Huazhong University of Science and Technology (HUST)



An Historical and Conceptual Inquiry


SYLLABUS (Tentative)


Instructor: Dr. Norman Lillegard


Web: (referred in what follows as ‘Lillegard Web’).  Click on top link, ‘Virtues (HUST)’ for this course.


Texts: Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics , excerpts from ‘Lillegard Web’.

Confucius:  The Analects, on line in English and Chinese.  There are several. The following indexes by chapter and verse:  Another is 

Lillegard:  伊壁鸠鲁, and On Epicurus (excerpts from English Version)

Other texts linked on ‘Lillegard Web’


Course Requirements:

·        Do all assigned readings. 

·        Participate in class discussions.

·        Write out answers to assigned questions from ‘Lillegard Web’ and turn them in. Worth ca. 125 pts.  

·        Pass two exams.  Exams will be multiple choice, true/false, fill in the blank. Exam I=100 pts. Exam II=150 pts.

·        Total points ca 375. Normal curve for letter grade.

·        DO YOUR OWN WORK! (You may discuss and work together but you may not copy from one another).





Day 1.  June 4: Character Ethics and the Wide Extent of the Moral Domain.  Aristotle on the concept of a virtue. Comparisons to Confucius.

Readings : On ‘Lillegard Web’ ( ‘Aristotle’ link.)     Read BK I through Book II ch. 2 from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics; answer questions 1-26. (some questions are omitted).

 Excepts from The Analects of Confucius.

 Mencius and Hsun-tzu (‘Mencius’ link) answer q. 1 – 6.

Aristotle and Confucius (‘Confucian Parallels’ link)  answer q. 1 and 2.  (2 will be explained )


Day 2. June 5: Confucius and Aristotle.  Virtues and Reason

Readings on  ‘Lillegard Web’ from Aristotle,  Book II ch. 3 to the end. Answer questions 25 – 46,   Questions 48-55;  questions 56-59.

Excerpts from Analects


Day 3.  June 6:  Virtues Without Nature or Reason: Epicurus and the Hedonist/Utilitarian Tradition.

Readings and questions as listed on ‘Lillegard Web’,  ‘Epicurus’ link. (18 questions in all). Read in 伊壁鸠鲁 and in the English, if you have it.


            Exam I


Day 4.  June 7: :  Virtues, Human Nature, The Way of Heaven and God.  Excerpts from Aquinas on  ‘Lillegard Web’  ‘Aquinas’ link. Answer question 1-18.

Analects excerpts.



Day 5.  June 8:  Virtues, Community and Narrative: Excerpts and questions from MacIntyre  et al (‘Lillegard Web’). Answer ques. 1-8.

Analects 7.1.

Read Further discussions and Applications: Answer ques. 1-14.


            Exam II


The Good Life, Reason, and Virtue



It is worth remembering again, as we did at the beginning

of Chapter 2, how much effort and money

are spent in the attempt to help people to a better life.

If you are overweight, there are programs and drugs

to fix that. If you get angry too easily or are addicted

to harmful pleasures, then therapy, drugs or a self-help

book may fix that. If you are depressed and feel

life is meaningless, there may be a drug or a therapy

to fix that. If you can’t perform sexually, there are all

sorts of drugs and remedies for that. Poor people can

get rich by following any number of prescriptions,

and even fame is available at bargain rates. Rarely

does anyone raise the question “Would any of this

in fact contribute to a good, or at least a better, life?”

Many people seem to think that there are objective, rational

answers to questions about how to acquire pleasures,

health, and wealth and that it follows as a matter of

course that there are objective answers to questions

about how to achieve happiness. Otherwise it seems

likely that very few would pay attention to mental

and physical health gurus, get-rich-quick schemes or

the omnipresent ads from drug companies.

Plato and Aristotle were also concerned with the

difficulties involved in living well and were looking

for a route to happiness, in some sense, but they

wanted an account that could withstand rigorous

philosophical criticism. The quest

for an objective, rational answer to the question

(What is the best life, the good life, and how does one

achieve it?) led Plato from a denial of relativism to a

view based on his belief in a transcendent Good that

somehow provides whatever meaning and reality our

lives might have. That belief of Plato’s was based in

part on some rather difficult philosophical doctrines.

Aristotle was also concerned to answer the question,

but to a large extent he wanted an answer that takes

its starting point in, and honors, common sense.

Aristotle’s approach has been and continues to be

influential enough to warrant copious excerpts from his

main work in ethics.



1. Could a person have a “good” life and not be


2. Would being famous, or popular, or rich, or

healthy, be crucial to being happy? (Would being

poor, or sick, ensure unhappiness?)

3. How important are each of the following to achieving

a good life?

• a good upbringing

• a good community

• friends

• good luck

• avoiding bad luck

• being virtuous

(You could try rating each on a scale of 1– 10.)


4. Ideas about the good life, or happiness, seem to

vary somewhat from culture to culture and even

from person to person. Could some of those ideas

simply be mistaken and others more or less correct?

If not, why not, and if so, what might make

some of them more correct?


5. What role does knowledge play in achieving a

good life? Could a person know what makes a life

good and nonetheless not act consistently with her




Aristotle: The Nichomachean Ethics

ARISTOTLE (384– 322 BCE)

Aristotle of Stagira, in Macedonia, was certainly one of

the most important philosophers of the ancient world,

and probably one of the four or five most important to

date. Though not an Athenian, he spent most of his life

in Athens as a student and teacher of philosophy. For

20 years he was a member of Plato’s Academy. Though

critical of various Platonic doctrines, he did not simply

rebel against his great teacher. Eventually he set up

his own philosophical school, the Lyceum. Most of his

extant works are probably derived from the lectures he

gave in the Lyceum.

Aristotle established the idea of philosophy as a

discipline with distinct areas or branches, and he denied

that the standards of argumentation, proof and

evidence that apply in one area must apply in all. Thus

he insists that the kind of precision found in logic or

mathematics should not be expected in ethics. You

should know by now that Plato would have disagreed.

Aristotle made important contributions to areas we

now think of as distinct from philosophy, particularly

biology. He was for a time the tutor of Alexander (“the

Great”), the young Macedonian prince who conquered

the Greek cities of Europe as well as much of Asia and

Persia, and he continued to be a friend of Alexander’s

during the latter’s adult life. After the death of his first

wife, Aristotle formed an attachment to Herpyllis, and

they had a son, Nichomachus, to whom his chief work

on ethics (excerpted in this chapter) is inscribed.

When Alexander the Great died in 323, Aristotle

left Athens due to anti-Macedonian sentiments that

put him in danger. He is said to have remarked that

he did not want Athens to sin twice against philosophy

(remember Socrates?). He went to Chalcis, on the island

of Euboea, where he died in 322.

The Nichomachean Ethics is a sustained examination

of the concepts of happiness, the good life, selffulfillment, moral virtue, choice and many related

topics. Aristotle’s text is divided into 10 books composed

of short chapters, and those divisions are kept

here. The chapter headings or brief introductions

given here are not part of his text, however.


Book I: The Goal of Living




Every art and every scientific inquiry, and similarly

every action and purpose, may be said to aim at some

good. Hence the good has been well defined as that at

which all things aim. But it appears that there is a difference

in the ends; for the ends are sometimes activities,

and sometimes results beyond the mere activities.

Also, where there are certain ends beyond the actions,

the results are naturally superior to the activities.


1. Don’t some actions aim at what is bad?


As there are various actions, arts, and sciences, it

follows that the aims or ends are also various. Thus

healthis the aim of medicine, a vessel of shipbuilding,

victory of strategy, and wealth of domestic economy.

It often happens that there are a number of such

arts or sciences which fall under a single discipline,

as the art of making bridles, and all such other arts

as make the instruments of horsemanship fall under

horsemanship, and this again as well as every military

action under strategy, and in the same way other

arts or sciences under other disciplines. But in all

these cases the ends of the higher arts or sciences,

whatever they may be, are more desirable than those

of the subordinate arts or sciences, as it is for the sake

of the former that the latter themselves are sought.

It makes no difference to the argument whether the

activities themselves are the ends of the actions, or

something else beyond the activities as in the abovementioned





Political science is knowledge of what is required for a

good community. It includes more than “politics” as we

may understand that word.


If it is true that

a. in our actions there is an end which we wish

for its own sake, and on account of which we

wish everything else, and

b. that we do not desire all things for the sake of

something else (for, if that were so, the process

would go on ad infinitum, and our desire

would be idle and futile), then

c. it is clear that this [end, goal] will be the good

or the supreme good.

Does it not follow then that the knowledge of this

supreme good is of great importance for the conduct

of life, and that, if we know it, we shall have a better

chance of attaining what we want, like archers who

have a target to aim at? But, if this is the case, we

must endeavor to understand, at least in outline, its

nature, and the branch of knowledge or the discipline

to which it belongs.

It would seem that it would be the most authoritative

or overarching science or discipline, and such is

evidently the political; for it is political science or the

discipline of politics which determines what sciences

are necessary in states, and what kind of sciences

should be learnt, and who in the state should learn

them and to what extent. We perceive too that the

most honored disciplines, e.g., generalship, domestic

economy, and rhetoric, are subordinate to it. But

as it makes use of the other practical sciences, and

also legislates upon the things to be done and to be

avoided, it follows that its end will include the ends of

all other sciences, and will therefore be the true good

of humans. For although the good of an individual

is identical with the good of the state, it is evidently

greater and more perfect to attain and preserve the

good of the state. Though it is worth something to do

this for an individual, it is nobler and more divine to

do it for a nation or state. These then are the objects

at which the present inquiry aims, and so it is in a

sense a political inquiry.


*2. Some commentators have thought that Aristotle

confuses the claim that there is some one

goal that all people strive for with the claim

that each and every person strives for some

one goal (which could be different for different

people). Which claim would be easier to

defend, in your view, and why?


Suppose Aristotle thinks there is some one goal

that all people strive for, provided they know what

they are doing. In what sense might that one goal be

one? Most people want many things in their lives,

an interesting job, family, friends, some pleasures.

Would all of those together, perhaps in a certain optimal

arrangement, be one goal? On this matter, too,

students of Aristotle have disagreed.

Aristotle does believe that politics, in the sense of

legislating, should contribute to individual realization

of the good. For example, legislators could make

laws requiring certain kinds of moral education. Aristotle

might be thought of as advocating absorption

of the individual into the state. But that can hardly be

his thought. Rather, he sees that the chances of individual

happiness are much greater in a state that has

good laws, in the positive sense that they encourage

moral development, not just in the negative sense in

which they deter or prohibit evil.

Unlike most of us, who live in modern liberal democracies,

he does not think of the legislator primarily

as someone who ensures the “rights” of citizens

against one another. The primary function of the

statesman is to bring about the good of the citizens

as such, just as the primary aim of the parents may

be the good of the family as such. The parents’ own

good is included; knowing what one’s own good is

and knowing what the good of the family is consists

in knowing the same kind of thing. The way of thinking,

common among us, in which individuals pursue

their own happiness while the state merely prevents

other people from interfering in that pursuit is foreign

to Aristotle.



Ethical reasoning is not like many other sorts of reasoning,

such as that required for geometry or the construction

of a watch.

But our statement of the case will be adequate, if it be

made with all such clearness as the subject matter admits;

for it would be wrong to expect the same degree

of accuracy in all reasonings just as it would with respect

to the products of the various craft s. Noble and

just things, which are the subjects of investigation in

political science, show so much variety and uncertainty

that they are sometimes thought to have only

a conventional, and not a natural, existence. There is

the same sort of uncertainty in regard to good things,

as it often happens that injuries result from them;

thus people have been ruined by wealth, or lost their

lives dues to courage. As our subjects then and our

premises are of this nature, we must be content to

indicate the truth roughly and in outline; and as our

subjects and premises are true generally but not universally,

we must be content to arrive at conclusions

which are generally true. It is right to receive the particular

statements which are made in the same spirit;

for an educated person will expect accuracy in each

subject only so far as the nature of the subject allows;

he might as well accept probable reasoning from a

mathematician as require demonstrative proofs from

a rhetorician.

But everyone is capable of judging the subjects

which he understands, and is a good judge of them.

It follows that in particular subjects it is a specialist

who is a good judge. Hence the young are not proper

students of political science, as they have no experience

of the actions of life which form the premises

and subjects of [practical] reasonings. Also it may be

added that from their tendency to follow their emotions

they will not study the subject to any purpose

or profit, for the purpose of ethical science is not

knowledge but action.

It makes no difference whether a person is young

in years or youthful in character; for the defect of

which I speak is not one of time but is due to the

emotional character of his life and pursuits. Knowledge

is as useless to such a person as it is to an intemperate

person. But where the desires and actions

of people are regulated by reason the knowledge of

these subjects will be extremely valuable. But having

said so much by way of preface as to the students of

political science, the spirit in which it should be studied,

and the object which we set before ourselves, let

us resume our argument as follows.




Aristotle takes everyday beliefs about ethics seriously,

but he also is critical of them.


As every knowledge and moral purpose aspires to

some good, what is in our view the good at which the

political science aims, and what is the highest of all

practical goods? As to its name, there is, I may say,

a general agreement. The masses and the cultured

classes agree in calling it happiness (eudaimonia), and

conceive that “to live well” or “to do well” is the same

thing as “to be happy.” But as to the nature of happiness,

they do not agree, nor do the masses give the

same account of it as the philosophers. The former

describe it as something visible and palpable, e.g.,

pleasure, wealth or honor. People give various definitions

of it, and often the same person gives different

definitions at different times; for when a person has

been ill, it is health, when he is poor, it is wealth.

We must begin with such facts as are known. But facts may be

known in two ways, i.e., either relatively to ourselves

or absolutely. It is probable then that we must begin

with such facts as are known to us, i.e., relatively. It is

necessary therefore, if a person is to be a competent

student of what is noble and just and of politics in

general, that he should have received a good moral

training. For the fact that a thing is so is a first principle

or starting point, and, if the fact is sufficiently

clear, it will not be necessary to go on to ask the reason

of it. But a person who has received a good moral

training either possesses first principles, or will have

no problem in acquiring them. But if he does not

possess them, and cannot acquire them, he had better

lay to heart Hesiod’s lines:

Far best is he who is himself all wise,

And he, too, good who listens to wise words;

But whoever is not wise nor lays to heart

Another’s wisdom is a useless man.


3. Does it follow that people with a bad upbringing

cannot understand the good for humans?


Keep in mind Orienting Question 2 as you study

the following section.



Aristotle sets out some objections to common views on

what constitutes that good, or those goods, at which all

our actions aim.


But to return from our digression: It seems not

unreasonable that people should derive their conception

of good or of happiness from men’s lives. Thus

ordinary or vulgar people conceive it to be pleasure,

and accordingly approve a life of enjoyment. For

there are exactly three prominent lives, the sensual,

the political, and, thirdly, the speculative.

Now, the mass of men present an absolutely slavish

appearance, as choosing the life of brute beasts,

but they meet with consideration because so many

persons in authority share the tastes of Sardanapalus

[a mythical Assyrian king whose epitaph was supposed

to include the words “eat, drink, play, for all

else is worthless”].

Cultivated and practical people, on the other

hand, identify happiness with honor, as honor is the

general end of political life. But this appears too

superficial for our present purpose; for honor seems to

depend more on the people who pay it rather than

upon the person to whom it is paid, and we have an

intuitive feeling that the good is something that is

proper to a man himself and cannot be easily taken

away from him. It seems too that the reason why

men seek honor is that they may be confident of their

goodness. Accordingly they seek it at the hands of the

wise and those who know them well, and they seek it

on the ground of virtue; hence it is clear that in their

judgment at any rate virtue is superior to honor.

It would perhaps be right then to look upon virtue

rather than honor as being the end of the political

life. Yet virtue again, it appears, lacks completeness;

for it seems that a man may possess virtue and yet

be asleep or inactive throughout life, and, not only

so, but he may experience the greatest calamities and

misfortunes. But nobody would call such a life a life

of happiness, unless he were maintaining a paradox.

It is not necessary to dwell further on this subject,

as it is sufficiently discussed in the popular philosophical

treatises. The third life is the “theoretic,”

which we will investigate hereafter.

The life of money making is in a sense a life of

constraint, and it is clear that wealth is not the good

of which we are in quest; for it is useful in part as a

means to something else. It would be a more reasonable

view therefore that the things mentioned before,

namely sensual pleasure, honor and virtue, are ends,

rather than wealth, since they are things that are desired

on their own account. Yet these too are apparently

not ends, although much argument has been

employed to show that they are.


CHAPTER VI (Omitted)


In the following chapter Aristotle begins a discussion

of happiness, which is fundamental to his account.

The Greek word that is translated as “happiness”

is eudaimonia. There is little agreement on how

to translate that word. We will use “happiness,” but it

is important to realize that that is not quite right. In

particular, it makes sense to us to say that someone

is happy today but was not yesterday. It would never

make sense to Aristotle to say that someone is eudaimon

today but was not yesterday but will be again

tomorrow. Eudaimonia is a long-term feature, and it

differs from “happiness” in other ways as well.




Aristotle now attempts to develop an account of the

good that can withstand the kinds of objections he has

brought against some popular accounts.


But leaving this subject for the present let us revert

to our question about the good, and consider

what its nature might be. . . .

As it appears that there are more ends than one

and some of these, e.g., wealth, flutes, and instruments

generally we desire as means to something

else, it is evident that they are not all final ends. But

the highest good is clearly something final. Hence

if there is only one final end, this will be the object

we are looking for, and if there are more than one,

it will be the most final of them. We speak of that

which is sought after for its own sake as more final

than that which is sought after as a means to something

else; we speak of that which is never desired

as a means to something else as more final than the

beings which are desired both in themselves and as

a means to something else; and we speak of a thing

as absolutely final if it is always desired in itself and

never as a means to something else.

