The Internet Classics Archive | Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle
Home; All editions. The Nicomachean ethics / Aristotle ; translated with an introd. by David Ross ; rev. by J.L. Ackrill and J. O. Urmson Aristotle · View online. Of Aristotle's works, few have had as lasting an influence on subsequent Western thought as The Nicomachean Ethics. In it, Date: 01/15/; Publisher: Pearson Checking availability for Buy Online, Pick up in Store Instant Purchase. Views. CrossRef citations to date. Altmetric. Listen Accepted 04 Dec Published online: 07 May The Nicomachean ethics (M. Ostwald, Trans.).
Aristotle, I submit, did not search for exceptionless moral principles because he did not think that such principles were necessary in order to provide an adequate systematic account of morality. The aim of this paper, then, is twofold: In this respect I hope to contribute to the efforts of various scholars in figuring out how to best understand the text of NE.
Second, I hope to contribute to the current exciting and controversial debate over particularism. Nevertheless, to the best of my knowledge no one has yet offered a comprehensive particularist interpretation of NE, 3 and many philosophers remain suspicious of the possibility of constructing a particularist moral theory. Next, I argue that Aristotle is not trying to help us to identify which of the range of actions available to us is or are morally right, but rather, that his theory is meant to teach us how to explain why those acts that we already know are right are, in fact, right.
What Aristotle is giving us, I argue, is an explanatory schema that we can use in order to explain the rightness of particular actions. The Particularism-Generalism Debate Particularism has received a lot of attention in recent years.
So I want to begin by stating briefly what I think particularism is, and what I mean when I say that Aristotle is offering a particularist account of morality.
The Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle
The particularism-generalism debate, I propose, is a debate over the nature of moral explanation. And moral theories are among other things supposed to explain moral phenomena, including the rightness and wrongness of actions. Traditionally, philosophers have thought that in order to explain the rightness and wrongness of actions we must find and formulate exceptionless moral principles — principles that identify features that all and only morally right actions have in common.
Utilitarianism is a paradigmatic example of such attempts. Yet despite the continuing efforts of many of the most able philosophers in the past few centuries, such comprehensive exceptionless moral principles have not yet been found.
Particularism, in my view, is best understood as a research program; it is not a single moral theory, but rather a meta-theoretical commitment to the possibility of explaining moral phenomena including the rightness and wrongness of actions without appealing to exceptionless moral principles. Particularism ought to be contrasted with Generalism — a meta-theoretical commitment to the view that in order to explain moral phenomena we must find and formulate exceptionless moral principles — and not with any individual moral theory.
And indeed both strategies are well represented in the literature. Some philosophers argue that Aristotle wanted to provide a regimen for a good moral life and that his ethical work was focused on questions about good character or the concepts of virtue, happiness, and justice rather than rightness.
On these views, then, Aristotle did not try to find and formulate exceptionless moral principles because he was not interested in explaining the rightness of actions at all. Other philosophers propose a virtue-based criterion of moral rightness of the following form: VE An act is right iff a fully virtuous agent might perform it in the circumstances.
It seems reasonable to think that a virtuous person chooses to perform an action because it is right. So although VE might be a true exceptionless generalization it seems to be explanatorily vacuous; if we wish to explain why a certain act is right we ought not to appeal to the fact that a virtuous person might perform it, but rather, we should cite the features of the action and the situation in virtue of which a virtuous person might choose to perform it.
Broadie recognizes that Aristotle did not offer a criterion of moral rightness. This is why she claims that Aristotle fails to produce the kind of position that it is a modern tradition to expect. But why does Broadie think that Aristotle provides no ground-level normative ethics? And since Aristotle did not present any exceptionless moral principles he did not offer a systematic ground-level normative ethics. However, with the particularist research program in mind, a new interpretative strategy becomes available.
Aristotle may be offering a systematic ground-level normative ethics without appealing to exceptionless moral principles. In the following section I will argue that this is, in fact, what Aristotle is doing in NE.
But this term has two connotations: Therefore, we should start perhaps with what is known to us. That man is all-best who himself works out every problem … That man, too, is admirable who follows one who speaks well. He who cannot see the truth for himself, nor, hearing it from others, Store it away in his mind, that man is utterly useless.
This enquiry towards first principles, Aristotle argues, must begin with what is known to us . Our starting points, I suggest, are the normative statuses of particular actions. In other words, we must start our moral theorizing from our judgments about particular actions. This is one reason why Aristotle insists that a competent student is one who has had a good moral upbringing . A person who is brought up well should be able to tell apart noble acts from ignoble ones; he is expected to be able to identify courageous acts, or just acts, and he is expected to be able to tell them apart from those acts that are cowardly or unjust.
A native speaker of a language can often tell whether a sentence is grammatical even in cases in which she does not know why it is so. Aristotle thinks that with a proper moral upbringing one can form habits that would enable one to distinguish right actions from wrong ones . This is one reason why in I.
- The Nicomachean Ethics
Our discussion, Aristotle tells us, concerns the rightness of actions but it also starts with correct judgments about which particular actions are right. The ability to identify right acts as right is acquired by habituation and the habits we form depend on the kind of moral upbringing we get.
Having correct starting points is vital to a successful dialectical enquiry; if our initial judgments about the normative statuses of actions are incorrect, then the first principles we discover by way of a dialectical enquiry from these judgments are likely to be false.
He then goes on to say this: For the start of something seems to be more than half of the whole, and through it many of the things being looked for seem to become evident. Finally, Aristotle stresses again the importance of having the correct starting points . But he warns us that the kind of explanation we ought to seek should be appropriate to the subject matter we are investigating .
