Review and Critique of Book 3 of the Eudemian Ethics

Please note that I have switched to the Oxford World Classic version of Aristotle’s Eudemian Ethics for ease of reference and my preference for a paper copy. This version is translated by Anthony Kenny.

Aristotle continues his enquiry into ethics by referring to the Moral Virtues. As we saw in Book 2, Aristotle developed his concept of the relative mean in virtue by contrasting excess with deficiency to define the middle and best state – the relative mean. Book 3 provides a definitive argument of these virtues. We shall let Aristotle himself lead us into our review, “In general terms it has been stated that the virtues are the middle states, and that these virtues themselves and their opposing vices are states that find expression in choice. We have listed them; let us now take them in turn and discuss them one by one. First, let us speak about courage.”

Aristotle then proceeds to define the following virtues in detail;

• Courage
• Temperance and Intemperance
• Gentleness and Cruelty
• Liberality
• Pride
• Other Good and Bad Qualities of Character

So let us continue.


Aristotle gives an account of what courage is and then goes on to list the five different types. The aim of this particular enquiry is to determine which particular type of courage is taken for the sake of some end, for if we remember from Book 1, “Everybody able to live according to his own purposive choice should set before him some object for noble living to aim at – either honour or else glory or wealth or culture – on which he will keep his eyes fixed in all his conduct.”

Firstly, Aristotle explains why he has chosen courage as the relative mean. He gives cowardice as the deficiency of courage and foolhardiness as the excess of courage, “It is evident, therefore, that people who are thus characterised will similarly be contrasted with each other, that is to say the coward (who is so called from being more afraid than is right, and less daring than is right) and the foolhardy (who is so called as the kind of person who is less afraid than is right, and more daring than is right). So that since courage is the best state of character in relation to feelings of fear and daring, and people should neither be like the foolhardy nor like cowards it is evident that the middle condition between foolhardiness and cowardice is courage, for that is what is the best state.” This ‘more afraid than is right’, and its contrary, ‘more daring than is right’ references some condition that has yet to be defined. That is, ‘than is right’. What is right? To Aristotle it is reason and the aim to which one acts. For example, “There remains this problem. To a courageous man is there nothing that is frightening? Is he incapable of fear? Surely there is nothing to prevent him from feeling fear in the manner we have described. For courage is a way of following reason, and reason tells us to choose what is noble. For this reason a person who endures what is frightening, but not for that reason, is either mad or foolhardy; only the person who does so for the sake of what is noble counts as courageous. The coward fears what he ought not to fear, the foolhardy dares where he ought not to dare; the courageous man does both as he ought to, and thus he is a mean, for he is daring and fearful exactly as reason commands. But reason does not command the endurance of painful and life-threatening things unless it is noble to do so. The foolhardy man, then, dares even when reason tells him not to; the coward does not dare even when reason tells him to. It is the courageous man who dares only when reason tells him to.” It is apparent to Aristotle that virtue, reason and nobility are all intertwined. Reason relates to some noble goal, whether that be honour, glory, wealth or culture. The relative mean in virtue is a rational choice which helps accomplish that aim. Thus any action which jeopardises that goal, be it cowardice or foolhardiness, is a vice.

Aristotle now goes on to list five types of courage which are;

• Civic Courage
• Military Courage
• Ignorance
• Expression of Hope – Drunkenness
• Irrational Passion

The exact wording reads, “There are five kinds of courage, so called because they resemble courage in being endurance of the same dangers; but the endurance is for different reasons in the different cases. One is civic courage, which is based upon a sense of shame; another is military courage, based upon experience and on knowledge – not knowledge of the dangers (as Socrates said), but rather of ways of coping with them. The third rests on inexperience or ignorance; it makes madmen ready to face anything, and makes children handle snakes. Another kind is an expression of hope, which makes people face dangers if they have had a number of lucky escapes, or if they are drunk – for wine is a great purveyor of hope. Another kind arises from irrational passion: love or rage, for instance.” I have no criticism of this list. Yet Aristotle himself is not satisfied that any of these forms of courage count as the relative mean in virtue because they do not pertain to some noble end. Rather Aristotle rejects all of the above as forms of true courage as they hold some obligation other than deliberative choice for the sake of some end. Consider the following passage, “But true courage is something different from this, and from all the others, even though it resembles them, as does the courage of wild beasts which rush in rage to meet the blow. A man should stand his ground not because he fears disgrace, or is enraged, nor because he does not think he will die, or because he has effective protection, for in that case he will not think there is anything to be afraid of. But since every virtue implies choice (in the manner earlier explained: it makes a man choose everything for the sake of some end, and the end is what is noble), it is clear that courage being a particular virtue will make a man endure what is frightening for the sake of some end. Instead of making him do it in error, it will make him judge rightly, and instead of doing it for the sake of pleasure, he will do it because it is noble.” Thus, our definition of courage reads, ‘the relative mean in virtue between an excess; foolhardiness, and deficiency; cowardice, in relation toward some noble end’. I believe this statement satisfies all other enquiries into the various best states in virtue so that a generic version would read, ‘Good is the relative mean in virtue between both excess and deficiency in relation toward some noble end’. Let us continue to see if we are correct.

Temperance and Intemperance

Aristotle now reviews temperance and intemperance. From his table in Book 2, Aristotle lists temperance as the relative mean in virtue with excess called intemperance and the deficiency called insensitivity. Aristotle’s argument here relates to the indulgence of the senses and the pleasure derived from sensation. Consider, “Temperance and intemperance have to do with the two senses that alone have objects that are felt by, and give pleasure and pain to, animals other than ourselves, namely, taste and touch. With regard to the pleasures of the other senses – harmony and beauty, for instance – they seem to be pretty much totally insensitive.” To elaborate further an excess of pleasure derived from taste would lead to gluttony, whilst deriving no pleasure from consensual sex would be deemed insensitive. In conclusion, Aristotle states, “So if temperance is the best state in respect of the intemperate man’s sphere of activity, the mean state with regard to the aforesaid pleasures of the senses will be temperance, a mean between intemperance and insensitivity.” It appears to me that Aristotle is advocating restraint in relation to excessive pleasure-seeking activities which lead to detrimental effects upon the physical and mental state of being rather than deriding the case of insensitivity, but regardless it is a relative mean in virtue.

Gentleness and Cruelty

Next on Aristotle’s list is the relative mean of gentleness which les in between an excess, called cruelty, and a deficiency, called servility. Form Aristotle himself, “In our chart we made a contrast between irascibility, cruelty and savagery (all such being forms of the same disposition) and the characteristics of the servile and the milksop. Such are the kind of names we call those who are not moved to rage when they ought to be, but accept insults cheerfully and are humble in the face of contempt.” I would just like to draw the reader’s attention to that last sentence which conflicts with another major moral code – Christianity. Quoting the New Testament, Matthew 5:38-40, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.” It is clear that Aristotle would not make a very good Christian. Aristotle arrives at gentleness as the relative mean in virtue through the following statement, “And since there is here, as we said in other cases, excess and defect (for the cruel man is the one who feels anger too quickly, too violently, too long, at the wrong time, and with the wrong people, and with too many people, while the servile man is just the contrary), it is clear that there is also some character at the midpoint of this scale. Since, then, both these states of character are wrong, it is clear that the midway between them is correct: such that a man gets angry neither too soon nor too late, and he does not get angry with the wrong people or fail to get angry with the people who deserve it. So since the best state of character in respect to these emotions is gentleness, gentleness would be a mean, and a gentle person would be in the middle between a cruel person and a servile person.”