It seems that happiness preeminently answers to

this description, as we always desire happiness for its

own sake and never as a means to something else,

whereas we desire honor, pleasure, intellect, and every

virtue, partly for their own sake (for we should

desire them independently of what might result from

them) but partly also as being means to happiness,

because we suppose they will prove the instruments

of happiness. Nobody desires happiness, on the other

hand, for the sake of these things, nor indeed as a

means to anything else at all.

We come to the same conclusion if we start from

the consideration of self-sufficiency, if it may be assumed

that the final good is self-sufficient. . . . We

define the self-sufficient as that which, taken by itself,

makes life desirable, and wholly free from want, and

this is our conception of happiness.

Again we conceive happiness to be the most desirable

of all things, and that not merely as one among

other good things. If it were one among other good

things, the addition of the smallest good would increase

its desirableness; for the accession makes a

superiority of goods, and the greater of two goods is

always the more desirable. It appears then that happiness

is something final and self-sufficient, being the

end of all action.


4. Why is happiness the supreme good?


Perhaps, however, no one would ever disagree

with the claim that happiness is the supreme good;

what is wanted is to define its nature a little more

clearly. The best way of arriving at such a definition

will probably be to ascertain the function of a human

being. For, as with a flute player, a statuary, or any artisan,

or in fact anybody who has a definite function

and action, his goodness, or excellence , seems to lie

in his function, so it would seem to be with a human

being, if indeed he has a definite function. Can it be

said then that, while a carpenter and a cobbler have a

definite function and action, a human being, unlike

them, is naturally functionless? The reasonable view

is that, as the eye, the hand, the foot, and similarly

each several part of the body has a definite function,

so a human being may be regarded as having a defi -

nite function apart from these.

What, then, can this function be?

It is not life; for life is apparently something which

a human being shares with the plants; and it is something

unique to man that we are looking for. We must

exclude therefore the life of nutrition and increase.

There is next what may be called the life of sensation.

But this too is apparently shared by humans

with horses, cattle, and all other animals.

There remains what I may call the practical life

of the rational part of human being. But the rational

part is twofold; it is rational partly in the sense

of being obedient to reason, and partly in the sense

of possessing reason and intelligence. The practical

life too may be conceived in two ways, namely, either

as a moral state, or as a moral activity: but we must

understand by it the life of activity, as this seems to be

the truer form of the conception.

The function of a human being then is the activity

of soul in accordance with reason, or not independently

of reason.

Now the function of any x and of a good x will

be the same (thus the function of a harpist and of a

good harpist are the same, and likewise for all classes

of things). This being so, if we

a. define the function of a human being as a kind

of life, and

b. this life as an activity of soul or a course of action

in conformity with reason, and

c. if the function of a good human being is to

perform such activities well and finely, and

d. if a function is performed well and finely when

it is performed in accordance with its proper

excellence [virtue, arete], then it follows that

the good of human beings is an activity of soul

[or a course of action] in accordance with [human

beings’] proper excellence or virtue or, if

there are more virtues than one, in accordance

with the best and most complete virtue. But it

is necessary to add the words “in a complete

life.” For as one swallow or one day does not

make springtime, so one day or a short time

does not make a blessed or happy human


This may be taken as a sufficiently accurate sketch

of the good; for it is right, I think to draw the outlines

first and afterwards to fill in the details.


Aristotle’s discussion here and in what follows

seems to waver between treating the supreme good as

a good life and treating it as some element within that

life. In the latter case it is a central value that gives

shape to everything else in that life. There may be

many things needed for a good life, including some

things that are valuable in themselves (such as bodily

health), but that are not central to a good life. Moreover

none of those things (health, for example) will

be important if the central value is missing. Happiness,

in some sense, seems to be such a central value.

Health without happiness would hardly be optimal.

But what is happiness? In brief, Aristotle argues

that it is “functioning well.” So what is that? Operating

in accordance with a proper excellence. Item (d)

tells you that a good human being is one that operates

in accordance with a human’s proper excellence.

That comes rather close to saying that a good human

being is a good human being. Not very informative,

right? What we need to know is what the proper

excellence of a human being is. The term for “excellence”

here is “virtue” (the Greek word arete could be

translated either way). So we need to know what the

human virtues are.

Aristotle’s view that there is a “function” common

to all humans, or at any rate to all “men,” is quite crucial

to his argument. Yet the fact that the few things

he mentions (a cobbler, an eye, etc.) have functions

doesn’t provide much reason for thinking a person

has one. Moreover, the idea seems odd. People can

generally “function” in so many ways, fill so many

roles, that it seems odd to suggest that there is one

function that all people have in common. Even

though we can ask a quarterback in football what his

function is, it almost seems insulting to ask someone

what his or her “function” is simply as a human being.

A doorknob has a function. A human being does

not. Or so it might seem. However, in Aristotle’s view

just about everything has a function, that is, some

natural, built-in purpose that will be fulfilled when it

is “functioning” properly.


*5. We are inquiring into the good life for human

beings. For Aristotle that comes to inquiring

into what a good human being is. You might

disagree. Perhaps you know someone who

seems quite happy, who has a “good life,” but is

not a good (honest, etc.) person. Discuss.


*6. Aristotle determines the function of human

beings by asking what is unique about people.

Consider the following comparison. Suppose I

wonder what the function of the quarterback in

football is. I notice that he contributes to winning

the game, so perhaps that is his function.

But so do the others players. If I want to know

what his ________ _______ is, the function

that distinguishes him from all other players, I

must learn what his __________ contribution

to playing and winning is. Right? That is, those

actions, roles or tasks that distinguish him from

others will tell me what his function is. So we

might determine what trait or characteristic

distinguishes human beings from other beings

in order to see what the function of human

beings is. Aristotle thinks that ________ is the

distinguishing trait.


7. Does that seem like a good suggestion to you?

Try coming up with an alternative distinguishing


Some people think that what is unique about humans

is their use of language. Some think what is

unique in them is the possibility of a conscious relation

to God. There are lots of other views. It is worth

noting that Aristotle includes quite a bit under “reason.”

For example, language is impossible without

reason. So his view is not so narrow as might at first

appear. But it is not immediately evident that Aristotle

has good arguments for claiming that a life lived

in accord with reason is the kind of life that fulfills

the function of a human being. Further arguments

for his view emerge in what follows.


*8. In any case, if you mean by “good person” a

person who is functioning optimally, and if

you think that “happiness” consists precisely in

functioning optimally, then of course you will

have to conclude that a good person is a happy

person. Would you also have to conclude that a

happy person is a good person?




Although Aristotle has criticized common ideas about

the good (see Chapter v), he still thinks them important.

They derive from experiences that all people



In considering the first principle we must pay regard

not only to the conclusion and the premises of

our argument, but also to such views as are popularly

held about it. For while all experience harmonizes

with the truth, it is never long before truth clashes

with falsehood.

Goods have been divided into three classes,

namely, external goods as they are called, goods of

the soul, and goods of the body. Of these three classes

we consider the goods of the soul to be goods in the

strictest or most literal sense. But it is to the soul that

we ascribe psychical actions and activities. Thus our

definition is a good one, at least according to this theory,

which is not only ancient but is accepted by students

of philosophy at the present time. It is right too,

insofar as certain actions and activities are said to be

the end; for thus it appears that the end is some good

of the soul and not an external good. It is in harmony

with this definition that the happy man should live

well and do well, since happiness, as has been said,

is in fact a kind of living and doing well [or a kind of

optimal functioning].

It appears too that the requisite characteristics

of happiness are all contained in the definition; for

some people hold that happiness is virtue, others

that it is practical wisdom, others that it is wisdom

of some kind, others that it is these things or one

of them conjoined with pleasure or not dissociated

from pleasure, others again include external prosperity.

Some of these views are held by many ancient

thinkers, others by a few thinkers of high repute. It is

probable that neither side is altogether wrong, they

are both right.

Now, the definition is in harmony with the view of

those who hold that happiness is virtue or excellence

of some sort; for activity in accordance with virtue implies

virtue. But it would seem that there is a considerable

difference between taking the supreme good to

consist in a moral state (a disposition to be moral or

a capacity to be so) or in an activity. For a moral state,

although it exists, may produce nothing good, e.g., if

a person is asleep, or has in any way become inactive.

But this cannot be the case with an activity, since activity

implies action and good action. As in the Olympian

games it is not the most beautiful and strongest

persons who receive the crown but they who actually

enter the lists as combatants— for it is some of these

who become victors— so it is they who act rightly that

attain to what is noble and good in life, and their life is

pleasant in itself. For pleasure is a psychical fact, and

whatever a man is said to be fond of is pleasant to him,

e.g., a horse to one who is fond of horses, a spectacle

to one who is fond of spectacles, and similarly just actions

to a lover of justice, and virtuous actions in general

to a lover of virtue. Now, most men find a sense of

discord in their pleasures, because their pleasures are

not such as are naturally pleasant. But to the lovers of

nobleness natural pleasures are pleasant. It is

actions in accordance with virtue that are naturally pleasant

both relatively to these people and in themselves.

Nor does their life require that pleasure should be

attached to it as a sort of amulet; it possesses pleasure

in itself. For it may be added that a person is not

good, if he does not take delight in noble actions, as

nobody would call a person just if he did not take

delight in just actions, or generous if he did not take

delight in generous actions and so on. But if this is so,

it follows that actions in accordance with virtue are

pleasant in themselves. But they are also good and

noble, and good and noble in the highest degree, if

the judgment of the virtuous man upon them is right

(his judgment being such as we have described). Happiness

then is the best and noblest and most pleasant

thing in the world, nor is there any such distinction

between goodness, nobleness, and pleasure as the

epigram as Delos suggests:

“Justice is noblest, Health is best,

To gain one’s end is most pleasant.”

For these are all essential characteristics of the best

activities, and we hold that happiness consists in

these or in one and the noblest of these.

Still it is clear that happiness requires the addition

of external goods, as we said; for it is impossible, or

at least difficult, for a person to do what is noble unless

he is furnished with external means. For there

are many things which can only be done through

the instrumentality of friends or wealth or political

power, and there are some things the lack of which

must mar felicity, e.g., noble birth, a prosperous family,

and personal beauty. For a person is incapable of

happiness if he is absolutely ugly in appearance, or

low born, or solitary and childless, and perhaps still

more so, if he has exceedingly bad children or friends

and has lost them by death. As we said, then, it seems

that prosperity of this kind is an indispensable addition

to virtue. It is for this reason that some persons

identify good fortune, and others, virtue, with



*9. Some may think of happiness as a condition

in which good things are happening, in which

“everything is going my way,” perhaps just

because of good luck. Cite remarks from the

previous passage that show Aristotle rejects

this idea of happiness, and evaluate his view.

Relate your discussion to Orienting Questions

2 and 3.


10. We may think that “doing what is right” is

usually unpleasant in some way. For example,

keeping a promise may involve giving

up certain pleasures and telling the truth may

get you grounded! Would Aristotle agree that

doing what is right is typically unpleasant?


11. Mention two pleasures, one of which would

clash with the other.


*12. The last text paragraph contains claims that

many people will deny. Criticize one of them.






We see, as the discussion continues in this section, that

Aristotle is ambivalent about the role of luck in the

good life.


The question is consequently raised whether happiness

is something that can be learnt or acquired

by habit or discipline of any other kind, or whether

it comes by some divine dispensation or even by


Now, if there is anything in the world that is a gift

of the Gods to men, it is reasonable to suppose that

happiness is a divine gift , especially as it is the best

of human things. This, however, is perhaps a point

which is more appropriate to another investigation

than the present. But even if happiness is not sent by

the Gods but is the result of virtue and of learning

or discipline of some kind, it is apparently one of the

most divine things in the world, for it would appear

that that which is the prize and the end of virtue is the

supreme good and is in its nature divine and blessed.

It will also be widely extended; for it will be capable

of being produced in all persons, except such as are

morally deformed, by a process of study or care. And

if it is better that happiness should be produced in

this way than by chance, it may reasonably be sup-

posed that it is so produced, since everything is ordered

in the best possible way in Nature and so too in

art, and in causation generally and most of all in the

highest kind of causation. But it would be altogether

inconsistent to leave what is greatest and noblest to


But the definition of happiness itself helps to clear

up the question; for happiness has been defined as a

certain kind of activity of the soul in accordance with

virtue or excellence. Of the other goods, i.e., of goods

besides those of the soul, some are necessary as antecedent

conditions of happiness, others are in their

nature cooperative and serviceable as instruments of


The conclusion at which we have arrived agrees

with our original position. For we laid down that the

end of political science is the supreme good; and political

science is concerned with nothing so much as

with producing a certain character, that is, with making

people good, and capable of performing noble (beautiful)


It is reasonable then not to speak of an ox, or a

horse, or any other animal as happy; for none of them

is capable of participating in activity as so defined.

For the same reason no child can be happy; as the

age of a child makes it impossible for him to display

this activity at the present, and if a child is ever said

to be happy, the grounds for saying so is his potential,

rather than his actual performance. For happiness

demands, as we said, a complete virtue and a

complete life. For there are all sorts of changes and

chances in life, and it is possible that the most prosperous

of men will, in his old age, fall into extreme

calamities, as is told of Priam in the heroic legends.

But if a person has experienced such chances, and

has died a miserable death, nobody calls him happy.


*13. Try to think of a case where luck played a role

in a person’s becoming a good person, and

describe it. Then try to think of and describe a

case where bad luck played an important role

in a person’s becoming a bad person. Are there

any cases where bad luck played a role in a

person’s becoming a good person?


Aristotle is saying that if happiness consists in an

activity, as he originally claimed, then it cannot be

something that simply “happens to you” but must

rather be more like an achievement, something that

depends on your own agency.

Animals and children cannot be happy. To which

we might say, “Why not?” If happiness is a kind of

optimal functioning (activity in accord with excellence),

then why can’t a horse or dog or child be

“happy” as so defined? A happy horse, we might say,

is an optimally functioning horse, exercising to the

full those capacities that make a horse a horse.


14. omit


15. We do of course speak of children as being

“happy.” That would be a quite typical use of

that English word happy. But if we stick with

the idea that happiness, or eudaimonia, is

optimal (human) functioning and that optimal

functioning involves developed reason, then

perhaps we can appreciate Aristotle’s point,

since children are thought of as not yet arrived

at the age of reason (but why not?). Critically

discuss Aristotle’s claim.


16. Aristotle mentions Priam, the king of Troy, apparently

a man of virtue. His last few months

of life were terrible, everything that mattered

most to him was destroyed. It looks as though

the world does not always cooperate with

“virtue” in such a way that “happiness” always

goes with virtue. Is Aristotle brushing off this

tragic fact too quickly, in your opinion?





Once again Aristotle is ambivalent (check again Chapters

vii and ix). To his puzzlement so far he adds questions

about the extent to which a person’s happiness

will be affected by the fortunes of her descendants after

she dies.


If a person has lived a fortunate life up to old age,

and has died a good death, it is possible that he may

experience many vicissitudes of fortune in the persons

of his descendants. Some of them may be good

and may enjoy such a life as they deserve; others may

be good and may have a bad life. It is clear, too, that

descendants may stand in all sorts of different degrees

of relationship to their ancestor. It would be an

extraordinary result, if the dead man were to share

the vicissitudes of their fortune and to become happy

or miserable when they are. But it would be equally

extraordinary, if the fortune of future descendants

should not affect their ancestors at all or just for a

certain time.

. . . It is clear that if we follow the changes of fortune,

we shall often call the same person happy at

one time and miserable at another, representing the

happy man as “a sort of chameleon” and “a temple on

rotting foundations.”

       It cannot be right to follow the changes of fortune.

It is not upon these that good or evil depends; they

are necessary accessories of human life, as we said;

but it is a man’s activities in accordance with virtue

that constitute his happiness and the opposite activities

that constitute his misery. The difficulty which

has now been discussed is itself a witness that this

is the true view. For there is no human function so

constant as activities in accordance with virtue; they

seem to be more permanent than the sciences themselves.

Among these activities, too, it is the most honorable

which are the most permanent, as it is in them

that the life of the fortunate chiefly and most continuously

consists. For this is apparently the reason

why such activities are not liable to be forgotten.

The element of permanency which is required will

be found in the happy man, and he will preserve his

character throughout life; for he will constantly or in

a preeminent degree pursue such actions and speculations

as accord with virtue; nor is there anybody

who will bear the chances of life so nobly, with such

a perfect and complete harmony, as he who is truly

good and “foursquare without a flaw.”

Now, the events of chance are numerous and of

different magnitudes. It is clear then that small incidents

of good fortune, or the reverse, do not turn

the scale of life, but that such incidents as are great

and numerous augment the felicity of life if they

are fortunate, since they tend naturally to embellish

it where the use of them is noble and virtuous, but

frequent reversals can hem in and mar our happiness

both by causing pains and by hindering various

activities. Still even in these circumstances nobility

shines out, when a person bears the weight of accumulated

misfortunes with calmness, not because he

does not really feel them, but from innate dignity and


But if it is the activities which determine the life,

as we said, nobody who is fortunate can become

miserable; for he will never do what is hateful and

mean. For our conception of the truly good and

sensible man is that he bears all the chances of life

with decorum and always does what is noblest in the

circumstances. If this is so, it follows that the happy

man can never become miserable; I do not say that

he will be fortunate if he meets such chances of life as

Priam. Yet he will not be variable or liable to frequent

change, as he will not be moved from his happiness

easily or by ordinary misfortunes but only by such

misfortunes as are great and numerous, and after

them it will not be soon that he will regain his happiness,

but, if he regains it at all, it will be only in a long

and complete period of time and after attaining great

and noble results.

We may safely then define a happy man as one

whose activities accord with perfect virtue and who

is adequately furnished with external goods, not for a

brief period of time but for a complete or perfect lifetime.

