Aristotle’s Ethics

 The Virtues and Vices


While it is helpful to see Aristotle’s list of virtues and vices laid out schematically, some of these are complicated enough that the abbreviated descriptions that fit on a chart are misleading. Consequently, I begin with narrative descriptions of each virtue.  


Narrative Descriptions  


Courage – is moderation in the tendencies to feel fear and boldness or confidence. Excess in the propensity to fear combined with deficiency in the propensity to be confident constitutes cowardice. Deficiency of fear and excess of confidence produce rashness or foolhardiness.  


Temperance – is moderation in the desire for physical pleasures. An excess of desire is overindulgence. Deficiency has no common name, but may be labeled “insensitivity.”  


Generosity or Liberality – is moderation in the size of the gifts one is prone to give or accept. The tendency to give in excess and accept too little is spendthriftiness or prodigality. The tendency to accept too much and give too little is stinginess.  


Magnificence or Munificence – has the same nature as generosity but applies to large public expenditures.  


Pride or High-Mindedness – is moderation in one’s desire for or tendency to demand great honors. The mean here is defined by what one deserves. Desiring more than one deserves is vanity. Desiring less than one deserves is excessive humility.  


Ambition – is similar to pride but pertains to smaller honors. There was no name for this virtue in Greek, and in English we use the same word both for the virtue and for the vice of excess (maybe we have trouble distinguishing them). The deficiency we just call “lack of ambition.” 


Good temper – is moderation in one’s proneness to anger. The vice of excess is irascibility or irritableness, of deficiency is spiritlessness or passivity (there’s not a good word for it). 


Truthfulness – is what Aristotle called moderation in one’s presentation of oneself, with boastfulness as the excess and self-deprecation as the deficiency. 


Wittiness – is moderation in the desire to amuse others. Excess desire is buffoonery, and deficient desire is boorishness. 


Friendliness – is moderation in the desire to please others generally. The excess is obsequiousness, and the deficiency is quarrelsomeness. 


Modesty or a sense of shame – is moderation in one’s susceptibility to shame or embarrassment. Shyness or bashfulness is the excess, and the deficiency is shamelessness. 


Righteous Indignation (nemesis) – is moderation in one’s tendency to feel pain at the good fortune of others or pleasure at their bad fortune. Moderation consists in feeling pain at good fortune which is contrary to desert (when bad people do well), and pleasure when the good fortune is deserved. It also means feeling pain at undeserved bad fortune and pleasure when people get their comeuppance. To feel pain at all good fortune, whether deserved or not, is envy. To feel pleasure at the bad fortune of others, regardless of desert, is malice.  


Justice - consists in a propensity to give or return to a person the right amount (what is due to them), whereas injustice allots them either more or less than what is due. We might label the vices “favoritism” and “discrimination.”


The Virtues

In a general way we have already defined virtue as the fulfillment of humanity’s distinctive function and as the mean between extremes. Another way to describe Aristotle’s concept of virtue is to consider each virtue as the product of the rational control of the passions. In this way we can combine all aspects of human behavior. Human nature consists for Aristotle not simply in rationally but in the full range covered by the vegetative, sensitive or appetitive, and the rational soul. Virtue does not imply the negation or rejection of any of these natural capacities. The moral person employs all of his or her capacities, physical, and mental. Corresponding to these two broad divisions in humanity there are two functions of reason, the intellectual and the moral, and each has its own virtues. There are accordingly intellectual virtues and moral virtues.



The intellectual virtues are philosophical wisdom and understanding and owe their birth and development to teaching and learning. Moral virtue comes about as a result of habit, whence comes the name ethics (ethike), "formed by a slight variation from the word ethos (habit)." All the moral virtues have to be learned and practiced, and they become virtues only through action, for "we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts." The "cardinal" moral virtues are also the virtues of magnificence, liberality, friendship, and self-respect. And although he acknowledged the central role of reason as a guide to practical and moral action, he nevertheless concluded that philosophical wisdom is superior to practical wisdom, that contemplation is most likely to lead to happiness.



Aristotle concludes that if happiness is the product of our acting according to our distinctive nature, it is reasonable to assume that it is acting according to our highest nature, and "that this activity is contemplative we have said." This activity is the best, says Aristotle, "since not only is reason the best thing in us, but the objects of reason are the best knowable objects." Moreover, contemplation "is most continuous, since we can contemplate truth more continuously than we can do anything." Finally, "we think happiness has pleasure mingled with it, but the activity of philosophic wisdom is admittedly the pleasantest of virtuous activities."



Last Updated: 6/3/19
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