Aristotle and Virtue Ethics

Aristotle and Virtue Ethics
Everything aims at some end—has some
Ethics requires that we discover what the
purpose or end of human life is.
There are lots of things that people
pursue, but most of these are pursued for
the sake of something else.
We need to discover the ultimate goal or
end of human life.
Ethics then will tell us how best to achieve
this ultimate end.
Everyone admits what the goal is:
Happiness. Happiness is pursued for its
own sake, not just for the sake of
something else
But what is happiness?
Some say its honor,others pleasure,
others money
Why pleasure is not happiness
Whatever the human good is, it should
capture what is distinctive about human
But pleasure is shared with other animals
Therefore, pleasure is not the human good
(it is “too brutish”)
Honor is not happiness
Honor is dependent on what others think
of us. It is thus too superficial.
People pursue honors to reassure
themselves that they are good—so honor
is not pursued for its own sake.
Wealth also is not happiness for the same
reason—we pursue wealth for the sake of
something else
Do human beings have a
Aristotle argues by analogy: We allow that
professions have functions (coblers,
blacksmiths etc) and also that parts of the
human body have a function (eyes, heart,
ears etc)
So if human beings are like these things, we
should assume that human beings also
have a function
What is our function?
The function of a human being should be
something particular to human beings.
It cannot be just life, because all other
living things have that. It cannot be
sensation, because that it shared by
It must be reason, because the ability to
reason distinguishes human beings from
other things.
Two senses of rationality
(1) rationality is a state or disposition.
Rationality as an activity
Activities are superior to the power to
engage in them
One can perform their rational function well,
or not so so well.
To perform something well is to be virtuous
Therefore, Happiness is an activity of the
soul in accord with the soul’s proper
excellence or virtue.
But we need to include other things. You
cannot be happy while being poor, or if
you suffer greatly in life.
But Aristotle insists the virtuous person will
be best able to deal with adversity.
Two kinds of virtue
Intellectual virtue: the virtue of knowledge
or understandig
Practical virtue: the virtue of action and
Intellectual virtue is had by the philosopher,
who lives a life of contemplation
Practical virtue
Virtues are not innate. They are habits
To become courageous, one must act as a
courageous person does—this will help
one develop the habit of being courageous
Virtue is a mean
It is the extremes that damage people. A
person who eats too much or eats to little
will not be healthy.
Similiarly for the soul, a person who acts in
an extreme manner will not be virtuous
Courage is the mean between
recklessness and cowardice
Self-control is the mean between selfindulgence and being “insensible”
Generosity is the mean between
extravagance and stinginess
Wittiness is the mean between bufoonery
and boorishnes. (see table p. 48)
The mean is relative to us
The mean is not the same for everyone.
Some people get drunk on two beers, for
others two beers would be the mean
For some people going into a burning
building would be reckless, for others it
would be courageous.
The mean is the appropriate way of acting
given our individual nature and situation