But perhaps we ought to add that he will always

live so, and will die as he lives; for it is not given us

to foresee the future. But we take happiness to be an

end, and to be altogether perfect and complete, and,

this being so, we shall call people fortunate during

their lifetime, if they possess and will possess these

characteristics, but fortunate only so far as men may

be fortunate. So much for the determination of this



17. Could you be happy now(be humanly fulfilled) if you knew that your children or grandchildren would live in misery,

due, let us say, to environmental disasters?


Aristotle is once again addressing what might be

called the “problem of moral luck.” We have encountered

this before. The problem for Aristotle is: How

can fortune, good or bad, determine the goodness of

a life when the best kind of life has already been described

as activity in accordance with reason, or op-

timal human functioning? Yet we can hardly say that

when terrible things happen, even to the best person,

that that has no effect on her “happiness.”


18. In the previous paragraphs Aristotle suggests

a sort of solution to this problem; discuss his

solution and try to defend it.


Aristotle does not want to deny the importance

of luck, but he does wants to resist the idea that personal

goodness is just a function of luck or fortune.

Can you appreciate the difficulty here? In speaking

of the good person as “fortunate only so far as men

may be fortunate,” does Aristotle suggest that there

are real limits to ethical endeavor, that no matter how

hard we try and how well we act, our lives may still

go down in defeat?


**19. omit




The notion of a virtue as Aristotle and the Greeks generally

employed it is the notion of an excellence (some

trait necessary for optimal functioning). In human beings

it would be a trait of the soul. He first reiterates his

claim that statesmen must be able to produce virtue in

citizens. Doing that requires knowledge of the soul. The

more cultivated doctors take a great deal of trouble to

acquire knowledge of the body, and likewise the statesman

must make a study of the soul. He then goes on to

discuss the nature of the soul.


There are some facts concerning the soul which

we have adequately stated in our popular works as

well, and these we may rightly use. It is stated, for

example, that the soul has two parts, one irrational

and the other possessing reason.

Again, it seems that of the irrational part of the

soul one part is common, i.e., shared by man with

all living things; I mean the part which is the cause

of nutrition and growth. . . . It is clear then that the

virtue or excellence of this faculty is not distinctively

human but is shared by man with all living things;

for it seems that this part and this faculty are especially

active in sleep, whereas good and bad people

are never so little distinguishable as in sleep . . . the

principle of nutrition possesses no natural share in

human virtue.

It seems that there is another natural principle of

the soul which is irrational and yet in a sense partakes

of reason. It appears that the irrational part of

the soul is itself twofold; for the vegetative faculty

does not participate at all in reason but the faculty

of desire participates in it more or less, insofar as it is

submissive and obedient to reason. But it is obedient

in the sense in which we speak of paying attention to

a father or to friends, but not in the sense in which

we speak of paying attention to mathematics. All correction,

rebuke and exhortation is a witness that the

irrational part of the soul is in a sense subject to the

influence of reason. But if we are to say that this part

too possesses reason, then the part which possesses

reason will have two divisions, one possessing reason

absolutely and in itself, the other listening to it as a

child listens to its father.

Virtue or excellence again admits of a distinction

which depends on this difference. For we speak of some

virtues as intellectual and of others as ethical; thus wisdom,

intelligence and practical wisdom are intellectual

virtues, while liberality and temperance are moral or

ethical virtues. For when we describe a person’s character,

we do not say that he is wise or intelligent but that

he is gentle or temperate. Yet we praise a wise man too

in respect of his disposition, and such dispositions as

deserve to be praised we call virtuous.


Many people tend to think of the soul as a separable

thing, something “spiritual” in a person. It is

clear that Aristotle does not think of it that way. The

immediately preceding passage amounts to a little

introduction to his “psychology,” or concept of the

soul. Here he speaks of the soul as having a “vegetative

part.” What that means is that a human being

has a vegetative aspect, i.e., capacities for taking in

nutrients, processing or digesting them, and the like,

which are similar in important ways to “vegetative”

capacities found in plants and nonhuman animals.


20. Vegetative capacities are clearly not “rational.”

Reason is not required for digestion. You do

not have to think about or plan your digesting

in order to digest well. Mention here some

capacities that you think are rational.


It seems natural to say of certain desires, or emotions,

that they are themselves rational or irrational.

For example, the desire for pain, except in very unusual

circumstances, would seem to be irrational.

Fear of being in a crowd would seem to be irrational.

Yet our desires and emotions do not belong to reason

per se, in Aristotle’s view, but are capable of being

organized or trained by reason. They can become

“obedient” to reason in varying degrees.


21. If you woke up one morning and found yourself

with an inexplicable yearning for a bowl

of mud for breakfast, would that desire seem

irrational to you, or rational, or neither? What

is Aristotle’s view? Defend his view.


A disposition is a habit-like tendency. For example,

a person who has a tendency to get angry easily

has an angry disposition. Many dispositions can be

acquired. You may have been trained to study a lot,

and find it natural and easy to do so, in which case

you have a studious disposition. Dispositions make

up your character. If you are easily angered and accustomed

to studying, those are two facets of your

character, for better or worse.


22. Name two other dispositions or character

traits, good or bad.


23. Aristotle is interested in “character.” He thinks

that good character is acquired through a

training in which reason plays a fundamental

role. Our emotions and feelings are also part

of our character and so must be able to be reasonable

in some sense. His way of putting this

has been to say that there must be a part of the

_________ which is subject to ___________.


Try now to fill out the following summary of Aristotle’s

argument so far.

The concern of “ethics” is with determining

what is the best kind of life for a human being. A

“good” person will be one who has achieved that

kind of life, the “good life.”

1. All actions aim at some __________.

2. There must be a highest good, which is the

ultimate ______ of all our actions, which

is desired for its own sake, not merely as a

______ to something else.

3. Knowledge of this supreme __________ will

obviously be important for the conduct of

life, if we wish to lead a good life, or live in

such a way as to achieve the highest goal.

4. Common opinion holds that this highest

good is _________ and that seems correct

insofar as ________ is desired for ___ ___

____, not for the sake of something else.

5. But there is no common agreement on the

correct _________ of happiness. Some common

notions are that happiness is ________

or __________ or ___________. But all of

these are open to strong objections as definitions

of happiness.

6. Since happiness is universally agreed to

be equivalent to the good for humans, we

can arrive at a good definition of happiness

by considering what the specifi c good

of humans might be, and we can do that by

discovering the _______ of humans, since

a “good x” is one that is __________ well,

i.e., works and develops according to its own

inmost nature.

7. We can determine the function of humans by

considering what makes them different from

other beings.

8. Thus we can see that the unique function of

humans is to act in accord with _____, since

the ability to so act is what distinguishes

humans from other ________.

9. Now, a good thing of any kind (and, thus, a

good human being) is one that performs its

particular function well.

10. It follows from 6 through 9 that a happy person

will be a good person, i.e., a person who

is performing his particular function well.

11. Thus the end of human life, the _______

at which all human actions ultimately aim,

is excellent activity in accordance with

Something that functions optimally or operates in

an excellent way is said to have a virtue or virtues,

since a virtue is, in the Greek conception, simply a

trait required for excellent operation. So to be a good

person is to be a virtuous person, and vice versa.


*24. Now, can you think of some objections to

all of this? For instance, can you imagine a

person who is using reason to guide all of his

actions, who is doing an excellent job of it,

but who is nonetheless not “good” or virtuous

and might even be evil? Try to describe such

a case.


Here is an objection that you cannot have to Aristotle’s

account. You may think that it is sometimes

important to sacrifice happiness in order to do your

duty. The soldier might even give up his life, which

might have included many happy days with loved

ones, in order to do his duty. So you might say that

for that reason duty is a higher end or aim than


Why can’t you make that objection? Because what

Aristotle means by happiness is a life lived virtuously.

So it would not make sense to say, in his view, that a

dutiful action could trump happiness. If you are doing

your duty, you are happy, even if you are getting

killed or opening yourself to criticism or other harms

by doing it!

We will examine the concept of duty further in

later chapters. The task now is to examine more

closely the concept of virtue and a virtuous life.


Book II: The Concept of a Virtue



Aristotle now provides an analysis of the concept of a

virtue or excellence (arete in Greek).


Virtue or excellence being twofold, partly intellectual

and partly moral, intellectual virtue is both originated

and fostered mainly by teaching; it therefore

demands experience and time. Moral virtue, on the

other hand, is the outcome of habit, and accordingly

its name is derived, by a slight variation of form, from

“habit.” From this fact it is clear that no moral virtue

is implanted in us by nature; a law of nature cannot

be altered by habituation. Thus a stone naturally

tends to fall downwards, and it cannot be habituated

or trained to rise upwards, even if we were to [try to]

habituate it by throwing it upwards 10,000 times; nor

again can fi re be trained to sink downwards, nor anything

else that follows one natural law be habituated

or trained to follow another. It is neither by nature

then nor in defiance of nature that virtues are implanted

in us. Nature gives us the capacity of receiving

them, and that capacity is perfected by habit.

Again, if we take the various natural powers which

belong to us, we first acquire the proper faculties and

afterwards display the activities. It is clearly so with

the senses. It was not by seeing frequently or hearing

frequently that we acquired the senses of seeing or

hearing; on the contrary it was because we possessed

the senses that we made use of them, not by making

use of them that we obtained them.

In contrast, we acquire the virtues by first exercising

them, as is the case with all the arts, for it is by

doing what we ought to do when we have learnt the

arts that we learn the arts themselves; for example,

we become builders by building and harpists by playing

the harp. . . . The case of the virtues is the same.

It is by acting in such transactions as take place between

person and person that we become either just

or unjust. It is by acting in the face of danger and

by habituating ourselves to fear or courage that we

become either cowardly or courageous. It is much

the same with our desires and angry passions. Some

people become temperate and gentle, others become

intemperate and angry, according as they conduct

themselves in one way or another way in particular


To sum up then, states of character are the results

of repeated acts corresponding to those states. So it is

necessary for us to produce on demand those activities

which will produce the corresponding [ethical]

states. It makes no small difference then how we are

trained up from our youth; rather it is a serious, even

an all-important matter.


In thinking about habit and training into “virtues,”

consider what we might call a “non-moral” example:

If you were brought up in a messy home and repeatedly

left things in a mess everywhere you went in the

house, without getting scolded, you will probably be

a messy person, no matter what your “natural” tendencies

may be.


*25. Does Aristotle’s account imply that if you have

not been brought up properly you have very

little or no chance of becoming a good (i.e.,

properly habituated and optimally functioning,

virtuous, and thus happy) person?

Discuss and defend your own view on this




Aristotle introduces the notion of a virtue as a kind of

mean state, in which excess or deficiency is avoided.


. . . The first point to be observed then is that in

such matters as we are considering deficiency and

excess are equally fatal. It is so, as we observe, in

regard to health and strength; for we must judge of

what we cannot see by the evidence of what we do

see. Excess or deficiency of gymnastic exercise is fatal

to strength. Similarly an excess or deficiency of

meat and drink is fatal to health, whereas a suitable

amount produces, augments and sustains it. It is the

same then with temperance, courage, and the other

virtues. A person who avoids and is afraid of everything

and faces nothing becomes a coward; a person

who is not afraid of anything but is ready to face everything

becomes foolhardy. Similarly he who enjoys

every pleasure and never abstains from any pleasure

is licentious; he who eschews all pleasures like a boor

is an insensible sort of person. For temperance and

courage are destroyed by excess and deficiency but

preserved by the mean state.

Again, not only are the causes and the agencies of

production, increase and destruction in the ethical states

the same, but the sphere of their activity will be proved

to be the same also. It is so in other instances which are

more conspicuous, e.g., in strength; for strength is produced

by taking a great deal of food and undergoing a

great deal of labor, and it is the strong man who is able

to take the most food and to undergo the most labor.

The same is the case with the virtues. It is by abstinence

from pleasures that we become temperate,

and, when we have become temperate, we are best

able to abstain from them. So too with courage; it is

by habituating ourselves to despise and face alarms

that we become courageous, and, when we have

become courageous, we shall be best able to face



26. Aristotle makes a point at the beginning of this

chapter that he treats in considerable detail in

later chapters of this book and that is thought

by some to be his most characteristic idea,

namely, that virtues are midpoints between

extremes. For example, courage is midway

between being cowardly and being rash (foolhardy). Would

generosity be a mean between two extremes? If

so, what would they be?



Aristotle shows that virtues are traits that are connected

in some way with our ability to manage pleasures

and pains in a reasonable way.


The pleasure or pain that follows upon actions

may be regarded as a test of a person’s moral state.

He who abstains from physical pleasures and feels

delight in so doing is temperate but he who feels pain

at so doing is licentious. He who faces dangers with

pleasure, or at least without pain, is courageous; but

he who feels pain at facing them is a coward.

For moral virtue is concerned with pleasures and

pains. [This can be seen from the following facts:]

1. It is pleasure which makes us do what is base,

and pain which makes us abstain from doing

what is noble. Hence the importance of having

had a certain training from very early days, as

Plato says, namely such a training as produces

pleasure and pain at the right objects; for this

is the true education.

2. Again, if the virtues are concerned with actions

and emotions, and every action and

every emotion is attended by pleasure or pain,

this will be another reason why virtue should

be concerned with pleasures and pains.

3. There is also a proof of this fact in the use of

pleasure and pain as means of punishment; for

punishments are in a sense medical measures,

and the means employed as remedies are natu-

rally the opposites of the diseases to which

they are applied.

4. Again, as we said before, every moral state of

the soul is in its nature relative to, and concerned

with, the thing by which it is naturally

made better or worse. But pleasures and pains

are the causes of vicious states of character

when we pursue and avoid the wrong pleasures

and pains, or pursue and avoid them

at the wrong time or in the wrong manner,

or in any other of the various ways in which

it is logically possible to do wrong. Hence it

is that people actually define the virtues as

ways of being unaffected and undisturbed [by

pleasures and pains]; but they are wrong in using

this absolute language, and not qualifying

it by speaking of being affected in the right or

wrong manner, time and so on.

It may be assumed then that moral virtue tends to

produce the best action in respect of pleasures and

pains, and that vice is its opposite. But the same points

will be evident from the following considerations:

5. There are three things which infl uence us to

desire them, namely the noble, the expedient,

and the pleasant; and three opposite things

which influence us to avoid them, namely

the shameful, the injurious and the painful

The good man then will be likely to take a

right line, and the bad man to take a wrong

one, with respect to all these, but especially in

respect to pleasure; for pleasure is felt not by

humans only but by the lower animals, and is

associated with all things that are matters of

desire, as the noble and the expedient alike

appear pleasant.

6. Pleasure too develops in us all from early

childhood, so that it is difficult to get rid of the

emotion of pleasure, as it is deeply ingrained

in our life.

7. Again, we make pleasure and pain in a greater

or less degree the standard of our actions. So

our entire study should be concerned from

first to last with pleasures and pains; for right

or wrong feelings of pleasure or pain have a

material influence upon actions.

8. Again, it is more difficult to contend against

pleasure than against anger, as Heraclitus says,

and both art and virtue are constantly concerned

with what is more difficult. For a good

result [or product] is even better by virtue of

this [the difficulty involved in producing it].

So for this reason pleasure and pain are the

whole business of both virtue and politics,

since the one who makes good use of them is

good, the one who makes a bad use is evil.


27. Pick two of Aristotle’s eight reasons for his

claim that virtue (excellence) has to do with

pleasures and pains that you think are especially

important, and say why.


28. Consider your own assessments of other

people. Do you tend to think badly of people

who are addicted to certain pleasures? Give

one example.


29. Are any of the sorts of things people do to avoid

pain what you would call “immoral”? Give an






A difficulty may be raised as to what is meant by

saying that in order to become just we must do just

actions, and in order to become temperate we must

do temperate actions. For [someone might argue], if

they do such actions they must be just already, just

as, if they spell correctly or play in tune they are already

scholars or musicians.


Aristotle’s solution is as follows: Suppose I do a

courageous act, but (1) I do not fully understand the

situation I am in (do not fully understand the danger,

for instance, or do not have an accurate idea of

my own abilities to handle the situation); and/or (2)

I cannot be said to have deliberately chosen to so

act (since perhaps I did not have enough knowledge

to deliberate) and thus, since I do not fully appreciate

what I am doing, cannot be said to have chosen

this act “for its own sake”; and/or (3) I have not

become accustomed or habituated to acting in this

way. Where any of these three conditions hold, then

we should not say that I was a virtuous person, even

though my act was a virtuous act. But where I do

understand the situation, deliberately choose, and

am properly habituated, then my courageous action

is the action of a virtuous person. It is the action of

a person who actually is courageous, as opposed to

someone who happens to do a courageous thing now

and then, even though he is generally cowardly.



Virtue is a “state of the soul.” Exactly what kind of


We have next to consider the formal definition of


A state of the soul is either an emotion, a capacity,

or a disposition; virtue must be one of these three

then. By emotions I mean desire, anger, fear, confi -

dence, envy, joy, friendship, hatred, longing, jealousy,

pity; and such states of mind accompanied by pleasure

or pain. The capacities are the faculties in virtue

of which we can be said to be liable to emotions,

e.g., capable of releasing anger or pain or pity. Dispositions

are formed states of character in virtue of

which we are well or badly disposed in respect of the

mentioned; for instance, we have a bad disposition

in regard to anger if we are disposed to get angry too

violently or not enough, a good disposition if we habitually

feel moderate anger [in the right situations];

and similarly with respect to other emotions.

Now, virtues and vices are not identical with

emotions because we are not called good or bad

according to our emotions; nor are we praised or

blamed for our emotions— no one is praised for

being frightened or angry, or blamed for being angry

merely, but only for being angry in a particular

way— but we are praised or blamed for our virtues

and vices. Again, we are not angry or afraid from

choice, but the virtues are certain modes of choice,

or involve choice.

