Aristotle on Virtue

The Question of Ethics

What are we asking, when we ask how to live?

Possible Ethical Questions

  1. What should I aim for? (Less suffering, more beauty...)
  2. What should I do? (Thou Shalt..., Thou shalt not...)
  3. What is a good person?

An answer to any of these questions at least partly answers the others.

Hence, the three main approaches to normative ethics: Consequentialism, Deontology, and Virtue Theory

Virtue Theory

  1. Focused on the agent
  2. Focused on a very specific sense of the word "good".
  3. Blurs the line between the prudential and the normative ought.

This is partly because the motives of the agent are in play.

  1. Not a rulebook, not addressed to the wicked.


Arete (ἀρετή)


What is it? And how does it answer our question about the good life?

The Good Life

Instrumental vs. Intrinsic goods.

Every intentional action has an aim.

But some of those aims are conditional.

They can't all be.

Features of the Chief Good

Happiness. But what's that?

An end, and not for the sake of something else ("complete")

Taken by itself, makes a life good or successful ("self-sufficient")


These criteria, you might think, eliminate various candidates.

  1. Honor (can be honored unworthily, not self-sufficient),
  2. Money (not complete OR self-sufficient),
  3. Pleasure (not self-sufficient, wretched or insecure pleasure)

What determines the proper end of a thing?

The kind of thing it is.

just as for the flute player, a sculptor, or any artist, and in general, for all things that have a function or activity, the good and 'well' is thought to reside in the function, so would it seem for man, if he has a function.

Connection to the Physics

A thing is most actually what it is when it is manifesting its distinctive activity.

The distinctive activity of a thing might be the reason it exists---its final cause.

Reducing the problem

This reduces the problem of identifying the chief good to the problem of identifying the distinctive function or activity of a human being, the activity that makes a human human.


  1. Just staying alive and reproducing?

No, that's the life of a plant.

  1. Enjoying sensation?

No, that activity is common to all animals

  1. The active life of the element that has a rational principle.


  1. A state that makes you a exceptional example of a human being.
  2. A state that makes you perform the task of a human being well.

The Activity of a Rational Animal

Analogy with the arts

Life of activity, expressing reason well.

What's the best expression of our rational nature?

The arts (possession of which makes you an excellent artisan) involve identifying excess and defect along various dimensions.

The Golden Mean

Many virtues lie at a mean.

Virtue is the habit of finding these means.


A State concerned with choice, lying in a mean relative to us, this being determined by reason and in the way in which a man of practical wisdom would determine it.