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ARISTOTLE’S VIRTUE ETHICS
 


Bust of Aristotle (384-322 BC)
 

A. Theoretical Approach, Concepts, and Terms

Teleological (goal-oriented, purposeful, directed; cf. telos)
Essentialism (based on a conception of universal human nature or essence)
Perfectionism: human well-being (eudaimonia) consists in excelling at things intrinsically worth doing
Agent-based ethics (emphasizes personal character over individual actions and rules)
Teleology: process oriented toward a final goal or purpose (e.g., moral perfection, wisdom)
Instrumental good (value): a means to an end (e.g., money, car, tool)
Intrinsic good (value): an end in itself (e.g., happiness, pleasure, wisdom)
General approach to Ethics: intellectual rather than emotional, philosophical rather than religious, moderate rather than extreme

A.1 Basic Questions
What is happiness (eudaimonia)? How does one achieve it?
What is the highest good (agathos) for human beings
What kind of life (bios) should I live in order to be a morally virtuous person?
What should I aim at as my ultimate goal or aim (telos)?
What is virtue (aretē)?

A.2 Greek Terms

agathos: good, noble; to agathon: the Good
aretē: functional excellence, goodness of a thing, acquired skill, power, virtue
ergon: work, deed, proper function
ēthos:
character, one’s habitual way of living, one’s moral motivation or purpose
eudaimonia: vital well-being, happiness, human flourishing, fulfillment
hedonē: pleasure
phronēsis: prudence, practical wisdom
psychē
(or psuchē): soul, breath of life, mind, spirit, functional structure or network of a living thing
telos: goal, end, aim, purpose, result, completion or fulfillment of something, final point toward which a process is directed, (cf. teleology and teleological)
sōphrosynē (or sōphrosunē): moderation, temperance, proportional balance, appropriateness
sophia: theoretical wisdom, knowledge, intelligence, skill
sōphrosynē (or sōphrosunē): moderation, temperance, balanced
theōria: looking at, viewing, beholding, rational contemplation, knowing
technē: craft, art of making something , practical skill

A.3 General Theoretical Framework
1. Human beings naturally desire the good (agathos) and well-being (eudaimonia).
2. Virtue (aretē) is a means to the end (telos) of achieving the good life and well-being.
3. Like everything in the world, humans have a distinctive function or activity (ergon) that is specific to their kind, unique to their species.
4. Well-being (eudaimonia) consists in the successful performance of one’s distinctive function.
5. Nothing or no one can successfully carry out its relevant function unless it possesses the requisite excellence or virtue (aretē).

A.4 Two Fundamental Questions Based on the Above Framework
1. What is the distinctive, unique function (ergon) of human beings?
2. What are the virtues, or the highest virtue (aretē), that enables the maximum achievement of that function?

A.5 Three Types of Life (bios)

  • Pleasure (hedonē)
  • Honor
  • Theoretical, Contemplative (theōria)

B. The Function Argument: determines the distinctive or unique human function

1. Conditions of Well-being (eudaimonia):

  • the life of man’s highest function or faculty
  • accomplished by means of the best or highest virtue(s)
  • manifested in a complete life
  • an active performance or actuality (not a mere potentiality)

2. Soul (psychē): hierarchical network or structure of life-functions that exhibit increasing levels of complexity:

Soul (psychē)
Rational (Voluntary) Irrational (Involuntary)
Desire, Appetite, Will Nutritive, Vegetative
Rationality (Theoretical, Practical) Sentience, Sensation


C. Definition of eudaimonia
Intellectual/moral virtues distinction
Moral virtues: character, habit, Golden mean, instrumental
Instrumental good (value): a means to an end (e.g., money, car, tool)
Subordinate goals/ultimate or final goal (telos)
Intrinsic good (value): an end in itself (e.g., happiness, pleasure, wisdom, honor, blessedness)
Natural/moral virtues distinction
Vice: excess or deficiency

The Golden mean:

  • in relation to us as individuals
  • in relation to circumstances
  • in relation to ultimate goal (well-being)
  • in relation to pleasure/pain

Moral Excellence or Virtue:

  • acts from settled disposition (character)
  • acts according to Golden mean of moderation
  • guided by practical wisdom toward target of well-being

Ultimate well-being of man as the contemplative life:

  • Knowledge of the eternal, changeless, or invariable
  • Knowledge for its own sake (not a means to an end)
  • Most noble, divine
  • Contact with universal truth, reality, nature

D. Problems/Criticisms
1. Incomplete and impractical ethical theory because it provides no clear guidelines (rules, principles, norms) for action. Is moral action always a mean? always between extremes?

2. Do human beings possess a distinctive function (essence), the successful performance of which constitutes their highest good?

3. Morality is not justified (derivation of validity) on the basis of a rational self-interest in achieving happiness. Morality is not a means to an end, but an end in itself (Kant, for example).

4. Aristotle’s list of moral virtues appears to be culturally determined, traditionally Greek, and therefore not universally applicable.

5. Aristotle’s hierarchical essentialism (higher/lower functionality) privileges adult Greek males at the expense of non-Greek barbarians, slaves, women, and children (sexism, racism, elitism, ethnocentrism). Hence, Aristotle assumes an unjustified inequality.

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