The same considerations show that virtues and

vices are not capacities, since we are not called good

or bad, praised or blamed, because of our capacity

for emotion.

If then the virtues are neither emotions nor capacities,

it remains that they are dispositions. Thus

we have said what the genus of virtue is [it is a




A virtue is a disposition (a tendency). But what specific

kind? Remember, to be good is to be functioning well

(excellently) and that is what happiness is. And excellence

in human living requires the use of Reason. But reason, Aristotle claims, chooses ‘the mean.’ So virtue is a disposition to choose the mean.


By the mean in respect of the thing itself, or the

absolute mean, I understand that which is equally

distinct from both extremes; and this is one and the

same thing for everybody. By the mean considered

relative to ourselves I understand that which is neither

too much nor too little; but this is not one thing,

nor is it the same for everybody.

Thus if 10 be too much and 2 too little we take

6 as a mean in respect of the thing itself; for 6 is as

much greater than 2 as it is less than 10, and this is a

mean in arithmetical proportion. But the mean considered

relative to ourselves must not be ascertained

in this way. It does not follow that if 10 pounds of

meat be too much and 2 too little for a man to eat, a

trainer will order him 6 pounds, as this may itself be

too much or too little for the person who is to take

it; it will be too little, e.g., for Milo [a very big Greek

athlete], but too much for a beginner in gymnastics.

It will be the same with running and wrestling; the

right amount varies with the individual.

This being so, everybody who understands his

business avoids alike excess and deficiency; he seeks

and chooses the mean, not the absolute mean, but

the mean considered relative to himself.

Every science then performs its function well, if it

regards the mean and refers the works which it produces

to the mean. This is the reason why it is usually

said of successful works that it is impossible to

take anything from them or to add anything to them,

which implies that excess or deficiency is fatal to excellence

but that the mean state ensures it. . . . Virtue

therefore will aim at the mean.

I speak of moral virtue, as it is moral virtue which

is concerned with emotion and actions, and it is

these which admit of excess and deficiency and the

mean. Thus it is possible to go too far, or not to go

far enough, in respect of fear, courage, desire, anger,

pity, and pleasure and pain generally, and the excess

and the deficiency are alike wrong; but to experience

these emotions at the right times and on the right

occasions and towards the right persons and for the

right causes and in the right manner is the mean or

the supreme good, which is characteristic of virtue.

Similarly there may be excess, deficiency, or the

mean, in regard to actions. But virtue is concerned

with emotions and actions, and here excess is an error

and deficiency a fault, whereas the mean is successful

and laudable, and success and merit are both

characteristics of virtue. It appears then that virtue is

a mean state, so far at least as it aims at the mean.


30. The mean is a midpoint. Courage is a mean,

since it is midway between cowardice and

rashness. Now illustrate what is meant by “the

mean considered relative to oneself.”


*31. Aristotle claims that having a virtue is not

just having a disposition to act in a certain

way, but it is also having dispositions to feel

in certain ways. And of course the two are

closely connected. Give an example from your

own life of a tendency to feel in inappropriate

ways, which leads you to act badly (you will

be unable to answer this question only if you

are a perfect person).


Aristotle’s view is sometimes equated with the

saying, “moderation in all things.” But that is not his

view. Sometimes it is appropriate to get extremely

angry or to do something very dangerous, thus putting

one’s own life at risk. What puts an action “in the

mean” is that it is appropriate to the situation, for the

person involved.


32. Try to think up a case where extreme anger

would be appropriate and would thus express

the “mean” in feeling.


Again, error is many formed (for evil is a form of

the unlimited and good of the limited, as the Pythagoreans

imaged it), while success is possible in only

one way, which is why it is easy to fail and difficult

to succeed, as it is easy to miss the mark and difficult

to hit it. This is another reason why excess and defi -

ciency are marks of vice, and observance of the mean

a mark of virtue:

Goodness is simple, badness is manifold.

Virtue then is a disposition with respect to choice,

i.e. the disposition to choose a mean that is relative to

ourselves, the mean being determined by reasoned

principle, that is, as a prudent man would determine it.

Virtue is a mean state lying between two vices,

the vice of excess on the one hand, and the vice of

deficiency on the other, and whereas the vices either

fall short of or go beyond what is proper in the emotions

and actions, virtue not only discovers but embraces

the mean. Accordingly, virtue, if regarded in

its essence or theoretical conception, is a mean state,

but, if regarded from the point of view of the highest

good, or of excellence, it is extreme.

But it is not every action or every emotion that

admits of a mean state. There are some whose very

name implies wickedness, as, e.g., malice, shamelessness,

and envy, among emotions, or adultery, theft ,

and murder, among actions. All these, and others

like them, are censured as being intrinsically wicked,

not merely the excesses or deficiencies of them. It is

never possible then to be right in respect of them;

they are always wrong. Right or wrong in such actions

as adultery does not depend on our committing

them with the right person, at the right time or in

the right manner; on the contrary it is wrong to do

anything of the kind at all. It would be equally wrong

then to suppose that there can be a mean state or an

excess or deficiency in unjust, cowardly or licentious

conduct. For, if it were, there would be a mean state

of an excess or of a deficiency, an excess of an excess

and a deficiency of a deficiency [which is nonsense].


Aristotle’s definition of virtue as a “disposition to

choose the mean” is not practically useful. Actions

“in the mean” are simply those actions that a virtuous

person will produce. There is no point in trying

to find the mean or “midpoint” in action and then

trying for that. There is no such midpoint existing independent

of the virtuous agent. Extreme anger, violent

actions, fleeing from a battle, all of these could

be virtuous, depending on the agent and the circumstances.

Moreover, there are some actions that a virtuous

person would not even consider. To choose the

mean is, practically, to do what is right.

The notion of the mean does suggest an interesting

way to think about the virtuous life, however, for

it suggests that virtuous responses are a small selection

out of many possibilities. There are, as Aristotle

states, many ways of going wrong, but the right way

is “narrow.”


33. State Aristotle’s full definition of virtue, beginning

with “virtue then is a disposition . . . “




What follows is an outline of some of the main virtues

and vices. We can imagine Aristotle pointing to a chart

with three divisions, one for excesses, one for virtues

and one for defects.


But it is not enough to lay this down as a general

rule; it is necessary to apply it to particular cases, as

in reasonings upon actions generally, statements, although

they are broader are less exact than particular

statements. For all action refers to particulars, and it

is essential that our theories should harmonize with

the particular cases to which they apply.

We must take particular virtues then from the

catalogue of virtues. In regard to feelings of fear and

confidence, courage is a mean state. On the side of excess,

he whose fearlessness is excessive has no name,

as often happens, but he whose confidence is excessive

is foolhardy, while he whose timidity is excessive

and whose confidence is deficient is a coward.

In respect of pleasures and pains, although not

indeed of all pleasures and pains, and to a less extent

in respect of pains than of pleasures, the mean state

is temperance, the excess is licentiousness. We never

find people who are deficient in regard to pleasure; accordingly

such people again have not received a name,

but we may call them insensible [dull, listless].

As regards the giving and taking of money, the

mean state is liberality, the excess and deficiency are

prodigality and illiberality [stinginess]. Here the excess

and deficiency take opposite forms; for while the

prodigal man is excessive in spending and deficient

in taking, the illiberal man is excessive in taking and

deficient in spending.

In respect of money there are other dispositions as

well. There is the mean state, which is magnificence;

for the magnifcent man, who is one who deals with

large sums of money, differs from the liberal man,

who has to do only with small sums; and the excess

corresponding to it is bad taste or vulgarity, the defi -

ciency is meanness. These are different from the excess

and deficiency of liberality; what the difference

is will be explained hereafter.


When modern people hear the word ethics they

may think of such questions as whether it is ever

right to tell a lie or to cheat, whether it is ever right

to remove a respirator from a terminally ill person,

and so forth. Many of us do not typically think about

“character traits” when we hear ethics, but even if

we do, we would probably not include all the traits

Aristotle is discussing here, such as being a big (and

vulgar) spender on the one hand, or stingy on the

other, as opposed to being “just right” (knowing how

to spend, buy presents or throw a party with just

the right degree of opulence). So not only is Aristotle

more concerned with character traits than with

criteria for right actions, he is also concerned with

character traits that we might not think of as having

anything to do with ethics.


34. But remember, he is discussing these questions:

what is the ______ kind of life is, or

what is the__________ is of all our actions,

and he has concluded that the answer is happiness. And

surely all sorts of character traits have a bearing

on how ____________ we are, not just the

“ethical” ones, as we tend to think of ethics.

For example, how clever or pleasant or artistic

a person is can obviously have a bearing on

the quality of his or her life. Aristotle discusses

some of these next, along with many other such



In respect of honor and dishonor the mean state

is high-mindedness, the excess is what is called vanity,

the deficiency little-mindedness.

Corresponding to liberality, which, as we said, differs

from magnificence as having to do not with great

but with small sums of money, there is a moral state

which has to do with petty honor and is related to

high-mindedness, which has to do with great honor;

for it is possible to aspire to honor in the right way,

or in a way which is excessive or insufficient, and if

a person’s aspirations are excessive, he is called ambitious,

if they are deficient, he is called unambitious,

while if they are between the two, he has no name.

The dispositions too are nameless, except that the

disposition of the ambitious person is called ambition.

The consequence is that the extremes lay claim

to the mean or intermediate place. We ourselves

speak of one who observes the mean sometimes as

ambitious and at other times as unambitious; we

sometimes praise an ambitious, and at other times an

unambitious person. The reason for our doing so will

be stated in due course, but let us now discuss the

other virtues in accordance with the method which

we have followed hitherto.


35. Aristotle is evidently having some difficulty

getting all of the virtues (vices) mapped onto

his scheme of the _________, the__________

(the virtue) and the ___________. This again

suggests that this scheme is not so central to his

aims as his discussion seems to indicate.


There are also mean states in the emotions and in

the expression of the emotions. For although modesty

is not a virtue, yet a modest person is praised as

if he were virtuous; for here too one person is said to

observe the mean and another to exceed it, as, e.g.,

the bashful man, who is never anything but modest,

whereas a person who has insufficient modesty or no

modesty at all is called shameless, and one who observes

the mean modest.

Righteous indignation, again, is a mean state between

envy and malice. They are all concerned with

the pain and pleasure which we feel at the fortunes

of our neighbors. A person who is righteously indignant

is pained at the prosperity of the undeserving;

but the envious person goes further and is pained

at anybody’s prosperity, and the malicious person

is so far from being pained that he actually rejoices

at misfortunes. We shall have another opportunity,

however, of discussing these matters.


Notice again that Aristotle’s discussion of virtues and

vices includes much that we might include under

the emotions or temperament. But of course such an

emotion as envy tends to go with certain dispositions

to act in ignoble ways. So Aristotle’s claim that the

species of virtue is dispositions not only to act but to

feel certain ways looks quite defensible.


36. Is the presence of envy and malice in the world

at least as responsible for the miseries of life

as what we call immoral actions, such as lying

and murder and theft ?


37. Are the people who have these vices as likely

to be unhappy as the people who are their

victims? Explain your view briefly.


There are then three dispositions, two being vices,

namely one the vice of excess and the other that of

deficiency, and one virtue, which is the mean state

between them; and they are all in a sense mutually

opposed. . . . Thus the courageous man appears foolhardy

as compared with the coward, but cowardly as

compared with the foolhardy. Similarly, the temperate

person appears licentious as compared with the

insensible person but insensible as compared with

the licentious, and the liberal man appears prodigal

compared to the stingy man, but stingy compared to

a prodigal one.

Again, while some extremes exhibit more or less

similarity to the mean, as foolhardiness resembles

courage [more than cowardice does] and prodigality

resembles liberality [more than stinginess does], there

is the greatest possible dissimilarity between the extremes

themselves. But things that are furthest removed

from each other are defined to be opposites; hence the

further things are removed, the greater is the opposition

between them. It is in some cases the deficiency

and in others the excess which is the more opposite to

the mean. Thus it is not foolhardiness (the excess), but

cowardice (the deficiency ) which is the more opposed

to courage, nor is it insensibility (the deficiency), but licentiousness

(the excess) which is the more opposed to


There are two reasons why this should be so.

One lies in the nature of the thing itself; for as one

of the two extremes is the nearer and more similar

to the mean, it is not this extreme, but its opposite,

that we chiefly set against the mean. For instance,

as it appears that foolhardiness is more similar and

nearer to courage than cowardice, it is cowardice

that we chiefly set against courage; for things

which are further removed from the mean seem to

be more opposite to it.

There is a second reason, which lies in our own nature.

It is the things to which we ourselves are naturally

more inclined that appear more opposed to the mean.

Thus we are ourselves naturally more inclined to pleasures

than to their opposites, and are more prone therefore

to licentiousness than to decorum. Accordingly

we speak of those things, in which we are more likely

to run to great lengths, as being more opposed to the

mean. Hence it follows that licentiousness, which is an

excess, is more opposed to temperance than dullness.

It has now been sufficiently shown that moral virtue

is a mean state, and in what sense it is a mean

state; it is a mean state as lying between two vices, a

vice of excess on the one side and a vice of deficiency

on the other, and as aiming at the mean in the emotions

and actions.

That is the reason why it is so hard to be virtuous;

for it is always hard work to find the mean in

anything. For example, it is not everybody, but only

a man of science, who can find the mean or center of

a circle. So too anybody can get angry, that is an easy

matter, and anybody can give or spend money, but to

give it to the right persons, to give the right amount

of it and to give it at the right time and for the right

cause and in the right way, this is not what anybody

can do, nor is it easy. That is the reason why it is rare

and laudable and noble to do well. Accordingly one

who aims at the mean must begin by departing from

that extreme which is the more contrary to the mean

. . . and this we shall best do in the way that we have

described, i.e., by steering clear of the evil which is

further from the mean.

We must also observe the things to which we are

ourselves particularly prone, as different natures have

different inclinations, and we may ascertain what these

are by a consideration of our feelings of pleasure and

pain. And then we must drag ourselves in the direction

opposite to them; for it is by removing ourselves as far

as possible from what is wrong that we shall arrive at the

mean, as we do when we pull a crooked stick straight.

But in all cases we must especially be on our guard

against what is pleasant and against pleasure, as we

are not impartial judges of pleasure. Hence our attitude

towards pleasure must be like that of the elders

of the people in the Iliad towards Helen, and we must

never be afraid of applying the words they used; for if

we dismiss pleasure as they dismissed Helen, we shall

be less likely to go wrong.

It is by action of this kind, to put it summarily, that

we shall best succeed in hitting the mean. It may be

admitted that this is a difficult task, especially in particular

cases. For example, it is not easy to determine

the right manner, objects, occasions, and duration

of anger. There are times when we ourselves praise

people who are deficient in anger, and call them

gentle, and there are other times when we speak of

people who exhibit a savage temper as spirited. It is

not, however, one who deviates a little from what is

right, but one who deviates a great deal, whether on

the side of excess or of deficiency, that is censured;

for he is sure to be found out.

Again, it is not easy to decide theoretically how far

and to what extent a man may go before he becomes

blamable, but neither is it easy to define theoretically

anything else within the region of perception; such

things fall under the head of particulars, and our

judgment of them depends upon our perception.


*38. Briefly, why is it that we tend to think of

certain extremes as being closer to the right

and virtuous actions (or dispositions) than

others? For example, why do we think rashness

closer to courage than cowardice, even

though courage is supposed to be a “midpoint”?

Remember, there are two reasons.

Give both.


*39. Some people, in Aristotle’s day and ever since,

have thought that the best life is one of excess

(eat drink and be merry, . . . a lot). Mention

a few things here that you might say against

such a view to someone, including possibly

yourself, who believes it.


40. (a) Do Aristotle’s concerns with pleasure show

that he has puritanical and repressive tendencies?

(b) Mention some examples of your own

of people who have made themselves miserable

through their inability or refusal to manage

and control their desires for pleasure (you

do not need to mention names). Try to make

your answers to (a) and (b) consistent.


Aristotle is claiming something in the last sentence

that is quite central to his way of thinking about

ethics. He is saying that in order to achieve a good

life, a life of virtue and thus of happiness, we must

have something like what we would now call perceptiveness.

We use this word to describe a sensitivity to

particular persons and particular situations.


**41. But couldn’t a person still be a good person

who lacked perceptiveness, provided only

that the person followed such rules as “Do

not lie, do not cheat, do not inflict unnecessary

pain, be kind” and so forth? If you can

think of a reason why such a person might

not succeed in being, or at any rate doing,

good, state it here. If you cannot, think about

it a little more.


Some philosophers have suggested that we can

enrich and broaden our understanding of what is involved

in being perceptive (or imperceptive) by reading

certain kinds (but not just any kinds!) of novels

and other literature. The novels of Jane Austen, for

instance, constantly explore successes and failures in

perception on the part of the main characters.


*42. Does what Aristotle says about rearing and

training at the end of II, i and the beginning

of II, iii have any bearing on this matter of

perceptiveness? Try producing some examples

of such training from some non-ethical domain

(e.g., sports, the arts). For example, you might

have to learn to notice things about your golf

swing, and someone might have to teach you

to notice those things (be perceptive).


Book III: “Free Will,” the Voluntary

and Choice


In Book III, Aristotle is discussing a topic that may

seem an essential preliminary to ethics. If people are

not capable of voluntary acts, then there would be

no room for ethical evaluation. Today we speak of

heredity and environment, operating in a “law like”

way, as “determining” behavior, and if a person’s actions

turn out to be the inevitable result of such “laws

of nature,” we may refuse to blame or praise him or

even to think of those actions in ethical terms. If a

rock falls on someone and kills him, we don’t blame

the rock. If natural forces beyond a person’s control

(for example a drug)lead her to kill someone, we do not blame her either.

