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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1290

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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 function. Government, rather, is a necessary component of the possibility of leading a fully human, and therefore social, life.

Throughout the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle indicates that the pursuit of happiness should be viewed as a discipline. Medicine, for instance, has both a goal (health) and specific virtues and skills that are necessary for medicine to function properly. Similarly, Aristotle maintains, human life has a goal (happiness) as well as specific virtues that are necessary to the fulfillment of that goal. Aristotle divides the human virtues into moral or character-related virtues (in books 2-5) and intellectual or thinking-related virtues (in book 6). Human virtues, like the skills in any discipline, are achieved and developed through practice—that is, by repeating their corresponding actions (in this case, by repeating virtuous acts). Developing the habit of acting virtuously tends to result in taking pleasure in virtuous acts, which is a sign that the person has acquired the relevant virtue. Since habit provides such a critical part of acting virtuously, the development of moral habits in children is particularly important. Aristotle even indicates that a person will not be able to achieve happiness if he or she has not developed the proper moral habits during childhood. Aristotle also seems to say that people generally will not be able to be virtuous if they have insufficient material resources or lack friends.

While Aristotle points out the importance of moral education and material prosperity, he does not state that good habits, wealth, and friendship are sufficient to achieve happiness. Good habits are sufficient for children, but adults must also have practical wisdom, which is the intellectual virtue associated with knowledge of how to achieve the goals of human life. It is practical wisdom that makes it possible for an individual to determine what is a virtuous act and what are the vices of excess and of defects associated with the virtue. For instance, the moral virtue of courage is the mean between cowardice and rashness, and it is in the exercise of practical wisdom that an individual can know whether a specific action is courageous, cowardly, or rash. This system means that it is generally impossible to determine precisely whether any specific type of act will be virtuous or vicious because, in most situations, the value of the act will depend on the circumstances. However, just as in medicine there are some actions that are always against health and therefore wrong, in life there are some actions that are always against human excellence and therefore wrong.

After considering human virtues in some depth, Aristotle moves to discussions of lack of self-control (book 7), friendship (books 8-9), and pleasure (books 7 and 10), before returning to some final remarks on the nature of happiness (book 10). Scholars remain divided over how to interpret Aristotle’s conclusion regarding the nature of happiness. Aristotle mentions various elements, including pleasure or the enjoyment of material goods, the exercise of practical wisdom in political life, and the exercise of theoretical wisdom in contemplation. It is possible to interpret the Nicomachean Ethics to mean that the life of contemplation is the way to happiness and the lives of pleasure or politics are deficient. On the other hand, it is possible that the various elements are all intended to be part of every life, but that contemplation is simply the highest of the three elements and the one toward which the enjoyment of material goods and the exercise of practical wisdom should be oriented.

For introductory readers, the Nicomachean Ethics poses various challenges, some of which relate to its subject matter and some of which relate to its form and coherence. In regard to form, there are two issues that are particularly worth noting. First, the Nicomachean Ethics is a collection of lecture notes. It is not clear who took these notes, nor is it clear precisely what role Aristotle may have had in compiling them. The Nicomachean Ethics may be notes that Aristotle wrote or dictated, or they may be notes taken by someone listening to his lectures. Second, it is not clear whether the Nicomachean Ethics is actually one work or perhaps a combination of certain notes on ethics that have been consolidated with a portion of another of Aristotle’s ethical works, the Eudemean Ethics. Scholars do not know which work came first, but they share certain sections in common. These issues regarding the coherence of the text should not be ignored, but they also should not be overly emphasized to introductory readers. There is a remarkable degree of unity in the Nicomachean Ethics, and most, even if not all, apparent inconsistencies and ambiguities in Aristotle’s meaning can be clarified by a closer reading of the text and, when appropriate, a review of some of the secondary literature.