Lecture on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics


[The following is the text of a lecture delivered, in part, in Liberal Studies 301, on November 18, 1997, by Ian Johnston at Malaspina College (now Vancouver Island University). This document is in the Public Domain, and may be used by anyone, in whole or in part, without permission and without charge, provided the source is acknowledged, released November 1997; revised slightly in April 2014

[A Ukrainian translation of an earlier draft of this lecture is available here]


All lectures on Aristotle customarily begin by apologizing for the difficulty in the prose, pointing out that this problem is, in large part, due to the fact that Aristotle did not prepare the text for publication. The existing text (it is assumed) is the result of editors dealing with lecture notes, or, as one philosopher has put it, with notes pulled out of the waste paper basket. Whatever the reason, reading Aristotle, whose style in his finished pieces was admired in antiquity, is often difficult because there appears to be much confusion with the sequence of the argument, the digressions, many puzzling contradictions and grammatical obscurities, and other rather obvious questions left unexplored or dealt with very cryptically. So if you’re finding many passages in the Ethics a hard read, well, you’re not alone.

The main problem, as Jonathan Barnes, a well-known modern Aristotle scholar points out, is that reacting to Aristotle’s views is often difficult, since we first have to reconstruct them and establish what we think he meant. And there is by no means secure agreement about every detail of such a project. If it’s any consolation, the Ethics is widely regarded as one of the most accessible of all Aristotle’s philosophical writings. And, in a sense, if we pay careful attention to what Aristotle is saying in Book I, the major points in the argument are not too difficult to follow, and we can derive many useful and coherent ideas from Aristotle’s reflections. In fact, I want to make the case that a good deal of what Aristotle is saying in this text answers to our commonsense notions of how we should deal with ethical questions and an education in moral awareness and right conduct.

What I propose to do in this lecture is to outline, as best I can, Aristotle’s central argument in the Ethics and to explore rather tentatively why he holds up this particular view of human moral conduct and what some of the consequences of this view might be. I shall attempt to steer clear, as much as possible, of most of the continuing philosophical arguments concerning the interpretation of particularly difficult sections (which I am not really qualified to dissect anyway). And I shall be largely skipping over some interesting and important matters which arise from the main argument (e.g., Aristotle’s analysis of voluntary and involuntary action and the sections of friendship, among others).

My main contention here, as I have indicated briefly, is that Aristotle’s great value as a moral philosopher and the main reason for the lasting importance of his reflections on morality is that he offers us a workable and intelligible framework for sorting out how we should think about living our livesa version that in many ways fits our commonsense notions and is thus more closely in tune with our common experience than many other alternative visions of how human beings ought to live.



Aristotle’s central concern in the Ethics is much the same as Plato’s in the Republic: What objective grounds do we have for arguing that there is a way of evaluating moral life so as to counter the skepticism of the sophists, including the view of Thrasymachus that justice is merely the interest of the strong in society who create laws and moral systems to provide a conventional justification for their own self-interest? Plato, you will recall, offered at least three answers to that problem: first, that people were naturally divided into different areas of excellence and that there were thus some naturally gifted to rule on moral questions (provided they received an appropriate education), second, that there existed absolute moral truths, in the Forms, which were accessible to a few people, and, thirdly, the Myth of Er, which provides a fictional vision of the afterlife. Aristotle, as we shall see, rejects or ignores these Platonic answers to the challenge of the sophists, in order to create his own response. But it’s important to recognize that his task is similar: he wants to find sure grounds on which to base the moral life.

The similarity in purpose between Aristotle and Plato is worth stressing. Many commentators will emphasize the differences between the two thinkers (which are certainly significant), but, as we shall see, in many key respects their concerns and their response to the ethical problems of the time are very close indeed. Indeed, some have argued that we can see Aristotle’s Ethics as a continuation of Plato’s Republic, an attempt to resolve one basic problem left to us by that famous dialogue: either one must find a transcendent, objective reality of pure goodness (the Form of the Good) radically separated from the imperfect sensible world, or one must concede moral enquiry to the sophists and relativists. Aristotle is no more willing than Plato is to surrender the argument, but he wants to put ethical evaluations and enquiry into ethical matters on a different footing, one that does not require the appeal to things like the theory of forms but that grounds moral arguments in our practical experience.



Before looking at the details of Aristotle’s main argument, we must pay careful attention to his opening assumptions, the introductory remarks he makes in Book I about the nature of his enquiry. For much of what follows comes clearly enough from these starting points.

First, Aristotle stresses that a study of ethics, that is, a study of the character of human beings (which is what the words Ta Ethika mean) rests, as do all enquiries into how human beings are to behave, on a particular understanding of what a human being is. In one of his most oft-quoted remarks, the importance of which one cannot overestimate, Aristotle gives the key point: “We do not mean a man who lives his life in isolation, but a man who also lives with parents, children, a wife, and friends and fellow citizens generally, since man is by nature a social and political being” (1097b). Human beings, in other words, derive their identitytheir sense of selfand thus their moral purposes from their participation in an existing community, the world of parents, ancestors, friends, customs, institutions, and laws. In a tradition that goes back at least as far as Homer, Aristotle has no room for the notion that there is an individual existence prior to or independent of the community. Thus, whatever ethical enquiry involves, it must take into account the essential social and political basis of human life.

