What Did Aristotle Mean?

Aristotle’s Virtues  – A Balancing Act

Aristotle had a theory of ethics that focused on what is called virtues. His virtues included courage, benevolence, and temperance. Within this theory was a theory of the mean. The basic idea is that each virtue is a mean (or halfway point) on a continuum. One example is bravery. It is situated between cowardice and fool-hardiness.

His ethics start with the concept of eudaimonia. This Greek word can be translated as flourishing. This is a concept that Sam Harris bases his whole view of ethics on.¹ While it cannot be claimed that this is derived from science (I never did figure out if he claimed this), you can use science to determine what would allow humans and by his lights other conscious animals to flourish.

One issue with this approach is how do you determine what flourishing means to individuals. If individuals, you face the dilemma of having one person’s flourishing diminishing another’s. If it is the most people possible than how do calculate it. This is a big problem with what is called utilitarianism. Utilitarianism claims that it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number of persons that ultimately counts. How this is determined no philosopher (or anyone) to my knowledge has solved. The first to investigate this approach to ethics was Jeremy Bentham, followed by John Stuart Mill.²

One way out of this problem is to only do things that would contibute to another’s flourishing. But, unless you can actually determine that, you are stuck. Not totally though because somethings are obvious. Harris’ whole scheme is future oriented because the science to determine human flourishing is not advanced enough yet, and it may be sometime before it is, if ever. As a neuroscientist he sees this coming to fruition, but actually when he never really says.

So, what is Aristotle’s idea of eudaimonia. To begin with it is within a community of people. I think he defines this community as politics, which is more than the notion we have of it in modern times. Today, politics leaves a bad taste in some people’s mouth—mine at least. It is consider to be about elections and legislation and the influence of people to and from. One thing wrong about Aristotle’s view on politics is that it excludes woman, slaves, and peasants.

Being a part of a community is shown in positive psychology (the psychology of happiness) studies to contribute to a sense of happiness or well-being. Well-being would be closest in Aristotle’s sense. However, one cannot put to much stock in these studies. While they may have a certain validity to them, it does not mean that someone who lacks a sense of community is unhappy. Apparently, there are perfectly happy hermits.

Considering that community is important in Aristotle’s theory, most of his virtues are related to how you behave in this community. Of course, most ethical virtues have an impact on others, but some are more important than others. Benevolence is a big virtue in Aristotle’s range of virtues, and it is directly related to how you interact with others.

There is also an ethical view called communitarianism. It is the view that your obligations to your community (however defined) is the focus of moral action. As I see it,  Aristotle could have bought into this view on a partial basis. Only partially because the center to his ethics is personal virtues whether directly contributable to your political environs or not.

Now is maybe the time to bring up the fact that I do not feel that ethical views (or theories or systems) are mutually exclusive. It is just that individual systems have different emphases. So, in the above case having a virtue ethics view is not directly in conflict with a communitarianism view.

Let us get back to Aristotle’s virtue ethics. The whole point of practicing virtues is that as you become proficient in a virtue it becomes second nature to act with that virtue, so that when you are in a situation that calls for that virtue you display that virtue, and so act morally correct. So if you act courageously on a consistent basis, the more likely it is that you are to act bravely in a new situation that calls for it.

It has been awhile since I read Aristotle’s Nicodemian Ethics, so I do not recall all the virtues that he mentions in this book. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy mentions  justice that I have not already mention. The article goes on to state his intellectual virtues, among which is intuitive understanding and practical and theoretical wisdom. It also points out several areas in which virtues are important such as friendship and pleasure. In addition not mentioned is integrity and consistency as other intellectual virtues.³ The article points out much more, but here I am really interested in the theory of the mean of the continuum on which the virtues are situated.

My attraction to Aristotle’s virtue ethics is not in any particular virtue. My concern is with knowing where a particular virtue lies on the continuum and the practice of these virtues in order for them to become central to a person’s life—mine in particular.

I feel it is necessary for each individual to determine which virtues are important to her or him. While not everyone will have the same virtues on their list of virtues, I feel that most of us share a lot of our virtues with one another. Each person having his or hers own set of virtues is the price of moral subjectivism.

Moral subjectivism is the view that what is good or bad (I hesitate to use evil because of its link with religion) is not found in the world around us, or any other source, such as god. In other words the world does not come with labels good and bad. It is us—humans—that label things or events in the world as good or bad.4 This does not leave us plague to nihilism or hedonism. It does not necessarily lead to nihilism because, while nothing prevents someone acting only in his or hers own interest, most people have regard for others. Evolution has seen to this. The world would not run even close to smoothly if everyone was out only for themselves. It does not necessarily lead to hedonism because most people have at least some self-constraint.

So, it is up to us to define our own virtues, many of which will be shared. If values are not a natural entity, how do we come to define them? Well, one answer is that evolution has given us certain behavioral traits. While these traits are not in themselves virtues, they can lead to them. We have a natural willingness to help those that are close to us, and we can learn to expand this to do things for our community, for our society, and for strangers. Is everybody altruistic? Unfortunately, no. But, again it is widespread enough for the human world to work fairly smoothly.