In geometry we can give demonstrative explanation. After reminding us in II. These observations, Aristotle tells us, hold true for health and strength as well as for characteristics like temperance, courage, and other virtues. To act in accordance with the mean is not only the way to acquire virtuous characteristics, but is also the mark of virtuous actions. Aristotle seems to think that his comments on the mean are helpful. But what kind of help does he think these comments provide?
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Broadie proposes the following hypothesis: This may be what happens in NE II. However, I doubt that this is what Aristotle had in mind. We stated earlier that we must choose the median, and not excess or deficiency, and that the median is what right reason dictates … but this statement, true though it is, lacks clarity. In all other fields of endeavor in which scientific knowledge is possible, it is indeed true to say that we must exert ourselves or relax neither too much nor too little, but to an intermediate extent and as right reason demands.
But if this is the only thing a person knows, he will be none the wiser: I propose that these remarks are meant to help us to explain why those acts that we already know are virtuous are virtuous. If we can tell — as we must be able to do in order to obtain starting points for our ethical enquiry — that a particular act is courageous, for instance, we now know that this action lies in the mean. So we can explain its rightness by pointing out that this act is neither excessive nor deficient.
This, of course, is a rudimentary sketch of an explanatory schema but we can now already identify the basic structure of the explanation: Aristotle recognizes that what he has given us so far is extremely undeveloped and he goes on to expound on this explanatory model in several phases.
First, after presenting the bare bones of his explanatory schema, Aristotle discusses some general features of the virtues: By the end of II. We now know a bit more about the proper explanation of the virtuousness of a particular action.
Aristotle turns to this in II. However, this general statement is not enough; we must also show that it fits particular instances. For in a discussion of moral actions, although the general statements have a wider range of application, statements on particular points have more truth in them: Aristotle, then, wants to show us that by applying his schema properly we can generate adequate explanation of the rightness of particular actions.
In the remainder of II. And whenever possible he introduces the relevant vocabulary we should use in our explanation. If we want to explain why an action is generous we should locate the action as a mean on a scale ranging from stinginess to extravagance.
Aristotle goes on to list relevant scales for other virtues. Moreover, we know that if she did not take pleasure in her generous donation, then she did not act generously. This explanatory schema does not generate deductive explanations.
From the fact that Ms.Aristotle on the Mean State of Shame or Modesty (N.E. book 4) - Philosophy Core Concepts
Some readers of NE are puzzled by the seriousness with which Aristotle approaches the doctrine of the mean. As Broadie puts it: Aristotle regards [the doctrine of the mean] as an important contribution, to judge by the solemnity with which he introduces it and the many pages where he strains over the details of its application. Yet the doctrine often gets a disappointed reception.
It seems at first to offer special illumination, but in the end, according to its critics, it only deals with truisms together with a questionable taxonomy of virtues and vices. This is why Aristotle methodically lists not only those virtues and vices that have names, but also those that do not have names, and this is why he identifies those qualities that resemble virtues but are not quite virtues. The proper explanation of the rightness of each individual action depends on the specific features of the particular act in question.
There is no algorithm that we can use to generate adequate explanations, as Aristotle emphasizes again in III. This is why Aristotle gives us many examples of how to generate explanations by substituting the truisms in the generic explanatory schema with particular features of actions. In his discussion of courage Aristotle specifies different possible objects of fear e.
For a courageous man feels and acts according to the merits of each case and as reason guides him. We also get examples of types of excess and deficiency III. With these finer distinctions we should be able to explain why certain actions that may appear courageous are not genuinely courageous. The more examples we get of the application of the general schema with respect to different virtues, and the more examples we get of various states that are similar to virtues but are not genuine virtues, the more confident we will be about the appropriateness of our generic schema, and the better prepared we will be to apply it in new situations.
Rosalind Hursthouse expresses another difficulty that my proposed interpretation helps to resolve. Why does Aristotle talk in terms of excess and deficiency, too … and too … at all? Why should he not rest content with saying that men may go wrong in countless ways, but hit the target and achieve excellence in only one b30ff rather than even suggesting that, for each virtue, there are just two opposed ways of going wrong?
The explanation of the rightness of an action involves finding the relevant scale on which the action or emotion is in the mean. I think I could mount a case for saying that Aristotle is arguing against having a lover.
Now, I want to end by quoting a longer bit from Book X page Nature's contribution is clearly not in our power, but it can be found in those who are truly fortunate as the result of some divine dispensation. Argument and teaching, presumably, are not powerful in every case, but the soul of the student must be prepared beforehand in its habits, with a view to its enjoying and hating in a noble way, like soil that is to nourish seed.
For if someone were to live by his feelings he would not listen to an argument to dissuade him, nor could he even understand it. How can we persuade a person in a state like this to change his ways? And, in general, feelings seem to yield not to argument but to force. There must, therefore, somehow be a pre-existing character with some affinity for virtue through its fondness for what is noble and dislike of what is disgraceful.
For this reason, their upbringing and pursuits should be regulated by laws, because they will not find them painful once they have become accustomed to them. Okay, so, he starts off by saying that nature is the main thing to ensure that one is capable of learning — but it is interesting that this alone is not enough. Nature is essential, but left on its own will not get you very far. The other is teaching, but teaching too may not help unless you have been prepared to hear the lesson — something Gramsci talks about at some length saying working class children need to be given discipline that they are unfamiliar with if they are to have any hope of succeeding in education.