It is important to understand that Aristotle does

not think about voluntary or chosen actions, as opposed

to actions that are somehow “determined” or

“beyond our control,” in ways that connect up simply

with modern ways of thinking. He does not think of

bodies as governed by “laws of nature.” In his thinking,

all bodies or physical things, including humans,

have certain “natures,” and their actions follow from

those natures, unless impeded in some way. But of

course he recognizes that our bodies can be “forced”

in various ways. I could grab your arm and push it

into someone’s (let’s say, Dan’s) face. You would not be

blamable for hitting Dan. Aristotle calls such a case

compulsion. There are also cases where I act without

fully realizing what I am doing. I act “through ignorance.”

Usually we do not blame or praise those who

so act. These are ordinary distinctions that we use

pretty much as Aristotle did.


Aristotle’s concept of virtue requires an account of

choice. Choice, you may remember, was essential to his

definition of virtue; “virtue is a disposition to choose

the mean. . . .”



So Aristotle first discusses the distinction between voluntary

and involuntary actions.


But if someone were to say that pleasant and

noble objects have a compelling power, forcing us

from without, all acts would be for him compulsory;

for it is for these objects that all men do everything

they do. And those who act under compulsion and

unwillingly act with pain, but those who do acts for

their pleasantness and nobility do them with pleasure;

it is absurd to make external circumstances,

rather than oneself, responsible, when easily caught

by the attractions of pleasures, and on the other hand

to make oneself responsible for noble acts, but the

pleasant objects responsible for base acts. The compulsory,

then, seems to be that whose moving principle

is outside, while the person who is compelled

contributes nothing.

An act done through ignorance is never voluntary,

but it is involuntary by virtue of its causing pain

and regret; for someone who acts through ignorance

and feels no regret . . . cannot be said to have acted

involuntarily, since he acts without distress. . . . We

may call him a nonvoluntary agent.

. . . What, then, or what kind of thing is choice,

since it is none of the things we have mentioned?

It seems to be voluntary, but not all that is voluntary

seems to be an object of choice. Is it, then, what has

been decided on by previous deliberation [about

various possibilities]? At any rate choice involves a

rational principle and thought. Even the name seems

to suggest what is chosen before other things. [The

Greek word translated as “choice” can be taken to

mean “to take before,” in the sense of thinking ahead

of time, as in thoughtfully choosing to eat only vegetables

or thoughtfully choosing which guy to date

out of all that have asked].


Aristotle claims that any view that makes all actions

“compulsory” is “absurd.” Only when the “moving

principle” comes from outside can I be said to

be compelled. In Chapter 1 he makes commonsense

distinctions between actions that are forced from

“outside,” those that are clearly chosen, those done

through ignorance and those we perform even

though we would not normally choose them. The last

category would include telling a lie because a dictator

will kill my family if I do not, or throwing goods

overboard to save a ship from sinking. Aristotle concedes

that in one sense I act unwillingly in such instances,

my action is involuntary, but in another way

the source of movement still comes from “within,”

from myself, and so is voluntary.

Acting through ignorance is different. Aristotle has

in mind ignorance about particular circumstances of

an action. If I switch on the light, not knowing the

switch will short out and start a fire, then my burning

down my house was not something I chose. However,

the action of burning down the house is said to

be involuntary only if I regret the fact that the house

was burned down or feel distressed about it. However,

suppose I wanted the house burned down, even

though I didn’t know the switch was wired so as to

start a fire! Why not call such an action involuntary?

But since it got me what I wanted, Aristotle gives it a

separate name, i.e., nonvoluntary.

Aristotle also notes that actions done “in ignorance”

are not rightly called involuntary. They are

classed with voluntary acts. For instance, a drunken

person may act in ignorance, where his ignorance is

the result of being drunk. He could have avoided getting

drunk. So such actions are blamable.

Here is his scheme so far:

a. voluntary acts (source is in me, and I chose it)

b. involuntary acts (source comes from outside,

and I did not want the result)

c. acts that are voluntary but not ones I would

normally choose

d. non-voluntary acts (acting through ignorance,

I didn’t realize what I was doing, but I like the


e. acting in ignorance

Aristotle’s discussion is complex, and perhaps not

entirely consistent. In any case it largely conforms to

common sense and legal reasoning regarding actions

that are done by a person under external duress, or

through ignorance, or “in” ignorance.


43. Does it seem to you that a person who throws

cargo overboard to save a ship is acting

voluntarily, or is that person, rather, “forced”

by circumstances, just as when I force your

hand into someone’s face? Defend your



*44. By Aristotle’s account, actions done “through”

ignorance are not involuntary, but nonvoluntary,

since there is no regret. Should there

be a similar distinction for compelled acts?

Suppose someone forces my fist into Dan’s

face, when in fact I was wanting to punch

Dan anyway. Shouldn’t that make that

compelled act nonvoluntary too, instead of

involuntary? What is Aristotle’s view, or isn’t

it clear?




We do not deliberate about what is impossible (for example,

whether or not to jump 500 feet into the air

from a standing position on the earth ) or about other

matters that are not under our control. His positive account


. . . Things that are brought about by our own efforts,

but not always in the same way, are the things

about which we deliberate, e.g., questions of medical

treatment or of moneymaking. And we do so more in

the case of the art of navigation than in that of gymnastics,

inasmuch as the art of navigation has been

less exactly worked out, and again about other things

in the same ratio, and more also in the case of the arts

than in that of the sciences; for we have more doubt

about the former. Deliberation is concerned with

things that happen in a certain way for the most part,

but in which the event is obscure, and with things in

which it is indeterminate.

We call on others to aid us in deliberation on important

questions, distrusting ourselves as not being

equal to deciding. We deliberate not about ends but

about what pertains to the end.

It seems, then, as has been said, that man is a moving

principle of actions. Now, deliberation is about

the things to be done by the agent himself, and actions

are for the sake of things other than themselves.

For the end cannot be a subject of deliberation, but

only what promotes the end; nor indeed can the particular

facts be a subject of it, as whether this is bread

or has been baked as it should; for these are matters

of perception. If we are to be always deliberating, we

shall have to go on to infi nity.

The same thing is deliberated upon and is chosen,

except that the object of choice is already determinate,

since it is that which has been decided

upon as a result of deliberation that is the object of

choice. For everyone ceases to inquire how he is to

act when he has brought the moving principle back

to himself and to the ruling part of himself; for this

is what chooses. . . . The object of choice being one

of the things in our own power which is desired after

deliberation, choice will be deliberate desire of

things in our own power; for when we have decided

as a result of deliberation, we desire in accordance

with our deliberation. We may take it, then, that we

have described choice in outline, and stated the nature

of its objects and the fact that it is concerned

with means.


Here is Aristotle’s definition of choice:

choice = deliberate desire of things in our power

This definition is notable for the way in which it

postulates a combining of reason and desire. Choice

is not construed as the exercise of a raw faculty of

will, nor as the output of pure rationality.


45. If without thinking you simply grabbed something

because you desired it, Aristotle would

deny that you had made a choice. Do you

agree? Why?


Aristotle’s account implies that, when we are genuine

choosers, rather than people moved by various

forces outside our control, we are motivated to act by

reason-with-desire. Reason by itself will not move us

to act, but reason combined with desire is essential

to acts that are really chosen. There are two claims

here: Reason by itself will not produce any actions

at all; actions that arise out of pure desire or feeling

(gobbling down something tasty, panic attacks, etc.)

hardly even count as actions, and certainly will never

be ethically good. Both these claims have been the

subject of discussion and controversy in the history

of ethics, so they are worth noting now for future


Write down:

claim 1

claim 2

Aristotle’s general definition of choice may still

leave us wondering whether there is some standard

for distinguishing good from bad choice, correct

from incorrect. Here is his answer.


. . . The excellent man judges each class of things

rightly, and in each the truth appears to him. For each

state of character has its own ideas of the noble and

the pleasant, and perhaps the excellent man differs

from others most by seeing the truth in each class of

things, for he is as it were the norm and measure of

[what is true] in them. In most things the error seems

to be due to pleasure; for it appears a good when it is

not. We therefore choose the pleasant as a good, and

avoid pain as an evil.


The excellent man is not so swayed by love of pleasure

or fear of pain that he chooses badly or foolishly.

He is “serious,” in the sense of appreciating the true

qualities of things and knowing what to take seriously.

Pleasures and pains are not per se to be taken

seriously in the way that, for example, honesty is.


46. Can you think of a case where you took

pleasure, or fear of pain, more seriously than

honesty? Describe such a case.



Aristotle expands his account of choice. Choice reveals

character, i.e., virtue or vice. Now Aristotle insists that

virtue and vice are “up to us,” or are voluntary, just as

much as particular acts may be “up to us.” Aristotle

mentions the idea that character might be “innate” and

dismisses it, since if it were innate, praising and blaming

people for their character or acts (and all people do

praise and blame in that way) would be pointless.

These claims may seem to be in tension with Aristotle’s

stress on the importance of upbringing and training.

If my character depends on who brought me up,

then how can it truly depend on me or be entirely “up

to me”? Aristotle’s reply, in part, is that training only

works where persons voluntarily submit to directions.

So the result of the training, which is their “character,”

is thus up to them to an extent. Aristotle seems to claim

that it is entirely up to them, however.


47. If character were “innate” it would be pointless

to blame someone for being a coward, say, or

praise her for being courageous. Why?



Aristotle expands on his discussion of particular virtues

begun in Book I, with a focus on courage and temperance.

Many distinctions are made between actions

and persons that may appear virtuous but are not. For

example, the highly trained and experienced soldier

may appear courageous compared to some less experienced

recruit, but in fact the difference between them

may be that the recruit overestimates a danger that the

veteran has learned to estimate more accurately as being

not so great. So the difference in their behavior is

not necessarily a difference due to lack of courage on

the part of the recruit.


Book IV

An examination of generosity (Chapter i), magnificence

(great expenditure on great and important matters)

(Chapter ii), being “great souled”(something like pride

and concern with great honor) (Chapter iii), honor

itself (Chapter iv), gentleness (Chapter v), something

like “considerateness” (Chapter vi), truthfulness about

oneself (as opposed to being a braggart, for instance)

(Chapter vii). Chapter viii has an interesting discussion

of what might be called good taste in humor.


Book V

Book V is a detailed discussion of Justice. Aristotle acknowledges

that there is more than one concept of justice.

Sometimes justice is used to refer to virtue in general.

Sometimes it has mainly political bearings. Often

it has to do with “equity” of some sort in our dealings

with others. Aristotle’s views on justice and egoism, or

self-interest, issues raised in our selections from Plato’s

The Republic, are discussed later, in the Further Discussions

section of Chapter 6 of this book.


Book VI: Some Points About Practical Wisdom

The Greek word Phronesis, which is translated in the

following excerpts and discussions as “practical wisdom,”

has often been translated as “practical judgment”

or as “prudence.” The concept is absolutely central to

Aristotle’s thinking about ethics, and his discussion of

it, as you will see, brings together many of the most important

points made in earlier books. The themes announced

in Book VI invite comparison to other writers

in this anthology, and thus may require more extensive




Regarding practical wisdom we shall get at the truth

by considering what sort of people we suppose have

it. Now, it is thought to be the mark of a man of

practical wisdom to be able to deliberate well about

what is good and expedient for himself, but not just

in some particular respect, for example, about what

sorts of thing conduce to health or to strength, but

rather about what sorts of thing conduce to the good

life in general. This is shown by the fact that we credit

men with practical wisdom in some particular re-

spect when they have calculated well with a view to

some good end which is one of those that are not the

object of any art. It follows that in the general sense

also the man who is capable of deliberating has practical



These remarks bring us back to the idea that all

actions aim at happiness, which would be “the good

life in general.” Happiness (eudaimonia) is the target,

the goal, the “end” of all action. To be able to have

such an end and to act on it, a person must be more

than a “technician” who knows how to get particular

results. A loan officer at a bank, for instance, aims at

making “good” loans, that is, loans that will be repaid.

In order to do that he follows certain rules and

collects certain data. His procedure could be written

down in a manual and followed by someone else or

even put into a computer!

But insofar as my aim is happiness or a good life, I

cannot possibly put down in a manual the steps to be

taken in reaching that goal or end. Why not? Because

everything that I do bears on that goal. How could I

formulate all of that? I do not even know what sorts

of things I may need to be doing tomorrow, not to

mention five years from now.


48. Are there any people today who seem to pass

themselves off as “technicians” of the good life,

by writing “manuals” on how to live well? Give

an example of a type of book that seems to

fit that description (think about the self-help

section of a bookstore). Take a look at your

answer to Orienting Question 5.


There are disputes about how to interpret some of

Aristotle’s claims here. Does he mean that the practically

wise person has formulated some very complex

overarching conception that contains in it all the

principles needed for a good life? That would be a

conception that could, at least in theory, be stated or


On the other hand, perhaps he thinks of the practically

wise man as having no such statable end. Suppose

I am deliberating whether to go to a party or stay

at home to study. Must I review my idea of happiness

first and then apply the results of that review to the

particular situation, or do I (normally) not think of

happiness at all but simply think about this particular

situation, my particular goals, and how, and whether,

to strive for them in this situation? Let us develop the

example further.

One particular goal of mine might be to graduate

from college. What does that goal require in the particular

situation I am in? Suppose it is Friday, all midterm

exams are completed, and I’ve been invited to a

party by someone whose friendship matters to me.

Perhaps, then, I should skip studying. Or suppose

that pursuing that goal (graduating) now and in the

future, would mean ignoring a big problem that has

just arisen in my family. Perhaps, then, I should tend

to my family and not pursue graduation at all! The

practically wise person knows how to get through

such tangled situations. She sees how best to reach

certain goals, how some goals must be modified or

given up in some circumstances but not in others,

and how various goals relate to each other. She acts

well since she is attuned to those features of her situation

at any moment that are relevant to living and

acting well. But she could not possibly codify or articulate

what those features are or what that notion of

acting and living well is. That notion “falls out” of her

actions as her life proceeds.

If we think of “happiness” as a single (though

perhaps complex) statable goal, we might confuse

Aristotle’s view with the view that some goal is so important

that it should be pursued no matter what, for

happiness is always pursued, and rightly so.

It would not make sense, though, to think of happiness

as pursued no matter what. The practically wise

person may decide, about any statable goal, that in a certain

situation, it is not a worthy goal, even though there

are no “technical” obstacles to achieving it and doing

so would be pleasing to everyone. (It is worth noting

this, since it may show that Aristotle’s view contrasts

with utilitarianism, a view that is the topic of Chapter

9). It follows that “happiness” cannot be a particular,

statable goal in the way that “graduating” is, for there

is no situation in which happiness is not pursued by

the practically wise person, whereas there may be a

situation in which a practically wise person does not

pursue graduating. It does not make sense to think

that in a certain situation happiness might not be a

worthy goal. The person who pursues happiness well

is precisely the person who modifies his actions, and

even his particular statable goals, in the light of each

situation in which he finds himself and in the light of

his trained desires and acquired principles.


*49. Suppose I think “happiness =being rich.” It

makes sense to suppose that someone could

pursue the goal of being rich “no matter what”

that required (it might even require murdering

someone!). But in Aristotle’s view the

person who wisely pursues happiness would

always be able to give up such a goal as “being

rich.” On the other hand, no wise person gives

up the pursuit of happiness. So it follows logically,

in Aristotle’s view, that it cannot be the

case that _________ _ _________.


The remaining alternative, then, is that [practical

wisdom] is a true and reasoned state or capacity to

act with regard to the things that are good or bad for

man. For while making has an end other than itself

[for example, a house or an artwork], action cannot

have such an external end; for good action itself is its

end. It is for this reason that we think Pericles and

men like him have practical wisdom, namely because

they can see what is good for themselves and what

is good for men in general. . . . This is why we call

temperance by this name (sophrosune) [this Greek

term for “temperance” suggests “saving or preserving

practical wisdom”]. Now, what it preserves is a

judgment of the kind we have described. For not any

and every judgment is destroyed and perverted by

pleasant and painful experiences. For example, the

judgment that the triangle has or has not its angles

equal to two right angles will not be affected by pain,

but judgments about what is to be done will be so

affected. For the originating causes of the things that

are done consist in the end at which they are aimed;

but the man who has been ruined by pleasure or pain

forthwith fails to see any such originating cause—

that is, he fails to see that for the sake of or because

of this originating cause he ought to choose and do

whatever he chooses and does; for vice is destructive

of the originating cause of action.


Let us say that when I fly, rather than drive, to New

York, I achieve the end, getting to New York, through

(by means of) flying. In contrast, suppose that my

end or goal is to have pleasant taste experiences, and

eating Boston cream pie is pleasant to me. Then we

will say that I achieve my goal in (not through ) eating

that pie. Eating the pie is not an “external” means to

my goal. It is the goal, or one specification of it. Now

answer this question;


*50. “Good action itself is its end.” Suppose one of

my ends or goals is to graduate. Suppose that

I must act to achieve that end by doing either

A (say, studying all day Friday), B (studying

now, even though my friend George needs

my help now) or C (studying during the NBA

playoff s on Saturday, which I want to watch).

In this situation doing B would be wrong, and

doing C would conflict with some other goal

I have (i.e., the goal of watching the playoff s).

Then, other things being equal, I will do A

if I am practically wise. Doing A is a means

to graduating. But in this situation doing

A is itself the best way to act, by Aristotle’s

account. It is best because it doesn’t violate

any moral requirements, the way B does, or

have other problems. So it too is something I

aim at, it is part of the goal of living well, or

happily. Thus acting in the best way is itself

the supreme goal for a practically wise person.

Thus in doing A I am pursuing two ends,

namely graduation and _____________. The

first of these is achieved through doing A, the

second in doing A.


