial argument leaves open whether there will turn out empirically to be just one concrete good for humans, that which is worth pursuing, ultimately, in every (fully rational) action, or a range of such goods, which fit together in such a way as to constitute a unity.
On this interpretation, Aristotle’s initial supposition that there is an ultimate good is only conditional (in various ways). He has not even tried to show that it must exist. Reflection on human (rational) action leaves open the possibility that there is such a thing and, if it exists, it would be worth knowing. This is sufficient to motivate the inquiry. Subsequent discussion, for example, the fact that all reach at least verbal agreement as to what it is (eudaimonia), provides some additional support for its existence; and the fact that the inquiry into its existence seems to be successful constitutes further confirmation. So Aristotle does enough to show us that his first key question, the investigation of eudaimonia, is worth pursuing.
What exactly is it that Aristotle investigates once he has established that Greeks in general agree that the ultimate good is eudaimonia? The most authoritative translations agree on the translation ‘happiness.’ This reflects the need for a concept that many see as an ultimate goal, but about whose actual content there is disagreement.
Aristotle’s method and preliminary inquiry into eudaimonia
How, then, does Aristotle apply his method, described above, to the initial investigation of eudaimonia, or happiness? Aristotle begins his inquiry, in NE I, 4, by considering views as to its content that have been held by the wise or the many. These constitute the “that,” the initial beliefs that require examination.
Of these views, several are swiftly dismissed, namely the idea that it is a life of pleasure, or one that achieves honor, or one in which the agent becomes wealthy. Wealth is only a means to an end, the value of honor depends on who bestows it, and the life of pleasure is not the ultimate good for humans; such a life is more suited to beasts. Two possibilities are left: that it is an active life of practical virtue in which courage, justice, and so on are fully exhibited, or that it is a life of intellectual excellence involving contemplation or deep reflective understanding (NE, 1095b 14–1096a 10). This would presumably be the type of life that fully satisfies man’s natural desire to know (MP, 980a 21).
These rapid dismissals of some popular views may seem contrary to what the method requires. But his subsequent discussion of pleasure, honor, or wealth allows that each has some relevance to eudaimonia. Thus he follows his method in seeking to preserve as much as possible from the initial starting points.
In sum, Aristotle seeks an account of eudaimonia that explains the widely held verbal agreement that this is the ultimate good but is also able to accommodate as much as possible of the variant beliefs as to what it substantively consists of. This is just what his method requires.
In NE I, then, his method has left him with two rival conceptions of eudaimonia (the active life of practical virtue and the contemplative life). Their relation has been an important matter in the scholarly interpretation of Aristotelian theory. For present purposes, the focus is on the active life of practical virtue, as more crucial to applied ethics, and Aristotle’s reasons in NE I–IX for thinking it constitutes an eudaimon life. If it does, then Aristotle will have answered both his central questions: he will have identified eudaimonia and shown that the virtuous life does pay. To answer his questions in this way, he needs to explain the connection between the eudaimon life and the life of virtue. He achieves this by, first, producing an argument that illuminates the concept of eudaimonia and, second, elaborating what practical virtue is in a way that shows how it is connected with the concept so illuminated.
Eudaimonia and Aristotle’s Conception of Human Nature
The argument he produces to illuminate the concept of eudaimonia concerns human nature. He argues that where a kind of thing has a function, a good member of that kind is one that fully performs that function. Thus if the function of a sculptor is to sculpt statues, a good sculptor is one who sculpts statues properly (similarly, a good knife is one that cuts properly). He then argues that human beings should be understood as having a function. Their function is to actively exercise reason. Hence the human good (eudaimonia) will be achieved by an individual who actively reasons properly (NE, 1097b 22–1098a 18).
In other words, what a good X is depends on what kind X belongs to, which is specified by reference to the function of things of that kind. This is the argument that Aristotle implicitly relied on above in denying that the life of pleasure is eudaimon, thus attacking a classical utilitarian view.
Key aspects of this argument are, first, the claim that humans have a function, and second, the claim that the human function is to exercise reason. But do humans have a function? And if so, is that function the exercise of reason?
Both questions require a detailed account of the argument, which is only cryptically stated in NE. For present purposes, suffice it to say that a possible response depends on understanding humans here in the light of his general conception of natural kinds articulated in Physics, II. Very briefly, Aristotle holds that a member of a natural kind possesses a nature, in virtue of which it belongs to that kind, and in virtue of which it is the thing that it is. (The nature constitutes the entity’s essence.) This nature plays a particular role in explaining the entity’s behavior. Thus, for example, an acorn has a nature that explains some of the changes the acorn can undergo, those changes that it undergoes when it develops properly. In the acorn’s case, these are the changes it goes through as it develops into a fully grown oak tree, the sort of tree that best sustains the species. The nature of the acorn explains these changes teleologically. The idea is that the nature of the acorn is constituted by a particular set of potentialities. (These are a subset of all the acorn’s potentialities, a subset of the ways in which an acorn can change.) When the acorn realizes these potentialities it behaves as a good member of the kind. It is in this sense that those changes are explained teleologically. It is also in this sense that an acorn can be thought of as having a function. Its function is to realize that special set of changes that are explained teleologically. And this provides the link to good acorns (as in the case of the sculptor). Good acorns are those that perform their function.
