Another Ancient Philosophy paper, this time dealing with Aristotle on virtue in the Nicomachean Ethics Once again, this essay is the intellectual property of myself and if you like any of my ideas/arguments, please let me know before you quote anything from it. Please remember, I don’t necessary agree or disagree on a personal ethical level with my view stated here, as this was just an academic paper, and I thought I’d share it with my readers. A fair warning, it’s quite dense and is right at 1.5k words, give or take a few, so it’s not a read for a quick scan or whatnot. I hope you guys enjoy, it wasn’t really titled, so I’m just going to jump right in. Please excuse the few grammar or punctuation mishaps that are in here, sometimes copy pasta from Word will mess things up slightly. I hope you enjoy!
Throughout the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle explores both the concept of virtue in its relationship to happiness as the supreme good and as its existence as a mean between two extremes. Yet, an interesting conflict happens when one considers the idea of virtue as being both as a mean and as a particular to an individual, and that is the relation of the universal notion of ethics as well as its place within a community. This conflict, however, is not a needed one. The notion of virtue as given in the Nicomachean Ethics, particular to both the individual and as a mean between two extremes, does not destroy the concept of universality or the involvement of the community in ethical examination, as the universality of virtue depends not on the location of the mean, but the pursuit and activation of it through action.
To first properly examine Aristotle’s notion of virtue, one must look at it in the context in which it originates in the Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle begins his famous ethical treatise by exploring the existence of a supreme good, doing so by establishing the following argument: that some actions we perform are for the sake of themselves, that not all actions are performed in this manner as that would lead to desires that are both empty and futile, hence there must exist some sort of best, or supreme good (1094a 18-22). From here, we see that most people agree that happiness exists as the supreme good, this being accepted by both ‘the many and the cultivated’, but that the disagreement comes in the individual conceptions of happiness (1095a18-22). This relates to virtue in the later stated function argument, where happiness is the result of a good life. The argument is as follows—first, if something is good, it performs its individual functions both well and consistently throughout its lifetime. Second, humans themselves have a distinctive function in performing activities that have a function of reason, which is the rational part of the soul. Then, we come to the conclusion that ‘the human good turns out to be the soul’s activity that expresses virtue’, which means that living a virtuous life is necessary for living a good life (1097b 25-17).
Next explored are interesting particulars about how virtue is acquired and upheld within daily life. The necessity of externals is an important concept for Aristotle, for he holds that they are important to what is finest, beneficial and pleasant. If the externals are lacking (with examples given of good birth, good children and beauty) then they ‘mar our blessedness’, as one without these traits does not ‘altogether have the character of happiness’ (1099a32-6). Therefore, externals are needed to assist with living a life in accordance with virtue, ultimately translating into happiness and the good life.
The acquiring of virtue throughout a life is something that becomes extremely important in the second book of the Nicomachean Ethics. After a quick distinction between virtue of thought (taught, requires experience and time) and virtue of character (a process of habituation), Aristotle establishes that virtues of character are not innately within humans, but that it is completely a result of practice (1103a15-19). This learning through habituation leads to the pleasure principle, in that an individual only has a virtue if he not only performs actions expressing it, but feels pleasure from it. So, to properly establish virtue, one must perform virtuous actions and feel pleasure from that, and then over time one will come to develop that virtue on its own (1104b4-9).
The last two primary concepts of virtue to explore in order to get a full view of Aristotle’s notion of virtue are what virtue actually is, and its place as a mean between two extremes. The first of these places virtue as either a feeling, capacity or state, as ‘these are three conditions arising in the soul’ (1105b20-21). Aristotle then argues for virtue as a state of character in the following manner- that, first, virtues are either feelings, capacities or states. Yet, virtues cannot be feelings, since it is based in what our actual actions are. In the same way, virtue cannot be a capacity, since capacities measure what one is capable of, and not their actual actions and performance. Therefore, by default, a virtue must be a state of character (1105b30-14).
The last main pinnacle of Aristotle’s definition and notions of virtue lie within triadism and the doctrine of the mean- that virtue itself is a mean between two ends, neither superfluous nor deficient. This doctrine of the mean is supplemented with the doctrine of opposition, or compensation, which follows that we resist the most common vice, and that finding virtue is often overshooting what we believe to be is the mean. Individual examples of this include the mean between cowardice and rashness in bravery, the mean between pleasure and pain in temperance, the mean between stinginess and profligacy in generosity (1107b1-16). It is important to note that the mean between the two is not a set number for every person, nor is inherent within each person to have the exact same amount of virtuous acts to practice in order to cultivate said virtue.
Being given this information, one can assess the impact of this, virtue as both a mean and as particular to individuals, upon a community and the idea of universal ethical implications. First, we must consider community. It is not necessarily a given that, in pursuing virtues independently, that community would be impacted at all. If one considers the importance of externals upon individuals, would not the presence of others be most important to tell individuals how close they are to their own mean? If we cannot judge ourselves without the presence of others, cannot fully assess our own happiness, which is living in accords with virtue, which means that we must be actively pursuing the means at which virtue lies, then how can we adequately assess whether we are virtuous without those externals? It cannot be done, following Aristotle’s notions of virtue. In addition, is not community itself assisted by the presence of those who are all actively pursuing virtue and keeping the others informed of their own progress? This individuality helps regulate the community.
Also, one must consider how the particular nature where virtue lies impacts the concepts of universality in ethical human behavior. If we consider that most all individuals would be pursing their own efforts towards the individual point within their means of virtue, it seems that even though the points of the location of the means are not universal, the actions of pursing virtue are. As a community morally self regulates, individuals who are not at their mean are informed that they must work harder to reach that. For example, when one person pursues generosity, but perhaps the mean for them is lower than the mean for a richer man, the community would not demand that they give as much to achieve that virtue. If the situation were reversed, so that the poorer man gave more than the richer, then the richer man would be informed that he has not reached that mean, and therefore has not achieved the virtue of being generous. As he gives more and more, he takes pleasure in this, and then slowly that giving becomes the virtue of generosity.