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Nicomachean Ethics


Explanations > Values > Nicomachean Ethics

Good | Moral virtue | Courage and temperance | Other virtues | Justice | Intellectual virtue | Evil and pleasure | Friendship | Pleasure and politics | See also


The Greep Philosopher Aristotle wrote a great work in ten books, Nicomachean Ethics in which he expounds on a set of values.

Book 1: The study of the good

Aristotle defined goal-directed (teleological) ethics in terms of purpose and achievement of those ends. Thus a sword that has the purpose of killing is a good sword if it achieves this well. In this sense, Aristotle translates 'good' as 'effective'.

The definition allows also allows for the separation out of virtue, or 'character-centered' ethics, in which ethics are based in the person and their innate character. Thus we can talk about a 'good' person.

For a happy life, Aristotle says you need health, good fortune and a good character. He also highlights rational choice: a person is not just innately good, but also decides to be good.

Book 2: Moral virtue

What Aristotle classified as moral virtues are most closely aligned with Western, Christian-based virtues, such as the Seven Virtues, and likely have similar roots.

For moral virtues, he named:

  • Courage: Overcoming fear to to what is right.
  • Temperance: Acting in moderation in all things.
  • Liberality: Being moderate in money matters, including using, borrowing and lending.
  • Magnificence: Making fair use of wealth or power.
  • Pride: Claiming what is yours by right.
  • Gentleness: With a slow recourse to anger.
  • Agreeableness: Being pleasant with all people.
  • Truthfulness: In all things.
  • Wit: Intelligence and humor.

Note how pride was considered a virtue, yet in a Christian setting became one of the Seven Deadly Sins. Perhaps these are two ends of the same spectrum: One can be justly proud of one's achievements whilst excessive pride puts oneself too far above others.

In all things, Aristotle generally preached moderation, finding the mean between extremes.

Book 3: Courage and temperance

Aristotle described actions as voluntary, involuntary and nonvoluntary. Praise and blame are given for voluntary actions. Other actions may be admired or pitied. When a person does something wrong by accident and apologizes, then the act is involuntary. If they are not sorry or ashamed, then the act is called non-voluntary.

He describes courage as overcoming fears such as death in battle. Temperance is described as not indulging oneself, not acting like a spoiled child.

Book 4: Other virtues

Other virtues described include liberality, amiability, sincerity, wit, and modesty.

Magnanimity is seen as as being layered on top of other virtues and based in understanding them both in oneself and others. Virtues generally are seen as a relative thing, and a 'good' person is only so in relation to others who who are better or worse.

Book 5: Justice

Aristotle saw justice as the cornerstone of society and, to be dispensed well, requires a very strong understanding of the other virtues.

He describes general justice as the simple compliance or non-compliance with stated laws. More complex is particular justice, which deals with situations where a person achieves a gain which appears excessive and hence may be considered unfair. These vices thus lead to 'unjust profits'.

Particular justice includes fair distribution of goods and righting situations where individuals have been wronged.

Book 6: Intellectual virtue

In complement to moral virtues, intellectual virtues are attributes of intelligence, and Aristotle defined five:

  • Knowledge: The accumulation of fact.
  • Art: The appreciation and creation of art.
  • Prudence: Discretion and foresight in practical affairs.
  • Intuition: Knowing without conscious thinking.
  • Wisdom: Knowing what is right.

Book 7: Evil and pleasure

Aristotle describes three types of evil in a person's character:

  • Vice: Extremes of behavior that are based in selfishness.
  • Incontinence: Understanding ethics but not exercising this.
  • Brutality: Physical threat or assault of others.

He also noted that some pleasures are good whilst others are not, and that pleasure is an outcome of actions.

Books 8 and 9: Friendship

Just as exercising virtues improves the self, so also can friendship. Aristotle identifies three types of friendship:

  • Friendship of utility: A relationship of convenience.
  • Friendship of pleasure: Delight in the company of another.
  • Friendship of the good: Enjoyment of one another's character.

Book 10: Pleasure and politics

Aristotle describes politics and ethics as virtually the same thing, and that politics is effectively ethics 'writ large', typically at the national or international level. Politics should thus be an honorable profession, befitting great people of noble stature.

So what?

Use principles that Aristotle understood so long ago, for example seeking the friendship of good that delights in the company and personality of others.

See also

Aristotle's Ethics, The Seven Virtues, The Seven Deadly Sins


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