This is the sense in which Aristotle thinks of humans as having a function, such that good humans perform that function properly. A human being has a nature. This nature explains some of the changes that a human undergoes, those changes he undergoes when he develops properly, once again those that contribute to the persistence of the species. Aristotle identifies those changes as the ones that occur in a cycle of development in which the potential for reason is fully realized. How does Aristotle identify this as the key human characteristic? He relies on an analysis of empirical observation. He identifies the nature of the key developments that must take place in a human if that human is to contribute optimally to the persistence of the species. (The phenomenon Aristotle observes and seeks to explain is that of a stable eco-system, and his analysis of natural kinds accounts for their behavior within that framework.) Thus his claim is that the cycle of development that a good human goes through is one in which the power of rationality is developed and exercised fully.
In the NE, only the bare bones of the argument are presented. Furthermore, the conclusion that the good human life involves the full exercise of rationality is not elaborated. In fact, unpacking what it means for a life to be fully rational will be a complex matter. This is unsurprising since the human case is that of the most complex natural kind, so the account of human nature needs to be correspondingly more complex. Aristotle indicates a little more about these complexities in Politics (1252a 1–1253a 39). There he argues that human nature is such that the full realization of the human function can only take place in a polis. The basic reason for this is that humans are a gregarious species (like bees), hence their proper development involves projects shared in common. Some remarks here also gesture toward the way in which some of these shared projects involve the realization of the potential for reason.
However, the point at this stage is that a defence can be offered of the key claims in Aristotle’s argument here and thus of his conception of human nature. This in turn provides a defence of his view that the human good must be elaborated through attention to this conception of human nature, and so the view that eudaimonia must consist in a life which fully realizes the potential to exercise reason. Eudaimonia is linked to reason, so the life of practical virtue can be shown to be eudaimon if it can be shown that practical virtue requires the full exercise of rationality.
The nature of practical virtue
After the initial attention to eudaimonia in NE I, Aristotle examines both what virtue is and the nature of particular virtues. Contrary to Socrates in Plato’s Meno, Aristotle approaches the question of what virtue is by considering first how virtue is acquired. In what follows, the same order will be adopted.
The acquisition of virtue
“Neither by nature, then, nor contrary to nature do the virtues arise in us; rather we are adapted by nature to receive them, and are made perfect by habit.” Thus Aristotle summarizes how the virtues are acquired (NE, 1103a 23–26). If the virtues are to constitute the realization of human nature, they must be, in a sense, in accord with human nature. But this aspect of the realization of human nature requires a particular kind of external intervention. (The virtues will not simply develop, in normal circumstances, unless prevented.) So Aristotle, in noting that they do not arise by nature, accepts that they are artificial, in a sense, and this is because they cannot develop unless the agent’s behavior is initially appropriately guided by others. At a later stage in development, the agent may become capable of training himself, getting himself to do the right thing (in cases where he lacks the virtuous disposition and so has to be strong-willed).
When he talks of the role of habituation in virtue acquisition, Aristotle has in mind something more complex than the conditioning of a child’s behavior. To have a virtue is not a matter of having the mere habit of behaving in a certain way, a conditioned behavioral response brought about through (guided) repetition. As Aristotle describes it, habituation involves guidance, and may involve repetition, but crucial in his analysis is the role of practice or behavior. And habituated practice plays a critical role in the acquisition of the true beliefs required for virtue (as well as the right kind of desires).
For Aristotle there are several stages of habituation that an individual must go through if he is to acquire virtue. Reflection on NE, I, 3-4 indicates that the acquisition of virtue involves grasping first the “that” and then the “why.” Thus this process of habituation appears to run in parallel with what a student must go through in preparing for and then studying ethics.
Granted this distinction between grasp of the “that” and the “why,” there are at least three stages that the young must go through in acquiring the “that.” First a student must learn that a certain type of behavior is required in particular circumstances. In the young, in particular, this is learned from others. Thus in NE II, 1 Aristotle emphasizes the importance of all who play a role in guidance, including legislators, parents, and teachers, for example. But to know the “that” in this sense is merely to have acquired the information that one’s parents, say, believe this is the courageous thing to do. At this stage, the child believes this is the right thing to do merely because it is what those she trusts advise her to do.