Aristotle makes no attempt to argue this fundamental point; he simply takes it as self-evident (as it would be for any one of his contemporaries). Thus, the study of what makes a particular person good is, as Aristotle repeatedly observes, really an introduction to and inextricably a part of the more important discussion of what makes the community, the polis, good. His moral theory is, to use Oakeshott’s phrase, firmly a morality of community (rather than, say, seeing human life as a self-defining activity which goes on independent or in defiance of the community). Aristotle’s emphasis on this point is clearly stronger than Plato’s in the Republic, for the latter suggests that in his view justice in the individual is independent of and antecedent to justice in the polis (even though Plato assumes human beings will, indeed must, live in communities).

To introduce an analogy to which I shall return from time to time, one might say that Aristotle sees the individual as inevitably part of a teama large and complex but clearly identifiable group of team members of all sorts of capabilities, an environment which shapes the purposes and value of that individual life in relation to other members of the team community and to the team as an overall unity. And just as a team player, in a sense, has no identity or purpose without a team in which he or she can participate as a fully integrated member, so the human being has no complete identity or purpose without the polis to which he or she belongs.

Now, it’s clear that if we are interested in having excellent teams, a good place to start is with the question: How can the individual become an excellent team player? In other words, we might start with a study of the particular conduct of individuals, even though our major goal is to achieve an understanding of the entire team. And so it is for Aristotle. For him the study of ethics, how individuals can become excellent or can evaluate excellence, is a necessary preliminary to the study of politics. Note that the last sentence of the Ethics reads as follows: “So let us begin our discussion” (1181b). In other words, now that we have dealt with the necessary preliminary topic of ethics, let us move to our major interest, politics.

It’s important to notice, if we pursue this analogy, that wanting to study excellence in team play does not mean that I have to deal with teams which all play the same game or abide by the same rules. Aristotle is quite aware of cultural differences. But he believes that, if we examine carefully how these apparently different games proceed and what constitutes excellence in the different games, we will be able to come up with some general principles about team excellence itself. In other words, by studying different manifestations of games as they are played in the sensible world, we can discover some important universal principles which govern excellence in all games.

It is vital to grasp this point. Aristotle does not deny the obvious point that different communities live by different rules and have different standards of ethical conduct. But he claims that if we study what constitutes effective community membership (or, to use my analogy, excellent team play) we can come to an understanding of moral excellence in any community, no matter what its basic rules may be (just as if we study what constitutes excellence in, say, hockey, football, and rugby, we can come to an understanding of standards of excellence which apply to them all, regardless of the different rules of each game).

The second important opening observation Aristotle makes in Book I is that in the study of human character (ethics) we must focus on the world we knowthe world around us, the traditions of our polis and of others, the received opinions of earlier thinkers, especially those famous for their wisdomand on what we all observe about the actual behaviour of people. We must begin with people as we find them. The theories of human conduct we inherit we must explore by an examination of the facts around us, not with a view to revealing the inadequacies in the theories so that we can dismiss them (although that might be sometimes necessary) but rather to see what they may have in common or the extent to which they may help to confirm our own speculations about the best way to live.

He also stresses that such knowledge derived from observation of what really goes on will be approximate, an outline, a general sketch, a framework for thinking about ethical questions and a proper education in moral matters. Ethics is not, in other words, an exact science which is going to deliver certainty in all moral questions.

This emphasis on the world around us and on the inexact nature of the enquiry accounts for two things that clearly distinguish Aristotle’s ethical writings from those of Plato in the Republic. Aristotle wants to ground the study of ethics in empirical enquiry (that is, on the observation of what really happens) and to deny that from the study of moral questions we are going to achieve certainty. These points go against the emphasis in the Republic on the deceptiveness of the sensible world and on the quest for the certainty available once we can get out of the cave (one possible interpretation of Plato’s moral thrust).

Aristotle is concerned to place the study of ethics on a more empirical basis because, as he says, Plato’s radical separation of the Form of the Good (in the ideal reality) from the particular forms of human conduct in the sensible world makes the moral knowledge necessary for the good life inaccessible to almost everyone:

. . . assuming that there is some single good which different things possess in common, or that there exists a good absolutely in itself and by itself, it evidently is something which cannot be realized in action or attained by man. But the good which we are now seeking must be attainable. (1096b)

Thus, although a great deal of what Aristotle says about appropriate conduct often sounds quite similar to what Plato is saying (for both are presenting defenses of the traditional virtues), the basis of Aristotle’s moral theory is significantly different, with a much stronger emphasis in tradition and experience, on the practical realities of daily life and moral situations, than on intellectual wisdom of the sort described in the Republic.

In rejecting the Platonic approach through an intelligible apprehension of the ideal reality of the Forms, together with his emphasis on the study of ethics as an inexact and rough study, the production of what he calls “a general sketch” of moral principles which will hold “for the most part” (rather than on acquiring moral knowledge which will provide certainty in moral questions), Aristotle’s aim is thoroughly practical. Using such empirically derived principles, we will be able to construct and evaluate our own lives better. It seems that for Aristotle, ethics is not a matter for theoretical, scientific, exact knowledge of what is true, but of practical know-howin many respects associated with the skill of artistic production (he makes the analogy repeatedly). The basis for the good life we have to learn in the practical sensible world around us, and providing a framework to assist us in this endeavour is inexact. In what must be one his most historically ironic remarks, Aristotle observes that this procedure is appropriate because “anyone can fill in the gaps” (1098a).

One final introductory point. Aristotle indicates in Book I that his approach is intended only for those who already have some sense of virtue: “to be a competent student of what is right and just, and of politics generally, one must first have received a proper upbringing in moral conduct” (1095b). That is to say, an understanding of some of the principles of moral conduct requires some existing sense of virtue in the student.

