Dialogue on Aristotle's Ethics

Contact: Dr. Jan Garrett

Revised March 15, 2010

Aristotle's position can only be understood in relation to two groups of thinkers, one non-philosophers, the other philosophers.

Non-philosophers (people taking first steps toward philosophy?)

Mona: the money-lover
Hedda: the ordinary hedonist (not a philosophical hedonist, hêdonê= pleasure)
Niki: the lover of victory, power, winning (nikê = victory)
Tim: the pursuer of honor, recognition, praise (timê = honor, office)
Aretha: the lover of moral excellence (aretê = virtue)
Stella (a Stoic):
the good is virtue and virtuous willing; it is incompatible with the passions, but compatible with poverty and an early death. (The Stoic School was actually founded in 300 B.C., 22 years after Aristotle's death. But the key ideas of Stoicism must have already been around because Aristotle seems to consciously distance himself from them.)

Olivia: the ethical objectivist (See Dialogue on Relativism for more about her.) Her chief role here is to interview Aristotle.

The excerpt from Aristotle in Boss, chapter 1, comes from two books-we would say chapters-from Aristotle's Ethics.

Olivia: Thank you, Aristotle, for agreeing to this interview. Can you tell me where you think we need to look to get sources of insight for ethical understanding?

Aristotle: The moral philosopher starts his reflections after having paid attention to what other people say and do, the person on the street as well as those who have a reputation for wisdom. He listens carefully and reflects on what other people say, often without thinking as carefully as they might. Only after collecting these opinions does he begin to construct his own view. He aims to preserve whatever truth he finds in other views but to leave aside their one-sidedness, their exaggerations and confusions.

Olivia: I happen to have a tape here of a recent conversation among today's students about one of your favorite topics, the good life. Let's listen in to what people are saying today. I'll then ask for your reflections.

[The tape is played.]

Mona: My Ethics prof asked us to write a little essay on happiness. No problem! Obviously, happiness is being rich. When you are rich you can have anything you want-you just go to the Mall and buy it. Lonely? throw a lavish party and invite people. Unpopular? Buy a fancy car and offer people rides. Sick? Hire a specialist to treat you. If any more evidence is needed, you have only to look around you. What are people doing? Scurrying hither and yon, trying to get more money. Look at TV, internet sites: full of advertisements from people and businesses trying to sell you things and get your money.

Hedda: Obviously, you're a bit confused, Mona. For some sicknesses there is no cure. Money cannot buy everything you might want. And you're wrong about people scurrying around-some aren't. Some are taking it easy. They may have money, but it's not their goal: The goal is having a good time, feeling good, enjoying oneself. And if you ask those who are actively seeking money why they're doing it, they'll tell you, not to become rich but to be able to afford some pleasant things or to avoid unpleasant things (such as the repossession of their car or the starvation of their children).

Enjoyment comes in many forms: a good massage, tasty food, good jokes, entertaining conversation, a funny movie, good sex, etc. Obviously, happiness is a life of pleasure. Not just one kind, though: one kind of pleasure by itself would be boring-it would stop being pleasant.

Niki: Clearly you both have missed the target. True happiness is winning, victory, overcoming of obstacles, or, frankly, kicking butt, showing you're top dog. Ask any athlete or warrior. Ask most politicians. If they're honest, they'll tell you I'm right. The happiest life would be one in which you are constantly the winner.

Tim: Winning is important, I admit, but what is really good is the honor and praise that winners usually receive. The winner of the spelling bee, the winner of Presidential elections, even the winners in wars typically receive honors and praise. We have an inherent desire to be honored by others. That's what true happiness is.

Aretha: The fact that somebody receives honors and praise may be a sign that she's a good person, but it is certainly no guarantee. What's important in life is being a good person (being morally excellent: honest, kind, reliable, fair in dealing with others, and brave, and so forth). I'd rather be a good person than be a bad person who is praised by scoundrels-that's flattery--and falsely convinced that I am a good person.

[End of tape]

Olivia (speaking to Aristotle): What can we learn from these people?

Aristotle: As Hedda guesses in her criticism of Mona, happiness is an end, a goal, that is not a means. Unless one is a miser and perversely likes to hoard gold or is overly thrilled about increasingly large numbers in her bank account, money is only valuable as a means to something else. That's why Mona is wrong: a life devoted to pursuing wealth is ultimately unsatisfying. (Of course, if you also pursue it by theft and plunder, you'll make enemies who will want to destroy you and live in constant fear. Not a recipe for happiness.)