But to believe the “that” in the strong sense is to have grasped that this is the right thing to do for oneself, through coming to enjoy it properly. There are two further stages of habituation here, first coming to enjoy the required act, as opposed to doing it because instructed by others, and then coming to enjoy it properly, where one appreciates what it is in the action that is truly enjoyable. Critical to the second stage is action. The child, in the example, must actually do what her parents advise her to do as the courageous act. Only through action can the child come to see for herself that this is indeed the courageous act. This kind of knowledge can only be acquired through trying the activity and coming to enjoy it (which may require repetition). It is in this aspect of habituation that practice has been said to have cognitive powers. The process of seeing for oneself “that” an action is the right thing to do goes hand in hand with learning to enjoy doing it.
The last stage in which the student appreciates what it is about the action that is properly enjoyable must be closely related to a further stage in the development of virtue, namely the point at which something is grasped of why the action is virtuous. This reflective understanding must also be at least part of what is acquired through the study of ethics, but it would seem that it might well contribute to an appreciation of exactly what it is in right action that is truly enjoyable. If so, the grasp of the “that” in this way will overlap with the grasp of the “why.”
However, the main point here is that the role of habituation initially is to enable the young to grasp for themselves the “that” regarding virtue, a requirement of truly virtuous behavior. Once that stage is attained, a second stage, the grasp of the “why,” becomes possible. This stage is necessary if the agent is to have a reasoned understanding of virtuous action. This may involve both a full appreciation of why a particular act is required, as virtuous, in the relevant circumstances, and an ability to grasp fully the relation between practical virtue and other key concepts, such as eudaimonia.
The definition of virtue
Aristotle offers the following definition of virtue: “Virtue, then, is a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean, i.e. the mean relative to us, this being determined by a rational principle, and by that principle by which the man of practical wisdom would determine it.” (NE, 1106b 36–1107a 2). This, then, is the condition that arises, first, from habituation: the practice of right action, guided (initially) by good parents, teachers, and law; and in due course, from reflection on the “that” that has been established through habituation. What kind of condition is Aristotle describing?
First, virtue is a state of character (hexis). This is a settled disposition of the mind that disposes the agent to act in certain ways when circumstances arise to which that state of character is relevant. It is a state of character concerned with prohairesis, a technical term in Aristotle’s analysis of action, better translated as “preferential choice” to mark that. So preferential choice must be explained.
Children do not make preferential choices, though they act hekousios (intentionally). A child is capable of originating action through possessing both a desire and the relevant correct beliefs, and this is all that is necessary if the child is to act hekousios. But the desires of children are not preferential desires, the sort of desires that lead to preferential choices. Such desires are formed in the light of deliberation as to how to attain goals, where those goals reflect a conception of the good. Children, as humans in whom rational powers are not realized (though those powers may be in the course of realization), lack such a conception of the good. They are subject only to passing desires. Thus to make a preferential choice, it is necessary not only to act on a desire and a belief, but to act on a desire that derives from a conception of the good. The virtuous person has a settled disposition of the mind to make preferential choices.
But the vicious also make preferential choices, so the definition specifies more about the state of character of one who makes virtuous choices. The virtuous state of character lies in a mean relative to us. What this entails is that the agent’s passions, or emotions, are appropriate, so as to give rise to actions that are appropriate in the circumstances. The doctrine of the mean does not concern moderation, but appropriateness. And it focuses on both the motivating condition of the agent and the actions that result. In places Aristotle seems to suggest that the emotions are primary (NE, 1105b 25–26; NE II, 6). In the case of each virtue, Aristotle envisages a scale of emotional response such that there are vices corresponding to inappropriate emotions and a virtue corresponding to the appropriate emotional condition (NE, 1105b 30–1106a 2; 1106b 18-23). Thus, for example, there is a scale of emotional attitudes to sensual pleasure. At one extreme, there is undue desire for such pleasure; at another there is undue indifference. These emotional conditions are associated with vices of self-indulgence and asceticism. But there is also an appropriate kind of emotional condition on this scale, possessed by the self-controlled individual. These mean conditions involve the agent forming true beliefs about the circumstances he faces and responding with appropriate emotion, which will lead him to make appropriate choices. Thus the virtuous state of character will be a settled state of beliefs and desires, lying in a mean so as to lead to appropriate preferential choices and action.
Ethical virtue, the rational principle, and phronesis
Aristotle next suggests that this mean state of choice and character is determined by a rational principle, that by which the person of practical wisdom (phronimos) would determine it. This is a crucial aspect of the definition since this is the point at which he suggests that practical virtue is a state of character involving the exercise of reason. Reason must enter into the mean state in several ways. First the agent must be disposed to form rational beliefs about the circumstances he encounters. Reason will enter into belief formation so that the agent forms those beliefs best supported by the evidence he has. But reason will also enter the emotional condition of the virtuous agent in that his motivational desires will reflect a reasoned conception of the good. When belief and desire are rational in this way, the agent makes the judgements that would be made by the practically wise person, and acts on them.
