Aristotle's Moral Theory

Topics: Virtue, Nicomachean Ethics, Ethics Pages: 5 (1778 words) Published: December 11, 2007
In this paper, I will examine Aristotle's understanding of virtue and his explanation of virtuous actions as presented in Nicomachean Ethics. In Book II of the work, Aristotle distinguishes between moral virtues, which are learned through habit and practice, and intellectual virtues, which are learned through instruction. However, it is not until later in Book II that Aristotle actually defines virtue. He opens Chapter 5 with, "Next we must consider what virtue is" (35) and at its end asserts that virtue is a state of character. Therefore, the conclusion of the whole argument is: Virtue is a state of character. Aristotle first makes the following argument regarding the meaning of virtue: 1) There are only three kinds of things found in the soul: "passions, faculties, [and] states of character" (35); and 2) Virtue is a kind of thing found in the soul. Therefore, virtue is a passion, a faculty, or a state of character. Having established that virtue is a passion, a faculty, or a state of character, Aristotle proceeds to make additional arguments to show that virtue is neither a passion nor a faculty. The first of the supplementary arguments are as follows: 1) "We are not called good or bad on the ground of our passions" (36); and 2) We are called good or bad on account of our virtues. Also, Aristotle adds that "we feel anger and fear [passions] without choice," (36) but that acts of virtue do require choice. Therefore, virtue is not a passion. When arguing that virtue is not a faculty, Aristotle claims that "we are neither called good nor bad, nor praised or blamed, for the simple capacity of feeling the passions" (36). From this one can deduce that we ARE called good or bad, praised or blamed, for our virtue. In the second argument of the paragraph, Aristotle asserts that "we have the faculties by nature"; (36) however, "we are not made good or bad by nature," (36) and because of these differing characteristics, virtue is not a faculty. Once Aristotle has shown that virtue is neither a passion nor a faculty, he has proven it to be a state of character: "If, then, the virtues are neither passions nor faculties, all that remains is that they should be states of character." (36) Aristotle distinguishes virtue not only from passions and faculties, but also from activities. Aristotle calls happiness an activity in Book I, meaning that happiness is not an emotional state but a way of life. Happiness is exhibited not in how we are but in how we act. Virtue, on the other hand, is a state of character, meaning that it is a disposition and not an activity. More precisely, virtue is the disposition to act in such a way as to live a happy life, even though being virtuous does not in itself guarantee happiness. In Chapter 8 of Book I, Aristotle points out the fact that those who win honors at the Olympic Games are not necessarily the strongest people present but rather the strongest people who actually compete. Perhaps one of the spectators is stronger or more beautiful than all of the competing athletes, but this spectator has no right to win honors. Similarly, a person might have a virtuous disposition but may not lead a happy life unless he or she acts according to this disposition. "We may remark, then, that every virtue or excellence both brings into good condition the thing of which it is the excellence and makes the work of that thing be done well…" (36) In other words, a person with a good character has virtue. The aim of all human action is for good, and any virtuous act is good. A virtuous act must be based on rationality and only acted on after careful deliberation by the individual. Therefore, a virtuous individual must be knowledgeable about what is good, must only make choices after careful deliberation, and must be a good judge of proper action. These virtuous characteristics come from habitual actions, which are developed from constant practice. Aristotle reasoned that because humans base most of their decisions on...
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