Here again the analogy of the team may be useful. If we want to offer a series of lectures on the topic “How are we to understand the principles which determine excellence in a team player,” we would almost certainly set as a prerequisite some team experience in the students, some shared training in the social dynamics of team behaviour, of the sort which comes from experience, so that the students would bring to the lectures the appropriate state of awareness of the issues and a desire to learn. Someone with very little or no experience of team play and no desire to find out about it might have great difficulties understanding the issues.



The main framework for the first part of Aristotle’s argument, laid out below for clarification, goes something like this (the page numbers refer to the Ostwald edition):

1. Every science, investigation or action aims at some good. Such goods exist in a hierarchy: the lesser goods are instrumental in seeking the higher goods, but many things are good in and of themselves. (3-4)

2. The highest good will be the final goal of purposeful striving, something good for its own sake (4). This final good for human beings is eudaimonia (happiness), which is always an end in itself. (6; 15)

3. The goodness (arete) of anythingincluding human beingsresides in its proper function (ergon). (16)

4. The proper function of human beings, and therefore their moral excellence (arete), resides in the “active life of the rational element” (16).

5. Therefore, the good for human beings “is an activity of the soul in conformity with excellence or virtue, and if there are several virtues, in conformity with the best and most complete” (17). Such a life necessarily involves acting in accordance with reason.

6. To act in accordance with reason is a matter of observing the principle of the mean relative to us (finding the appropriate response between excess and deficiency in a particular situation).

7. The traditional virtues (e.g., courage) all fit this scheme (Books II to IV).

8. We must distinguish between voluntary and involuntary actions, since not all human actions arise from deliberation and choice (Book III).

9. A complex set of intellectual virtues is necessary for human excellence. The most important of these in the sphere of moral action is practical wisdom (phronesis) (Book VI).

The sections below examine some salient features of this argument.



Aristotle makes his most crucial assertion in the very first sentence in the Ethics: “Every art or applied science and every systematic investigation, and similarly every action and choice, seems to aim at some good; the good therefore, has been well defined at that at which all things aim” (1094a). This claim asserts, in effect, that all activity is goal directed: it has purpose in mind, an end point (a telos). Aristotle offers no “proof” of this claim that all behaviour is goal oriented or teleological, by nature purposeful, and that the notion of goodness is thus naturally linked to some final destination or stage of development.

This claim is a vital point (as important as Plato’s assumption in the Republic that human beings are characterized by a natural division in their talents) because it will enable Aristotle to anchor his discussion in nature, in the truth of things, rather than in opinion or convention. The teleological striving of human beings is what is natural to them, so their moral nature is going to be linked directly and naturally to a process of development towards an end point. The excellence of the human being is thus going to be associated with growth towards some final realization of his or her true and best nature.

Without this assumption, Aristotle might have serious problems grounding his ethical framework in the truth of things; whereas, if his claim is true, then this starting point can form the basis of an answer to relativists who claim that there is no single truth about moral conduct. If there is a natural purpose for human life (as Aristotle suggests) then it seems clear that the quality of a human life (its excellence or lack of excellence) can then be measured against the extent to which a human life has realized this purpose. Thus, the moral life is not just a matter of opinion but deeply rooted in the truth of life itself. Aristotle does not attempt to prove this point, and there is no hint of a divine sanction for this initial claim. It is an opening assumption, of great importance in the argument.

The claim is often made that Aristotle starts here because of his great interest in biology, a subject of enquiry in which the concept of natural striving towards some final excellence, some full attainment of potential, is an obvious way of understanding the behaviour of plants and animals. And it is also true that in the Greek tradition of excellence, from Homer onwards, there is a very strong emphasis placed on measuring the quality of the individual against one’s sense of what a truly heroic and fully developed human being (like Odysseus, for example) might and can be.



Having established the notion of goal-directed activity as the concept essential to an understanding of human goodness and excellence, Aristotle then seeks a definition of what the final goal of human life might be, the most important activity which we pursue for its own sake, something over and above all the other goods (like money, fame, good looks, learning, and so on). This final goal he identifies on the basis of an appeal to experience as eudaimonia, a word traditionally translated as happiness (1097). This English rendering causes some difficulties if we do not remind ourselves that by the term Aristotle means something much wider than the word happiness might suggest to us. Eudaimonia carries the notion of objective success, the proper conditions of a person’s life, what we might more properly call “well being” or “living well.” Thus, eudaimonia includes a sense of material, psychological, and physical well being over time, for the fully happy life will include success for oneself, for one’s immediate family, and for one’s descendants. This notion links the Ethics directly with the Greek traditions, especially the Iliad, in which the happiness of life includes a sense of posthumous fame and the success of one’s children as vital components. We may better get a sense of what Aristotle means by the term if we take the advice of one interpreter and see eudaimonia as the answer to the question “What sort of a life would we most wish for our children?”

Eudaimonia, we should note, is one of a number of goals desired for their own sakes, yet it is also, for Aristotle, clearly superior to them. And this point may cause some confusion. The best way to make sense of the notion perhaps is to regard happiness as something of a framework for all the other various goods that we pursue. We achieve eudaimonia with the proper ordering of such items, by imposing a pattern on our activities which gives all of them the appropriate significance, by, if you like, adopting a suitable hierarchy for all the different goods we pursue. Thus, eudaimonia will be made up of many different goods and will provide the overall significance to all of them (it will, in other words, provide a significant meaning to our lives). We do not achieve eudaimonia  by actively seeking it (this is an important point); we attain it by ordering our pursuit of all the other goods in the right manner. Happiness, which is the highest and final goal of human striving, is, in other words, something of a by-product of carrying out our pursuit of all the other goods (wealth, fame, learning, and so on) in the proper manner.