To explain further, consider how the acquisition of virtue leads to this state of mind. Aristotle envisages children as capable of acting on beliefs and desires, but not yet on rational beliefs and desires. Habituation enables a child to form more reasoned judgements as to what is worth pursuing and to develop desires that reflect those judgements. In due course the child will not pursue passing objectives simply conceived of as satisfying desires, but as good. The next stage will be for him to form a reasoned conception of what is overall worth pursuing, in the light of the preliminary view of what is worthwhile. The reasoning here involves comparative judgements: seeing that various objects are worthy of pursuit as good in different respects, and making judgements about their comparative worth, thus reaching a reasoned conception of the good. (Clearly the degree of reasoning here can be more or less full, depending on the extent of the comparative judgements made.) At the same time as these developments occur, motivational states will need to develop in such a way that the agent desires those objects considered good, a process in which the agent’s desires come into line with his conception of the good. The result will be fully rational desires.
This account of the role of reason in virtue is further complemented by attention to the nature of phronesis, practical wisdom that determines the principle on which the virtuous agent acts. Phronesis is an intellectual virtue, defined in NE, VI, 5 as “a true and reasoned state of capacity to act with regard to the things that are good or bad for man.” In NE, VI, 7 Aristotle then explains that it is the mark of the practically wise to deliberate well, “but no one deliberates about things … which have not an end which is a good that can be attainable by action.” In other words, practical wisdom is the intellectual virtue that enables the agent to arrive at a reasoned comparative conception of the good, a feature of moral virtue already referred to. It is also the rational faculty that enables the virtuous agent to work out correctly what to do on particular occasions in the light of that conception of the good (to calculate properly so as to reach the correct preferential choice). It thus involves: reasoning about universals, reaching generalizations about what is worthwhile pursuing in life (making a comparative conception of the good), and forming rational beliefs about particulars, all the variables of individual situations.
Having provided this definition of generic virtue, Aristotle now argues that each of the particular virtues, or each state of character widely believed to be a virtue, can be analyzed as conforming to that definition. His account of virtue must conform adequately to widely held beliefs as to what the virtues are. Thus he claims that courage, self-control, justice, and so on are states of character constituted by relevant sets of rational beliefs and desires. Each is associated with both a particular focus within an overall conception of the good (certain rational beliefs), and a scale of emotional response (relevant rational desires). The approach can be indicated by briefly outlining one of the virtues Aristotle analyses, temperance.
The focus of temperance (self-control) is certain physical pleasures, in particular the pleasures that involve touch: pleasures of food, drink, and sex. Thus the relevant emotional scale is that of desire for these sorts of pleasures. In this area, then, virtue involves having an appropriate conception of the value of food, drink, and sex, and pursuing it accordingly. What counts as appropriate can be explained by noting that it is perfectly natural to find food, drink, and sex pleasant, but that it is possible to pursue them to excess: either excessive pursuit of food, for example, quite generally, or excessive pursuit of particular tastes in food, for example a craving for chocolate. The other vice, enjoying such physical pleasures less than one should, is very rare, though the phenomena of rejecting wholesale certain types of food (e.g., vegetables), or excessive dieting, may now be more common examples. The self-indulgent are further marked by being pained when their excessive appetite is not satisfied, while the temperate agent enjoys consuming just the right amount of food or drink.
The self-controlled person illustrates the reasoning that the virtuous agent engages in. She will have true beliefs about the value of pursuing the sensual pleasures of food, drink, and sex, desires that correspond to those beliefs, and correct beliefs about particulars relevant to each decision. She will then make rational choices whenever self-control is at issue.
Full virtue and the unity of the virtues
Aristotle’s account of virtue is very demanding. It holds that one cannot possess any of the virtues fully without possessing all of them fully. Aristotle makes this clear in his discussion of practical wisdom in NE VI, illuminating the key role of judgement in virtuous character. To possess any virtue fully the agent must be capable of exercising practically wise judgement in the area of concern relevant to that virtue. But to exercise wise judgement in any area of concern, the agent must be fully practically wise, and full practical wisdom is not itself possible without the possession of all the virtues (NE, 1144b 1–1145a 11). Although each virtue has its own evaluative focus, those areas of focus are not hermetically sealed. Courage is not possible without justice or else one may face fear to pursue unjust objectives. The virtues form a unity because guided by phronesis, which involves an overall reasoned conception of the good, enabling wise judgement on every occasion. To the extent that such correct judgement in all areas is an unattainable ideal, the fully virtuous life is an ideal, but of course it is worth striving to live a life as close to the ideal as possible.
Virtue, reason, and eudaimonia
How does this discussion of virtue bear on Aristotle’s main questions? He articulates and defends a definition of virtue (as a genus) such that the practical virtues are states that would be exhibited by a (practically) rational human being (NE, 1106b 36–1107a 2). The virtuous agent must have rational beliefs about the facts of particular circumstances faced, a reasoned conception of the good, and emotional responses that reflect that conception of the good. She will lack rogue desires that might distract her from pursuit of that good. Since he has argued that the life of reason is the eudaimon life, this account of virtue shows that the practical virtues are indeed those characteristics that would produce eudaimonia.
