Aristotle’s ethical theory is contained in two works: the Nicomachean Ethics and the Eudemian Ethics. The Nicomachean Ethics is later and more comprehensive than the Eudemian Ethics, and has been studied far more. A third book sometimes attributed to Aristotle, the Magna Moralia, is probably not authentic.
Aristotle’s ethical theory was conditioned by his training as a biologist. He observed that every living thing tends to develop into a mature specimen of its kind that may be either healthy and flourishing or somehow stunted. His ethical theory is an attempt to describe the healthy, flourishing way of life for human beings (the “good life”). His motivation was political, since he believed that an understanding of the good life should guide lawmakers. He believed that since human beings are naturally social beings, a normal person whose natural inclinations are properly cultivated will be virtuous; hence, wrongdoing is a function of stunted development. In basing ethical behavior upon human nature (the essence of human beings), Aristotle largely founded natural law theory.
Aristotle followed Greek practice in calling the good life eudaimonia, often translated as “happiness.” He observed that people agree that happiness is an intrinsic good and that attaining happiness is the guiding directive of life; however, they disagree concerning the nature or content of the happy life.
Aristotle criticized three popular candidates (then and now) for the happy life: sensual pleasure, pursuit of honors and recognition, and money-making. He assumed that human happiness must be unique to human beings. Hence, a life of sensual pleasure cannot be happiness, since sensual pleasures derive from behaviors—eating, drinking, sex—that animals also display; that is, they are not based upon human nature. He also assumed that happiness must be achievable through one’s own efforts. Hence, receiving honors cannot be happiness, since merit is not necessarily recognized; it is not “up to us.” Moreover, recognition is pursued as a warrant of excellence; therefore, excellence is valued more highly than...
(The entire section is 896 words.)