51. Theoretical reason deals with questions in

“theoretical” disciplines, such as math. Such

reasoning is not usually going to go wrong because

of desires for various pleasures or fears

of various pains. Right? Why? But when I

reason about how to _________, my reasoning

may very well “go wrong” because of such

desires or fears. So such reasoning is unlike

theoretical reasoning in an important way.




. . . Socrates in one respect was on the right track

while in another he went astray. In thinking that all

the virtues were forms of practical wisdom he was

wrong, but in saying they implied practical wisdom

he spoke well. This is confirmed by the fact that even

now all men, when they define virtue, after naming

the state of character and its objects add “that (state)

which is in accordance with right reason.” Now, what

is right is that which is in accordance with practical

wisdom. But we must go a little further. For it is not

merely the state in accordance with right reason, but

the state that really involves right reason, that is virtue;

and practical wisdom is right reason about such

matters. Socrates, then, thought the virtues were

rational principles (for he thought they were, all of

them, forms of scientific knowledge), while we think

they involve a rational principle. It is clear, then, from

what has been said, that it is not possible to be good

in the strict sense without practical wisdom, nor

practically wise without moral virtue.

But in this way we may also refute the dialectical

argument whereby it might be contended that

the virtues exist in separation from each other. The

same man, it might be said, is not best equipped by

nature for all the virtues, so that he will have already

acquired one when he has not yet acquired another.

This is possible so far as the natural virtues go, but

not with respect to those for the sake of which a man

is called good without qualification; for with the

presence of the one quality, practical wisdom, all the

virtues will be given.

Moral virtue makes the end to be enacted, practical

wisdom makes the things pertaining to that end

to be enacted.


The preceding passages are rich in signficance

and invite extensive commentary. One of Aristotle’s

points can perhaps be summarized using an example.

Suppose my conception of living well includes

helping friends in trouble. I notice (what not just

anyone might notice) that a friend is in trouble. Do I

then immediately step in and help? Not necessarily.

Perhaps I also see that this friend brought his trouble

on himself and really needs reproof. That might

be a case of “equitable” judgment, which is a virtue.

Moreover, acting on that judgment might require

courage, another virtue, since I might risk losing my

friend. What to do on any occasion is determined by

practical wisdom, but practical wisdom operates on

a combination of virtues, determining their relations

or interactions. In that sense it is a master virtue, required

to keep other virtues from turning into something

bad. But the other virtues are not reducible to

practical wisdom (Socrates seemed to think that they

are reducible to wisdom; see earlier). Practical wisdom

is not a science that absorbs all of conduct into

the grasp of sure principles. It is a sort of balancing

act, drawing on a fund of experience out of which the

wise person has developed an understanding of and

desire for the best way of life and which at the same

time rebounds on his understanding and the kinds of

desires he has.

The claim that practical wisdom comes with all

the virtues amounts to a claim about the unity of the

virtues. They cannot exist in separation from one another.

That seems to be false. Why couldn’t someone

have some virtues and also some vices? What about

the courageous thief or the person who patiently

plots a murder? This issue is discussed in Chapter 10.

But something can be said at this point.

Aristotle rightly thinks of any action as “facing in

many directions at once.” That is, what I do at any

moment can be described in many ways; for example,

the actions of the courageous thief can be described

as “courageous actions” and also as “dishonest actions”

and also as “actions harmful to innocent persons”

and so forth. Now, in Aristotle’s view the virtuous

person “acts well” under every description of his

actions. But under some descriptions the courageous

thief does not act well. Aristotle concludes that the

actions of such a person are not truly courageous.

They are not the actions of one who is acting well.

But all virtuous actions are cases of acting well.


52. What is the problem with the claim that the

virtues cannot exist “in separation from one

another”? Give an example. Give an apparent counterexample to

that claim.



The entire discussion in Book VI makes one thing

very clear. Aristotle is claiming something that conflicts with a common modern view. That view could

be summarized as follows: There is a gulf separating

facts from values. Facts, we may suppose, are dealt

with by reasoning, in some broad sense. Since reason

is “objective,” it is possible, at least in principle, for us

to come to agreement about factual matters. We simply

find more evidence or make better inferences or

think more clearly or refine our calculations, in order

to take care of disagreements (cf. Socrates in the Euthyphro

and in the Protagoras [Chapter 2]). Values,

on the other hand, may seem to us to be subjective,

perhaps just a matter of feeling, rather than a matter

of reason. So there would not be much point in arguing

about which values are “right.” Now, Aristotle is

denying such a view. He thinks that ethical matters

are matters of reason. Feeling is certainly involved,

but that does not make values “subjective.” Of course,

in his own time sophists held a view similar in some

respects to modern views, so he is denying their view



53. To summarize; by Aristotle’s account, there

is no sharp contrast between ________ and

_______. Try to refute his view.


Aristotle’s view is rejected by many modern philosophers,

some of whom are indebted to Hume for

their ways of approaching ethics. Hume is the subject

of Chapter 7 in this book. Here it may suffice to say

just this much: On Hume’s view two separate, independently

definable faculties or aspects of a person

are involved in action. We are moved to act by desires

or feelings of various kinds (what he calls sentiments).

So, if I desire a hot fudge sundae, the desire may

move me to get one. But, in order to get one, I may

need something else, namely, reason. Reason will inform

me about facts (such as where the Dairy Queen

is located and how to get there easily and efficiently).

So my desiring self may put reason to use in order

to get what is desired.

       Now, in Hume’s view there is nothing either rational or irrational about the desire

itself. I just have it. Nor is there anything intrinsically

rational or irrational, stupid or foolish, about acting

on it, not even if doing so led to my death or the destruction

of the whole world! When I act on a desire,

no matter how “crazy” the desire might be, my action

cannot be assessed as rational or irrational, except

insofar as the means I choose to fulfill my desire are

more or less sensible, efficient, “logical.”

Aristotle, in contrast, insists that some desires are

themselves “right” and that acting on them is intrinsically

reasonable, or practically wise, whereas others

are not right, and only a fool, someone who is not

fully rational, would act on them. In Hume’s view,

reason cannot be practical at all, whereas for Aristotle

there is a kind of reason that is precisely practical,

like theoretical reason in some respects but unlike it

by virtue of its involvement in action and changes in

the world.

It should be noted here that some translations of

the last sentence in the preceding quote have “moral

virtue makes the end of action right, practical wisdom

makes the means to the end right.” Such translations

obscure the differences between Aristotle and

Hume respecting the nature of “reason.” They make

it sound as though reason is concerned only with the

means to an end but has nothing to do with the end

itself. That is not Aristotle’s view. That it is not can

be seen from the following considerations, among


In terms taken from Chapter ii, earlier, that

which is desirously pursued in rational choice and

that which is affirmed by reason (or “thinking”) in

that same rational choice are the same. In contrast,

in Hume’s view, even if reason tells me that having a

hot fudge sundae will harm me, perhaps kill me, still

there is nothing irrational in eating one or in the desire

to eat one. In Hume’s view what a person does is

the causal result of what they desire or prefer, and desires

and preferences are neither rational nor irrational.

So what reason affirms and what desire pursues

need not be the same for a rational person. Aristotle however

says they must be the same for a practically wise person.

Both reason (or thinking) and desire say “Yes,

do it!” with respect to a rational choice. For Hume,

on the contrary, reason never says “do x” for any x,

even though it might say x is the most efficient thing

as a means to an end or the thing most conducive to

survival in the circumstances.

Hume’s view isn’t perfectly clear. But Aristotle’s

may seem even more obscure. What does he mean?

Can he possibly be right in claiming that reason and

desire “affirm” together and that desire or feeling can

thus be “right” or “true?”

Roughly, the answer, or part of it, goes like this:

The agent, in reviewing the “facts” of his situation,

scans those facts with a view to what is to be done.

That is, the fact-collecting aspect of “reason” is already

“infected,” so to speak, with desire or practical

import. In Aristotle’s view there is no such thing as

a totally disengaged reason of the sort postulated by

Hume, except in purely theoretical contexts (when

doing geometry, for example).

Here is one further forward-looking consequence of

Aristotle’s view. Kant (see Chapter 8) held that certain

types of actions are per se wrong. Lying is one example

of a type of act that is wrong in itself (per se). Aristotle

also affirms that some types of actions (or inactions)

are virtually never permissible. But the mere fact that a

certain action can be described as “lying” does not take

care of the question of whether to do it or not, in Aristotle’s

view. Rather, deliberation will be required. And

even if deliberation never came up with the result “go

ahead and tell a lie,” that would be so only because no

circumstances ever warranted a rational person in doing

such a thing. You couldn’t come to that conclusion

just by thinking about what lying in general is like. Kant

thought (more or less) that you could.


**54. Roughly, what is the main contrast between

Aristotle and Hume? Aristotle and Kant?


*55. Would the contrast between Aristotle and

Hume have anything in common with the

contrast between Aristotle and the sophists?

Explain. Be careful.


Book VII: The Problem of

Incontinence (Lack of Self-Control)


Aristotle distinguishes between vice, lack of self-control

and animal-like behavior. The desires of a person who

lacks self-control are not bad per se, and such a person

knows that. The aim is not to get rid of them entirely

but to control them and eventually to combine them

with reason in the way typical of a virtuous person.

The vicious person, on the other hand, has actually

chosen to follow various desires whenever opportunity

presents itself and has no interest in controlling them

where good reasoning would require controlling them.

Consider this case: Smith is an M.D. specializing in

heart conditions. He is overweight and has problems

with high cholesterol and arterial plaque. He desires to

lose weight, and he has chosen to diet, in the full Aristotelian

sense of “choice.” He knows all of the purportedly

relevant facts about his condition, and he also knows

that the delicious-looking piece of chocolate cake before

him is very fattening and very high in cholesterol and

that there is every good reason to avoid eating it. But

he eats it anyway. He knows he should not, but he acts

against his knowledge.

It is a plain fact, as Aristotle points out, that there

are such cases. Socrates had denied that there were,

since he believed that knowledge included virtue, so

that no one could actually knowingly act intemperately,

for instance. Aristotle sticks with the “plain fact”

but finds it puzzling. His attempt to unscramble that

puzzle is the topic of Chapters ii and iii of Book VII, to

which the student is referred.


Book VIII: Friendship

Aristotle argues that friendship is essential to personal

and communal life. He discusses different kinds

of friendship, and stresses how people depend on one




Not a few things about friendship are matters of debate.

. . . Let us examine those which . . . involve character

and feeling, e.g., whether friendship can arise

between any two people or whether people cannot be

friends if they are wicked, and whether there is one

kind of friendship or more than one. . . .



Aristotle discusses three kinds of friendship. Some

people may be our “friends” for what we can get out

of them. Some people may be our friends just because

they are a lot of fun, good partygoers, and so forth. But

these two forms are “easily dissolved,” he argues. For

example, the first form dissolves when someone “ceases

to be useful.” Only the third kind, perfect friendship, is

true and enduring.


. . . Perfect friendship is the friendship of men who

are good, and alike in virtue; for these wish well alike

to each other qua good, and they are good themselves.

Now those who wish well to their friends for

their sake are most truly friends; for they do this

by reason of their own nature and not incidentally;

therefore their friendship lasts as long as they are

good, and goodness is an enduring thing. And each

is good without qualification and to his friend, for the

good are both good without qualification and useful

to each other. So too they are pleasant; for the good

are pleasant both without qualification and to each

other, since to each his own activities and others like

them are pleasurable, and the actions of the good are

the same or like. And such a friendship is, as might

be expected, permanent, since there meet in it all the

qualities that friends should have.

. . . All the qualities we have named belong to a

friendship of good men in virtue of the nature of

the friends themselves; for in the case of this kind of

friendship the other qualities also are alike in both

friends, and that which is good without qualification

is also without qualification pleasant, and these are

the most lovable qualities. Love and friendship therefore

are found most and in their best form between

such men.

But it is natural that such friendships should be

infrequent; for such men are rare. Further, such

friendship requires time and familiarity; as the proverb

says, men cannot know each other till they have

“eaten salt together”; nor can they admit each other

to friendship or be friends till each has been found

lovable and been trusted by each. Those who quickly

show the marks of friendship to each other wish to be

friends, but they are not friends unless they both are

lovable and know the fact; for a wish for friendship

may arise quickly, but friendship does not.




For the sake of pleasure or utility, then, even bad men

may be friends of each other, or good men of bad,

or one who is neither good nor bad may be a friend

to any sort of person, but for their own sake clearly

only good men can be friends; for bad men do not

delight in each other unless some advantage come

of the relation. The friendship of the good too and

this alone is proof against slander; for it is not easy

to trust anyone who talks about a man who has long

been tested by oneself; and it is among good men that

trust and the feeling that “he would never wrong me”

and all the other things that are demanded in true

friendship are found. In the other kinds of friendship,

however, there is nothing to prevent these evils

arising. For men apply the name of friends even to

those whose motive is utility. . . .


In the film Donny Brasco (based on an actual case),

an FBI informant (Donny) becomes friends with a

gangster who routinely steals, murders and commits

other crimes. It seems like a genuine friendship,

based partly on a kind of sympathy that Donny

comes to have for the difficult life of his “friend.” Aristotle

apparently denies that this relationship could

be a real friendship.


56. Why? Do you think such a friendship would

really be possible? Give reasons pro and con.


Aristotle includes much under friendship that we

might not. Relations between husbands and wives,

children and parents, and between citizens of a community

who are in merely contractual relations with

each other are included, and some of these are regarded

as inevitably unequal in various ways (for

example, that between husband and wife, since the

husband “rules in virtue of fitness”!).


Book IX: Friendship

and Self-Knowledge.

Aristotle argues that even though there is a kind

of self-sufficiency enjoyed by a virtuous person, it

is not such that friends are not essential. One reason

is that we are essentially reflective, conscious

beings and interaction with friends is one of the

forms in which consciousness is exercised and




. . . If perceiving that one lives is in itself one of the

things that are pleasant (for life is by nature good,

and to perceive what is good present in oneself is

pleasant); and if life is desirable, and particularly so

for good men, because to them existence is good and

pleasant (for they are pleased at the consciousness of

the presence in them of what is in itself good); and if

as the virtuous man is to himself, he is to his friend

also (for his friend is another self): if all this be true,

as his own being is desirable for each man, so, or almost

so, is that of his friend.

Now, his being was seen to be desirable because

he perceived his own goodness, and such perception

is pleasant in itself. He needs, therefore, to be

conscious of the existence of his friend as well, and

this will be realized in their living together and

sharing in discussion and thought; for this is what

living together would seem to mean in the case of

man, and not, as in the case of cattle, feeding in the

same place. If, then, being is in itself desirable for

the supremely happy man (since it is by its nature

good and pleasant), and that of his friend is very

much the same, a friend will be one of the things

that are desirable. Now that which is desirable for

him he must have, or he will be deficient in this respect.

The man who is to be happy will therefore

need virtuous friends.


57. Could you be happy even though you had no

virtuous friends? Explain.


Book X

In Book X, the last book of this work, Aristotle continues

the discussion of pleasure begun in Book VII. He

then goes on to discuss the place of theoretical reason

or intellectual “contemplation” in the good life.

Aristotle’s ethics sometimes takes on an “antipleasure”

appearance, since he is alert to the way in which

people fall into vices as the result of the attractions of

various pleasures. But at the same time he insists on

the importance of pleasure to the best kind of life. However,

we must avoid confusion in our thinking about

what pleasure is.



Pleasure brings activity to completion, not, like a

fixed disposition, by being already in the agent, but

as something that supervenes upon the activity, like

the bloom of health upon the healthy. It might be

held that all seek pleasure because all desire life. Life

is a kind of activity, and each person is active in relation

to those objects and with those capacities which

he likes most; a musical person by hearing and with

melodies, a lover of learning in thinking and with

topics from theoretical wisdom.


If we think of the pleasures of eating something

tasty, it may seem natural to think of pleasure as

something that is caused in us by some external factor.

Aristotle has quite a different view of pleasure, as

the preceding quote shows. First, he associates pleasure

with activity, rather than with passive reception

of sensations of some kind. The music lover takes

pleasure in an active kind of hearing. She must have

an active interest in the music itself; if she does, the

pleasure “supervenes,” that is, it is not caused by the

music as something external to the pleasure, but follows

from the activity, the way the “bloom of health”

follows from being healthy (obviously, the bloom of

health does not cause health). If the pleasure I get

from listening to Bach’s Goldberg Variations were

simply caused by the sounds that impact my eardrums,

we would think that everyone with normal

hearing would get pleasure, and indeed the same

pleasure, from listening to that piece by Bach; but

clearly that is not how it is. Some people get practically

no pleasure from any music, and some people

get no pleasure from listening to Bach. Aristotle

might have argued that the latter have not learned to

listen well. They are not good at that activity.

If we think of pleasure as something intrinsic to

well-performed activities, then we can appreciate Aristotle’s

view that pleasure goes with virtuous activity.

The virtuous person is the person who leads an active

life in the most excellent way. The athlete takes pleasure

in doing something well (throwing a good pass,

sinking a hole-in-one). The courageous person takes

pleasure in acting courageously. Pleasure supervenes

on, or varies with, the quality of my “performance”

in particular specialties, but, most importantly, in my

performances simply as a human being.


58. If you have absolutely no horse-riding skills,

that is, are simply no good at that kind of activity,

are you likely to get much pleasure from

riding a horse?


59. Does it seem plausible to think of the courageous

person whose life is being threatened in

a battle as experiencing pleasure during the

battle? Discuss pro and con





Confucian Parallels (and Differences)

(The Confucian School)

Aristotle’s ideas about virtue and community are

certainly not completely peculiar to the civilization

of 4th century Greek city-states. Not only are there

many contemporary applications, but we can find

some striking similarities, for example, in enduring

civilizations of the Far East. Confucius proposed that

personal virtues, centering around familial and other

relationships, are essential to a good life in a good

community. Like Plato and Aristotle, his views are in

many respects agent centered, rather than centered

on the search for impersonal norms to guide the conduct

of any person. He too emphasized education and

training into a moral condition. He stresses the need

for the governing class to know what the aim of life

is, much as Aristotle does in the first chapters of NE.