Eudaimonia, Pleasure, and External Goods
Aristotle’s method requires him to preserve widely held beliefs, so he aims to incorporate within his theory the views of many that pleasure, wealth, political power, a good family, and friendship have a role in a eudaimon life.
Though Aristotle dismisses the life of pleasure as constitutive of eudaimonia, he shows that it can be incorporated within his account by analyzing its nature (NE, VII, 11–14 and X, 1–5) in such a way that the life of virtue will turn out to be pleasant. For Aristotle, pleasure is not a uniform category, rather distinct pleasures are taken in distinct activities: “to each man that which he is said to be a lover of is pleasant” (NE, 1099a 7–10). There is in effect a hierarchy of pleasures, their value depending on the activity they are associated with. Thus the truly virtuous take pleasure in virtuous actions (NE, II, 3). Pleasure is a mark of a person’s character, rather than being a goal in itself.
Aristotle expresses the following general view about external goods: “Some must necessarily exist as conditions of happiness, and others are naturally cooperative and useful as instruments” (NE, 1099b 27–29). Thus one would expect there to be such a role for any of these goods within the life of virtue.
Wealth is necessary to satisfy the basic needs of life, food, shelter, cures for illness, education, and so on. But beyond that it affords leisure for sharing in communal activities – discussion, drama, and so on – which contribute to the development of the powers of reason. And material resources may be necessary for the exercise of certain virtues, generosity, for example.
Good family aids habituation in the acquisition of virtue. More broadly, it supports the emotional development necessary if a young person is to share in the communal activities that contribute to the development of practical rationality.
The value of political power lies in the fact that such power provides an opportunity to exercise practical reason, making laws that will help citizens become good through habituation (NE, 1103b 3–6). Thus it is desirable, from this point of view, that all citizens have a turn in exercising power.
For Aristotle, there are three categories of friendship, and between them they cover most of the range of social interactions. However, his paradigm category is virtue friendship, in which two people enjoy each other’s company in virtue of their good character. Friendship between the virtuous is perfect friendship, and the other two categories are analogous to virtue friendship. These other categories are relationships formed for the sake of pleasure, for example a relationship in which two people enjoy each other’s humor, and those formed for the sake of utility, for example a commercial relationship between a consumer and a market-stall holder.
But if the eudaimon life is an active life of virtue, it does not seem, on the face of it, to require friendships. So how can Aristotle show the value of friendship within his theory? Aristotle’s remarks on the close proximity of friendship to justice are suggestive. The value of both friendship and justice lies, at least to a degree, in the fact that a human can only realize his nature in a polis, a community governed by justice. The exercise of rationality involves, in various ways, shared projects (Pol., 1253a 7-18). And friendship, like justice, is the cement that holds the requisite communities together. Friendship, then, facilitates the individual’s realization of his potential for rationality, and thus his achievement of eudaimonia (NE, 1155a 5–28).
Prominent Features of Aristotelian Ethical Theory
Some general features of the Aristotelian approach to ethics can now be noted. First, in focusing on eudaimonia Aristotle makes the shape of life as a whole central to his ethical perspective. His key question is what sort of life a human being (with human essential powers) should live. Thus practical virtues are characteristics an agent needs to develop if a human life as a whole is to have the shape required for eudaimonia. The virtues constitute a unity because a eudaimon life will constitute an integrated unity. This can be contrasted with an approach that makes acts directly the central focus. Thus some forms of consequentialism try to develop a method to determine what act to perform at any given time or rules governing kinds of action to perform in relevant circumstances. The Aristotelian perspective does have implications for action. Virtues must be displayed in action. But acts cannot be evaluated individually, or by reference to rules; what matters is the character of the agent that leads to action.
Second, the Aristotelian approach is embedded in a theory of moral psychology. Aristotle’s theory of virtue depends on a theory of intentional action and preferential choice within which it can be explained how virtue is a condition in which reason governs desire. This explains why the virtuous person will regularly make virtuous preferential choices, leading to the acts characteristic of that virtue. This can be contrasted with some rights-based, duty-based, or consequentialist theories of ethics which appear to pay little attention to moral psychology, and thus make it hard to see how, exactly, considerations of rights, duties, or consequences enter into an agent’s practical reasoning.
A third significant feature of Aristotle’s approach is his emphasis on reason in ethics. Rationality enters into his scheme in two ways. At one level, Aristotle seeks a rational basis justifying certain widely held ethical beliefs about the nature of eudaimonia and the importance of behaving virtuously. Thus he develops an account of the key concepts, eudaimonia, virtue, and human nature, which reveals their conceptual connections. But that account in turn demonstrates the role of reason in practical deliberation about specific acts, since a virtuous state of character is one in which desires are rationally ordered, and that leads to acts in line with rational preferential choices. This can be contrasted with a Hobbesian or Humean view of desires.
