Virtue Ethics: Aristotle


What is the goal of human existence? Aristotle thinks it is happiness. Everyone wants to be happy.


Why is the goal of human existence happiness? Aristotle considers many other things (fame, wealth, pleasure, reason), and decides that all these things are sought for the sake of happiness, but happiness is not sought for the sake of anything else.


So when are we truly happy? It isn't just about
feeling happy. We are happy when we are being the best of what we can be as humans. And, this comes when we are exercising the highest part of ourselves, the part that is truly and uniquely human. If we succeed in this, we have good character. Good character is arete, the activity of the soul in conformity with excellence. When you have arete, you have the possibility of reaching the goal of human existence, which as we have said, is happiness.


This means that Aristotle is more concerned with good
character than right action. He is not necessarily going to tell us what we should do in any specific case, but rather he will tell us how to develop good character. People of good character make good decisions.


For Aristotle, the virtuous thing to do is always a median between two extremes:

EXCESS

VIRTUE

DEFICIENCY

foolhardiness

courage

cowardice

licentiousness

temperance

insensibility

prodigality

liberality

stinginess

vulgarity

magnificence

meanness

vanity

pride

high-mindedness

ambition

aspiration

laziness

obsequiousness

friendliness

quarrelsomeness

boastfulness

truthfulness

irony

shamelessness

modesty

bashfulness

envy

indignation

malice

profligate

pleasure

being a boor

injustice

justice

injustice

An excellent musician or athlete cannot be happy with a mediocre performance. That person recognizes what excellence is, and has a strong urge to attain it.


How do you know if you are acting virtuously?

1. One must know what one is doing.

The good life is not one reached apart from deliberation or reason.


2. One must
deliberately choose to do it.

The good life is not accidental.


3. One must do it
for its own sake.

The good life does not have ulterior motives. If, for example, you decide to save someone's life not because it is right but because of the hope of reward, you are not being truly virtuous.


4. It must be a manifestation of a
state of character and not just an isolated incident.

The good life is one that is part of who someone is. People must be able to expect or anticipate that you would save someone's life, if they needed it.


5. One must
enjoy being virtuous -- it is pleasant. The person must prefer being virtuous to not being virtuous.

For the good life to truly be good, it cannot be done grudgingly. A person should not save someone's life just because of obligation, but because it truly brings happiness to do this.


6. While intellectual virtue is a matter of upbringing and heredity, moral virtues are a result of habit. Actions, therefore,
must come naturally.

Habits are done unreflectively, as a matter of course. Note that under #1, the good life is a matter of reflection, while here is is unreflective. This just indicates that what is done rationally must become part of one's character.

All this requires phronesis, or practical wisdom. The good person can recognize situations and respond accordingly. The example of phronesis that Aristotle uses is the statesman. This is the person who knows how to get things done. This person does not just act by abstract rules, but recognizes the right thing to do at the right time.