The school Confucius founded even propounded a

doctrine of the mean that is like Aristotle’s in some

respects. Some of these points are very evident in the

“Two Books.”


The Four Books (shu) of Confucianism include two

short works that originally appear in the Book of Rites

but were extracted from this because of their unique

philosophical content. They are The Great Learning

(Ta Hsio) and The Doctrine of the Mean (Chung


The Great Learning (Ta Hsio) is a brief text on the

subject of good government. A passage from Confucius’

Analects on the subject of good government

states that “He who exercises government by means

of his virtue may be compared to the north polar star,

which keeps its place and all the stars turn towards

it” (2:1). Confucius advised rulers to live virtuously,

since doing so will result in goodness transferring

down the social hierarchy to the people. This is also

the message of The Great Learning. Tradition attributes

this work either to Confucius’s disciple or to his

grandson. However, scholars contend that the work

was written during the 3rd century BCE.


The path of learning to be great consists of exhibiting

clear character, loving people, and resting in

the highest good. If we know the point in which

we are to rest, we can determine the object of

pursuit. When we determine that, we can attain

a calmness, and from that will follow tranquility.

In tranquility we can carefully deliberate, and that

deliberation will be followed by the attainment of

the desired end.

Things have their roots and their branches.

Affairs have their beginnings and ends. To know

what is first and what is last will lead us near the

path of learning to be great.

The ancients who wished to exhibit their clear

character to the world first brought order to their

states. Wishing to order their states, they first

regulated their families. Wishing to regulate their

families, they first cultivated their personal lives.

Wishing to cultivate their personal lives, they first

corrected their minds. Wishing to correct their

minds, they first sought to be sincere in their

thoughts. Wishing to be sincere in their thoughts,

they first extended their knowledge.

From the son of heaven down to the common

people on earth, all must consider the cultivation

of one’s personal life as the root of everything else.

When the root is neglected, what springs from it

will not be well ordered. No one has ever taken

slight care of greatly important things, and no one

has greatly cared for slightly important things.


1. Mention one thing in the preceding passage

that you think Aristotle would endorse.


The Doctrine of the Mean (Chung Yung) is traditionally

attributed to Confucius’s grandson, although

scholars place authorship of the text in the 2nd century

BCE. The opening section of the text is the heart

of the work, which advocates maintaining a mental

state of equilibrium between extreme emotions, such

as pleasure and pain, sorrow and joy. If we abide by

the mean between extreme mental states, then harmony

and order will come to the world. The text distinguishes

between the path of equilibrium and the

path of harmony. The first involves the elimination

of emotions, and the second involves a moderate and

balanced expression of emotions.


We say that the mind is in a state of equilibrium

when it has no stirrings of pleasure, anger, sorrow,

or joy. When these feelings are stirred, and

they act in their proper degree, we call the results

a “state of harmony.”. . . This harmony is the

universal path that they all should pursue. When

the states of equilibrium and harmony exist in

perfection, a happy order will prevail throughout

heaven and earth, and all things will be nourished

and flourish.


The Confucian “state of harmony” is similar in

some respects to Aristotelian ideas about “proper” or

correct degrees of feeling that are ingredients of, or

required for, virtue. At the same time, Aristotle does

not place value on the moderating of emotion per se,

but only relative to circumstances.

It is in the concept of virtue itself that the most interesting

similarities and differences appear. Confucian

virtue (de) is associated with power, just as the

word “virtue” (arete) is in Aristotle (and in the English

and Greek languages), and with character traits. Good

character traits are like powers to act in fitting ways.

As in Aristotle, there is no theoretical way to acquire

virtue, although in Confucius the contrast “theoretical/

practical” hardly exists. The Confucian (or perhaps simply

Chinese) focus is almost entirely practical. Aristotle’s

insistence on the nonsystematic character of practical

wisdom thus fits in with Confucianism, as does his

stress on context in thinking about human living. And

for both, the existence of paradigmatic figures, wise

men who serve as guiding examples, is crucial to the

building and preserving of viable community.

The long Confucian tradition is certainly not homogenous

(nor is the long Aristotelian tradition), but

certain parts of it at least remind a Western reader of

Aristotle. Nonetheless there is one thing that does

not seem prominent in Aristotle, despite his stress

on politics as the highest art. He does not stress the

handing down of traditions in the way that the Confucians

have. Even religious traditions seem to be important

to Confucius, though he has been construed,

especially of late, as a purely secular thinker. It is

arguable that the references to “heaven” are genuinely

religious, and there seems to be little similar to that

in Aristotle. It is interesting, however, to see the way

in which Aristotelian ideas have been combined with

an account of social and religious traditions in recent

years; that theme is taken up on day 5.. There is, in any case, a pattern of similarities that puts in question the extreme relativism or

 perspectivalism advocated by some sophists. Even if

custom sometimes seems to be king, there also seem

to be recurring themes in geographically and temporally

disparate customs.

*1. Discuss one similarity between Confucius and

Aristotle that would distinguish both of them

from Plato. (Recall Plato’s views on theoretical

knowledge in relation to ethics.)

2. Both Aristotle and Confucius think that “the

cultivation of the personal life” is fundamental

and has priority over abstract principles and

ideals. Would either of them say that that

cultivation is possible for an isolated individual?





 Egoism and altruism, evil and goodness, seem to be inescapable concepts that we use in thinking about ourselves and others, so it should be no surprise that they have been discussed in philosophical traditions around the world. One of the more lively disputes took place among Confucian philosophers in China in the fourth and third centuries BCE. The specific issue under debate was whether human nature was inherently good or evil; but, in the course of the debate it is clear that selfishness is treated as a central component in an evil person’s character.


            People are Inherently Good: Mencius. Mencius – also called Mengzi – (390–305 BCE) lived a century or so after Confucius and, within the Confucian tradition, his writings are second in importance only to those of his great master. Mencius believed that human nature is inherently good. In the selection below, he debates the issue with the skeptical philosopher Kao-tzu (420–350 BCE) who holds that human nature is neither good nor evil, but can be fashioned in either direction through environmental influences.


{From The Mencius Book 6}


[Kao:] Human nature is like a tree, and righteousness is like a wooden cup or a bowl. The fashioning of benevolence and righteousness out of a person’s nature is like the making of cups and bowls from the tree.

            [Mencius:] Without touching the nature of the tree, can you make it into cups and bowls? You must do violence and injury to the tree before you can make cups and bowls with it. If you must do violence and injury to the tree in order to make cups and bowls with it, on your principles you must in the same way do violence and injury to humanity in order to fashion from it benevolence and righteousness. Thus, your words would certainly lead all people on to consider benevolence and righteousness to be calamities.

            [Kao:] Human nature is like water whirling around in a corner. Open a passage for it to the east, and it will flow to the east. Open a passage for it to the west, and it will flow to the west. Human nature is indifferent to good and evil, just as water is indifferent to the east and west.

            [Mencius:] Water indeed will flow indifferently to the east or west, but will it flow indifferently up or down? The tendency of human nature to do good is like the tendency of water to flow downwards. All people have this tendency to good, just as all water flows downwards. Now, by striking water and causing it to leap up, you may make it go over your forehead, and, by damming and leading it, you may force it up a hill. But are such movements according to the nature of water? It is the force applied which causes them. When people are made to do what is not good, their nature is dealt with in this way.



(1) Mencius believes that water naturally flows downward, but can be forced to leap up by striking it. What does the act of striking water represent in this analogy?


What precisely does it mean to say that human nature is inherently good? According to Mencius, this means that we all have certain emotions that direct us to follow moral principles.


{begin line}

             [Kung-tu:] The philosopher Kao says that human nature is neither good nor bad. Some say that human nature may be made to practice good and it may be made to practice evil ... Others say that the nature of some is good, and the nature of others is bad. ... And now you say that human nature is good. Are all those other views, then, wrong?

            [Mencius:] From the feelings proper to it, human nature is constituted for the practice of what is good. This is what I mean in saying human nature is good. If people do what is not good, the blame cannot be placed on their natural powers. The feeling of commiseration belongs to all people. So do that of shame and dislike, and that of reverence and respect, and that of approving and disproving. The feeling of commiseration implies the principle of humanity. The feelings of shame and dislike imply the principle of righteousness. The feelings of reverence and respect imply the principle of social custom. The feelings of approving and disapproving imply the principle of knowledge. Humanity, righteousness, social custom, and knowledge are not infused into us from outside factors. We are certainly furnished with them. Any different view simply owes to an absence of reflection. Hence it is said, “Look and you will find them. Neglect and you will lose them.” People differ from one another in regard to them: some have twice as much as others, some five times as much, and some to an incalculable amount. This is because they cannot fully carry out their natural powers. The Book of Poetry states that “In producing humankind, heaven gave people their various faculties and relations with their specific laws. These are the invariable rules of nature for everyone to hold; all love this admirable virtue.” Confucius said, “The writer of this ode indeed knows the principle of our nature.” We may thus see that every faculty and relation must have its law, and since there are invariable rules for all to hold, they consequently love this admirable virtue.

{end line}


(2) Explain why, in your view, feelings of “shame” imply the “principle of righteousness” (you will have to try to figure out what that principle is).


Mencius/Confucius claim that “heaven” gave humans “rules” of nature to guide behavior. Some scholars argue that Confucius was a purely secular thinker, but others stress his debt to traditional Chinese religion, in which ‘heaven’ is practically equivalent to God.


(3) If the latter view is correct, would Mencius/Confucius agree with Aquinas (ch. IV) that humans have a built-in ability to recognize a single pattern of life, which when followed leads to human fulfillment and conformity to a kind of “natural law?”


            People are Inherently Evil: Hsun-Tzu. Even more skeptical than Kao-tzu, the Confucian philosopher Hsun-tzu (298–238 BCE) held the more extreme view that human nature is inherently bad – principally because of our selfish tendencies. Like Kao-tzu and Mencius, Hsun-tzu too recognized the importance of environmental influence in altering conduct, but stresses the importance of positive environmental influence given the naturally evil tendencies in people. We should not take this need lightly if we hope to live in a civilized society.


{from The Hsun-Tzu, Chapter 17}


{begin line}

Human nature is evil and the good that we show is artificial. Even at birth human nature includes the love of gain. Since we act according to our desires, conflict and robberies emerge. We will not find self-denial and altruism. Human nature includes envy and dislike, and as actions are in accordance with these, violence and injuries spring up, whereas loyalty and faith do not. Human nature includes the desires of the ears and the eyes, leading to the love of sounds and beauty. And as the actions are in accordance with these, lewdness and disorder spring up, whereas righteousness and social custom, with their various orderly displays, do not. It thus appears that following human nature and yielding to its feelings will surely create strife and theft. It will lead to violation of everyone’s duties and disruption of all order, until we are in a state of savagery. We must have the influence of teachers and laws, and the guidance of social custom and righteousness. For, from these we get self-denial, altruism, and an observance of the well-ordered regulations of conduct, which results in a state of good government. From all this it is plain that human nature is evil; the good which it shows is artificial.

            Consider some illustrations. A crooked stick must be submitted to the pressing-frame to soften and bond it, and then it becomes straight. A blunt knife must be submitted to the grindstone and whetstone, and then it becomes sharp. Similarly, human nature, being evil, must be submitted to teachers and laws, and then it becomes correct. It must be submitted to social custom and righteousness, and then it is capable of being governed. If people were without teachers and laws, our condition would be one of deviation and insecurity, and would be entirely wrong. If we were without social custom and righteousness, our condition would be one of rebellious disorder and we would reject all government. The sage kings of old understood that human nature was evil, in a state of hazardous deviation, improper, rebellious, disorderly, and resistant to governance. Accordingly, they set up the principles of righteousness and social custom, and framed laws and regulations. These efforts served to straighten and embellish our natural feelings. They correct them, tame them, change them and guide them. By this means we might proceed on a path of moral governance which is in agreement with reason. Now, the superior person is the one who is transformed by teachers and laws. He takes on the distinction of learning, and follows the path of social custom and righteousness. The inferior person is the one who follows his nature and its feelings, indulges its resentments, and walks contrary to social custom and righteousness. Looking at the subject in this way, we see clearly that human nature is evil, and the good that it shows is artificial.

{end line}


(4) According to Hsun-tzu, what are the main environmental influences that shape people towards moral goodness?


Hsun-tzu believes in order to resolve the dispute over human nature we must understand precisely what it means for a quality to be natural or artificial. Mencius, he contends, failed to do that.


{begin line}

            Mencius said, “Man has only to learn, and his nature appears to be good;” but I reply, It is not so. To say so shows that he had not attained to the knowledge of human nature, nor examined into the difference between what is natural in people and what is artificial. The natural is what the constitution spontaneously moves to: it does not need to be learned, it does not need to be followed hard after. Propriety and righteousness are what the sages have given birth to: it is by learning that people become capable of them, it is by hard practice that they achieve them. That which is in people—not needing to be learned and striven after—is what I call natural. That in people which is attained to by learning, and achieved by hard striving, is what I call artificial. This is the distinction between those two. By human nature, eyes are capable of seeing and ears are capable of hearing. But the power of seeing is inseparable from the eyes, and the power of hearing is inseparable from the ears. It is plain that the faculties of seeing and hearing do not need to be learned.

            Mencius says, “The nature of man is good, but all lose and ruin their nature, and therefore it becomes bad.” But I say that this representation is erroneous. People being born with their nature, when they thereafter depart from its simple constituent elements, must lose it. From this consideration we may see clearly that human nature is evil. What might be called the nature’s being good, would be if there were no departing from its simplicity to beautify it, no departing from its elementary dispositions to sharpen it. Suppose that those simple elements no more needed beautifying, and the mind’s thoughts no more needed to be turned to good, than the power of vision which is inseparable from the eyes, and the power of hearing which is inseparable from the ears, need to be learned. Then we might say that human nature is good, just as we say that eyes see and ears hear. It is human nature, when hungry, to desire to be filled; when cold, to desire to be warmed; when tired, to desire rest. These are the feelings and nature of people.

{end line}


(5) According to Hsun-tzu, what does it mean to say that a particular human tendency is natural?


{begin line}

            Imagine, for example, that a person is hungry in the presence of an elder, but does not dare to sit before him. He instead yields to that elder; tired with labor, he nevertheless does not dare to ask for rest. Imagine similarly a son’s yielding to his father and a younger brother to his elder; or, a son’s laboring for his father and a younger brother for his elder. These examples illustrate conduct that is contrary to nature and against one’s feelings. However, these actions are in accord with the course laid down for a filial son, and to the refined distinctions of propriety and righteousness. It appears, then, that if feelings and nature were in accord with each other, there would be no self-denial and yielding to others. Self-denial and yielding to others are simply contrary to the feelings and the nature. In this way we come to see how clear it is that human nature is evil, and the good which it shows is artificial.

            One might ask, “If human nature is evil, what is the source of social custom and righteousness?” I reply, all social custom and righteousness are the artificial productions of the sages, and should not be thought of as growing out of human nature. It is just as when a potter makes a vessel from the clay. The vessel is the product of the workman’s art, and should not be thought of as growing out of human nature. Or it is as when another workman cuts and hews a vessel out of wood; it is the product of his art, and is not to be considered as growing out of human nature. The sages pondered long in thought and gave themselves to practice, and so they succeeded in producing social custom and righteousness, and setting up laws and regulations. In this way social custom and righteousness, laws and regulations, are artificial products of the sages, and should not be seen as growing properly from human nature.

{end line}


(6) What, for Hsun-tzu, is the ultimate source of all social custom and righteousness? Does his view seem plausible to you? Explain.



Read pages 1-26 of On Epicurus and/or 1-32 of 伊壁鸠鲁  Answer the following questions as you read.

 p. 4,5. 

(1). Epicurus claims that all that exists is ___________ and the ____________. His views are indebted to ________________



(2) Omit.


p.8. , p. 24,  25

(3) The “swerve” accounts for the collisions of atoms which make possible the development of large objects. What else does it account for, according to the Epicureans?


p. 12, 13.

(4) Epicurus is an empiricist. He thinks experience provides a criterion for genuine knowledge. What does he mean by “experience”?


p.14, 15
*(5).     (a) what is one of the main problems with empiricism?

(b) how is that problem supposedly solved by "anticipatory schema?" (Explain what they are).
            (c) what problems FOR empiricism do the schema produce?

p. 18, 19, 20.

(6) Epicurus avoids explanations in terms of purposes, that is, ____________ explanations. Instead he uses mechanical explanations or what Aristotle called _____________ explanations exclusively.



(7) Epicurus refuses to explain any natural events in terms of the actions of God or Gods. All explanations must be in terms of material efficient causes. His view is thus like modern views that are frankly ___________ and ______________.  That explains why many later religious thinkers rejected or ignored Epicurus.



Read pages 27-55 of On Epicurus and/or pages 33-68 in 伊壁鸠鲁

Answer the following:


p. 27 – 29,  34-36.

*(7). (a)Mention a pleasure which certainly does consist in having certain sensations.
     (b)  "         "        "        "         "      does NOT consist in having certain sensations.

(8). What problem does (b) pose for Epicurus' attempt to find an empirical, naturalistic basis for ethics?


(9) What is the difference between normative and psychological hedonism?  What shows that Epicurus is a __________________hedonist?


(10) The best kind of life, according to Epicurus, consists in avoiding  __________more than in pursuing _____________.


p. 38-44

(11) Give an example of an inborn desire that is necessary. What makes it necessary?                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    `


(12) Give an example of an inborn desire that is not necessary.


(13) Vain desires are neither natural nor necessary. Give two examples.


(14) What shows that Epicurus thinks that eudaimonia consists in more than simply bodily health plus ataraxia? You must use examples to answer this.


p. 45 – 55.