Finally the Aristotelian approach is based on a distinctively teleological conception of human nature within which humans have a goal, and thus can flourish to the extent that they achieve that goal, namely exhibiting rationality. This implies that humans are perfectible, they can change for the better, by realizing their potential to be rational (or for the worse, by realizing their potential to be irrational). Their nature is not, in this sense, unalterable. Again Hobbes’ view of humans, as (unalterably) desire-satisfaction machines, constitutes a contrast.
Aristotelian Ethics and Applied Ethics
What significance, then, does Aristotelian ethical theory have for applied ethics? In what follows, a distinction will be made between direct and indirect implications of the theory. The direct approach considers Aristotle’s theory as a virtue theory, and asks how, if at all, that theory can be applied. A virtue theory, here, holds that the right action in any particular case is that action that the virtuous agent would perform.
An indirect approach examines the way in which specific views, such as the account of human nature, or of eudaimonia, or his view of the relation between individual flourishing and the polis, might have a bearing on specific questions in applied ethics.
Direct Implications for Applied Ethics
If Aristotelian ethical theory is considered as a virtue theory, then there have been both positive and negative interpretations of its implications for practice. In discussing these views, it is necessary to bear in mind Aristotle’s methodological remarks on starting points, satisfactory results, and precision in ethics, as well as the specific nature of his account of the virtues and their role in deliberation.
Negative views of the practical implications of Aristotelian theory
As noted, one view holds that Aristotle’s ethical theory has no implications for applied ethics. This is because Aristotle is understood as requiring that students able to benefit from the study of ethics must already have true beliefs as to what action is required in any particular circumstance. In other words, an appropriate student will already be disposed to make all the right choices in the hum-drum decisions of daily life, as well as being clear what to do in the more dramatic cases discussed in medical, business, media, and environmental ethics texts. Furthermore, if a person’s upbringing has disposed her to make the wrong choices on occasion, no amount of reflection will change her.
A rather similar claim has been made by some writers on applied ethics. In their view, applied ethics courses are pointless since moral behavior depends on training, not reflection. Advocates of such a position hold that there is no difficulty telling right from wrong, the only difficulty is getting oneself to act on one’s knowledge. Such a claim is surprising given the disputes over abortion, euthanasia, and whether it is ever appropriate to cease treating, or feeding, persistent-vegetative state-cases, to take just some areas of dramatic applied controversy.
We have seen above that on the grounds both of common sense plausibility and of textual analysis, this is not a plausible reading of Aristotle’s attitude to applied ethics. Aristotle does argue for the importance of habituation in the acquisition of virtue. But his analysis is consistent with that process providing potential students of ethics with a preliminary grasp of the distinction between right and wrong, which can develop through ethical reflection into a richer conception of what each virtue is and of the overall good to pursue in action. Reflection can lead to changes in practice.
Assessment of the negative view also depends in part on the scope of applied ethics. So far in this section it has been assumed that the purpose of applied ethics is to provide guidance at least (and perhaps answers) for specific ethical problems. But it might be held that the study of applied ethics involves not merely grasping what to do, but fully appreciating why such actions are worth doing. If so, even on the implausible proposed interpretation Aristotelian ethics can contribute to applied ethics. For on this account the study of ethics will provide the “why,” the deeper reflective justification for all the particular acts performed.
Positive views of the practical implications of Aristotelian theory
But if Aristotelian ethical theory does not merely provide a deeper understanding of the value of the good life for those who are already good, in what way can the ethical reflection it involves change the student of ethics, and how can this bear on applied ethics?
As a virtue theory, Aristotelian ethics suggests that the right action will be that which is virtuous in the circumstances. But if Aristotle were only to claim, as some suggest, that the virtuous act is that which the practically wise person (phronimos) would perform, and that the practically wise person is simply one who has all the virtues, his position would be uninformatively circular. However, it has already been seen that Aristotle offers a much richer account of virtue than this implies. So how helpful is that account?
Suppose that the student of ethics merely begins with the true beliefs that some acts are right, others wrong, then the first effect of Aristotelian ethics will be that the student will conceive of practical problems in terms of the concepts of virtue and vice. His question is now not merely what action is right or wrong, but what is courageous as opposed to cowardly or rash, self-controlled as opposed to self-indulgent or ascetic. Using all these virtue concepts will itself shape the problem, and thus the factors that he takes into account in reaching a decision. Consider, for example, a patient reflecting on euthanasia. Suppose that instead of asking whether it is right or wrong he considers whether it would be a brave, rash, or cowardly act, in the circumstances, and whether it would be just or unjust. Thinking in these terms forces the patient to address what, in these circumstances, bravery and justice mean, and so what factors of the situation must be attended to in order to determine what courage and justice here require. This affects the features of the conception of the good in terms of which the agent reasons. That conception here has the shape of what the courageous or just person pursues (a shape quite different from that of maximizing pleasure, for example).