Is altruism not than a natural virtue? You could say so, but everything we do is natural; we are a part of the natural world. However, I think of virtues as coming to be valued in some way. So, while we may be predisposed to be kind, through life experiences we come to value being kind. This I feel is what makes kindness into a virtue. It is valued, so it is practiced.

So, do virtues take care of all things ethical? Not at all. I feel that they are a big help in acting morally if your virtues are moral. However, there are other ways of ascertaining what may be considered ethical.

One way is from Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher from the eighteenth century. This kind of ethical theory is known as deontology. The are two main components to his ethical theory. One is more famous than the other. The famous component is to treat others (humans because I do not know if he address ethical behavior toward animals—I doubt if he did) as ends and not as means. This basically means that you should not exploit another person. Is this idea absolutely necessary to maintain ethical behavior? I do not think so. As an example, if I take a class my goal is to learn the knowledge available in the class. I am using the teacher as a mean. Granted, I should be respectful of the teacher, but I do not have to consider his or hers needs to act morally. Other examples certainly can be examined. So, if this view is only about respecting others (which I do not think Kant would agree on), than that is an admirable principle to live by.

The other component is to only act as if that action should be universal. I think one of his examples is lying. In this view I should not lie because I would not wish others to lie. A significant challenge to this is does the lie harm another. There are times when the truth actually hurts, so it is kinder to give a “white” lie. In general the world is not so black and white; there is massive amounts of gray to life, and this includes morality. Again, if these universal moral actions are used as a guide for ethical behavior than it could be consider a positive principle, but not sacrosinct.

I have already mention two other ethical views—communitarianism and utilitarianism. The other view I would like to mention is consequentialism. This is the view that what makes an act moral or not is what the outcome is. For whatever reason, if I run into someone on the sidewalk and injure that person’s arm, according to consequentialism I have done that person a moral wrong, if hurting someone is considered morally wrong (I think almost all people would agree here). If the outcome is all you have to go on, this turns into a black and white world picture. What if I stumbled through no fault of my own? The other person still sustains an injury, but I think I could hardly be held culpable.

Maybe the best way of approaching ethics is pragmatically. With pragmatism you do the best you can with whatever is available to you. Yes, respecting people is usually good; yes, not hurting others is usually good (just war maybe an exception); yes, practicing to be kind is usually good, and yes, the more people that can be made happy is usually good. Everyone of these yeses can have exceptions; ones that cannot always be anticipated.

Getting back to Aristotle. I have talked about the usefulness of practicing a set of virtues. But, what of this theory of the mean. What benefits can it offer. The way I see it (I am not so sure Aristotle saw it the same way) is by putting a virtue on a continuum, you not only practice how to act, but you also practice how not to act. I try to practice the virtue of being nice because I value the outcomes this usually has. Now niceness to me falls on a continuum. It is between being nasty and being walked all over, neither of which is usually good. So not only can I aim to be nice, I can also aim not to be nasty or not to be walked all over.

One other benefit of placing virtues on a continuum with the virtue alighting in the middle is it allows us to see the grays of life and possibly avoid the black and white that can often be so harmful. I seem to harp on black and white thinking a good bit.4 The main reason seems to be personal. In my own life as I learned to cope better with having bipolar disease, I learned how harmful black and white thinking was to my well-being. Does this mean that I have no yeses or nos, no either or? Not really. Sometimes it is good to call a spade a spade, especially if you need to shovel some shit.

So, I have come to the end of this blog, having gone here and there into ethics. My main point has been virtue ethics ala Aristotle. Is this the only way to act morally? Not at all. But, I do feel that it is a good tool to have in your moral toolkit.

Create Your Own Virtues*

¹ His book The Moral Landscape spells out his ethical views.

² Bentham’s major work on this is An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, and Mill’s is Utilitarianism

³ Susan Haack explains these two intellectual virtues in several chapters in her Putting Philosophy to Work.

4 I write about this in part in my blog – What Do You Mean?

* Image – Tear Drop 1 (Julia Set), © Steven Williams, 1991


11 thoughts on “What Did Aristotle Mean?

  1. “Benevolence is a big virtue in Aristotle’s range of virtues, and it is directly related to how you interact with others.”
    This has been a. Struggle for me.


    1. Hi Luc,

      Thank you for your comment.

      Since kindness is part of benevolence, I have at least this part on the more positive side of things. Unfortunately, the charitable part as far as money is concern is currently out of my reach.

      Remember that according to Aristotle, practice makes perfect. Well, probably not perfect, but who can claim that no matter how much they practice. I know I do have my nasty moments.


  2. Let me start with this that on ethics that philosophers are always lack behind from theologian in practical meaning as practicing those ethics because theologian provides black and white ideas and virtues and on the other hand philosopher has confusing ideas as Aristotle mostly prefer to find the in-between act in two opposite acts so it’s difficult to find one and act according so what do you think Steven?

    And second you didn’t write anything related to Aristotle happiness in ethics in this blog so I wonder how you will explain this point.