* (15) (a) Aristotle thinks that reason belongs to the substance of a good and eudaimon life. Explain.

            (b) Epicurus thinks of reason as merely an “instrument” employed by a prudent person when pursuing the good, eudaimon  life. Illustrate and explain. Use the example of the imaginary “Xantippe” if it will help.

(16). Argue pro and con the view that death should not be feared.


p. 56-62

(17) Friendship does not fit easily into the Epicurean view of happiness. Why not?

Compare to Aristotle’s account of friendship.


(18) State the hedonistic paradox.


(19) Describe Epicurus’ account of justice. 






Religious Ethics: Natural Law (Aquinas) and the Mandate of Heaven (Confucius)


Ancient thinkers tried to ground morality in a transcendent impersonal good (Plato), or in a developmental, teleological conception of human nature (Aristotle). Neither of them appeal specifically to a divine source for morality, if what we mean by ‘divine’ is a personal God. But many people do think there is a divine source for morality. Many people in the past, and many people today, believe that moral requirements and rules exist and have the authority that they have because they are expressions of God’s will or God’s design, or are directly commanded by God. Such views are quite typical of monotheistic traditions such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam, but the idea that there is some kind of religious bases for morality can be found all over the world.  The following selections and discussions indicate some of the ways in which ethics and religious belief have interacted.


Orienting Questions for Discussion.

1. Do you think that the wrongness of, say, torturing an innocent child, is grounded in the will or intention of God for human life? Would it be wrong even if there were no God?

2. If there is a God, and God has created everything that exists, including human beings, would you expect that God would also have certain rules or laws according to which everything is meant to function? Why or why not?

3. It certainly seems that some atheists are exceptionally moral people. How could someone who believes that morality is grounded in God or God’s commands account for that fact?

4. Is there some connection between what is natural and what is right or wrong? For example, is murder unnatural, and does a murderer do something which he at some level knows is unnatural or “not how things were meant to be”?

5. If moral truths are grounded in or depend for their truth upon God’s commands, would it not follow that anything that God commanded would be moral? If so, would it be morally right to murder an innocent child if God commanded it?



Natural law theory has taken many forms, but all natural law theories agree that there are standards of right conduct or virtuous living that are above and independent of “positive” (actually enacted) human laws and conventions. Thus there are at least hints of the idea of a “higher law of nature” wherever, as in Sophocles’ Antigone, communal norms are challenged by reference to a “law of heaven.” Typical natural law theories hold that the fundamental principles or laws of morality can be grasped by reason, and can transcend humans laws or communal norms. Plato and Aristotle thus have something in common with natural law theorists, but they do not typically emphasize law in their ethics.

                        Natural law theories refuse to unify ethical ideas through some single principle, in contrast to some of the ethical theories that are discussed in later chapters of this book. Rather there are several basic laws or principles that govern all of life, such as the principle that humans should be sociable, or should confine sexual activity to acts that are reproductive in type, within a marriage.

                        The concept of natural law can be found in the Stoics and other non-Christian thinkers, but it has had a special appeal to Christians and other religious thinkers who believed that ethical requirements are based in, or are, the commands or “law” of a personal God. In the “Old Testament” or the “TANAK” (Torah, prophets etc), God is often portrayed as proclaiming or promulgating laws. If we think of God as a supremely rational being and his laws as reflecting that reason, then obeying them would be the intrinsically reasonable thing to do. Moreover there is sometimes a strong connection made in the TANAK between keeping God’s law, and prospering and flourishing. Thus it is possible to think that there is a strong connection between being reasonable and flourishing. One can hardly help thinking of Aristotle, who held that the virtuous life is intrinsically rational and is, for that reason, a flourishing life .

                        Those who fail to keep the natural law, on the other hand are fools.  In the natural law conception they are more than that however. Even Aristotle would agree that a person who fails to promote their own well being is a fool. But he would not have described such persons as being guilty of sin, or as “transgressors” or as “perishing” or certain to be punished.  But that is typically how the person who ignores God’s law is described in many religious traditions. These ideas are expressed clearly in Ps. 1, a psalm which is a preface to many of the psalms that follow, such as Psalm 19, and that anticipates many other statements in the Judaeo-Christian scriptures.


Psalm 1

1: Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
2: but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.
3: He is like a tree planted by streams of water, that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers.
4: The wicked are not so, but are like chaff which the wind drives away.
5: Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
6: for the LORD knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.


Psalm 19.

7: The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple;
8: the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes;
9: the fear of the LORD is clean, enduring for ever; the ordinances of the LORD are true, and righteous altogether.
10: More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb.
11: Moreover by them is thy servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.
12: But who can discern his errors? Clear thou me from hidden faults.
13: Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me! Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression.


                        One of the most influential proponents of natural law theory among Christians was Thomas Aquinas.  He argued that the law of God is such that those who follow it will flourish as human beings.  He brings together Aristotelian ideas about happiness with the idea that God, through his laws, has established precisely that pattern of living that is necessary for a good and fulfilled human life.




Thomas Aquinas (ca. 1225 – 1274 CE)

Aquinas was born at Roccasecca, near Naples, Italy, the youngest son of a large Italian aristocratic family. He was a student at the Benedictine abbey at Monte Cassino (1231-9), and from 1239-44 at the University of Naples. In 1244 he joined the Dominican friars, a religious order devoted to study and preaching. This did not please his family, who hoped that he might rise to a powerful position in the church, so they had him abducted while he was on a journey to Paris, and kept him at home for two years. However his determination to lead a life as a Dominican finally won out and he returned to the order, which sent him to Paris in 1245 for further study. There he encountered the philosopher/theologian Albert the Great, who was impressed by this large (perhaps overweight?), modest and humble student who, though apparently referred to by some as a “dumb ox,” in fact outshone the brightest and best of them. 

            Aquinas became a regent master (professor) in theology at Paris, and produced perhaps the most impressive body of work in theology and philosophy in the high medieval era.

            Aquinas’s personal piety is especially evident in the hymns that he composed, some of which are still used in the worship of many Christian communities.


Aquinas argued that knowledge of natural law is implanted in humans by God. God has created according to a “design plan” and that plan is expressed by the natural law, a law that all people do or can know at least in part. Now for a thing to fulfill its design plan or purpose is for it to achieve its proper good, that which is good for it by nature.   Aquinas shares with Aristotle the notion that there is such a thing as “human nature” which can be fulfilled or not fulfilled, depending on whether we live according to the intrinsic requirements of that nature. Like Aristotle he closely identifies that nature with reason.  Reason, when it is not corrupted, directs us to act justly, temperately and in general, virtuously, for only then do we fulfill ourselves, that is, realize our true nature. Moreover that fulfillment amounts to “happiness” or eudaimonia, so Aquinas’ ethical views are to be classified as eudaimonistic views. However Aquinas argues that the ultimate goal or purpose of human life is a religious one, and cannot be grasped by reason unaided by God’s revelation of his will for humans. Only the godly can reach complete happiness.


Aquinas discusses natural law most fully in his “Treatise on Law”which is part of his  Summa Theologica (Summary of Theology). There he  presents his views in a debate format, in which various controversial claims or “questions”(indicated by ‘Q’) are examined pro and con. Here is the typical format he uses (it reflects the debate style used in some classes in the universities of his day)

                         He begins by considering objections (numbered 1, 2, 3 etc.) to the view that he will try to uphold.

                         Next he says ‘on the contrary’ and states his own view. He often supports it with quotations from Scripture, from Augustine, from Aristotle (whom he refers to as ‘the’ philosopher, and whose Nicomachean Ethics are referred simply as “Ethic”), from Isadore of Seville, and other authoritative sources.

                         Finally he gives replies to the objections. He frequently refers to other parts of his Summa in stating his views and replies. The ‘questions’ are themselves divided up into ‘articles’ (indicated by ‘Art.’). In both the questions and replies Aquinas frequently refers to other earlier questions and articles not cited here.

                        In reading the following treatise, students should keep in mind that the word ‘end’ means the same thing as ‘goal’ or ‘aim.’          

                        The first question of the Treatise on Law, Q. 90,  examines the relationship between law and reason. This relationship is fundamental to understanding Aquinas’ ethics, and connects his thinking to the stress on reason in Aristotle. The first article of Q. 90 is given here only in part.



Article 1: Whether law is something pertaining to reason?

  Objection 1: omitted.

Objection 2. omitted.

Objection 3: Further, the law moves those who are subject to it to act aright. But it belongs properly to the will to move to act, as is evident from what has been said above (Question [9], Article [1]). Therefore law pertains, not to the reason, but to the will; according to the words of the Jurist (Lib. i, ff., De Const. Prin. leg. i): "Whatsoever pleaseth the sovereign, has force of law."


  On the contrary, It belongs to the law to command and to forbid. But it belongs to reason to command, as stated above (Question [17], Article [1]). Therefore law is something pertaining to reason.

  I answer that, Law is a rule and measure of acts, whereby man is induced to act or is restrained from acting: for "lex" [law] is derived from "ligare" [to bind], because it binds one to act. Now the rule and measure of human acts is the reason, which is the first principle of human acts, as is evident from what has been stated above (Question [1], Article [1], ad 3); since it belongs to the reason to direct to the end, which is the first principle in all matters of action, according to the Philosopher (Phys. ii). Now that which is the principle in any genus, is the rule and measure of that genus: for instance, unity in the genus of numbers, and the first movement in the genus of movements. Consequently it follows that law is something pertaining to reason.


  Reply to Objection 3: Reason has its power of moving from the will, as stated above (Question [17], Article [1]): for it is due to the fact that one wills the end, that the reason issues its commands as regards things ordained to the end. But in order that the volition of what is commanded may have the nature of law, it needs to be in accord with some rule of reason. And in this sense is to be understood the saying that the will of the sovereign has the force of law; otherwise the sovereign's will would savor of lawlessness rather than of law.


As Aristotle also argued, reason directs us towards our good. The good is the ‘end’ or goal of all our actions. A person may be mistaken about what the good is, but all people act to realize or bring about what they believe to be their own good and there would be something utterly unreasonable (crazy?) about someone who said, ‘I see that doing so- and- so will be absolutely bad for me, but I will do it anyway.’ Right reason directs people to their true good. Corrupted reason may lead to self-harm, but even then the corrupted individual thinks that what he or she is doing is reasonable and will lead to good.

            Aristotle argued that we can “measure’ or assess anyone’s actions in terms of how well they tend to achieve what is objectively good, and thus reasonable. Similarly Aquinas says that “The rule and  measure of human acts is the reason . . .since it belongs to reason to direct to the end.”  But laws are also measures or standards for actions, so we can assess actions in terms of their conformity to laws or rules. Perhaps then good actions conform to law or a rule, bad ones do not. Think of the rules in sports for example.  A pass is not a good pass if the quarterback throws it when ahead of the line of scrimmage, because doing so violates a rule.

            But, is there some strong connection between laws and reason?  Are laws and rules anything more than conventions, and thus not intrinsically reasonable or unreasonable? In that case actions that conform to them would not be intrinsically good. For example, could we not change the rule about forward passes without being unreasonable? It seems obvious that we could.  However, the question before us is this; could we change moral rules or laws, without being unreasonable? Aquinas’ answer is ‘no.’ Moral rules are in fact rules that direct us to our proper end. Humans beings are created or constituted in such a way that they cannot get to the goal (happiness) unless they follow moral laws. Moral laws show us the way to our goal. Since they show the way, not to follow them would be unreasonable. Thus moral laws are ‘dictates of reason’ and not mere conventions.

            Now here is an obvious problem, which Aquinas deals with in the reply to objection 3. Suppose someone (a ruler, a legislator) makes a bad law, one which, if followed, will not lead to the good. For example, laws permitting the sterilization of people judged to be handicapped in various ways seem to most people to be rationally indefensible, bad, not conducive to the good.  Doesn’t that show that there is no connection between law and reason? Aquinas admits that rulers sometimes pass laws which “savor of lawlessness.”  Laws that require immoral acts would be such laws, and they would lack genuine rationality.

            Aquinas assumes that rulers or legislators are doing, for the whole community over which they rule, what a reasonable individual does for himself when he tries to shape his own conduct so as to achieve happiness.  That is, they are seeking happiness, but they seek it for the whole community.  Moreover, even the individual takes into account the good of the whole community when he acts, since individuals are “political animals’ who cannot achieve their own good apart from the good of the community to which they belong. These issues are discussed in the next article.   


Article 2 (in part). Whether the law is always something directed to the common good?


  Objection 1: Omitted.

  Objection 2: Omitted. 

  Objection 3: Further, Isidore says (Etym. v, 3): "If the law is based on reason, whatever is based on reason will be a law." But reason is the foundation not only of what is ordained to the common good, but also of that which is directed to private good. Therefore the law is not only directed to the good of all, but also to the private good of an individual.


  On the contrary, Isidore says (Etym. v, 21) that "laws are enacted for no private profit, but for the common benefit of the citizens."


  I answer that, as stated above (Article [1]), the law belongs to that which is a principle of human acts, because it is their rule and measure. Now as reason is a principle of human acts, so in reason itself there is something which is the principle in respect of all the rest: wherefore to this principle chiefly and mainly law must needs be referred. Now the first principle in practical matters, which are the object of the practical reason, is the last end: and the last end of human life is bliss or happiness, as stated above (Question [2], Article [7]; Question [3], Article [1]). Consequently the law must needs regard principally the relationship to happiness. Moreover, since every part is ordained to the whole, as imperfect to perfect; and since one man is a part of the perfect community, the law must needs regard properly the relationship to universal happiness. Wherefore the Philosopher, in the above definition of legal matters mentions both happiness and the body politic: for he says (Ethic. v, 1) that we call those legal matters "just, which are adapted to produce and preserve happiness and its parts for the body politic": since the state is a perfect community, as he says in Polit. i, 1.


Since the law is chiefly ordained to the common good, any other precept in regard to some individual work, must needs be devoid of the nature of a law, save in so far as it regards the common good. Therefore every law is ordained to the common good.


  Reply to Objection 3: Just as nothing stands firm with regard to the speculative reason except that which is traced back to the first indemonstrable principles, so nothing stands firm with regard to the practical reason, unless it be directed to the last end which is the common good: and whatever stands to reason in this sense, has the nature of a law.


*(1) Reason, as Aristotle stresses, directs people to their proper “end.”  To say that the proper end is the “last” end is simply to say that there is nothing more  or complete by reference to which we decide how to act. So if my end in going to school is to graduate, that could not be my final end. Why not?


When we think of law, we usually think of something that has been voted into effect by a legislature, or proclaimed or ‘promulgated’ by a legitimate ruler. A law that has never been declared to be law is no law at all. That being so, does it follow that the laws of God must have been explicitly declared or promulgated somewhere, and if so, where? Aquinas is working on an answer to this question in Q. 90, Art. 4. Notice in particular the reply to Objection 1.


Art. 4: Whether promulgation is essential to a law?


  Objection 1: It would seem that promulgation is not essential to a law. For the natural law above all has the character of law. But the natural law needs no promulgation. Therefore it is not essential to a law that it be promulgated.

  Objection 2: Further, it belongs properly to a law to bind one to do or not to do something. But the obligation of fulfilling a law touches not only those in whose presence it is promulgated, but also others. Therefore promulgation is not essential to a law.

  Objection 3: Further, the binding force of a law extends even to the future, since "laws are binding in matters of the future," as the jurists say (Cod. 1, tit. De lege et constit. leg. vii). But promulgation concerns those who are present. Therefore it is not essential to a law.


  On the contrary, It is laid down in the Decretals, dist. 4, that "laws are established when they are promulgated."


  I answer that, as stated above (Article [1]), a law is imposed on others by way of a rule and measure. Now a rule or measure is imposed by being applied to those who are to be ruled and measured by it. Wherefore, in order that a law obtain the binding force which is proper to a law, it must needs be applied to the men who have to be ruled by it. Such application is made by its being notified to them by promulgation. Wherefore promulgation is necessary for the law to obtain its force.


   Thus from the four preceding articles, the definition of law may be gathered; and it is nothing else than

                        an ordinance of reason for the common good, made by him who has care of   

                        the community, and promulgated.


  Reply to Objection 1: The natural law is promulgated by the very fact that God instilled it into man's mind so as to be known by him naturally.


  Reply to Objection 2: Those who are not present when a law is promulgated, are bound to observe the law, in so far as it is notified or can be notified to them by others, after it has been promulgated.


  Reply to Objection 3: The promulgation that takes place now, extends to future time by reason of the durability of written characters, by which means it is continually promulgated. Hence Isidore says (Etym. v, 3; ii, 10) that "lex [law] is derived from legere [to read] because it is written."


*(2) Does Aquinas hold that a law is promulgated only when it is written down or spoken out loud by somebody with authority? Does his view seem plausible to you? Discuss.


So far Aquinas has been discussing the essence, or definition, of law in general. But he is particularly concerned to clarify God’s law and to what he refers to above, in the reply to objection 1, as the ‘natural law.’ His thinking about God’s law shows the same debt to Aristotle that we noted several times already.

                        Aristotle and Aquinas both hold that living things develop according to built-in purposes or goals. An acorn develops into an oak tree because it has built into it tendencies and capacities that will cause it to develop or mature in that way, provided no obstacles arise, such as lack of moisture, or being eaten by a squirrel. The development of the acorn is lawlike, or follows a law. It cannot develop into a birch tree, or a dog, obviously. If it could develop in any way whatsoever that would amount to its not having any “law” at all for its development. But it does, and according to Aquinas that law is grounded in or expresses God’s intentions or purposes.

                         Like other natural things, humans too have built-in purposes which are reflected in laws of nature. In order to develop properly, in order to mature and flourish as human beings, we must follow those laws. To name a few, we must be rational, we must be social, and we must maintain some kind of connection between sex an