But how much practical help does this really provide? A way of thinking about specific problems has been offered, but does this method provide any resources for determining exactly what to do? Once the agent has got as far as deciding to be brave, how does he determine what bravery concretely requires? Does the patient above simply rely on his pretheoretical conception of bravery and justice, or does Aristotle’s theory add anything?
In brief, considerable further resources are provided through the analysis of virtue and the particular virtues outlined above. These suggest that a person of good judgement reflecting on what to do may attend to what (in this case) justice and courage are, what virtue is, and what good judgement (phronesis) itself is.
First, so far as a particular virtue is concerned Aristotle shows that an account of justice, for example, need not simply endorse the traditional views that justice involves returning what one owes, or that it requires one to help friends and harm enemies. Justice is a matter of the proportionate allocation of honor, money, and necessities for survival (soterian), and the categories of friend, enemy, or creditor may not pick out the crucial criterion of desert (NE, 1130b 1–5; 1131a 25–29). The account of particular virtue, then (whether revisionary or not), elaborates the factors the agent should attend to in deciding what virtuous action requires.
Second, the analysis has revealed that virtues are states of characters involving true beliefs and appropriate desires formed in the light of a conception of the good. So virtuous action requires attention to relevant facts in the circumstances and motivation by desires reflecting that conception of the good.
Third, the Aristotelian account casts further light on this overall conception of the good by incorporating within ethical virtue the intellectual virtue of practical wisdom, “a true and reasoned state of capacity to act with regard to the things that are good or bad for man” (NE, 1140b 4–6). The analysis of practical wisdom casts light on what an agent must do to form a conception of the good. It is necessary to reflect on the beliefs formed through habituation. Having learned to enjoy certain quantities of food and drink, for example, or sharing goods in certain ways, or speaking the truth in certain contexts, the agent can reflect on certain general claims about what exactly is worthwhile pursuing as self-controlled, or just, or courageous, and how different objectives fit together into an overall conception of the good. Practical wisdom involves reaching a conception of the good through reflection on beliefs formed about particular circumstances, and forming rational preferential choices in light of it.
Putting these three ideas together, the rational agent may choose what to do in light of his current analysis of what courage and justice are, which will be reached through reflection on beliefs about courageous and just acts formed through habituation. These conceptions of courage and justice will in turn shape the conception of the good in light of which good judgement is arrived at.
From a practical point of view, then, for the Aristotelian the right thing to do is what the phronimos would do, but his theory gives content to this by providing a detailed account of how to reach an overall conception of the good, its relation to emotional responses, and habituation, and its role in particular judgements. It indicates in some detail the considerations which, given the definitions of virtues, are pertinent to particular virtuous decisions. It points out the significance of correct empirical beliefs about particulars, and rational desires, if good preferential choices are to be made. Nonetheless, these outlines do not indicate a precise method for reaching a judgement in each practical decision.
Consider again the agent deliberating about euthanasia. Thus far the Aristotelian theory has provided a conceptual framework within which to reflect on the issue. More than that, it has provided a precise account of particular virtues, thus delineating the considerations that a just, courageous, self-controlled agent would attend to in reaching a decision. To this can be added the fact that the virtuous agent will exercise practical wisdom in making the judgement. Yet this does not seem to determine the right action in the way that certain utilitarian theories, say, might claim to do, by providing a mechanism for working out exactly what to do.
Direct positive implications, precision, and casuistry
Here Aristotle’s remarks on method are relevant. Aristotle held that the same degree of precision was not to be expected in ethics as in areas of inquiry such as mathematics. One interpretation of this claim supports the view that there is no simple answer to questions about the rightness and wrongness of most sorts of actions. Thus it is unrealistic to expect a virtue theory to do more than give a fairly precise account of the nature of the person who will make virtuous judgements.
As the remarks in NE, V, 10 indicated it is a mistake to think that a rule, or set of rules, can be provided that will accommodate all the variety of considerations that practical decision making involves. However, Aristotle’s remarks on casuistry also indicated how the practically wise agent will deal with situations in which general rules break down. This further supplements his account of the practically wise person’s overall conception of the good. “When the law speaks universally, then, and a case arises on it which is not covered by the universal statement, then it is right … to say what the legislator himself would have said had he been present, and would have put into his law if he had known” (NE, 1137b 19–24). This can be generalized to any case where two general claims in the practically wise person’s conception of the good conflict. Suppose he holds that it is generally worthwhile speaking the truth, and generally worthwhile supporting friends, but these aims conflict in the present case. Then it seems that the agent must reflect back on past cases in which he spoke the truth, and those in which he supported friends, and consider how the generalizations relate to those cases. This will indicate the weight attaching to these principles in the past and so inform the judgement in the present case.