This concept of eudaimonia, Aristotle admits (1097b), is not all that helpful, without some further attempt to define more closely what the concept means. In other words, the concept is, to this point, rather empty of significant content. Aristotle meets this need with another traditional Greek notion, linking the concept of goodness with that of function (ergon).

This argument rests on the assumption that everything, living or non-living, has a specific function for which it is designed. The excellence (arete) of the thing or person will therefore depend upon the extent to which it fulfils the function for which it is designed. A knife which cuts poorly will have little excellence, since it carries out its function poorly; a racehorse which runs fast will have a high arete, since it is fulfilling its function very well. Since a human being is, above all else, a social and political being, then the excellence of a human being will be those things which best enable the human being to fulfill that social and political function.

Now, since the excellence of anything is particular to that thing (i.e., is unique to that object or living creature), Aristotle seeks to find what the unique functions of human beings might be. And in 1098a he identifies the unique function of human beings as the rational element in action: “The proper function of man, then, consists in an activity of the soul in conformity with a rational principle, or, at least, not without it” (1098a). The excellence of the human being, therefore, is going to depend upon the extent to which this unique function manifests itself.



Putting together, then, his notion of goal-directed, teleological striving as the basis for all life, the notion of happiness (eudaimonia), and of the excellence of human life (arete) linked to a distinctively human function (ergon), Aristotle can offer as his fundamental moral principle the following definition:

On these assumptions, if we take the proper function of man to be a certain kind of life, and if this kind of life is an activity of soul and consists in actions performed in conjunction with the rational element, and if a man of high standards is he who performs these actions well and properly, and if a function is well performed when it is performed in accordance with the excellence appropriate to it; we reach the conclusion that the good of man is an activity of soul in conformity with excellence or virtue, and if there are several virtues, in conformity with the best and most complete. (1098a)

There are some important problems with the argument up to this point, notably with the function argument. Social roles (artisans, musicians, soldier, housewives, and so on) have functions, but how to we speak of a human function? If we had recourse to divine revelation we might understand something about a uniquely human function, but Aristotle makes no such appeal. Just because a certain activity is particularly human, that does not mean we have an obligation to engage in it. Human beings, for example, are the only creatures who can use words to tell lies to each other. That does not mean we are obliged to carry out that activity in order to be fully human.

The doubts about the function argument have led some interpreters to suggest that the main emphasis in the Ethics is not strictly on what we might consider ethics and more on success: “the immediate aim of the Ethics is to make us ‘good men’not morally good men, but expert or successful human beings” (Barnes 29). On this reading, the Ethics ”is not directly telling us how to be morally good men, or even how to be humanly happy: it is telling us how to live successful lives, how to fulfill ourselves as men” (Barnes 34).

We recognize that there is a significant difference between being successful and being morally good. But if we recall the team analogy, the way Aristotle brings the two more or less together begins to make sense. After all, to the extent that we identify people as team players, to that extent we tend to acknowledge that their excellence as human beings rests on the success that they demonstrate in the team environment, a group of activities which involves guiding behaviour by the standards of excellence established by the group. Since Aristotle, as we have seen, claims that human beings are, first and foremost, social and political beings, it is probably not so surprising that he gauges their excellence in social terms. What enables someone to contribute well to the group and to be recognized by the group as an excellent contributor (that is, to be a success) is a measure of the human being’s worth or excellence.

Whatever these difficulties, this definition of the good life shows just how much Aristotle, like Plato, identifies moral excellence with the possession of a certain kind of character, with a sense of a full and rich life constituted by the best virtues in the individual. The central moral concern of human life, therefore, is going to rest on the appropriate relationship between the individual’s character, desires, thought process, and choices, as these manifest themselves in action, rather than on, say, the consequences of certain actions or the fidelity with which the person follows certain carefully established rules.



Up to this point, the argument, although coherent enough, is somewhat thin. For what does acting in accordance with rationality mean? If we agree that the excellence of human beings consists in their carrying out well their unique function and if we further agree that that function is indeed as Aristotle describes it, are we any closer to understanding how we ought to behave? To address this concern in Book II Aristotle introduces his most famous moral principle, the doctrine of the mean (amended by later commentators to read the doctrine of the golden mean), the idea that “moral qualities . . . are destroyed by defect and by excess” (35) so that good behaviour consists in avoiding such extremes.

Now, the doctrine of the mean has been often interpreted to insist that moral behaviour consists in always acting moderately or without feeling. But this is a Stoic or Christian misrepresentation of what Aristotle is actually saying here. For immediately after introducing the doctrine of the mean, Aristotle insists that the mean he is referring to is not a mathematical mean (or average between defect and excess), a principle that would, in effect, amount to a clear rule of behaviour; what his principle involves, he states, is a mean “relative to us.”

This rider qualifies the doctrine of the mean in a curious way, by insisting the virtuous action involves a response appropriate to the particular situation in which one finds oneselfthe important thing is to act appropriately, without overreacting (excess) or under-reacting (defect) to a particular set of circumstances. In some cases, it will be clear, the appropriate response might indeed require a very powerful display of feeling and very powerful action (e.g., if one is attacked physically and one’s life is in danger); at other times, the appropriate response will be something a good deal milder.

