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ARISTOTLE: Background. PLATO: The forms [ patterns or ideals ] are not this world and can only be known through a process of education – Thus morality is based on the highest knowledge available only to a few.

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aristotle background
ARISTOTLE: Background

PLATO: The forms [patterns or ideals] are not this world and can only be known through a process of education –

  • Thus morality is based on the highest knowledge available only to a few.

ARISTOTLE: The “forms” [or patterns] that enable us to understand objects don’t exist apart from particular objects.

  • Thus morality is not based on a "good" independent of experience, but on experience itself.
aristotle what he asks

Aristotle asks: What do people desire? He says we desire an end that is: self-sufficient, final, attainable

  • According to Aristotle this end can only be HAPPINESS.
  • And happiness can only be explained in terms of our capacity for reason.
how aristotle classifies knowledge human activities
How ARISTOTLE Classifies Knowledge & Human Activities

Theoretical Sciences -- include Metaphysics, Physics and Mathematics

Productive /Practical Sciences -- are those where reason serves human beings.

  • Productive Sciences -- involve "know-how" and cover many crafts, including art.
  • Practical Science or ETHICS -- Here humans are AGENTS rather than producers.
    • The "end" of the “Practical Science is not a product, but the living of a certain kind of life.
aristotle s starting assumptions
Aristotle’s Starting Assumptions

Every activity has its proper end at which it aims. ["end in itself"]

Politics is the "master art" -- why? Who should practice it? Contemporary relevance?

Different ”Sciences" will have different levels of precision.

  • Ethics, dealing with opinions, will not have the same kind of precision as mathematics.
  • The best judge of the appropriate precision is a person educated in that subject.
happiness is the aim of human existence
Happiness is the aim of Human Existence

Aristotle thought that there was agreement among people that the ultimate human good is happiness.

Why? [what is Aristotle assuming about human interests?

  • It is FINAL [is that for which everything else is done]
  • It is SELF-SUFFICIENT [by itself it makes life desirable]
  • It is ACHIEVABLE BY ACTION [attainable]
aristotle s definition of happiness
Aristotle’s Definition of Happiness

The "function of man" is an activity of the soul that follows a rational principle.

Aristotle’s definition relies on his analysis of the soul and the Greek definition of virtue

  • VIRTUE is the appropriate excellence for an activity -- What that activity aims at. [ virtue =being good at ____ for the Greeks]
  • Thus HAPPINESS [as the goal or "excellence" of human life] is "activity of the soul in accord with virtue"
reason the human soul and virtue
Reason, the Human Soul and Virtue

The human soul has two elements.

  • Rational [grasps a rule or principle]
  • Irrational

The rational part has two functions

  • The exercise of reason for its own sake.
  • The control of the irrational part

2 kinds of virtue parallel the functions of reason.

  • Intellectual Virtues: consist of instruction & knowledge - the "virtues of intellect"
  • Moral Virtues: consist of practical actions & habits of choice. - the "virtues of character"
aristotle argues that virtue is a state of character involving the mean
Aristotle argues that Virtue is a “State of Character” involving the "Mean"

According to Aristotle the human personality has three elements:

  • Passions
  • Faculties
  • States of character.

The passions and faculties [abilities] are not blameworthy or praiseworthy in themselves

Thus Virtue must be a state of character.

  • Virtue makes a man good
  • Virtue makes him do his own work well.
aristotle argues that virtue is a state of character involving the mean1
Aristotle argues that Virtue is a “State of Character” involving the "Mean"
  • Every activity has an excess and a defect.
    • The master of an art avoids the extremes
    • BUT the "mean" or balance is relative to each of us
  • In summary: virtue is a state of character, lying in a meanrelative to us, which is determined by a rational principle.
examples of virtues and the mean
Examples of Virtues and the "Mean"

ExcessMean Defect

rashnesscourage cowardliness

vanity proper prideundue humility


the two kinds of intellectual virtue
The Two Kinds of Intellectual Virtue

Practical Wisdom: [deals withvariable things]. Here the reasoning must be true and the desire right if the choice is to be good

Philosophical Wisdom: [deals with invariable things] Contemplative in nature. Not practical nor productive.

The origin ofMoral Actionis in CHOICE.

  • Choice cannot exist without reason or intellect, or without a moral state of character.
  • Good actioncannot exist without intellect and character.
aristotle believes that philosophic wisdom is superior because
Aristotle believes that Philosophic Wisdom is superior because

The activity of reason offers pleasures that are:

  • Pure and enduring
  • Self-sufficient.
  • Are leisurely.


Question: Is this a life that humans can aspire to?

the ethics of character
The Ethics of Character

The example of Le Chambon:

  • Their goodness is not Kantian or utilitarian. It came from the kind of people they were.

For Aristotle the question isn’t “How should I act?”, but “What kind of a person should I be?”

  • This is a focus on CHARACTER rather than ACTION
  • Aristotle argues that in ethics we need good PERSONS as well as good ACTIONS
the clash between duty inclination
The Clash between Duty & Inclination

We can understand Aristotle as an attempt to reconcile duty & inclination/reason & emotion

  • This is unlike Kant where the divide between reason & emotion is a key element of his ethical theory.

Aristotle makes a distinction between a temperate & a continent person.

  • The temperate person does what is right because they WANT to [from the heart]
  • The continent person does what is right, but doesn’t necessarily want to. [from the head]
kant utilitarianism
Kant & Utilitarianism

Both Kant’s ethics and Utilitarianism maintain the split between head & heart.


  • The moral person is close to the “continent” person.


  • Motives aren’t a factor in the “hedonic calculus.”
  • And everyone’s emotions count equally.
  • If anything OUR emotions are given less weight.
text the structure of virtues i
TEXT: The Structure of Virtues I

According to Aristotle virtue is

  • a habit or disposition of the soul [not inborn, but acquired]
  • involving both feeling and action [not only action, but certain kinds of feelings]
  • to seek the mean in all things relative to us
  • where the mean is defined through reason as the prudent man would define it. [this reflects the need for both principles and persons]
text aristotle on virtue ii
TEXT: Aristotle on Virtue II

In Aristotle’s discussion of virtue the emphasis is on CHARACTER [as a result of habits of behavior and perception], rather than individual actions

  • He asks what life with or without a certain virtue‘s mean, excess or defect would be like?
two virtues courage compassion
Two Virtues: Courage & Compassion

COURAGE: A lack of courage can interfere with reaching our goals.

  • Courage rests on “rightly ordering” our fears & an accurate assessment of risk as well as “proper confidence.”
two virtues courage compassion1
Two Virtues: Courage & Compassion

COMPASSION: Compassion is part of recognizing the suffering of others as suffering.

Compassion always involves the desire to do something. [whether possible or not]

Compassion involves “moral imagination”

  • Compassion takes us beyond the rules.
  • Yet we still need good judgment.

Compassion implies moral equality/pity implies inequality.

the virtue of self love
The Virtue of “Self-Love”

Love, whether of self or other, wants to see the object of the love flourish.

  • Self-love involves both feelings and behaving/ acting towards ourselves in certain ways as well as self-knowledge
  • Love is not unconditionally positive -- it involves doing what you need to do to flourish.

The excess [arrogance, conceit etc.] and deficiency [self-deprecation, self-effacing etc…] interfere with your flourishing.

  • Proper self-love is very important in friendship.
how does practical wisdom work
How does “Practical Wisdom” work?

Practical Wisdom involves “the reflective and affective application of a general disposition to right action of some kind.” [huh?]

Translation:A particular virtue [that is part of your moral character] and your conception of the “good life” come together in a certain situation guiding you to form a judgment[practical wisdom] about what you should do.

in closing
In Closing …

Aristotle says you can’t have one virtue without the others - there is a reciprocity.

  • This is because virtues are connected both with practical wisdom and with human flourishing.

Finally: An ethics of character helps other moral theories apply rules sensitively and, through practical wisdom, is able to balance the competing claims of utility & rights etc.