Nicomachean Ethics

by Aristotle

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What would an Aristotelian analysis of a virtue not discussed in Nicomachean Ethics look like?

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One virtue not discussed by Aristotle is love, though he does touch on friendship as a virtue. Vices accompanying love could include selfishness, jealousy, and egotism.

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Although Socrates left the world no written material explaining his philosophical thoughts, through the writings of Plato, Aristotle, and others we know that one of his most important postulates is “the unexamined life is not worth living.” In their writings, both Plato and Aristotle explore Socrates’ concepts of what exactly constitutes “the good life,” which led them to the study of virtue ethics. While Plato believes “wisdom” is the most significant virtue around which all other virtues unify, Aristotle disagrees. He opines that wisdom is virtuous, but does not unify all other virtues. In one of his most celebrated works, Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle examines virtue ethics and analyzes the nature of a good life.

Aristotle argues that the ultimate aim of a human being is to attain happiness. What he means by happiness is more than pleasure. It is not a static state enjoyed by one fortunate enough to be living well, but requires some activity. In his view, happiness means flourishing or Eudaimonia:

“The happy life is thought to be virtuous; now a virtuous life requires exertion, and does not consist in amusement.”

In other words, happiness lies “in virtuous activities.” It is not a passive concept, but an active one. It is not a feeling, but something people do. It is “an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.”

In Aristotle’s view, the way to achieve happiness is to cultivate rationality and practice it in society. This is flourishing, or doing the right thing under different circumstances. In Nicomachean Ethics, he breaks down virtues into two categories: Moral and intellectual.

Moral virtues are developed by “habit.” Among moral virtues, the author categorizes courage, temperance, justice, truthfulness, self-discipline, moderation, modesty, humility, generosity, friendliness, and honesty. These virtues bring honor to human beings. Among moral vices, he considers cowardice, self-indulgence, recklessness, wastefulness, greed, vanity, untruthfulness, dishonesty, and injustice. These acts are vices that bring dishonor to human beings.

One virtue not discussed by Aristotle in depth is love. He does make casual references to the concept of love in his discussion of friendship as a virtue. He touches on love only as a dispassionate virtuous love and only in the context of friendship:

“Most people seem, from a desire for honor, to wish to be loved rather than to love . . .” Friendship, however, seems to lie in the loving, rather than in being loved.”

He extolls the virtues of friendship as the object of love.

An Aristotelian analysis would consider the emotion of love itself as a virtue and discuss its corresponding vices as well. The good life requires people to be virtuous for the benefit of others, which also increases an individual’s sense of well-being. Love is a highly emotional state of kindness and affection. It fosters compassion for other human beings and is an unselfish expression of virtue. As a virtue, love would be an unselfish activity aimed at benefitting those who are being loved as opposed to those who are doing the loving.

Like all virtues, love is often accompanied by vices such as hatred, selfishness, or egotism. These negative qualities are the opposite of virtuous activities aimed at benefiting others, making a good life unattainable.

According to Aristotle, intellectual virtues are acquired at birth and through education as people proceed through life. He holds intellectual virtues in high regard, especially practical wisdom:

“Practical wisdom . . . is concerned with things human and things about which it is possible to deliberate; for we say this is above all the work of the man of practical wisdom, to deliberate well, but no one deliberates about things invariable, nor about things which have not an end, and that a good that can be brought about by action. The man who is without qualification good at deliberating is the man who is capable of aiming in accordance with calculation at the best for man of things attainable by action.”

Aristotle appears to hold intellectual contemplation as the highest virtue. The opposite of practical wisdom is “intuitive reason; for intuitive reason is of the limiting premises, for which no reason can be given.” Therefore, an Aristotelian analysis of “intuitive reason” would determine that opinion and conjecture are not virtuous because they do not involve deliberation or calculation.

Happiness necessary to achieve the good life must be attained by applying reason and intellect to virtuous activity.

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Greek religion was quite different from the Abrahamic religions in that Greek religion was a "do ut des" (I give that you might give) arrangement, with ritual performance and actions either pleasing or displeasing the gods. Matters of what the Abrahamic religions would call "faith" were of little importance. Although Aristotle is generally opposed to superstition, religious faith is simply not an issue he discusses, yet it is viewed as a virtue within many communities in the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Thus, faith is considered a virtue in these religions, but it is not a virtue discussed by Aristotle.

Aristotle would define the concept of faith as a sort of trust grounded in the nature of the entity being trusted. Faith would be both unrestricted and unconditional. Job and Abraham are both figures who trust God unconditionally due to God's nature; when they obey divine commandments, it is not because they have specific evidence that God is making good suggestions, but rather because it is God who is commanding such actions. Faith and trust are virtues forming the building blocks of many religions and serve to build strong bonds within religious communities.

Faith, however, is associated with the vice of credulity. The impulse to trust coreligionists can make religious people potential victims of "affinity fraud," in which a member of a religious group (or one who pretends to be a member) uses that trust to defraud coreligionists.

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One way to look at this question is through Aristotle's concept of virtue, or "the good." Aristotle believed that virtue was a "golden mean" between two extremes:

Virtue, then, is a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean, i.e. the mean relative to us, this being determined by a rational principle, and by that principle by which the man of practical wisdom would determine it. Now it is a mean between two vices, that which depends on excess and that which depends on defect.

Courage, to use one of Aristotle's examples, is a mean between cowardice on the one hand and irresponsible rashness on the other. Both cowardice and rashness are understood to be vices--one "excess" and one "defect"--but the mean between them is virtue. This can apply to more or less any human characteristic in a modern context. For example, wise economic decision-making would lie somewhere between frugality and wasteful spending. For a parent, responsible and wise disciplining of children would be somewhere between harshness and indulgence. A sensible, and to Aristotle "virtuous" approach to one's job would lie somewhere between laziness and neglect and what we call in modern life a "workaholic." Aristotle's list of virtues is not exhaustive but rather creates a sort of framework for thinking about virtue.

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When defining or identifying a virtue or vice not defined within Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, one must search hard. It seems,for some, that Aristotle was rather efficient in naming virtues and vices. That said, one virtue (which the defining of can tend to be rather subjective) he seems to have "forgotten" is accountability. While the recognition of virtues and vices is based upon one's ability to be accountable (or not accountable) for his or her actions, accountability fails to show up on Aristotle's list. 

Using Aristotelian analysis (or logic), one remember that much of Aristotle's logic and reasoning revolved around deductions. (According to Aristotle, "a deduction is speech (logos) in which, certain things having been supposed, something different from those supposed results of necessity because of their being so" (Aristotle's Prior Analytics I.2).) Essentially, this ideology means that certain things are possible (let us say "Z") because of other things (let us say "Y"). Basically, "Y" brings about "Z," and (therefore) "Z" could not exist without "Y." 

Under this logic, one possesses the virtue of accountability ("Z") based upon his or her recognition of that actions ("Y") brings about certain consequences (both positive and negative) under which a person accepts accountability. 

The opposite of accountability, or the vice associated with accountability, is blameless or unaccountable. Under this, one would not recognize her or her responsibility associated with his or her actions. 

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