Aristotle’s definition of the term ‘liberality’ is as follows, “Liberality is the mean in regard to the getting and spending of wealth.” Aristotle’s inquiry into the nature of liberality concerns the feelings of the one who acquires and utilises wealth. Consider, “We speak in two different senses of wealth and its acquisition, for there are two ways of using a piece of property, such as a shoe or a cloak: one is its proper use, and the other is its coincidental use.” He continues, “Now, a miser is someone who dotes on money, and for him money becomes a matter of possession rather than coincidental use. An illiberal man may be prodigal with respect to the coincidental mode of making money, since what he wants to maximise is the natural pursuit of wealth. The prodigal man goes short of necessities, but the liberal man gives away his surplus.” What really concerns Aristotle is the reckless spending of money and its converse which is the fixation on acquiring never-ending amounts with a view to fraud as a means of acquisition. I find this relative mean to be vague because Aristotle has elsewhere stated that the pursuit of wealth is considered to be one of the noble aims hence his caveat; “If his illiberality amounts to injustice then he is a fraud and a cheat.” Rather than being an outright vice it is conditioned with regard to a further act. Regardless, the principle behind this particular relative mean is to ensure a man is neither reckless in his spending; prodigal, or ruthless in his acquisition; illiberal, and that he attains the middle and best state which is to spend only his surplus; liberality.


I find Aristotle’s views on pride to be particularly interesting because whilst it establishes a relative mean between vanity and diffidence it also highlights some of the foundations underlying his entire philosophy on ethics. Aristotle even gives prominence to this view by listing the necessities of pride before conducting his review into the relative mean. Consider, “We speak of the proud man, in accordance with the derivation of the corresponding Greek adjective, as having a certain greatness of soul and faculty, and so he seems like the friendly man and the magnificent man. Pride does indeed seem to accompany all of the virtues.” Furthermore, “Each particular virtue distinguishes correctly between the greater and the lesser in its own area, following the prescription that a wise man and his virtue would give. Thus, all the virtues go with this virtue, or it goes with them all.” And finally, “… so that there is no virtue without greatness. Each virtue, then, as we have said, makes someone a proud person in respect of those matters that fall within its sphere.” Clearly it is essential to Aristotle’s virtue-bound ethics that the individual is a proud person otherwise he lacks both the will and the ability to determine what greatness is and how to distinguish between greater and lesser acts in relation to the relative mean. Without these clear distinctions he has no knowledge of how to pursue and exercise greatness.

Now let us examine pride as the relative mean in virtue. As mentioned, Aristotle holds pride to be the relative mean between diffidence and vanity. Consider, “Of the contraries as shown in our diagram, claiming great things when one does not deserve them is vanity (for it is precisely the people who think they are worthy of great things when they are not whom we call vain), while deserving great things while not claiming them is diffidence (for if a man in possession of deserving qualities does not think himself worthy of anything great, he is diffident). Hence it follows that pride is the mean between vanity and diffidence.” I have no refutation to offer regarding these points.

Other good and bad qualities of character

Aristotle continues to list other virtues such as magnificence and righteous indignation as relative means and gives reasons for their classifications. It is not necessary for us to investigate these further as the pattern is consistent with that listed above. Described in this final section is the generic rule, “The mean is more opposed to the extremes than the extremes are to each other, because it does not occur in combination with either of them, whereas the extremes often occur together.” An example given to clarify the point reads, “Sometimes the very same people are foolhardy cowards, or are prodigal in some things and illiberal in others, and in general their badness gets out of bounds.”

Critique on Book 3

Aristotle’s enquiry into the relative mean in virtue is both exhaustive and transparent. It is clear that he aims to establish that goodness lies in choosing a noble end utilising the relative mean in virtue to attain that end. My interest lies in the contrast between Aristotle’s virtues and the vices laid out in other ethical codes, in this particular case it is Christianity. It is clear that Aristotle holds pride to be virtuous whereas in the Old Testament, Proverbs 11:12, it states, “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with the humble is wisdom.” And in the New Testament, Luke 14:11, “For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” The whole purpose of this study is to contrast the different ethical codes and discover which shall transcend any obligation to the current age. In regards to this I side with Aristotle’s view that pride is a virtue for it is an honest acknowledgement of one’s talents whereas humility seeks further acclaim through debasing one’s merit so that it avoids intimidating any prospective audience.

On Chimp Bashing (also referred to as Government)

Chimp-men elect the greatest organiser among them to increase the effectiveness of their chimp-bashing abilities.

In primitive societies this would be the chimp-man who has asserted his prowess through combat. All other chimp-men within the collective recognise this authority based upon a sensual evaluation – that is, all would be challengers have been defeated in an open contest before the eyes of all the other chimp-men in attendance. With this contest won the strongest chimp-man can then organise the chimp-men under his command to bash other, less effectively organised, chimp-men and steal their chimp-ladies. This is a Tribal government.

As societies grow larger it is impossible for every chimp-man to view the combat which determines who is the strongest chimp-man. And, besides, complex societies require a greater level of logistical understanding (read bureaucracy) to organise effectively owing to the various needs of the participants. The next contest is settled through ‘Right to Rule’, ‘Mandate of Heaven’, etc… This utilises Man’s ability to form abstractions to construct an ethereal system of idols which reflect various beliefs in the physical world – fertility, war, well-being, etc. The chimp-man which best fulfils these rituals asserts his authority upon the collective by appealing to their need to be recognised by a primordial creator and the perceived advantages such things confer. This method can reach a wider audience compared with Tribal government owing to language and rumour. Internal chimp bashing increases the cohesion of the collective by either eliminating or coercing dissidents while externally it is free to bash chimp-men from other belief systems. This is a Theocratic government.

Societies which reject the superstitious pretence of a primordial creator yet adhere to the ‘Right to Rule’ principle represent a Monarchy (read feudal hierarchy). Rather than settle the matter of master chimp-man through the ability to perform rituals a bloodline is declared. In this system the ‘Right to Rule’ is passed from kings to heirs and is maintained as long as there are no substantial claims to the throne or a complete rejection of the system. This feudal system imposes severe restrictions upon each chimp-man based upon his status. Chimp-Serfs are bashed by Chimp-Vassals. Chimp-Vassals are bashed by Chimp-Lords. Chimp-Lords are bashed by Chimp-Monarchs. The higher the rank of the individual the less bashing occurs owing to a need to preserve cohesion. (Chimp-Serfs may frequently starve to death without attention but if the same fate were to befall a Chimp-Lord then the integrity of the system would be challenged). Chimp-Monarchs can still suppress Chimp-Lords but this is much subdued compared to the suppression reserved for Chimp-Serfs unless the word ‘treason’ is muttered. Externally speaking a Chimp-Monarch may then decide what he really wants to do is to bash another Chimp-Monarch for some perceived (and no doubt deserving) offence. When this happens the Chimp-Serfs must create surplus to support the war effort and then go and die in it along with the Chimp-Vassals and Chimp-Lords, and maybe even the Chimp-Monarch. This is a Feudal government.

Once a society rejects both the ‘Right to Rule’ and Tribal principles it elects a Chimp-Ruler through ballot. Crudely speaking, the majority of voters elect a Prime Chimp-man who will bash less organised opponents to confer advantages upon the electorate. This can include land rights, working wages, tax breaks or a welfare system depending upon who the right to vote is extended to. Once a Prime Chimp-man is sworn into office he or she may legitimately reduce or rescind the rights of minority groups declaring, with much gusto, that they represent the majority. This is a Democratic Government.

The pinnacle of our chimp bashing system has to be the ability to bash chimps that aren’t even born yet. This method of chimp bashing occurs through national debt. This regime of chimp bashing requires that the chimp-men of today extract more money from the government than they pay in taxes plus money received from all operational licences which the government grants. Various interests groups from corporations to parasitical citizens lobby the government for favourable conditions to increase their revenues. As a result the government takes on more debt than it can possibly hope to pay back. This outstanding balance is recouped from unborn chimp-men when they eventually enter the labour market. Crony Capitalism and National Debt are our most refined forms of chimp bashing. But, alas, both are still chimp bashing.

On Strife

To these Godly souls I should lead them away from all base existence. But alas, what words of mine would evict their base desires? That common bond of depravity! Such have I lived! Such have I tasted! That bitter sensation of the youthful soul, not strong enough to nourish itself! That it must drink from others! Then I say this, who has courage to sip from this joyful chalice? For too long it has simmered, now from the mount does it spill. All was concocted within me and only now do I erupt! Only at my hour do all know me! By what other hour could I be known? That I did wander through my loneliness to make myself known to – myself! For what truer virtue exists other than the virtue of oneself! So I say this also, “Make oneself of one’s own virtue!” For only then can you know what you ought to love. I make that the only law of the Noble Virtue, the Noble soul. Through it I give my unreserved love to those who stand before me. To those whose virtue is at odds with order, the demanded virtue, the expected happiness. For there exists no greater measure of virtue than he who suffers for his virtue. And no greater strength than he who smiles through bitterness.

On Youth

Where is your zest, young man? Youth has been maligned, corrupted, conspired against. And now you come of age – for what? To inherit your own boredom! How obedient we have made Man, how worthless. When those instruments of efficiency swallow your education how will you bargain for your happiness? How shall we, in our acquiescence, ever arise to the most lofty of ideals – the creation of our values? Dignity has acquired a sense of equality – the taming of all aspiration – for it does not do to undermine the esteem of men. But what has Man’s timidity brought? Has he ever viewed himself through his own eyes? Could he survive his own verdict? Only if society had raised him to its baseness. Only if he had not compromised some part of himself in the acceptance of these values. But where is our overcoming, our youth? Why does it learn to be afraid? Why does it learn to submit? Why does it grow – old?

On the Ideology of Power

Power is the dominion of a single representation. There can exist no plurality in its manifesto. As such it is dependent upon a simple, rigid ideology that allows no room for manoeuvre. Anything else would undermine its legitimacy. But how does a single representation come about and how does it come to dominate?

Power is the means to gain recognition for either a person or an abstraction. Once recognition is obtained actions that were previously criminalised can be legitimately undertaken in its name. This legitimacy has two parts; firstly the person committing the act, secondly the observer witnessing the act. Once an ideology is established the person committing the act will always consider the act to be lawful if it satisfies the goals of the ideology. The act only gains legitimacy for the observer if it passes a threshold of acceptance. This threshold of acceptance will consist of many forms. Some will accept it as popular opinion, others will accept it by some deep-seated prejudice that the ideology satisfies. Some will settle that it is an unwanted but necessary alternative to the current situation. Some will accept it based upon what they can gain from it. Others will accept it if it conforms to reason. It is doubtful that the ideology will satisfy all of the above and thus will never achieve universal acceptance but universal acceptance is not required. If the ideology passes the threshold of acceptance then power allows any executive to coerce or threaten the reluctant parties. Given that our threshold of acceptance is a subjective quantity based upon people and environment we shall focus our attention on the source of power in the hope that we may give a just account of it.

Power is expressed through a single representation of life. A single representation is the ultimate declaration of being in the sense that it rejects all other external representations, i.e. that of another conscious perception, as invalid concerning the justification of existence. Indeed existence only has relevance if it serves and promotes the ideology. As such, anything than opposes or runs contradictory to this ideology must be suppressed and eliminated. That is how it comes to dominate and only through excessive effort is it sustained.

But how does this singular representation arise? Recognition. A being is dissatisfied with the current interpretation of existence and proposes a different set of values based upon his inner beliefs – that is, his esteem. He believes that his interpretation is a necessity that only he can provide. Thus he rejects all dissent as meaningless arguments based on incorrect values. Where he strides others shall follow, he shall create peoples along with a legitimacy through his will – that is, the outer manifestation of his inner beliefs. He surrounds himself with people who affirm his inner valuations creating a dangerous feedback loop. Anything that contradicts the ideology is now willingly misinterpreted so as not to offend the values of the system constructed. But a loss of causality – that is, the link between cause and effect – means that the ideology cannot correctly identify underlying causes with physical effects. Eventually the physical opposition to the system overcomes the spiritual strength of power and the ideology collapses.

On the Energy Expended to Ensure Conformity

Mankind is not uniform. His valuations do not amount to universal consensus on existence. Privacy is essential for this reason, it provides a quiet retreat away from collective judgements – that is, a common consensus on how a person should behave when in company. For some these collective judgements provide a necessary scale on how to measure one’s success and worth, for me they are a farce. I always ask myself if it didn’t exist would I create it, in most cases the answer is ‘no’. If I am at odds with the spiritual evaluation of a human being then I am not satisfied, or impressed, by any subsequent achievement that this system recognises. And equally, nor will my achievements and failures be recognised by this collective valuation. Man is interred by a reward system that came before his existence, to maintain this system requires excessive energy to prevent a human being from reverting to type – that is, without inheriting a system of values the person in question would be forced to form their own abstractions and subsequent recognition system. This is disobedience – a reluctance to honour the previous system imposed upon human worth. But the system has only gained legitimacy because it came first – that is, it is the most archaic system devised. In it everything presupposes obedience to a higher assessment, God, nature, the town, the nation, the race. Everything is made to feel larger and more important than the individual. He is asked to play his part, mutual cooperation, assimilation, indeed anything that prevents him from discovering who he is. Dangerous things begin to happen when an individual losses touch with his sense of community. He begins to reassess what is important through the only mechanism available – himself. His questions go unanswered, namely on two counts – one because only he understands the question and two because people don’t understand the aim of the system. He refutes the exploitation of either his intellect or his virtue or his effort. At this point the system rallies and expends a significant amount of its resources to ‘correct’ or ‘re-educate’ the dissident. He has neither asked for this attention nor sees the value in it. But he is sure of one thing, he is a failure by the measures inherent in the system because he has not satisfied the key value of it – blind obedience. Before accepting any truth he dares to ask, ‘what does it mean to me?’ There exists a simpleness in him, not through a lack of intellect but through an abundance. His interests turn to other, less valued, pursuits. But replacing one set of nonsensical values with another set achieves no victory worth mentioning. After this period of disillusionment comes the real worth of being – the judgements cast against any dissident lead him to revaluate what is necessary about his existence; what does he find joy and despair in? How does he attain validation if the herd cannot bestow him with worth? The energy the system expends to undermine the individual’s valuations eventually succeed but they succeed too well. The dissident, cut off from these reward mechanisms, now seeks validity in reason and takes his place amongst wiser counsel. He sees that the greatest minds have experienced the same reluctance to embrace the herd instinct and once here he is never going back.

Review and Critique of Book 2 of the Eudemian Ethics

Should people require a point of reference I am using the Loeb Classical Library edition of Aristotle’s Eudemian Ethics as translated by H. Rackham.

 Book 2 of the Eudemian Ethics discusses the following;

  • A conclusion on the definition of happiness
  • An investigation into the human spirit
  • The relative mean in conduct
  • Voluntary and Involuntary
    • Appetition, purposive choice or thought
    • Aristotle’s three subdivisions of appetition – wish, passion and desire
    • Further discourse on purposive choice which leads to moral goodness
  • Moral goodness

A conclusion of the definition of happiness

Towards the end of Book 1 Aristotle says, “Now it is agreed that happiness is the greatest and the best of the human goods.” Aristotle seeks to bring his theory of happiness to a close in Book 2 firstly by reasserting that a good life is akin to a functional life and then by examining what it means to be human, “Again let us grant that the work of the spirit is to cause life, and that being alive is employment and being awake; with the consequence that since the work of the spirit and that of its goodness are necessarily one and the same, the work of goodness would be a good life.” And once again its link to happiness is restated, “Therefore this is the perfect good, which as we saw is happiness. And it is clear from our assumptions laid down that, since an activity is a better thing than a disposition and the best activity than the best state, and since goodness is the best state, the activity of goodness is the spirit’s greatest good.

One final note on Aristotle’s theory of happiness is that it is not complete until the End, “There is also evidence of the opinion that a person is not happy for one day only, (hence also Solon’s advice holds good, not to call a man happy while he is alive, but only when he has reached the end) for nothing incomplete is happy, since it is not a whole.” Solon of course being the great Athenian reformer accredited with laying the foundations for Athenian democracy.

In conclusion Aristotle’s definition of happiness demands an End to provide active goodness which shall grant, “The pleasantest, the fairest and the best of all things whatever.”

Yet is it fair to say that one man’s interpretation of happiness provides us with a universal rule on the matter? After the 20th century’s brutal dictatorships and the various ideologies that were championed (i.e. happiness of the state or some other utopian doctrine) can we really say that all happiness resides in active goodness? Aristotle’s defence might read, “Happiness is at once the pleasantest, the fairest and the best of all things whatever.” And we would be inclined to agree as this was clearly not the case with dictators who were constantly fearful of overthrow or assassination, and as such devoted a large amount of state resources to fund the secret ‘policing’ activities of the Gestapo and the NKVD. However, if such dictators had truly achieved their End then they would surely attest that they had achieved “The pleasantest, the fairest and the best of all things whatever.” For what else had they set out to achieve but to correct some grievance? Would it not be truer to suggest that happiness consists of many conflicting opinions? Some wish to gain acceptance, some wish to inflict pain, some seek sexual gratification, some seek isolation? Perhaps Aristotle’s definition of happiness is vague for this reason and a completed version might read, “Happiness is at once what a person perceives to be the pleasantest, the fairest and the best of all things relative to themselves?” This is very far from our current, duty-bound ethics of equality but I doubt Aristotle would have agreed with such a rigid doctrine that limited “goodness, wisdom and pleasure.” It must be stressed here that the Greek sense of ‘goodness’ is less limited than ‘virtue’ and refers to excellence in any department, not simply moral.

An investigation into the human spirit

Aristotle’s study into the spirit aims to imbue man with a reasoning faculty and a view to conduct. This is important to Aristotle as, in his opinion, our reasoning faculties differentiate us from animals. So he begins, “Next we must study the spirit; for goodness is a property of the spirit, it is not accidental. And since it is human goodness that we are investigating, let us begin by positing that the spirit has two parts that partake of reason, but that they do not both partake of reason in the same manner, but one of them by having by nature the capacity to give orders, and the other to obey and listen.” But is this only present in humans? One may say that human language allows us to form abstractions but Aristotle does not say this. His phrasing is, “to give orders, and the other to obey and listen.” This quality is not unique to the human spirit as various creatures such as chimpanzees are able to cooperate through violence and displays of mistrust.  The next sentence is the real meat of the argument, “If considered as a man, he must possess a reasoning faculty for a principle and with a view to conduct.” Yet again I must offer some criticism. Has this been witnessed or proven? On a universal level? Does blind obedience to propaganda suggest that all of humanity possesses a reasoning faculty? Does drunk and disorderly behaviour suggest that all of humanity possesses a view to conduct? Does environmental destruction and industrialised warfare suggest that man lives with a reasoning faculty? I would agree that the creation of these problems require intelligence to develop the appropriate science but if reasoning and view to conduct were really universal qualities in man would we have reached this point as a race? I would argue that man applies his intelligence, not as a rational enterprise, but to gain dominion over others. Conduct has become a tool to convince the ignorant masses that the best man is in charge. Mannerisms, speeches and gestures are all engineered to keep an ignorant people subjugated. I feel that Aristotle has not been careful enough in his definition of man. Or perhaps he suggests that only those who display rationality (for we should not assume such things) can be called man? In either event the definition is not sufficient for our use. I would follow Francis Fukuyama’s explanation, “When norms [concerning behaviour] are invested with intrinsic meaning, they become objects of what the philosopher Georg W.F. Hegel called the ‘struggle for recognition’. When a monkey or a human being succeeds in achieving high status, levels of serotonin, a critical neurotransmitter, are elevated. But human recognition differs from primate recognition because of the greater complexity of human cognition. An alpha male chimp seeks recognition only for himself; a human being can seek recognition for an abstraction, like a god, a flag, or a holy place.” I do not mean to be unkind to Aristotle, I am merely suggesting that many observed facts have been recorded since 322BC – which is the whole point behind this revaluation.

From his analysis of the human spirit Aristotle seeks to explore the two forms of goodness – moral virtue and intellectual excellence, “And goodness has two forms, moral virtue and intellectual excellence; for we praise not only the just but also the intelligent and the wise. And since the intellectual excellences involve reason, these forms of goodness belong to the rational part, which as having reason is in command of the spirit; whereas moral virtues belong to the part that is irrational but by nature capable of following the rational – for in stating a man’s moral qualities we do not say that a man is wise or clever but that he is gentle or rash.” Aristotle’s goodness is available in one of two ways; either a person is intelligent such that their reason governs their conduct, or a person is moral so that he can listen to and follow a rational explanation of good conduct that subdues his irrational disposition to do harm. In this way it is necessary for an intelligent person to first define what good conduct is before it can be followed.

The relative mean in conduct

Aristotle’s relative mean in conduct seeks to explain exactly what virtues man should aim for. The relative mean lies in between excessive and deficient characteristics, which Aristotle calls ‘mutually destructive’, “These distinctions having been established, it must be grasped that in every continuum that is divisible there is excess and deficiency and a mean. And in all things the mean in relation to us is the best, for that is as knowledge and reason bid. And everywhere this also produces the best state. This is proved by induction and reason: contraries are mutually destructive, extremes are contrary to each other and to the mean, as the mean is either extreme in relation to the other – for example the equal is greater than the less and less than the greater. Hence moral goodness must be concerned with certain means and must be a middle state. We must, therefore, ascertain what sort of middle state goodness is and with what sort of means it is concerned.” This, I believe, is Aristotle’s first attempt at a cooperative ethics. By standardising virtues he avoids a conflict of interpretation, that is – by highlighting the incompatibility of excess with deficiency he understands that a consensus would never be reached between two parties who stand either side of the relative mean. To overcome this dispute Aristotle shows the fallacies in the extremes before explaining how the relative mean is the only correct, and thus lasting, condition. Aristotle then produces a table made of three columns. Here he lists excess, deficiency and then the relative mean, i.e.



Relative Mean







Other relative means (virtues) include, Gentleness, Temperance, Righteous Indignation and Hardiness. Aristotle continues, “These and such as these are the emotions that the spirit experiences, and they are all designated from being either excessive or defective. He that pretends to have more possessions than he really has is a boaster, and he that pretends to have fewer is a self-deprecator.” In this example Sincerity is the relative mean and thus the virtue. And again, “He that rates himself to high is vain, he that rates himself too low, small-spirited.”

Aristotle then links the relative mean to the right principle through the greatest good. He declares that the greatest good is in accordance with the right principle and that the greatest good is achieved through the relative means.  “But since it has been assumed that goodness is a state of character of a sort that causes men to be capable of doing the best actions and gives them the best disposition in regard to the greatest good, and the best and greatest good is that which is in accordance with the right principle, and this is the means between excess and deficiency relative to ourselves, it would necessarily follow that moral goodness corresponds with each particular middle state and is concerned with certain mean points in pleasures and pains and pleasant and painful things.” It is clear that the greatest good is in accordance with the right principle as one is simply a term for the other. What is not so clear is why the greatest good is the relative mean. By a process of elimination Aristotle has proven that the middle state has no destructive properties and through this mechanism he has assigned goodness to the middle state. Aristotle should then say this, ‘goodness is at once enduring and identifiable logic exercised through deliberate action’ as this is how he has reached his relative mean and how we may witness a person performing it. Deliberate, or purposive, action will be discussed next.

Voluntary and involuntary

I have two criticisms with this part; firstly, owing to Aristotle’s dialectic nature he brings up many arguments which he assumes to be true but then refutes which lends itself to confusion. Secondly, his distinctions between the various parts of human conduct overlap and become hard to distinguish, others seem to be unnecessary.

Central to Aristotle’s ethics is that man is accountable for his actions. For this to be true Aristotle requires that a man be the cause of his actions meaning he controls their existence or non-existence. For our analysis on the voluntary and the involuntary we shall separate our inquiry into three parts;

  • Appetition, purposive choice or thought
  • Aristotle’s three subdivisions of appetition – wish, passion and desire
  • Further discourse on purposive choice which leads to moral goodness.

Aristotle believes in free will. For his ethics to have any validity this is a necessity. His conclusion on voluntary action makes man the principle for his agency, that is – man must be cause. Nothing can come before him. His is responsible for his perceptions, his interpretations and finally his actions. Only then can any man be blamed if he deviates from the relative mean. What follows is the most important passage in Book 2, “And since as in other matters the first principle is a cause of the things that exist or come into existence because of it, we must think as we do in the case of demonstrations. Hence it is clear that all the actions of which a man is the first principle and controller may either happen or not happen, and that it depends on himself for them to happen or not, as he controls their existence or non-existence. But of things which it depends on him to do or not to do he is himself the cause, and what he is the cause of depends on himself. It is clear that goodness and badness have to do with things where a man is himself the cause and origin of his actions. We must, then, ascertain what is the kind of actions of which a man is himself the cause and origin. Now we all agree that each man is the cause of all those acts that are voluntary and purposive for him individually, and that he is not himself the cause of all those that are involuntary. And clearly he commits voluntarily all the acts that he commits purposively. It is clear, then, that both goodness and badness will be in the class of things voluntary.”

As mentioned, the crux of Aristotle’s ethics, both goodness and badness, relate to voluntary action. In light of this we must follow Aristotle’s inquiry into the voluntary and involuntary, “We must, therefore, ascertain what voluntary and involuntary mean, and what is purposive choice, since they enter into the definition of goodness and badness. And first we must consider the meaning of voluntary and involuntary. Now they would seem to relate to one of three things – conformity with appetition, or with purposive choice, or with thought: voluntary is what conforms with one of these and involuntary is what contravenes one of them. But moreover there are three subdivisions of appetition – wish, passion and desire.”

Appetition, purposive choice or thought

Aristotle conducts an exhaustive analysis of appetition, purposive choice and thought to determine where the voluntary lies. Before we continue let us define the terms. Appetition means longing for and as noted relates to three subdivisions; wish, passion or desire. Purposive choice is a human quality and must be something that is deliberately chosen and relates to the means rather than the End. To qualify as purposive choice it has to be something within one’s power to achieve. Thought relates to deliberation and of opinions although not necessarily acted upon, as such it might be a deliberation about something unobtainable or erroneous. We might ask ourselves the question, ‘why these three’? Appetition is considered an impulse as it is an internal command to perform some action – eat, drink, breed. It is necessary for the survival of an animal and by extension the species. If we did not possess a reasoning faculty then we could end there. However, as we are, in Aristotle’s opinion, capable of rational thought we must add this to our motivations. This is the part of Aristotle’s argument that I find difficult, simply because I don’t agree with it. Anyway, we shall proceed and my criticism shall come later. Aristotle attributes deliberation to all humans exclusively. He breaks down this rational thought process into purposive choice and thought. In his own words, “Now even animals possess passion and desire, but they do not have purposive choice. But moreover purposive choice is not the same as wish either; for men wish for some things that they know to be impossible. So that this much is clear – a thing purposively chosen must necessarily be something that rests within oneself.” Curiously he then says this, “But if as we have said the voluntary must necessarily be one of three things – what is in conformity with appetition, or with purposive choice, or with thought, and if it is not the two former, it remains that voluntariness consists in acting with some kind of thought.” Now I had understood that ‘acting with some kind of thought’ was purposive choice. Is this thought external to the person in question? Then it would be someone else’s thought which coerces the person into action. For if the thought had originated within oneself it would be purposive choice. By process of elimination I would say that thought relates to opinion, but as some opinions cannot be acted on they register as thoughts, whereas those opinions that can be acted upon register as purposive choices. Anyway, let us proceed with caution.

Aristotle’s three subdivisions of appetition – wish, passion and desire

Aristotle begins by analysing desire and asking whether it is voluntary or involuntary. Immediately he starts out by calling desire voluntary, “It would seem that everything that conforms with desire is voluntary. For everything involuntary seems to be forced, and what is forced and everything that people do or suffer under necessity is painful. So that if a thing is painful it is forced and if a thing is forced it is painful (for desire is for what is pleasant), so that it forced and involuntary. Therefore, what conforms with desire is voluntary, for things contrary to and things in conformity with desire are opposite to one another.” This becomes an annoying habit of Aristotle’s as he asserts something to be true only to prove himself wrong later. And again, “For all that a man does voluntarily he wishes to do, and what he wishes to do he does voluntarily, but nobody wishes what he thinks to be bad. But yet the uncontrolled man does not do what he wishes, for being uncontrolled means acting against what one thinks to be the best owing to desire; hence it will come about that the same person is acting voluntarily and involuntarily at the same time. But this is impossible. It therefore follows that the same person will do the same action voluntarily and involuntarily at the same time.” The uncontrolled man is key to Aristotle’s ethics for anything that is forced is involuntary and thus cannot be called bad. By the theory of contradiction Aristotle proves that desire is involuntary. I would have said this, ‘Desire is involuntary because it arises from taste. No one freely chooses their tastes and no one can alter what they find to be pleasing. Therefore, desire is involuntary.’

Next comes passion, “The same argument applies also in the case of passion; for there appear to be control and lack of control of passion as well as of desire and what is contrary to passion is painful and restraint is a matter of force, so that if what is forced is involuntary, what is in accordance with passion will always be voluntary. And if it is impossible to do the same act voluntarily and involuntarily at the same time and in respect of the same part of the act, action guided by one’s wish is more voluntarily than action guided by desire or passion. And a proof of this is that we do many things voluntarily without anger or desire.” Again, by stating conflicting accounts of passion and comparing it to wish Aristotle arrives at the conclusion that passion is involuntary. Here I would say, ‘passion is an outward expression of an internal desire, as the desire is involuntary so too is the expression. A person is responding to a stimulus and has not freely chosen their response to this stimulus.’

Finally comes wish, “It remains, therefore, to consider whether acting as we wish and acting voluntarily are the same. This also seems impossible. For it is a fundamental assumption with us, and a general opinion, that wickedness makes men more unrighteous, and lack of self-control seems to be a sort of wickedness. But from the hypothesis that acting as we wish and acting voluntarily are the same the opposite will result; for nobody wishes that he thinks to be bad, yet he does them when he has become uncontrolled. Therefore it is clear that acting voluntarily does not mean acting in accordance with appetition nor acting involuntary acting in opposition to appetition.” I don’t understand why Aristotle feels the necessity to incorporate wish with appetition. I think desire and passion suffice. In my opinion wish requires a conscious action to influence the outcome in a favourable manner; i.e. if I do this then I will get that. That is a logical expression. A lot of problems here arise from Aristotle’s distinctions between animals and humans and our erroneous perceptions of animal behaviour. Animals can receive instructions, they can be influenced by other animals in their pack, they can deliberate as when a dog looks down from a table and decides whether it is a good idea to jump or not. Simply saying, “Now even animals possess passion and desire, but they do not have purposive choice” leads to errors in our own reasoning.

Further discourse on purposive choice which leads to moral goodness

Aristotle seeks to clarify what he actually means by purposive choice and how it differs from wish, desire, passion, and opinion. Once again he declares something to be true which he later refutes, “Also it is clear from the following considerations that voluntary action does not mean acting in accordance with purposive choice. It was proved that acting in accordance with one’s wish is not acting involuntary, but rather everything that one wishes is also voluntary – it has only been proved that it is possible to do a thing voluntarily without wishing; but many things that we wish we do suddenly, whereas nobody makes a purposive choice suddenly.” Now please consider, “But if as we have said the voluntary must necessarily be one of three things – what is in conformity with appetition, or with purposive choice, or with thought, and if it is not the two former, it remains that voluntariness consists in acting with some kind of thought.” Yet if wish is part of appetition and yet appetition is involuntary then how can wish be voluntary? Now please consider this next part, “Now that this is concluded, and as the voluntary has been found not to be defined by appetition, nor yet by purposive choice, it therefore remains to define it as that which is in accordance with thought.”

Ignorance is not voluntary. To count as voluntary an act must not be in ignorance and come through one’s power and agency, “It follows then that all the things that a man does not in ignorance, and through his own agency, when it is in his power not to do them, are voluntary acts, and it is in this that the voluntary consists; and all the things that he does in ignorance, and through being in ignorance, he does involuntarily.” This is the key consideration and Aristotle is determined to make some human characteristic fit with this description.

Aristotle now comes back to purposive choice, “Next let us speak about purposive choice, first raising various difficulties about it. For one might doubt to which class it naturally belongs and in what class it ought to be put, and whether the voluntary and the purposely chosen are different things or the same thing.”

First comes the separation from wish, desire and passion, “Now it is evident that it is not appetition; for in that case it would be either wish, or desire or passion, since nobody wants to get a thing without having experienced one of those feelings. Now even animals possess passion and desire, but they do not have purposive choice. But moreover purposive choice is not the same as wish either; for men wish for some things that they know to be impossible.” And next the separation from opinion, “And similarly it is manifest that purposive choice is not opinion either, nor something that one simply thinks; for we saw that a thing chosen is something in one’s own power. For no one purposively chooses any End, but the means to his End.”

Despite his previous assertion that purposive choice was involuntary he now reverses his opinion and makes it voluntary, “It is clear that purposive choice is deliberative appetiton of things within one’s power. For we deliberate about everything we choose, although of course we do not choose everything that we deliberate about. Consequently people who have no fixed aim are not given to deliberation. Hence inasmuch as if a man of his own accord and not through ignorance does or refrains from doing something resting within himself either to do or not to do, he acts or refrains from acting voluntarily, but yet we do many such things without deliberation or previous thought, it necessarily follows that, although all that has been purposively chosen is voluntary, ‘voluntary’ is not the same as ‘chosen’.”

This is important to Aristotle as his moral goodness depends on an individual choosing to act in accordance with the relative mean. Without this his entire system of ethics does not work. Please see the next section on moral goodness for further clarification.

Moral goodness

Aristotle next considers moral goodness to establish a connection with pleasure and pain.

If you will remember that, in Aristotle’s opinion, good produces happiness and happiness produces the best of all things, and as such man will act in accordance with reason to exercise good so that he may have the best of all things. Also notice that there is no duty associated with good itself for good is not the End. The End is the best of all things. So states Aristotle on moral goodness, “Then let it first be taken as granted that the best disposition is produced by the best means, and that the best actions in each department of conduct result from the excellences belonging to each department. Therefore goodness too is the sort of disposition that is created by the best movements in the spirit and is also the source of the productions of the spirit’s best actions and emotions; and it is in one way produced and in another way destroyed by the same things, and its employment of the things that cause both its increase and its destruction is directed towards the things towards which it creates the best disposition. And this is indicated by the fact that both goodness and badness have to do with things pleasant and painful; for punishments, which are medicines, and which as is the case with other cures operate by a means of opposites, operate by means of pleasures and pains.” Here Aristotle is suggesting that the best actions come from within oneself from the excellence one possesses in each department whether it be philosophy, leadership, athletics, etc… What is curious is Aristotle’s mention of destruction and his assertion that the good spirit is destroyed by the same things that created the best disposition (I read Aristotle’s term ‘destruction’ as ‘excess in a particular virtue’). Why this exists might seem strange as an excess of kindness amounts to charity, yet Aristotle takes offence to this. I suspect this is because Aristotle aims at the best of all things and simply sharing one’s abundance not only reduces the lot of a charitable man but falsely increases the stature of another.

What is important is Aristotle’s exhaustive definition of moral goodness, “It therefore follows that since moral goodness is itself a middle state and is entirely concerned with pleasures and pains, and badness consists in excess and defect and is concerned with the same thing as goodness, moral goodness or virtue is a state of purposively choosing the mean in relation to ourselves in all those pleasant and painful things in regard to which according as a person feels pleasure or pain he is described as having some particular moral quality.” This concludes Book 2 of the Eudemian Ethics.

Critique on Book 2

I am not satisfied with the Aristotle’s work on the voluntary and involuntary. I find the distinctions either lacking or contradictory and I find the conclusion to be clumsy. Entirely lacking from the analysis is what forms choice. How do men choose? Why do they choose? How are they in control of their interpretations? Why do some interpret differently to others? Are we responsible for errors in perception? How does the mind deduce appropriate behaviour? For Aristotle’s ethics to contain any validity he must prove that a man is a cause of his actions but he is yet to do this. I blame this on the distinctions he has made and his separation of human characteristics from animalistic behaviours. These distinctions being wish, passion, desire, purposive choice and thought. Even reason is driven by a sense of vanity, that is – a desire to interpret and impose reason on others. Philosophy, science and logic are all passions. No one would pursue and develop them if they weren’t. Doing so fills us with a sense of achievement and worth. By forcing others to accept our system of beliefs we are actually aiming for an ease of life which superiority bestows. Where other men use violence to assert their dominance, i.e. the justification for their being, we use intelligence as a means of coercion. We are driven to it by our passion. I will also say this, isolated men cannot gain respect from the pack as we are external to it. The only way we can achieve validity is through reason and by imposing this reason upon others so that they cannot legitimately claim dominion over us.

Relating to man as cause I shall quote Friedrich Nietzsche, “There is no error more dangerous than that of confusing consequence with the cause: I call it the real ruination of reason. We believed that we ourselves, in the act of willing, were causes: we thought that we were at least catching causality in the act.” Man is not cause, he is the effect of all that preceded him; his language, his culture, his environment, his genetics, his taste, his values. This he has no control over. He does not get to preside over the formation of his soul. Aristotle claims that man has agency over his acts. Tell me where this happened! Tell me where man got to choose himself!

In order to follow advice I must grant another being greater authority than I grant myself for even reason comes through man. What if I reject this? What if, after I have exposed the rationale behind his arguments, I call him a liar?

Review and Critique of Book 1 of the Eudemian Ethics

Aristotle’s discourse on ethics begins by asking what a good life is and how it may be obtained.

Book 1 of the Eudemian Ethics aims to establish the following;

  • The means by which people acquire happiness
  • The different states of happiness
  • How Aristotle will obtain a consensus on ethics
  • The aim and the practice of good
  • How the Absolute Good differs from the Form of good

Central to Book 1 is the concept of happiness. Aristotle begins by rejecting the inscription supposed at the Temple of Leto by the man at Delos. It read;

“Justice is the fairest and health is the best. But to win one’s desires is the pleasantest” 

Here the properties of fairest, best and pleasantness lie separate. Aristotle rejects this thesis by suggesting that “Happiness is at once the pleasantest, the fairest and the best of all things whatever.”

The means by which people acquire happiness

Aristotle attributes the acquisition of happiness to any of the five means listed below;

  • Nature (one’s disposition)
  • Study
  • Habitation
  • God
  • Fortune

Aristotle further states that “to be happy and to live blissfully and finely may consist chiefly in three things to be most desirable; Wisdom, Goodness and Pleasure.”

The question Aristotle poses must be considered as such – what is the proper conception of happiness? Does it reside in an individual possessing some particular quality as the old sages have maintained? Or is a particular quality of conduct more necessary? For, in Aristotle’s words, “If living finely depends on things that come by fortune or by nature, it would be beyond the hopes of many men, for then its attainment is not to be secured by effort, and does not rest with men themselves and is not a matter of their conduct. But if it consists in oneself and one’s own actions having a particular quality, the good will be more common and more divine – more common because it would be possible for more people to share it, and more divine because happiness would then be in store for those who made themselves and their actions of a particular quality.” It would seem that Aristotle is already convinced that happiness is attainable by all through a particular quality of action and not some stroke of fortune as he has assigned it a divine property.

The different states of happiness

Aristotle continues with his inquiry into happiness by describing the various modes of life and striking a distinction between necessity and happiness. “There are various different modes of life, and some do not lay any claim to well-being of the kind under consideration, but are pursued merely for the sake of things necessary – for instance the lives devoted to the vulgar and mechanical arts and those dealing with business. But on the other hand, the things related to the happy conduct of life being three… goodness, wisdom and pleasure.” He continues, “We see that there are also three ways of life in which those to whom fortune gives opportunity invariably choose to live, the life of politics, the life of philosophy, and the life of enjoyment. Of these the philosophic life denotes being concerned with the contemplation of truth, the political life means being concerned with honourable activities, and the life of enjoyment is concerned with the pleasures of the body.”

In his evaluation of ethics Aristotle has created a hierarchy of habits. Once man has freed himself from the burden of labour he may then pursue a virtuous life by living blissfully, happily and finely. If this is the End then what means are justified to obtain it? Can a man act rapaciously to secure an abundance of wealth which will later fund his happiness? By building virtue upon happiness Aristotle’s ethics are centred upon excess; whether it be an excess of time, wealth or longevity. Perhaps we may be gracious enough to offer Aristotle a way out. Perhaps an individual has inherited this excess through the labour of their parents. Yet this transfer of excess is part of a larger system of wealth extraction conducted to ‘sanctify’ any unlawful acquisition. Excess comes through exploitation; either of kindness, ignorance or cowardice. Simply put, Aristotle is too focused upon the End.

Aristotle continues to debate the different states of happiness by comparing individual tastes. “Owing to this, different people give the name of happy to different persons, as was said before too; and Anaxagoras of Clazomenae when asked ‘Who is the happiest man?’ said ‘None of those whom you think, but he would seem to you an odd sort of person.’ But Anaxagoras answered in that way because he saw that the man who put the question supposed it to be impossible to receive the appellation ‘happy’ without being great and beautiful or rich, whereas he himself perhaps thought that the person who humanly speaking enjoys bliss is he that lives by the standard of justice without pain and in purity, or participates in some form of divine contemplation.” The argument continues a little later in Book 1, “When asked why one should choose to come into existence rather than not, Anaxagoras replied ‘For the sake of contemplating the heavens and the whole order of the universe.’ Anaxagoras therefore thought that the alternative of being alive was valuable for some kind of knowledge; but those who ascribe bliss to Sardanapallus or Smindyrides of Sybaris or some of the others living the life of enjoyment, all appear to place their happiness in delight.”

How Aristotle will obtain a consensus on ethics

Aristotle’s proof of ethics consists of a consensus on the matter from all parties, “For the best thing would be if all mankind were seen to be in agreement with the views that will be stated, but failing that, at any rate that all should agree in some way.” Essential to his consensus is the use of observed facts, “And about all of these matters the endeavour must be made to seek to convince by means of rational arguments, using observed facts as evidence and examples.”

The aim and the practice of good

Aristotle frequently refers to ‘the End’ in his discourse of ethics. For Aristotle, one ought to have an aim against which his virtue can be measured. An aim, in Aristotle’s opinion, is a conscious and deliberate choice representing the ownership of action. “Everybody able to live according to his own purposive choice should set before him some object for noble living to aim at – either honour or else glory or wealth or culture – on which he will keep his eyes fixed in all his conduct (since clearly it is a mark of much folly not to have one’s life regulated with regard to some End), it is therefore most necessary first to decide with oneself, neither hastily nor carelessly, in which of the things that belong to us the good life consists, and what are the indispensable conditions for men’s possessing it.”

Aristotle surrounds virtue with an air of nobility. It is the ultimate goal of mankind and the responsibility of a rational man with the means to pursue it. By acting in accordance with all good things he will earn happiness for himself. This differs from our contemporary view of ethics in which every person is expected to fulfil a universal obligation in matters of virtue whereas Aristotle is adamant that the individual should set this aim themselves in accordance with what is attainable.

Aristotle’s ethics require more than a theoretical understanding of virtue, one must not simply aim for a knowledge of goodness but rather they must act upon it. This requires a practice that the Form of good cannot deliver (examined later). Aristotle considers Goodness and Wisdom to see if they themselves or the actions which spring from them are parts of a good life. “Accordingly Socrates the senior thought that the End is to get to know virtue, and he pursued an inquiry into the nature of justice and courage and each of the divisions of virtue. And this was a reasonable procedure, since he thought that all the virtues are forms of knowledge, so that knowing justice and being just must go together, for as soon as we have learnt geometry and architecture, we are architects and geometricians; owing to which he used to inquire what virtue is, but not how and from what sources it is produced. But although this does happen in the theoretical sciences, inasmuch as astronomy and natural science and geometry have no other End except to get to know and to contemplate the nature of things that are the subjects of the sciences, yet the End of the productive sciences is something different from science and knowledge, for example the End of medicine is health and that of political science ordered government or something of that sort, different from mere knowledge of the science. Although, therefore, it is fine to attain a knowledge of the various fine things, all the same nevertheless in the case of goodness it is not the knowledge of its essential nature that is most valuable but the ascertainment of the sources that produce it. For our aim is not to know what courage is but to be courageous, not to know what justice is but to be just.”

Given that Aristotle believes justice must be performed as well as studied one can be measured as to how far they deviate, either in success or failure, from the mean – that is, each person can be evaluated with regards to how well they have performed in achieving their aim. It may also be possible to deduce a person’s aim, if unstated, from their actions as it is much harder to deceive with actions than with words.

How the Absolute Good differs from the Form of good

Aristotle now revisits his inquiry into happiness by attempting to define the essential nature of happiness, i.e. what makes humanity unique is a connection to something divine (we may call this ‘abstraction’), “Now it is agreed that happiness is the greatest and the best of the human goods; since none of the other animals, which are inferior in nature to men, share in the designation ‘happy’, for a horse is not happy, nor is a bird nor a fish nor any other existing thing whose designation does not indicate that it possesses in its nature something divine.” and “It is clear that happiness must be set down as the best of the things practicable for a human being.” From this starting point Aristotle reviews the current system of Good, most notably professed by Plato.

Before we continue we must explain what is meant by the term ‘Form’ as expressed by Plato. Form denotes the permanent immaterial reality only perceptible by the mind. It is the perfect Form, or design, of an object that has been crudely assembled in the physical world. Let us be clearer, imagine you want to build an archway for an entrance to a temple. The idea of an archway exists before you physically construct it. The Form, the design, will always remain even after the archway crumbles and collapses. The physical archway may not even be as good as you imagined it would be, it will have imperfections and will never reflect the pure Form. Plato imagined that objects perceived by the senses were a corruption of their Form. Now let us continue with our review, “For it is said that the best of all things is the Absolute Good, and that the Absolute Good is that which has the attributes of being the first of the goods and of being by its presence the cause of the other goods of their being good; and both of these attributes, it is said, belong to the Form of good, since it is of that Form that goodness is most truly predicated.” For Aristotle the Form of good is “unchangeable and impractical”. Aristotle goes further to discredit the Form of good as it has no value to his practical philosophy, “But if we are to speak about it concisely, we say that in the first place to assert the existence of a Form not only of good but of anything else is an expression of logic and a mere abstraction; next, even granting that Forms and the Form of good exist in the fullest sense, surely this is of no practical value for the good life or for conduct.”

Now let us further define the Absolute Good so that we can appreciate a distinction between it and the Form of good. The best of all things is the Absolute Good, as we may say the Form of good is also. But Aristotle goes on to suggest that the Absolute Good in not universal as there is a multiplicity about it, “For instance opportunity and moderation in respect of food are studied by medicine and gymnastics, in respect of military operations by strategists, and similarly in respect of another pursuit by another science; so that it can hardly be the case that the Absolute Good is the subject of only one science.” And again, “For if justice is a good, and courage, there is then, they say, a Good-in-itself, so the term ‘in itself’ is added to the common definition. But what could this denote except that the good is eternal and separable?” Here the unity of good has not been proven as it contains many elements each particular to its own field. Here then Aristotle surmises, “But ‘good’ has many meanings, and there is a part of it that is beautiful, and one form of it is practicable but another is not. The sort of good that is practicable is that which an object is aimed at, but the good in things unchangeable is not practical. It is manifest, therefore, that the Absolute Good we are looking for is not the Form of good, nor yet the good as universal, for the Form is unchangeable and impractical, and the universal good though changeable is not practicable. But the object aimed at as End is the chief good, and is the cause of the subordinate goods and first of all; so that the Absolute Good would be this – the End of goods practicable for man.”

The key difference between Plato’s Form of good and Aristotle’s definition of Absolute Good is that the latter provides practical value for the good life and for conduct and the End is defined by action rather than contemplation.

Finally, Aristotle reaffirms the importance of the End by declaring, “And that the End stands as a causal relation to the means subordinate to it is shown by the methods of the teachers; they prove that the various means are each good by first defining the End, because the End aimed at is the cause.”

Yet, if the Form is merely an abstraction and human happiness is distinct because it possesses something divine, namely an ability to abstract, then what is Aristotle even aiming at? His End must be something that is possible to obtain but how does this grant legitimacy to virtue? The End arises from the cause following deliberation but this does not give ethics a transcendental quality. In effect, one can only do what is possible to him. How are we to determine what another person is capable of if we do not have a truthful account of his disposition? We shall see if Aristotle establishes this legitimacy in his following Books.

Critique of Book 1

Aristotle separates men from animals with the term ‘inferiority’. Animals, being inferior to men, cannot attain the happiness of man and so cannot enjoy the best of all things. Yet what happens if we extend this inferiority to other men? Are they expected to follow our reason and attain nobility? Do they possess the making of it? Or are we to excuse them based upon the deficiencies that they possess? Whether it be flawed character, ignorance of virtue or not having acquired the level of excess that Aristotle demands. The benefit of the Form of good is that at the very least it creates a universal doctrine which lends itself to legitimacy. Even if people cannot perform it they will be held to account by its standard.

Introduction to Our Review of Ethics

Has Man lived in error to his reason? Has he been fooled into submission and righteousness? When the torch of liberty is lit how many will turn to see what they should have already been facing? Let us begin at our roots; let us claw, scratch and dig. Let us see how true our foundations stand in light of this new mutiny. Let us re-examine what the will has dared to question. Then let us begin with that exhaustive account of Greek ethics, both the Eudemian Ethics and the Nicomachean Ethics, and their author – the great Aristotle. Let us see what ground our virtue has been built upon.

What follows is a review and critique of the various works of the great ethical philosophers, namely Aristotle, Kant, Bentham, Mill and Rawls. We shall also consult the scriptures on matters of equality. The first piece of work to be reviewed is the eight Books of the Eudemian Ethics attributed to Aristotle. All text enclosed in “” and highlighted in italics is taken directly from the works in question.

On Regret

To the apologists amongst us; what offence have we ultimately committed? There is much that resists Man’s brashness, his outward actions. Are we to also induce regret in such beings and demand that they rescind such behaviour? Does his threat undermine our valuations so much that we must scold him for it? I would say that there exists much femininity in reprimand, a desire to install shame in otherwise adventurous characters. And yet how many men have bowed simply to impress? That shame is a system to reduce any wilful occurrence to an offensive gesture. If drawn to its conclusion these apologists seek a great taming of disorder. And what would we have in its place? Boredom? Obedience? That, my friends, is far too heavy a price.