Nicomachean Ethics Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The Nicomachean Ethics, frequently referred to as the Ethics or Aristotle’s Ethics, is Aristotle’s best-known work on ethics and is one of the most influential works in Western moral theory. The Nicomachean Ethics fits within the tradition of moral inquiry known as virtue ethics because of its emphasis on the importance of developing moral or character virtues in order to be good and achieve happiness. Aristotelian virtue ethics remains one of the three principal forms of moral inquiry, along with duty or rule-based ethics, exemplified in the works of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), and utilitarian ethics, exemplified in the works of Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873).

Starting from the premise that every action and discipline is oriented toward some goal or good, Aristotle tries in book 1 of the Nicomachean Ethics to determine the goals toward which human life is oriented. In order to find the answer to this question, Aristotle first considers the nature of goals themselves and how an action or discipline is oriented toward a specific goal (for example, the goal of the medical discipline is health). He determines that some disciplines and some goals are more fundamental than others. For instance, the art of bridle-making is subordinate to the art of riding because bridles are made so that horses can be ridden. The highest goal of human life, Aristotle argues, must be that goal to which all other disciplines and goals are subordinated. Based on the common understanding of all people, Aristotle states, this highest good of human life is called eudaimonia, which is usually translated as “happiness” but sometimes as “human flourishing” or “excellence” to capture the original Greek term’s reference to a state of living and being and not to a subjective feeling. Politics, in turn, is the highest discipline because it aims at happiness; and, Aristotle claims, all other disciplines are subject to it.

Happiness, according to Aristotle, is not something that merely happens. It is stable, objective, and universal. That happiness is stable means that it is not connected to transient feelings and that it is probably impossible to determine whether someone has achieved happiness while he or she is living. That happiness is objective means that people can be wrong when they believe that they have achieved happiness. That happiness is universal means that it is basically the same sort of thing for all people.

Politics is of central importance to Aristotle because humans are, by nature and not merely by convenience or convention, social animals. Certain schools of philosophy, particularly in modern philosophy, suppose that humans are autonomous creatures with individual rights who come together in community largely to allow for the better defense of those individual rights. Aristotle would have found this emphasis on autonomy and individual rights at odds with humanity’s basically social nature. Government is not, for Aristotle, merely a tool for the protection of rights that must be guarded against lest it move beyond its basic peacekeeping...

(The entire section is 1290 words.)

Nicomachean Ethics Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Aristotle believed that ethics was more a matter of character than of following rules. He was more concerned with what a person was than what he did. He realized that to a large extent a person’s character is created by his actions. Yet making one’s actions conform to rules was not the goal of morality. A person can obey all the rules of chess without being a very good chess player. So too, a person can follow all the rules of morality—never lie, steal, murder, or commit adultery—without being an especially good person.

The goal of morality, according to Aristotle, is human happiness. One of the questions that has received much attention from modern moral philosophers—Why be moral?—never arose for Aristotle because he simply assumed that achieving a stable and lasting happiness was everyone’s goal.

Of course, Aristotle understood that there is a wide divergence of opinion among people as to what constitutes happiness—some say it is wealth, others say it is power or honor, still others say it is pleasure. People will only know which of these, or which mix of these, really leads to a life well lived, says Aristotle, by first determining the proper work or function of a person qua person.

The function of a carpenter is to build houses, and the function of an author is to write books. Given these distinct functions, it is not unreasonable to assume that a carpenter would feel frustrated if forced to write a book, and conversely, that an author would feel frustrated if forced to build a house. Each of these would rather be doing that which he or she is uniquely suited to do. Aristotle takes this argument one step further and argues that human beings are happiest when they are acting in accordance with their essential nature.

The essential nature of anything is the thing’s work or function, that is, that which it does better than anything else. Observation reveals that humans are superior to all other animals in two areas, reasoning and social organization. Aristotle does not say that only humans are capable of reasoning. A dog can infer from his master’s facial expression that he is about to be punished. Yet dogs cannot discover, or understand, what is common to all punishments because they cannot know (nous) the essence of punishment. Dogs may be able to communicate with a series of growls and barks, but they are not able to create a language that defines and categorizes things according to their essential natures.

Similarly, while dogs live in packs and exhibit a rudimentary social nature, that social structure is determined by instinct. This tendency is evident by the invariant nature of that organization within a single species. Human social organizations are voluntary, and thus, they exhibit a wide variety of political structures ranging from the monarchical to the...

(The entire section is 1166 words.)