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...
(The entire section is 1,290 words.)