On this interpretation of the Aristotelian view of applied ethics, the aim should not be to specify exactly how to reach the right decision on all occasions. No such set of guiding rules can be provided. What is needed, in contrast, is the right framework for thinking about difficult practical problems. That framework is to think as the phronimos would, but this is not redundantly circular. Aristotelian virtue theory provides an adequately rich framework, outlined above, to delimit fairly tightly the kinds of decision that might qualify as correct.
Indirect Implications of Aristotelian Theory for Applied Ethics
So far, Aristotelian ethical theory has been considered simply as a virtue theory. But the nature of his discussion of the virtues provides other resources that are relevant to debates in applied ethics.
Consider first Aristotle’s discussion of eudaimonia, or happiness. This is a discussion of what is ultimately worth pursuing, so must have some potential to affect practice. Recent work on happiness in welfare economics and psychology confirms this, though much of it lacks awareness of Aristotle’s profound contribution. His conclusion here is complex, making the relation of his discussion to practical issues more indirect. For if the life of (practical and/or theoretical) reason is what is ultimately worth pursuing, then it has to be pursued indirectly. For a rational life is itself one in which rational goals are pursued, hence the eudaimon life will be pursued (indirectly) by pursuing the goals of reason. Applied ethical questions will then turn on the nature of the goals of reason, and that takes us back to the decision making of the virtuous agent that has just been discussed.
Nonetheless, a discussion of the ultimate good must have some bearing on the question of what the all-things-considered conception of the good the virtuous agent will hold and thus the kind of judgements he will make in specific cases. Aristotle’s discussion of eudaimonia is relevant here at least in a negative way. For his observations about the importance of pleasure, wealth, and honor (or public esteem) at least show that practical decisions in business, or journalism, for example, which treat any of these as ultimate goods, must be mistaken. His subsequent remarks about the actual place of all three in a eudaimon life must also help shape the virtuous conception of the all-things-considered good to be achieved by virtue.
A second aspect of Aristotle’s ethical theory may also have an impact on the virtuous agent’s conception of the all-things-considered good. This is the view that the full realization of human nature, necessary for the living of a good human life, can only take place in a polis. Thus a courageous agent will consider the value of defending the state in light of the fact that the state is a prerequisite for any individual to flourish, and that some states may be better constituted to promote individual flourishing than others. Similarly, action in line with the virtue of distributive justice will reflect the extent to which different distributions contribute to the flourishing of the state and thus of each individual within it. These are still rather general constraints. However, they will affect decisions in particular practical cases. Thus ethical problems in business, for example questions concerning the purpose of business, as well as issues concerning pay and responsibility in business, will need to be considered in light both of what constitutes happiness and of the fact that an individual flourishes fully in a flourishing society.
This second aspect is developed in some detail by discussion of friendship. The analysis of virtue friendship has direct practical implications for any agent’s conception of a good life. In addition, the wider discussion of good social interactions has clear implications for business ethics and perhaps ethical issues in the media, such as the importance of privacy and honesty.
Finally, Aristotle’s conception of human nature, as a set of potentialities realized fully in a life of reason, is relevant to various issues in medical ethics and may also be important in business ethics. On the medical side, Aristotle’s picture of human nature will be relevant to determining both the nature of human health and illness and the quality of a life affected by ill-health.
On this picture, illness of any sort will consist in states which incapacitate the realization of essential human potential. Such an account can contribute to the clarification of the concept of mental illness, thus providing a clearer view on the ethical issues that arise in psychiatric treatment. So far as quality of life is concerned, the account suggests that the current quality of a particular life will depend on the extent to which the agent is able to exercise those capacities whose exercise is involved in the living of a fully rational life. Such a perspective highlights the significance of mental health for quality-of-life assessments, as well as the extent to which physical incapacities prevent the agent from pursuing significant rational plans.
Furthermore, the Aristotelian picture of a human as a set of essential potentialities, whose good is found in the fully rational life that realizes those potentialities, is relevant to debates about abortion, euthanasia, and the treatment of animals. For it provides a picture within which these essential potentialities (which make a member of the species human) are fundamental in ethical reflection. This challenges the idea that for these issues personhood is what matters, not membership of the human species.
Aristotelian ethical theory provides two kinds of resource for applied ethics. As a virtue theory, it provides a framework for conceiving specific applied problems and, within that framework, offers fairly tight constraints on what might count as the right judgement in each case. However, it suggests that specific problems may involve too many variables for there to be any precise mathematical calculus available to determine what to do on each occasion. It can nonetheless allow that on each occasion of judgement there is a single correct course of action.
In addition to the central notion of a virtue theory, Aristotelian ethics provides some additional considerations that can be made use of in approaching specific areas of applied ethics. Some of these feed into the deliberations about the good that will inform the judgements made by a virtuous agent. Others bear more indirectly on the reflections of such an agent. Rarely will these general considerations determine precisely what must be done in particular circumstances where they apply, in the absence of attention to a detailed elaboration of all the particular features of those circumstances. This is again consistent with the above remarks on precision.