Acting virtuously, therefore, requires an awareness that in any situation one has to choose how to respond and that there are two major dangers: over- and under-reacting. The best behaviour, the most morally excellent conduct, will be the response appropriate to that set of circumstances.

Having established this doctrine of the mean in Book II, Aristotle then, in Book III and IV goes on to apply the concept to defend the traditional virtues, illustrating, often with some confusion, how each of the traditional virtues fits into his analytical framework.

How useful is this doctrine of the mean as practical advice to act well? How much of a help is it to me if I am concerned to be a moral person or to evaluate the conduct of others? Well, at first glance, it does not seem all that helpful, as Aristotle appears to admit: “this statement, true though it is, lacks clarity” (1138b). The doctrine may be helpful in stressing the importance of the emotional components of action, and it may provide a useful advice to be careful not to be too enthusiastic or too diffident, but unless it can provide us with some sense of how we estimate what is “appropriate to the situation” we are still somewhat in the dark as to what we have to do to be moral agents. As Barnes points out, in its initial formulation, the doctrine of the mean appears to be saying that if one wants to be an excellent person, then one should act as an excellent person should act. Left in this form, the doctrine would seem to have little practical utility.



Nor is this difficulty made all that much easier with Aristotle’s introduction into the argument about the mean the standard of a person who displays practical wisdom: “a mean defined by a rational principle, such as a man of practical wisdom would use to determine it” (1106b). This seems to be saying that our benchmark for understanding the mean should be a role model, a man of practical wisdom, someone recognized for his moral quality. As we shall see, this is an important principle (that our moral understanding must use role models), but at this stage it still leaves open what a person has to do to display practical wisdom. We might note, in passing, what Aristotle does not do here: he does not offer any sense that there is a theoretical route to understanding the doctrine of the mean. Whatever we are to make of this central tenet of his moral teaching, it is something practical, something acquired in the world of experience and daily living. It is not something we can pick up by private study.

Aristotle clearly recognizes the need to clarify this business and in the opening of Book VI he promises to address the issue: “We must also have a definition of what right reason is and what standard determines it” (1138b). Unfortunately in the rest of this book he does not directly deliver on this promise, although indirectly he illuminates what practical wisdom involves and therefore what qualities are necessary for moral behaviour.

Book VI of the Ethics is, in many ways, the most frustrating of all parts of the argument. Aristotle offers many elusive leads in a number of different directions, but he never returns to the central question with which he starts and which needs clarification. So, not unexpectedly, there is a very energetic argument still going on about just exactly what Aristotle means by practical wisdom, which one writer, in reviewing the arguments, has called a concept valuable for its suggestiveness rather than for its coherent final account. The task of reconstructing Aristotle’s argument is still going on. Given this difficulty the best I can do here is to offer a sense of what Aristotle seems to mean by the term in relation to his moral system (recognizing that this is no doubt a simplified view with which many would disagree).

First, one should note that practical wisdom for Aristotle does not consist in a simple set of moral rules or maxims, a list of truths which we can learn and then apply to experience (like, for example, the Ten Commandments). It consists rather in an ability to do the right thing in a wide variety of different circumstances. And this ability, in turn, rests upon a complex set of mental qualities. In other words, moral action depends upon certain intellectual virtues, without which one will be unable to carry out the activities essential to the highest moral behaviour.

So in Book VI Aristotle explores the various intellectual virtuestheir respective concerns and methods, in order to distinguish the various intellectual abilities necessary to each form of enquiry. Only when these are fully deployed, will one have the practical wisdom necessary for the highest forms of human excellence.

The following list (taken in large part of McIntyre) indicates the range of intellectual skills and their importance in moral behaviour:

1. The moral person must be able to evaluate a particular situation, to recognize it for what it is and in relation to any actions which he or she might undertake to respond to it. Such analytical skills, that ability to “size up” a particular event, come from experience, habit, and education.

2. The moral person must have been able to work out through reason some knowledge of the overall good as such. In other words, he must have a developed sense of what he wants his life, as a totality, to add up to, a standard for living well. Such a standard is given to the individual by the community in its traditions, role models, and formal education.

3. The moral individual must be able to understand the various goods appropriate to his or her situation and stage of life. That is, he must possess some understanding of what is appropriate for him to pursue at this stage in the development of his life. This quality Aristotle calls gnome (good sense); it seeks to answer the question: Given that I live my life in stages, what is appropriate at each stage for me to desire and seek?

4. The moral person must be able to reason from the general notion of the good as such (Point 2 above) to a conclusion about the specific range of goods immediately to be achieved in the present situation (Point 3). Given what I want my life’s goal to be, is it appropriate at this stage of my life that I pursue this particular good and, if so, how should I pursue it faced with these particular circumstances?

5. Practical wisdom is the ability to organize and use these different intellectual abilities and thus to select the right means for the attainment of the appropriate goals and to issue commands for action. The man of practical wisdom (the phronimos) understands how to behave from one situation to the next in the pursuit of the appropriate goals in the appropriate ways because he knows how to construct his life in accordance with the realities of the world around him and with the realities of his own abilities and stage of life.

6. To this list Aristotle adds, almost as an afterthought, the notion of cleverness, the ability “to perform those steps which are conducive to a goal we have set for ourselves and to attain that goal” (169). Practical wisdom, in other words, also includes a component of efficient skill, the ability to carry out intelligently the decisions one has made.

