Aristotle and Action Towards Ethical Virtue

Aristotle was most interested in discovering what was the best way a human being could be. Put another way, he wanted to figure out what a human being should pursue in life, and what were the most important qualities to which one should aspire.  In order to determine what those qualities were, he developed a level of introspection into the nature of being that was unprecedented for its time and perseveres to this day. An important part of this examination was to define specific terms and categories that we can use to understand our existence and the role we play in developing our own moral character. When we examine Aristotle’s definition of ethical virtue, it becomes evident that our active involvement is required in order to pursue the highest good of human existence.

First, it is important to understand some terms. The word “ethical” in Aristotle does not refer to “right and wrong” as in the vernacular of modern English. The word “justice” would better describe such a judgment. The “ethos” refers to personal character, and the best kind of human character is often translated as “moral.” Another important term to understand is “soul.” While this term is more similar to our modern English meaning, the aspect of the meaning of “soul” in which it survives the expiration of the body is inconsequential. The soul is considered to be an essential aspect of a human being that exemplifies “humanness.” Perhaps it is useful to think of it as the “being” part of “human being.” Aristotle states that “one element in the soul is irrational and one has reason” (1102a29). A significant function of the irrational part of the soul is the nutritive or regenerative properties, such as the ability to heal wounds, the reproductive drive, and the alimentary functions. The obvious activity of the rational part of the soul is the ability to reason and use logic. However, there is another aspect of the irrational part of the soul which “shares in reason” and “which fights against and resists it” (1102b14,18). There are times when emotions, passions, or desires seem to direct us towards actions that we rationally know would not contribute to the best outcome. In approaching a definition of virtue, Aristotle sees a similar distinction. “Some of the virtues are intellectual and others moral,” he says, and in this instance “moral” can be understood as relating to character, or ethical virtue (1103a5,6). These virtues are concerned with that part of the soul in which the rational contends with the irrational.

Next, Aristotle considers how virtues are formed. Intellectual virtue is constructed over time through teaching and experience, whereas ethical virtue “comes about as a result of habit” (1103a17). The word for “habit” is only slightly different from the word for “moral virtue” (1103a18,19). Since habit is formed by actions that have been repeated over and over again, this is a clear indication that our participation is required in order to realize the greatest human good. It is possible, however, that habit could be formed by some other means, or that some rote activity could be repeated and result in a habit being formed without the actor being aware of it being a virtue. Something that could be publicly perceived as considerate could in private be calculating and disarming instead of genuine. Aristotle dismisses this, stating that an actor “must have knowledge, secondly must choose the acts, and choose them for their own sakes, and thirdly his action must proceed from a firm and unchangeable character” (1105a31-34). This suggests that ethical virtue has its root in some disposition of being, and this is indeed the next conclusion at which Aristotle arrives. Virtue is not a passion nor a capacity, but instead the “virtue of man” is the “state of character which makes a man good” (1106a22). Aristotle has finally fleshed out all of the components necessary to ethical character. He then offers the following definition:

[Ethical] 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 reason, and by that reason by which the man of practical wisdom would determine it. (1106b36 – 1107a1)

Now that we have arrived at this definition, we can examine what Aristotle means by it, and determine to what degree we are required to participate in order to attain this type of virtue.

Character, being a component of the soul, is an essential part of a human being. We might consider that since it is something in us, and a “state,” it is an immutable, static trait that cannot be influenced. This is not Aristotle’s conclusion, however. He says that although there is a part of character that is specific to each person, people who repeat virtuous acts by resisting vices find it easier to continue committing these acts and even take more pleasure from them over time. There is a point of decision making that each of us reaches when we deliberate about whether to take a particular action. Since life among other human beings constantly requires us to take actions and make decisions, we cannot escape or delegate our responsibility in these moments. For any specific virtue, such as courage, there is a possible under-expression and an over-expression. Cowardliness would be a lack of courage, and undue boldness would be an overabundance of courage. In either case, there is a best possible expression in between. When Aristotle refers to the choice “lying in a mean relative to us,” he means that each of us will have our own unique best choice given our natural disposition and the amount of work that we have put into forming virtuous habits. If a human being possesses what Aristotle calls “practical wisdom,” which can be considered to be similar to “common sense,” this perfect mean can be determined. It becomes easier to make the correct choices with practice, and although we can emulate virtuous behavior that we see in other people, it requires knowingly making the correct choices over and over again to actually become virtuous.

It is also interesting to point out that Aristotle’s concept of virtue is not the opposite of vice, but lies between vices on either side. To understand this, it is helpful to look at the irrational, nutritive qualities of the soul. Everyone must eat in order to remain alive, and so to eat in and of itself would not be considered a virtue. If a person eats too little, we would consider them to be ill, or to otherwise be doing some harm to themselves. This would be seen as a vice. Similarly, if a person eats too much, we see them as also potentially harming themselves and as not being able to restrain from what should otherwise be a healthy appetite. This, too, would be seen as a vice. With this example, we can see how the choice is not binary. It is not enough to simply define the necessity as eating and not eating. In order to remain alive and therefore to exist as a human being, we must eat, and we naturally are encouraged to do so by the eventual onset of the irrational feeling of hunger. Since we must eat, we must make a choice regarding whether we eat enough, whether we eat only sweets or fats, and when we have been sated to an appropriate degree. This amount will vary depending on the specific character of the person, but a reasonable person will admit that there is a healthy point of moderation which results in eating the correct amount. Finding that point of moderation requires a deliberate intention on the part of a person who would otherwise either starve from malnutrition or expire from complications of diabetes or circulatory failure. That deliberate intention is the active application of reason, or practical wisdom, to whatever situation with which one finds themselves confronted.

Since it is a key part of ethical virtue, it will be helpful to further explore what is meant by “practical wisdom.” Although it is similar to philosophic wisdom, it is not “concerned with universals only – it must also recognize the particulars, for it is practical, and practice is concerned with particulars” (1141b15-17). This explains how rational wisdom can find the mean “relative to us.” There is not one answer that fits every person, since everyone has traits which are particular to them alone. Aristotle also states that “practical wisdom is concerned with action,” which further illustrates how someone is acting by employing it in the first place, and then deciding on a further action to result from the deliberation (1141b23). This sort of intuition into what is right is not a faculty that can simply be taught, since particulars “become familiar through experience” (1142a14,15).  So in order to develop the deliberative quality to choose the virtuous action in the mean of possibilities on either side of which is vice, a person must pursue experiences which will then further inform the wisdom to make increasingly better choices. Also, as a person continues to aim at the good and make good choices, these activities become easier to determine through practice and habit. At each step of the way, there is activity: first of choosing between options, and then executing further action based on that choice.

It would seem that being an active participant in our own lives is a necessary attribute of human beings, and a requirement in seeking the highest good. If we abdicate our responsibility to make choices, we have failed to act on our own behalf or for the benefit of others. Without making such a choice, any further action is impossible. By making good choices, we build our practical wisdom to be able to constantly improve the actions that we make, and by taking good actions based on this deliberative process, we make it easier and easier to act with good character. When we abstain from the pull of our passions and irrational appetites, we trade one kind of fleeting pleasure for a deeper, more pleasant and permanent condition. The more that we are able to engage in this process of constructing our own ethical virtue, the closer we get to leading happy lives.

Matthew Ebert
October 16, 2016
Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics