NOTE: This commentary (combined with the one on Kant) also covers the following aspect of the Edexcel syllabus:
A comparison of the work of Immanuel Kant and Aristotle with regard to Deontology and Virtue Ethics respectively.
NOTE: Copyright issues may come into play at this point. So what you will find below are the FIRST and LAST couple of sentences of the section that is commented on followed by the commentary itself. If anyone finds this commentary useful, feel free to cut and paste the text of The Nicomachean Ethics and combine it with these notes.
The full extract can be found HERE
The following extract from Bryan Magee’s Confessions of a Philosopher should prepare you for what you are about to read and provide a context from which to approach Aristotle.
“The works that Aristotle prepared for publication were praised throughout antiquity for their superlative beauty of style. Cicero described his writing as ‘a river of gold.’ Tragically, none of it survives. All we have of Aristotle is what was written up from his lecture notes, either by him or by his pupils who attended the lectures and passed their notes round. References in ancient literature to him and his published writings are so numerous that we have quite a lot of knowledge about what has been lost, and the calculation is that what we possess represents something like a fifth of his total output. It fills twelve volumes, and ranges over the whole of what was then human knowledge…Alas, the fact that it consists of written up lecture notes makes it stodgy reading, so it tends to be read only by students and scholars. Whereas one can imagine an intelligent person reading Plato for pleasure, it is difficult to imagine that sort of reading of Aristotle – or Kant. These last two are heavy going, and have to be worked at, indeed worked at hard, if they are to yield rewards. Students read Aristotle or Kant if they have to, or as part of a university course, but apart from them only the most dedicated lovers of philosophy are likely to read their works. This fact makes me feel forlorn, because it means that what are by any serious reckoning two of the four or five greatest philosophers of all time are never read by most intelligent or well-educated people, and never become part of their mental furniture. I am realistic enough not to expect this to change, but it makes me sad.”
Now on to Aristotle himself.
Virtue, then, being of two kinds, intellectual and moral, intellectual virtue in the main owes both its birth and its growth to teaching (for which reason it requires experience and time), while moral virtue comes about as a result of habit, whence also its name (ēthikē) is one that is formed by a slight variation from the word ethos (habit)…..It makes no small difference, then, whether we form habits of one kind or of another from our very youth; it makes a very great difference, or rather all the difference.
The key point here is that the virtues are learned. They are not innate. We are not born with, say, the virtue of courage or the vice of cowardice. If we were, we may not be in a position to change and develop morally.
Aristotle also identifies two kinds of virtue: intellectual and moral. We learn intellectual virtues by instruction (e.g. from teachers/parents), and we learn moral virtues by habit and constant practice. We are all born with the potential to be morally virtuous, but it is only by behaving in the right way that we train ourselves to be virtuous. As a musician learns to play an instrument, we learn virtue through practice. Virtuousness is therefore a skill acquired through the cultivation of the right moral habits.
But though our present account is of this nature we must give what help we can. First, then, let us consider this, that it is the nature of such things to be destroyed by defect and excess, as we see in the case of strength and of health (for to gain light on things imperceptible we must use the evidence of sensible things); exercise either excessive or defective destroys the strength, and similarly drink or food which is above or below a certain amount destroys the health, while that which is proportionate both produces and increases and preserves it. So too is it, then, in the case of temperance and courage and the other virtues. For the man who flies from and fears everything and does not stand his ground against anything becomes a coward, and the man who fears nothing at all but goes to meet every danger becomes rash; and similarly the man who indulges in every pleasure and abstains from none becomes self-indulgent, while the man who shuns every pleasure, as boors do, becomes in a way insensible; temperance and courage, then, are destroyed by excess and defect, and preserved by the mean.
NOTE: I have quoted the entire paragraph above rather than the first and last sentences.
Temperance and courage are two of the four ‘cardinal’ or most important virtues identified by Plato. Plato (428 to 348 BCE) was a major influence on Aristotle (384 to 322 BCE), though Aristotle’s philosophy differs significantly from that of his teacher.
The other two are prudence and justice. These virtues are also often translated as wisdom, fairness, restraint (also called moderation) and fortitude.
Plato explains all four virtues in his works Republic and Protagoras. Prudence is a person’s ability to judge his own actions as appropriate or inappropriate. Justice is the ability to act with fairness and without bias toward others. Temperance is the ability to act with moderation and self-control. Courage refers to emotional strength and a person’s ability to confront his fears. These virtues were later adopted by St. Augustine as the four cardinal virtues of Christianity.
In the second part of this section, Aristotle begins to sketch out his ideas about avoiding vices of deficiency and excess, using the examples of cowardice, rashness and courage (and self-indulgence, self-denial and temperance). The doctrine of the mean also gets a mention. It is therefore possible that you might be required to comment on this section but Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean is explained in more detail below.
We must take as a sign of states of character the pleasure or pain that supervenes upon acts; for the man who abstains from bodily pleasures and delights in this very fact is temperate, while the man who is annoyed at it is self-indulgent, and he who stands his ground against things that are terrible and delights in this or at least is not pained is brave, while the man who is pained is a coward…..That virtue, then, is concerned with pleasures and pains, and that by the acts from which it arises it is both increased and, if they are done differently, destroyed, and that the acts from which it arose are those in which it actualizes itself – let this be taken as said.
To understand this section, you need to think like Bentham. Bentham, you may recall, wrote that human beings are naturally driven to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Sensations of pleasure and pain constantly ‘supervene’ (arise in response to) our everyday experience.
Pleasure and pain are therefore the sensations we experience in response to whatever happens to us in life e.g. splitting up with a cherished boyfriend/girlfriend tends to make us feel the painful emotion of sadness, while the beginning of a new romance causes us to feel sensations of intense pleasure.
For Aristotle, it is how we react to these feelings/emotions that matters. Hedonistic types of people tend to crave for further pleasurable sensations and over-indulge (think of binge drinkers), while more neurotic people may avoid situations that cause them to feel painful sensations e.g. someone with a fear of heights may avoid rollercoasters.
A virtuous person is therefore one who manages the sensations of pleasure and pain that arise in them appropriately. They do not allow themselves to get carried away by, say, anger or fear, to the extent that these powerful feelings prevent them from acting appropriately.
Aristotle and Kant Compared and Contrasted Part 2
This passage is, as you have seen, a tricky one. However, properly understood, it will also allow us to consider in more detail an important difference between Aristotle and Kant.
For Aristotle, emotions combine feelings of pleasure or pain with beliefs. Fear, for example, combines a painful feeling with the thought that something bad is happening or is about to happen. This combination is not casual: the pain is pain at the thought of that danger. Therefore, changes in belief will change emotions, and Aristotle argues that the virtuous person is one who has attained balance and appropriateness in emotion as well as action e.g. a person who completely lacked anger at an insult to a loved one, for example, would be deficient in virtue but so would someone who responded with excessive anger or rage (think of a member of the Mafia reacting to insults with ultra-violence).
Aristotle would probably find someone who has successfully overcome a fear or phobia (e.g. of heights or spiders) to be virtuous. He would also probably have approved of individuals who successfully complete courses in anger management. In these instances a person has learned to manage their emotions successfully and to respond in a balanced and appropriate manner to situations which provoke them.
Actions, then, are called just and temperate when they are such as the just or the temperate man would do; but it is not the man who does these that is just and temperate, but the man who also does them as just and temperate men do them. It is well said, then, that it is by doing just acts that the just man is produced, and by doing temperate acts the temperate man; without doing these no one would have even a prospect of becoming good.
There is a small chance that you may get this section to comment on. If so, you can write about how Aristotle’s system of virtue ethics is agent rather than act-centered. It is not just about doing the right thing or judging people purely on what they do (as is the case with Kantian ethics). It is about becoming a certain kind of person who is to be admired for their virtuous qualities.
An ethical or ‘good’ action is therefore one which is performed by someone already in possession of the relevant virtues, in this case justice and temperance, or someone who is striving to cultivate these virtues. A person is to be judged not on their actions but on the kind of person they are. Aristotle would not say, ‘The thing you just did was morally wrong’. Instead, he would say, ‘That’s the kind of thing a virtuous person would do.’ The phrase, ‘…the man who also does them as just and temperate men do them’ also suggests that role models are important for Aristotle. Someone striving to be a just or temperate person should try to imitate those who already possess and exhibit these virtues. This, in turn, reveals that the virtues cannot be acquired in isolation, but only through participation in the polis or society of which one is a member.
Next we must consider what virtue is. Since things that are found in the soul are of three kinds – passions, capacities, states of character – virtue must be one of these…..Thus we have stated what virtue is in respect of its genus.
What Aristotle is doing here is distinguishing what virtues and vices are. And we have already seen that they are to do with how we react to the arising in us of sensations of pleasure and pain and their attendant emotions. So whatever virtues we possess are separate from these things. If they were not, we would then be unable to choose how we respond to them in order to manage these ‘passions’ effectively.
The virtues and vices are also not the mere ‘capacities’ we have to act in a certain way. Just because we have a natural ability to feel passionate or emotional about certain things does not mean that we are judged morally on this ability. Again, it is how we respond to this feature of our humanity that matters and that opens up the possibility for moral judgements to be made about us. It is the end product of our attempt to deal with the ‘passions’, the ‘states of character’ that result from this process, the kind of person that we are at that point, that opens us up to being considered a virtuous person or someone lacking in virtuous qualities.
For example, someone who has successfully overcome ‘road rage’ if they are a driver, and no longer loses their temper when others drive in an incompetent or dangerous manner, might be considered virtuously ‘temperate’ by Aristotle.
There is one last point.
Aristotle Compared and Contrasted with Kant Part 3
Kant basically argues that whatever else may be going on with us never prevents us from acting rationally. So there are no excuses for not doing our duty and acting morally.
Similarly, Aristotle seems to be suggesting here that although we are deeply affected by powerful feelings of pleasure and pain, we can still choose how we respond to these feelings. So both Kant and Aristotle are arguing, in different ways, that human beings always have the freedom of choice to act morally. This means in turn that we can be held accountable for the moral decisions we make.
However, there is one other, major difference between Aristotle and Kant that I have saved until the end because it is the most important one.
For Aristotle, being virtuous is actually pleasurable. This is what is meant by the term eudaimonia: a person in possession of the virtues can enjoy being in possession of and exhibiting them.
However, Kant insists that being moral has nothing to do with enjoyment. It’s not that Kant wants you to find doing your duty unpleasant.; that would be rather perverse. But for Kant, if you help a little old lady across the street because you take pleasure in the act, this doesn’t count as a properly moral act. In a way, you’re just lucky. You just happen to be a person who likes helping old ladies rather than someone who likes stealing their purses. The right reason for helping the old lady is because that is your rational duty. Any enjoyment you take in doing this good deed is morally irrelevant, even though it is a nice bonus.
We must, however, not only describe virtue as a state of character, but also say what sort of state it is. We may remark, then, that every virtue or excellence both brings into good condition the thing of which it is the excellence and makes the work of that thing be done well; e.g. the excellence of the eye makes both the eye and its work good; for it is by the excellence of the eye that we see well. Similarly, the excellence of the horse makes a horse both good in itself and good at running and at carrying its rider and at awaiting the attack of the enemy. Therefore, if this is true in every case, the virtue of man also will be the state of character which makes a man good and which makes him do his own work well.
Virtue, then, is a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean, i.e. the mean relative to us, this being determined by reason, and by that reason by which the man of practical wisdom would determine it. Now it is a mean between two vices, that which depends on excess and that which depends on defect; and again it is a mean because the vices respectively fall short of or exceed what is right in both passions and actions, while virtue both finds and chooses that which is intermediate. Hence in respect of what it is, i.e. the definition which states its essence, virtue is a mean, with regard to what is best and right an extreme.
The second paragraph (this section has been quoted in full) is, I think, the most likely passage that the examiners might select for you to comment on. Fortunately, this section of The Nicomachean Ethics is quite straightforward to understand.
First of all, we should remember that Aristotle was concerned first and foremost with identifying the purpose of whatever it is that we happen to be studying. When it comes to a human being, our purpose is to reach a state of eudaimonia (happiness/well-being). This is the ‘state of character’ that we should aim for and it is achieved through the acquisition of the intellectual and moral virtues. The latter involves both the cultivation and use of phronesis (‘practical wisdom’) in such a manner that the relevant virtues are perfected. For example, someone who has fully developed the virtue of courage might be said to exhibit the excellence or arête of this virtue in their behaviour whenever it is called for.
As Aristotle puts it in the first paragraph, a person is made virtuous by through the acquisition of the virtues and this, in turn, guarantees that their actions will be virtuous too. In whatever situation they are in, their response in terms of phronesis will always be appropriate. They will end up doing the right thing in the right way. This is what Aristotle is getting at when he mentions the examples of the eye and the horse.
Aristotle then illustrates what he means by describing his doctrine of the mean. Aristotle realised that human behaviour is made up of extremes which he called vices of excess and vices of deficiency. Aristotle argued that the best course of action falls between the two and that this is the virtue. For example, if courage is the virtue, then cowardice is the vice of deficiency and foolhardiness or rashness is the vice of excess. So the virtue of courage lies at the mean or middle between these vices. Similarly, when it comes to the spending of money on oneself and others, the vice of deficiency would be stinginess, the vice of excess would be extravagance, and the ‘golden mean’ would be appropriate generosity. In this way, we can see that virtues are desire-regulating character traits that fall at some mid-point between extremes.
Note that Aristotle also mentions ‘the mean relative to us’. You may remember that Aristotle himself distinguishes two senses of the mean. On the one hand, there is what he called the mean in relation to the thing, and on the other the mean in relation to us. The mean in relation to the thing would be the mid-point between two extremes. For example, on a night out at a pub with friends, sobriety lies at one extreme and drunkenness at the other. So the mean in relation to the thing might be simply to drink alcohol in moderation.
However, the mean in relation to us is more specific. For example, if one of the group is going to be driving everyone else home, they would be acting recklessly if they drank alcohol. So the mean in relation to us entails that they should stick to non-alcoholic drinks. Similarly, if a member of the group is a Muslim, virtuous behaviour in their case would again involve drinking no alcohol, as this is a requirement of the Muslim faith. Again, if one of the group is a woman who may have to make her own way home at the end of the evening, the mean in relation to her would involve not drinking excessively in order to avoid putting her personal safety at risk. Finally, if two members of the group are close friends and one of them has just split up with a longstanding partner, they may actually want to get drunk. Their sympathetic friend might then calculate that the mean in relation to themselves entails that they should commiserate with their friend by drinking a lot too.
NOTE: my explanation here is a bit too long. In an examination, a mention of two of the four examples should be enough.
But not every action nor every passion admits of a mean; for some have names that already imply badness, e.g. spite, shamelessness, envy, and in the case ofactions, adultery, theft, murder; for all of these and suchlike things imply by their names that they are themselves bad, and not the excesses or deficiencies of them……But as there is no excess and deficiency of temperance and courage because what is intermediate is in a sense an extreme, so too of the actions we have mentioned there is no mean nor any excess and deficiency, but however they are done they are wrong; for in general there is neither a mean of excess and deficiency, nor excess and deficiency of a mean.
This last section is interesting because Aristotle seems to be suggesting that certain vices (e.g. shamelessness, envy) and actions (e.g. adultery, murder) must, as he puts it, ‘always be wrong’.
There is some ammunition here for deontological critics of Aristotle: if certain actions make a person bad, then ethics is surely about identifying which actions these are and then avoiding them. So ethics is not about becoming virtuous at all.
This is the kind of criticism a Kantian might make, or a follower of Natural Law theory or Divine Command ethics. A follower of a teleological theory like Utilitarianism might point out that Aristotle may not be taking into account exceptional situations when murder or adultery might be good, for example, murder in self-defence might be considered good. And if someone is trapped in a loveless or even abusive marriage but does not want, at this stage, to embark on an acrimonious divorce, can we condemn them for having an affair (especially if there are children involved)?
When revising, make sure you know all the non-English terms that Aristotle uses: arête, polis, phronesis and Eudaimonia.
Make sure that you also know the specific strengths and weaknesses of Aristotle and Kant, as you might get asked about them in relation to the two anthology extracts.