7. This form of reasoning can only take place in a systematic form of activity in which there is a shared sense of roles and actions recognized to be ordered according to their relative goodness, so that one does not have a bewildering array of competing goods. If I do not live in a community in which there is a shared sense of what the good life is, then I can form no adequate conception of that. If there are many competing choices about what the good life means, then I cannot begin to develop practical wisdom. Or, to revert to the team analogy, one can see that, if my team has no shared standard of excellence, then as an individual on that team I cannot begin to organize my own desire for excellence.

In other words, Aristotle’s vision of practical wisdom is a very social form of thinking about myself. As MacIntyre observes, there is no practical reasoning in isolation from the group, no morality outside the polis (just as there can be no excellent team conduct if one is not a member of a team). Outside the polis there is no commonly agreed upon ranking of goods, and thus an individual faced with a number of options in a particular situation has no sense of moral priorities. Moral behaviour and the reasoning essential to it emerge from one’s membership in the community, not independently of it.



Given all these necessary intellectual qualities, how should a person think in order to arrive at a morally good decision? To clarify this concept, Aristotle introduces the notion of the practical syllogism (although he never uses this term). Its simplest structure goes something like this. Suppose a person is in the position of having to make a choice and wishes to make the morally correct choice. Then, according to Aristotle’s idea of practical wisdom, the process of choosing goes something like this:

Major Premise: The good life for me, which is my overall goal, means that in situation X, virtue requires me to do Y (I know this from my education, my observation of those people famous for their virtue, and the habits I have acquired over time).

Minor Premise: What I am faced with now is a situation X (I know this from the analytical skills I have acquired in experience and from education).

Conclusion: Therefore virtue requires that in this situation I choose to do Y.

The Major Premise, the universal, comes from education, habit, observation, and example, from an educated sense of what eudaimonia means in my community and its relationship to the variously ranked goods of life. The Minor Premise comes from my intelligent perception of the particular situation which now faces me and the various responses I might make to it. And the conclusion comes from correct reasoning.

Error arises if the major premise is false (in a bad or poorly educated person, one who has a false notion of the good life) or if the minor premise is based upon an inaccurate assessment of the immediate situation and the possible responses to it, or if the person is ignorant of some essential facts. To be able to avoid such errors means that one possesses practical wisdom. It is possible to come to the correct conclusion erroneously (by chance or luck), but the true phronimos will go through the process correctly and make the morally right choice.

What this process involves is the ability to bring to bear on particular situations a knowledge of general principles which relate to the ends of a purposeful good life and an intelligent sense of the particular situation facing the person, together with the intellectual skill to combine these characteristics, so that practical wisdom tells us what the right action in this case is. This process will involve recognizing relevant circumstances and reasoning correctly from an awareness of the various goods and their relationship to the highest good to make the best decision about the particular options.

The process begins with an informed awareness of a particular situation: “The man of highest practical wisdom is the man who brings to bear upon a situation the greatest number of genuinely pertinent concerns and genuinely relevant considerations commensurate with the importance of the deliberative context” (Wiggins 234). This perception then calls into play the relevant major premise that “spells out the general import of the concern that makes this feature the salient feature of the situation” (Wiggins 234). The validity of the major premise brought to bear depends not on its unconditional acceptability, nor on its all inclusiveness, but on its adequacy to the particular situation.



The qualities outlined above are necessary if one is to act morally, but they are not, by themselves, sufficient. To be fully moral, a person must by disposition (feeling) desire to act on what practical wisdom reveals. Aristotle, in other words, sees the absence of inner tension in making a decision and acting upon it as one of the essential components of a fully developed moral character. Hence, reason and desire are inseparable in making the best moral choices: “since choice is a deliberate desire, it follows that, if the choice is to be good, the reasoning must be true and the desire correct. . . . [I]n intellectual activity concerned with action, the good state is truth in harmony with correct desire” (148; 1138a). Thought and feeling determine human action. The emphasis of the entire process falls more on a sensitive feel for what is right than on a formal process of reasoning which we then impose on our feelings (Sullivan).

Aristotle’s notion of virtue thus flies in the face of some commonly held notions today, which see virtue as the ability to overcome temptation. Some of us would see the highest virtue manifesting itself in those who have to wrestle mightily with temptation, with their inner desires, and who resist those desires to follow what their reason tells them to do. In an extreme form, this doctrine might argue that one is sure of acting morally only when one has to fight mightily against one’s desires. Not so for Aristotle. For him the hierarchy of virtue is clearly based upon the harmony between what one’s practical intelligence says and the desires about what I want to do, as follows:

Excellent characters aim at the good and desire the good; their decision making is thus free from tension. Their acts consequently are good, and they are good people.

Strong characters aim at the good but desire the bad; their decision making is thus marked by conflict. However, because they are strong, their practical intelligence overcomes their desires. Hence their actions are good, but they are not entirely good people, not the highest forms of moral excellence in human conduct.

Weak characters aim at the good but desire the bad. Their decision making is thus marked by conflict. The conflict ends when they surrender to their desires. Their actions are therefore bad and they are bad people.

The worst characters aim at the bad and desire the bad. There is thus no conflict in their decision making. But their actions are bad and they are corrupt people.

Consider this list for a moment. In the most highly developed moral excellence, the person’s feelings mesh effortlessly with his or her actions, so there is no tension between what the person wants to do and what is the right thing to do. This may (indeed, should) sound rather odd to us, who have inherited a tradition where moral excellence is often seen as involving a struggle of some kind.