    1. Hi Zaman,

      Thank you for your comment. I am sorry for the delay, but some things came up.

      First, let me say that in my opinion theology is bankrupt, especially in connection with Christianity, and other religions based on revealed texts. Morals came along well before any type of theology. Sure, originally there was animism, which often reflected a nature ethic, but not always. Most morals, however, developed as humans more and more organized their societies with those individuals who could not for the most part get along with others not passing on their genes for the most part. Only much later did morals began to be written down, and this, while it may be connected with religion, these morals were already firmly entrenched, or humans would have not made it that far.

      Second, I am not sure what your after by your comments on Aristotle. I feel it is important to know what values and virtues you hold in high regard. Once, you ascertain what is important in how to live your life, it is of benefit to know where these virtues are situated on a continuum so as to know the good, the bad, and the massive amount of in between behaviors. I think that black and white thinking is detrimental to ethics on the whole. Will all of that make you a more moral person? It is my feeling that it will not automatically make you so, but as I said at the end of the blog it is a good thing to have in your moral toolbox.

      Third, it is true that I did not say much about Aristotle’s view on happiness, but flourishing is what Aristotle is after, not happiness per se. Happiness is just one component to flourishing, and happiness is not a very precise term (not that flourishing is). I think, if I were to take a stab at what Aristotle meant by flourishing, I would include being a part of a community (probably number one), having a clear mind, having a modicum of good health, having the capability to experience joy, and having a sense of self-esteem, regard for others, and at least some wisdom. Wisdom is trickier to come by; it requires acquiring knowledge and years of practical experience in which to apply it. In my opinion wisdom only starts to surface after having obtained a good store of knowledge and having reach at least the age of fifty.


  3. Good blog, Steven, and I agree that Aristotle’s virtue ethics and its continuum is a valuable method for determining and practicing morality. I also and very heartily agree that black and white is largely a religious construct and that instead there are infinite shades of gray, and if all the world learned to see in those shades, we’d all be better off. Please forgive me for pointing out a minor error above; Aristotle produced the Nichomachean Ethics, not the Nicomedian as you wrote above.

    You briefly discuss consequentialism, which judges the morality of an act based on its consequences. I don’t agree with that. I think the intent of the agent MUST be taken into account when judging the morality of an action. Good intentions can result in morally harmful actions, and bad intentions can result in morally beneficial actions, right? Surely there’s an -ism that expresses that view, but my piddling knowledge of ethics & philosophy isn’t sufficient to know the proper term.


    1. Denny,

      Thank you for your comment and compliment.

      I am glad you agree with me that gray thinking is better than black and white thinking. Unfortunately, there are too many people who want hard and fast answers, so they reject the more nuanced way.

      As for the Aristotle’s title you need not be forgiven. I welcome any correction from any of my readers; I feel it is more important to correct mistakes than to let my ego refuse such correction. As someone I know says, “It’s my bad.” I should have check the title out. And, of course, you are right; it is Nicomachean Ethics and not Nicomedian Ethics as I put in the blog. Maybe, it was the “median” stuck in the title that screwed my brain up.

      I thought I had made it clear in the blog that I had issues with consequentialism along with almost all ethical theories, including Aristotle’s. I am much more of a pragmatist in ethics and in most of life. I do feel that most of our ethical decisions are based more on feeling than rational thought. Hence, I have a large degree of respect for Hume’s moral views. So, you can see how I line up with moral subjectivism.

      I believe there is a name for an ethical theory based on intentions—it is called, not surprisingly, intentionalism. I did a google search on it. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has it associated Peter Abelard and the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy has it associated with Augustine both in either strict or extreme versions.

      But, intentionalism can lead one to the wrong opinion of a moral act. A person could believe that his or hers intentions are pure, but in fact might be in some dispute with others. An extreme example would be a Nazi firmly convinced of the Jewish threat to Germany, which leads to sincerity in his or hers intentions. Others would not grant that the Nazi was acting morally based on his or hers felt sincerity or not. A more everyday example would be if I baked a batch of peanut butter cookies for a child’s birthday party, and one of the children got deathly ill. My intentions where good, but the outcome was disastrous for the child whether he or she lived or not. While my intentions might have been good, I should have check to see if any children at the party were allergic to peanuts. I do not know about other people’s view, but to me I would feel horrible, thus showing my moral guilt.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for filling me in on Intentionalism, Steven! And when I wrote “I disagree with that” re: your paragraph about Consequentialism, I didn’t mean to suggest that you didn’t make your point clear or that I disagreed with your point; I meant I disagree with Consequentialism’s belief that the morality of an act can always and only be judged by its consequences. I think than intent and consequence both must always be weighed in determining the morality of an action.


    1. Your quite welcome Denny.

      I could of offered more on intentionalism, but I did not feel like wading through the literature in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

      Fair enough on consequentialism. I just wanted to make sure my position was clear. Ethics is a complex matter, and anyone who wants easy answers better study worms. But, the complexity and nuances of it gives me much to think about and question.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s