Happiness is a self-sufficient goal. What that means is this: if you had it, you would not imagine anything that could be added to make it better. That's why Hedda is wrong. Even if physical pleasure is somehow part of the good life, it would be reasonable for a human being to ask for more. Humans are social and rational animals. They are not fulfilled unless they are able to develop and exercise their social and rational capacities, capacities of their souls, not just of their bodies.

If a good is self-sufficient, one must possess it securely. But the external causes of pleasure are mostly outside our control. I may enjoy owning a beautiful fancy sportscar, but I can never be sure that somebody won't scratch its paint. One may enjoy the attentions of my girl- or boyfriend, but her attentions might be attracted to somebody else, or she might get sick.

Because happiness is self-sufficient, Niki is wrong: winning is not happiness. If it were, a person who wins in a game by cheating would be happy. Whatever someone gains that way is a hollow victory: one knows one didn't win by playing the game according to the rules, or one fears being discovered. Besides, winning in a fair competition requires factors beyond our control--like the imperfections of our rivals or opponents.

Similarly, receiving honor falls short of happiness. Honor depends too much on others. Therefore it's insecure. In itself it is not a self-sufficient good. It's not happiness, the good life. So Tim is mistaken.

Olivia: What about Aretha's view?

Aristotle: Aretha's view is closest to my own. Moral and intellectual virtue is at the core of my understanding of happiness, the good life for the human being. More than honor or winning or wealth or physical pleasure, moral virtue is up to us: it depends on us and is in our power.

The most refined people, like Aretha, want to possess virtue for its own sake. They want to receive honor and praise--especially from people they regard as good judges of virtue--because in that case the praise is a sign of their own goodness, a mirror, so to speak. But they don't want praise for its own sake.

Money, acquired without injustice, gives us the resources to do some praiseworthy things we couldn't have done otherwise. But money is a means. Victory is nice, but also as a means: good people seek political office so they can serve their communities. If one's rivals are more capable of serving their communities, a good person will withdraw from the race and support their rivals.

Olivia: I've heard that you think that happiness is not a feeling or a mental state, but an activity of some sort related to virtue. I'm not really sure I understand these terms well: mental state, activity, virtue. Can you clarify them for me?

Aristotle: Gladly. But I must warn you, I have to introduce some philosophical ideas to do so, so please pay close attention.

Most broadly speaking, things can be classed into categories. Examples of categories are individual things, actions, and qualities. (There are other categories too.)

Of course, virtues and vices are qualities of individuals. But they are not qualities of the body, the physical dimension of a person. Hairiness and physical strength are qualities of the body. Virtues and vices are qualities of the soul.

Now we can divide the qualities of the soul into three types:

a) potentialities, like the capacity to feel passions such as fear or anger or love
b) dispositions or states; these are stable qualities, like courage or cowardice. (There are states of character, such as moral virtues and vices; and there are intellectual states, such as practical wisdom and scientific knowledge.)
c) passions themselves, like fear or anger
Virtues and vices are not passions, though they affect how we experience the passions. Nor are they mere potentialities, because these are things we are born with. We are not born virtuous or vicious.

That means, by elimination, that they must be dispositions or states.

Olivia: I'm not sure I understand what dispositions or states are.

Aristotle: Our moral dispositions are the qualities that dispose us to feel the passions according to a recognizable pattern. Virtues dispose us to feel them rightly, in a praiseworthy way. Vices dispose us to feel them wrongly, in a blameworthy way--too much or too little.

Olivia: Don't virtues and vices affect our actions too?

Aristotle: Indeed they do. Virtues dispose us to act rightly, vices to act wrongly--too much or too little.

Virtues are the basis not only for feeling fear or anger as we should, when we should, to the extent we should. They are also the basis for acting as we should, when we should, to the extent we should.

Olivia: Can you explain now why even Aretha's view needs modification?

Aristotle: Yes, Moral virtue is a habit, a disposition, a readiness to act or to feel in certain ways. Moral virtue, by itself, is not an activity. Take courage or generosity, for instance. Does a courageous person stop being courageous when he goes to sleep? Does a generous person stop being generous when he sits down to read a book?

Olivia: No, I don't think so.