Here’s a simple example. Two desperately hungry men are walking along the road. They come across some unattended food laid out on a picnic table in preparation for a group meal. Should they steal some of it?  The first man, an Aristotelian, in spite of his cravings, responds easily and without hesitation. Taking food is wrong. So he moves on. The second man, a Kantian Christian, is sorely tempted. He struggles to overcome his desires, prays, and finally steels himself to his moral duty and moves on without taking any food. Which person has displayed the higher moral excellence?  Many of us, I suspect, would choose the second man, because he had to overcome great difficulties (after all, Kant insisted that the only time we could be sure we were acting morally was when we did something we did not want to do). Any many of us link moral quality with overcoming psychological adversity, especially strong temptation. For Aristotle, however, the first person is clearly the morally superior man, since his decision came without any inner tension.

Aristotle thus places a great emphasis on the importance of educating the feelings. This can come about only through education in virtuous habits, so that one is naturally inclined to do the right thing, even before one fully understands everything about ethics. That is the reason he initially insists that the study of ethics is fit only for those who by their education and upbringing already have some sense of virtuous and non-virtuous conduct. It is also one important reason why Aristotle devotes so much time in a discussion of friendship, on the moral importance of appropriate personal relationships.



At the risk of introducing something of a digression, let me pose the following questions: in Aristotle’s system, what would encourage someone to act in a morally  appropriate manner? Why, that is, would anyone facing a difficult choice choose to be a good person, especially when facing considerable pressure not to act in that manner? Aristotle does not go into this directly in very much detail, but exploring an answer to the question may help to illuminate certain issues.

Clearly one group of people, the very best moral agents, would act in an appropriate way because it would simply not occur to them to act otherwise. Their experience, education, and feelings would seamlessly encourage them to do the right thing, to demonstrate their own moral excellence, because that is how they see themselves, that is their nature (they are, if I may once again invoke my favourite analogy, the Wayne Gretskys and Michael Jordans and Richie McCaws of the moral world).

A second group would strive to act in the morally appropriate ways, even though in a particular situation that might not be their natural inclination, because they wish to be seen as excellent. They wish, in other words to meet the standard of moral conduct set by the first group (perhaps even to be seen as one of that group). But acting in that manner would not come as easily to them as it would to members of the first group, for they would have to make a conscious decision to do the right thing instead of doing so without reflection (and perhaps some struggle).

But the largest group might well be those people less concerned about achieving moral excellence than they are about avoiding shame, the social disapproval which comes from an action (or inaction) that the community recognizes as dishonourable, something that is, if you like, “letting the team down.” People in this last group might face very strong temptations to neglect their moral duty (e.g., terrifying fear in the front lines of battle, greed in the face of lucrative but dishonest business practices, a craving for depraved pleasures, and so on) and yet refuse to act on these temptations, not because they wish to do the right thing and be looked upon as excellent but because they do not want to be publicly reviled as a coward or a criminal or a dishonourable person.

The extent to which the desire to avoid shame is a supremely powerful motivating factor in a culture promoting excellence (of the sort Aristotle is proposing) is particularly clear in the Iliad, where it emerges as a constant preoccupation of the warrior leaders, even those conscious of their own high social standing (Hector, for example, chooses to face  almost certain death rather than risk being laughed at for his refusal to fight Achilles).

We are, of course, aware of the power of group shame as a motivating force in certain situations (in the teenage peer group, police forces, army units, sports teams, and so on), where it is often strong enough to override the law, the rules of the game, or personal safety. But we are also aware (I think) of the weaknesses of a moral system which relies upon shame. For the power of shame (as the flip side of a shared sense of excellence) relies upon the existence of a community group with a strong and shared sense of what constitutes moral excellence. But that is material for a different discussion.


I began by saying that one of the great strengths of Aristotle’s Ethics is that, for all the complications in the prose, it does answer to many of our commonsense notions of how we ought to educate our children in moral questions. His stress on the community as the basis for our sense of the good life, on practical observation and experience (especially of role models), on the importance of habits which encourage us to mesh desire and good decisions, and on the importance of practical experience over theoretical insights all make sound sense to many of us, so much so that in many cases we put our children through an Aristotelian moral education whether we have read the Ethics or not.

If we remember, too, Aristotle’s initial idea that his purpose is to provide a rough framework within which we can discuss and think about moral questions and our own moral conduct, then we can appreciate how, using his concepts, we can better carry out such discussions.

. . . if there is no real prospect of an ordinary scientific or simple empirical theory of all of action and deliberation as such, then the thing we should look for may be precisely what Aristotle provides—namely a conceptual framework which we can apply to particular cases, which articulates the reciprocal relations of an agent’s concern and his perception of how things objectively are in the world; and a schema of description which relates the complex ideal the agent tries in the process of living his life to make real to the form that the world impresses by way of opportunity and by way of limitation upon that ideal. . . . I entertain the unfriendly suspicion that those who feel they must seek more than all this provides want a scientific theory of rationality not so much from a passion for science, even where there can be no science, but because they hope and desire, by some conceptual alchemy, to turn such a theory into a regulative or normative discipline, or into a system of rules by which to spare themselves some of the agony of thinking and all the torment of feeling and understanding that is actually involved in reasoned deliberation. (Wiggins 237)

Here again, the analogy with a team and with team behaviour may help. If we ask ourselves, “What processes of thought help an excellent team player choose what to do in a particular situation?” we shall probably come up with something close to what Aristotle is talking about. Taking as a starting point the notion that such a person will begin with some idea of what the ultimate end of being an excellent team player is and of various subordinate goods in that activity, we can infer that in particular situation, good team play will require an accurate assessment of the particular situation, a mature evaluation of various good options, the ability to select the one most appropriate to the situation, and then a choice which results in action, which, to be successful, must manifest a certain cleverness, an efficient skill at achieving the good selected.

