Nicomachean Ethics: Aristotle’s Best-Known Work on Ethics

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The oxford dictionary defines ethics as “moral principles that govern a person's behavior or the conducting of an activity.' Ethics itself tries to explain what makes a person’s life good or happy. This event leads into the Nicomachean Ethics a book written by Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, and is one of his most popular works on ethics. Nicomachean ethics is heavily reliant on virtue. The book starts with the idea that all actions done by humans are to reach an end considered good or at least everyone can agree is good, and that the idea of there being a universal “good” is wrong. 

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In the Nichomachean ethics book 1 it states “since ‘good’ has as many senses as ‘being’... it cannot be something universally present in all cases”, this is to say that there are many categories to an action or consequence being considered good since an action at any time cannot fall into all categories of being good at once, the idea of there being a universal good is wrong and thus Aristotle rejects that idea. Virtue according to Aristotle is not about the kind of action done, but about the person doing the action. In book 2 it is stated that virtues are what “we get by first exercising them, as also happens in the case of the arts as well” this means that virtues are tendencies we have to be good or to reach a good aim, but this brings up the idea that if virtue is a tendency or disposition if you will, how can differentiate a virtuous tendency from others. 

Aristotle believed that continuously partaking in good actions was virtuous or has he calls it “a result of habit” in book 2. This virtue that came with constantly doing good is called moral virtue. It is believed that the more you continuously dos something, in this case, being good the more it becomes part of you and part of your character. This is the type of virtue that has to do with one’s character, i.e being king, trustworthy, gentle, etc. The second virtue is called intellectual virtue, this is a virtue that is learned and maintained through further learning. Aristotle states that virtue is also based on our reactions to situations we find ourselves in and that making said right decisions is dependent on the habits we cultivate daily. 

Therefore, if one has good habits it will be easier for that person to live a good life. Furthermore, actions that lead to one being virtuous or not depend on whether those actions were voluntary, nonvoluntary or involuntary. Voluntary actions are ones that have been thought extensively, these actions are ones that the person committing them has chosen---keyword here being chosen, to do. Involuntary actions are actions committed unknowingly or according to the book The Nicomachean Ethics, “which take place under compulsion or owing to ignorance”. This means that the actions were done under a time of ignorance it can be excused as a virtuous action, however, that is only temporary, if the person thinks back on the action/behavior and has no remorse then that action becomes a nonvoluntary action. Ignorance can only be considered as a factor to involuntary actions, if it is caused by something out of the control of the person, for example, lack of education. 

Also, it is one that causes change/repentance in the person and pain even if it was done in ignorance. A nonvoluntary action is one that is caused by an outside force putting pressure to commit an action. The book uses the example of a tyrant holding a family hostage, which makes the member of the said family commit a non-virtuous action. In that example, the person does not have a choice to not commit the action, because the lives of his/her family are on the line. In book five, the topic of justice piqued my interest in relation to Aristotle’s view on this. Aristotle is able to combine virtue with justice in a seemingly wholesome manner. Aristotle states that a person who is just is a person who is virtuous. If one is just, then that person is lawful, meaning they abide by the governing laws of their community and the universe. 

Justice is done with other people in mind, in Book V of The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says, “It is complete virtue in the fullest sense, because it is the active exercise of complete virtue; and it is complete because its possessor can exercise it in relation to another person, and not only by himself” meaning that this virtue is not necessarily about one’s self but about how they treat others. This leads into the next argument of justice fairness, While reading, I wondered is fairness considered the same across the board regardless of the economic situation, gender or capability?. The question was answered when Aristotle said that Justice has to be fair between two people, for example, if goods are being exchanged there has to be an equal exchange in the quality of the good or the quantity. 

Going back to the topic of Intellectual virtue, Aristotle divides them into five parts: wisdom, prudence, intuition, knowledge, and art. Art is the creation of something, think craftsmanship, wisdom is the understanding of already set and proved knowledge. Prudence is the ability for one to work for or toward what is good for him/herself, while knowledge is facts that have been tried and tested and are never changing, and the comprehension of such facts. All of these intellectual virtues and moral virtues work together to create an all-round virtuous and just person. The last part I want to talk about in The Nicomachean Ethics is the traits that Aristotle warns us to stay away from which are vices, brutality, and incontinence. 

Incontinence is the most delved into the three subtopics. Incontinence is explained as the action of doing something that is wrong even knowing that said thing IS wrong. An incontinent man does not see to reason because they are not acting off of ignorance, their actions have been thought out and even if wrong, still is gone ahead with. Reading book 7, I personally did not understand the difference between vice and incontinence, since they are both born out of a choice to do something wrong. According to the notes, Aristotle states that a virtuous decision is one that lies on the median of two vices/extremes this idea is called the golden mean. 

The above paragraphs are my explanations and summary of The Nichomean Ethics by Greek Philosopher, Aristotle, and how I interpreted his ideas. In conclusion, I do not think this ethical system is a valid one because it leaves a lot of questions unanswered. One of the questions it does not answer for me, is why does a good human being a good human depend on their performances and duties? What about the people that don’t do “good” that a live a happy and satisfying life, are they considered virtuous? Also, if virtue is dependent on what one deems right or wrong, the idea of right and wrong is different depending on culture and religions. So if what one person deems virtuous is deemed unvirtuous by another, who is wrong. 

How does the golden mean or virtue apply to that kind of situation? The ethical system does not explain to us what to do in specific situations, how does one know that his/her decision is the right one because the ability to pick a median between two extreme choices of action is very difficult. However, that is not to say that there are no ideas that the ethics of virtue gets correct such as that of justice. I like that it states that justice must be fair regardless of situations. There must be an equal sharing of punishment or goods among two people.

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