Aristotle: Once a virtue is developed in a person, it becomes more or less permanent, a lasting feature of her soul. But it gets activated immediately when an occasion for its use arises.

Thus, the courage of a courageous person is activated when she sees a toddler wandering into a busy street and acts immediately, even at risk to herself, to get the toddler off the street.

Virtue in use, active virtue, is more complete than virtue all by itself, i.e., virtue as a habit or disposition ready for use but not being used.

So I say that

happiness is the life of the activity of the soul in accord with virtue.

Olivia: I heard that you believe that each species of living being has a function, and that happiness is somehow related to the human function.

Aristotle: I sometimes get to my definition of happiness this way. Let us inquire about the human function, the type of activity that is characteristically human. Perception and feeling, pleasure and pain — this is shared with beasts. A life full of the pleasures that pigs and dogs enjoy would not be enough for a noble being like a human being.

The human function involves reason. Reason is not merely a tool to help us gain pleasure and avoid pain. When educated, reason can wisely rule the soul. If, in addition, our passions are trained to follow reason, the whole soul can operate smoothly and we can live virtuously in our communities.

So I say that happiness (or the good for man) is the life of the activity of the soul in accord with reason, when the rational faculty is directed by properly oriented, that is, virtuous reason.

Stella: Tell me, if a virtuous person dies young, say, just after having become a genuinely good person, can we say he has achieved the good life. My own view is that the answer to this question is Yes. Once one has achieved the good, the length of time added is an indifferent matter.

Aristotle: I find this too counter-intuitive. One nice day does not make a summer. Similarly, a short life of activity in accord with virtue would not be a truly happy life-we can imagine asking for a longer life, though a short virtuous life is better than a longer life of wickedness.

We can also imagine asking for a modest quantity of material possessions, at least a few good friends, and avoidance, for most of our lives, of painful diseases and disability. These things add to happiness and make it more complete, though the core of happiness is the life of activity in accord with virtue. Your young adult who is virtuous already has that.

Stella: My view is that to live happily and virtuously and wisely, one must learn to eliminate the passions. One must learn to live without greed and anger and fear and desire for pleasure, even without desire for being praised. Obviously, the passions are the source of personal misery and social discord.

Aristotle: I disagree with you, Stella. on a number of points, and on this one especially. As I explain in Book II of my [Nichomachean] Ethics,

moral virtue is a disposition lying in a mean, or an intermediate point, related to choice (and to feeling), etc.

I have already explained the difference between a disposition and an activity, and how a disposition is related to an activity.

Stella: I agree with your distinction between a disposition and an activity.

Aristotle: But the part about the mean is equally important.

Anger is not wrong in itself; it's wrong when it is excessive or deficient.

Desire for pleasure is not wrong in itself; it's wrong when it is excessive or deficient.

Desire for material things is not wrong in itself; it's wrong when it is excessive or deficient.

Desire for honor is not wrong in itself; it's wrong when it is excessive or deficient.

Greed is wrong, because greed is by definition excessive desire for money or possessions.

The moral virtues may be understood in terms of the mean:
Mildness is the virtue related to anger, somewhere between irascibility (the habit of persons excessively prone to anger) and an inability to get angry even when one should.

Generosity is the virtue related to giving money, somewhere between prodigality [the disposition to give excessively] and stinginess.

Proper love of honor is the virtue related to honor, somewhere between excessive love of honor (i.e., love of flattery) and lack of feeling for one's own self-worth.

Reason plays an important role in determining precisely when and to what extent one should activate her anger, desire for pleasure, etc. When I say that virtue is a mean, I don't mean that we should always be angry in an average sort of way.

Sometimes anger is appropriate, but we must be careful not to be too angry, or angry with the wrong person, or angry on the wrong occasion, or to hold a grudge too long. Feeling the passions and acting appropriately is a kind of art. It requires moral judgment. We acquire this ability (which I call practical wisdom) best through association with others who have already acquired it.

What I said about the virtue of mildness and appropriate anger can be generalized to the virtue of courage and appropriate fearing, the virtue of generosity and appropriate giving, and so on.

In any case, my full definition of moral virtue is as follows:

a state [of character] related to choice [and feeling], lying in a mean, the mean relative to us, this being determined by a rational principle, and by the principle by which the person of practical wisdom would determine it. (See Boss 2010, p. 46.2)