Let’s take a trivial example. Suppose a good hockey player is stick handling the puck in on the opponents’ goal with some team mates. How does he decide what to do as he moves towards the net? If he is an excellent team player his decision will result from his conception of his own excellence, a judicious assessment of the situation (what is the state of the game, how competent are the opponents between me and the goal, what have my team mates and I practised, how have we dealt with similar situations successfully in the past, and so on). The decision he reaches, whether, for example, to pass, to shoot, or to continue, will result from all of these factors. If he is a good player, he will make the right decision in that situation and will succeed (or come very close to success). And if he is a player of the highest excellence his desire will coincide with his rational decision, so that he will not execute his decision with any regret, anger, frustration, cowardice, or malice.

Obviously such a process depends entirely upon the existence of the individual within the framework of the team. And what the player does in that situation may well vary from one point in the game to another or from one game to another, as the situations change (for example, if the player’s team is way ahead in the game, he may choose to miss the goal, since running up the score on a beaten opponent is considered unworthy; if he has different team mates and different opponents, then the decision may well be different; for instance, if one of his team mates is a much better goal scorer than he is, then he might pass the puck; with a different team mate, he might properly choose to take the shot himself). The principles that govern the decision making in these different situations are not written in any book; they are acquired by training, education, reflection, observation (especially of role models, stars celebrated for their excellence), in short, by excellent habits picked up by intelligent and talented players.

It’s important to stress that Aristotle is not suggesting that the full thought process outlined above goes on before every decision. The excellent person, the one with practical wisdom, has a fully integrated personality which can make right decisions by habit, on the spot. But if asked to explain the reasoning that led to a decision, he or she could appeal to the process outlined above. And if we want to explain any errors in the individual’s behaviour, we can appeal to the process above to discuss that went wrong. After all, even today when we denigrate a team player, we usually do so in terms of the poor choices he or she has made in particular situations, and we frequently appeal to concepts like “love of the game,” or “respect for his team mates,” and so on.

We might also note that in Aristotle’s moral thinking, as in the social dynamics of the team, some players are clearly better than others. There is no ethic of moral equality here. Part of the challenge of acting morally is recognizing one’s own excellence in relation to other people’s and adjusting one’s behaviour accordingly, for one’s position in the moral hierarchy determines the nature of one’s obligations and responsibilities (just as on any sports team). Similarly in the long discussion of friendship, Aristotle emphasizes that friendship, an essential part of the successfully realized moral life, comes in many different forms and that the man of practical wisdom will have a precise understanding of those differences and take them into account in his decision making.



By way of bringing these remark to a conclusion (omitting a great deal of what Aristotle writes about other matters, such as pleasure, friendship, and contemplation), I would like to finish by offering a few suggestions about why this particular view of moral behaviour has been so influential and remains of major interest today, and not just for historical reasons.

First, for all the difficulty one experiences in reading Aristotle, a good deal of what he has to say makes good practical common sense to the educated citizen. Aristotle, by and large, says we must concentrate on human conduct as we find it in the world around us and deal with it as best we can, setting aside utopian schemes for moral improvement and universal rules of conduct. His arguments that questions about good and bad conduct are not relative but that, on the other hand, they cannot be defined with scientific precision, that moral behaviour requires early training in good habits, that central to moral behaviour is a good character in which the individual’s desires are educated to want to do the right thing, and that this is in keeping with human nature, all these match fairly closely the standards we continue to use in the education of our children because they make the most sense to us.

The notion that human life is purposeful and that the end point we should seek is a realization of our full potential as human beings in a community, that we should work towards having a fully educated character in which intelligent thinking, educated desires, and good executive skills enable us to work towards a successful active social existence which will include material well being, many friends, and the absence of moral tensions in our decision making, such a goal of living seems to many very attractive, far more so, in some people’s eyes, that the more austere model with Plato appears to hold out for us in the Republic.

The importance which Aristotle places on human life as only acquiring moral meaning in the context of a community with a shared sense of the structure of goods and on the idea that we can discover only in such a community identity the appropriate starting points for rational moral behaviour and the final fulfillment of the good life has again always appealed to the common sense notion that human beings are, in some essential ways, dependent on each other in the wider social context and that, without such a rich and identifiable social context, our moral lives are significantly diminished. As Roger Sullivan states:

Briefly, his [Aristotle’s] contention is that through experience we can learn both our limits and our opportunities. Men have learned, for example, that they cannot live satisfactorily by trying to live a kind of life inappropriate to their fundamental nature: we cannot live like beasts nor can we live as gods. Through both personal experience and the cumulative experience of others, then, we learn what it is to have a specifically human nature, and the potentialities and needs of this nature provide an objective basis for understanding how best to live as a human being. (10)

Hence, Aristotle’s view of moral life has always appealed to those who speak in the name of the community and its traditional values, and in recent years, as many people have become disillusioned with the individualistic ethos we have developed since the Renaissance, the notion that the good life is primarily a matter of emancipating the individual from traditional communal restraints, interest in Aristotle as a spokesperson for a community-based moral life has grown.

As a postscript, I shall observe that this text has played an important role in the formation of the Liberal Studies program, at least to the extent of reminding us that if we wish to make our post-secondary education system more humane, more effective, and, in a word, better, we need to concentrate on creating a learning community, a social environment in which students working together as friends (in the full Aristotelian sense of the term) can through experience, observation, and habit, acquire good moral training precisely in the way Aristotle describes and for very similar reasons.