In this short piece, inspired by re-reading The Ethics, Aristotle (384 to 323 BCE), I intend to illustrate what ethics means and implies for Aristotle. This has a modern relevance, especially because of the development of Virtue Ethics, and needs to be pointed out as so many modern uses of the term 'ethics' unhelpfully reduce the content and scope of the term.
In The Ethics, Aristotle sets out to examine the nature of human flourishing. Aristotle argues that human flourishing consists in the 'activity of the soul in accordance with virtue'. So what are virtues? They are precisely those principles of excellence that lead to human flourishing. In its earliest appearance in Greek, this notion of excellence was ultimately bound up with the notion of the fulfillment of purpose or function (telos).
Aristotle argues that it is for the sake of thriving that we do everything else - what leads to this? Just as the virtues of an axe leads to its excellence in chopping, it is the virtues of the soul that lead to human thriving. The virtues of an axe would be in something like its heft, its robustness, and in its hard edge. So what activities of the soul constitute our virtues? First, let us remind ourselves that to the ancient Greek it would be almost incomprehensible to wonder if virtue (arete) might not lead to flourishing. It would be as odd as wondering if a good heft, a robust and well secured shaft, and a hard-sharpish edge might not lead to the ability of an axe to chop well. To the ancient Greeks, it was obvious that virtues led to flourishing (if the virtues could be identified and cultivated). Hence, the Aristotelian quest is to articulate human virtues - those principles of excellence that lead to flourishing. For an axe flourishing is to chop. For a person flourishing is living up to one's full potential.
One proposal for a principle of excellance is the 'Doctrine of the Mean'. Aristotle states that a virtuous activity of the soul is one that aims for the mean or middle ground deficiency and excess. Thus, he tends to view virtue as a relative state: there are no absolutes: morality calls for judgment. This doesn't make his ideas 'Moral Relativism'. He makes an the analogy with food. He would say that for a toddler a slab of meat might be too much but for a body builder it might not be enough. The sufficiency is not in the meat but in a relationship between the properties of the meat and the particulars of the one who needs feeding. For each situation, "the mean" exists between the state of deficiency and the state of excess but this is not laid down in some pre-given measure, a measure that does not take into account the precise and individual circumstances.
Aristotle proposes many different examples of virtues and vices, together with their mean states. There are moral virtues, such as courage and justice, and intellectual virtues, such as knowledge and wisdom. He discusses things like generosity and anger. All of this very interesting and insightful. He was aware, of course, that there are things, actions and emotions, that do not allow an actual mean state. His main point appears to be that leading a life that flourishes implies the ability to make judgements that find a balance.
For Aristotle, the virtuous person is one who is capable of observation and ratiocination (the bases of informed judgment) for only such a person can be sensitive to the situation and find the middle ground. We are imperfect and err on one side or the other.
Aristotle says virtues have to be cultivated. Further, he says, only one who has been brought up correctly is fully capable of virtue. Thus, Aristotle argues that virtue is not a natural state; we are not born with it and can only acquire it through an enculturation that is wider than a formal education.
A virtuous person, being properly brought up, does not have to calculate that disgusting things are disgusting - they see it straight away. There is an art to living and this are means that sometimes one must just see things straight away and at other times one contemplates the options.
Without the art of living one is likely to reduce virtue to a recipe [or Code of Conduct, or Professional Ethics] and thus miss the middle ground in some circumstances. In other words, not to be virtuous after all. Thus, to be virtuous one must act virtuously with the intention of virtue, and not just the form. To be virtuous, amongst other things, is to be mindful and fully engaged with living.
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I recommend the latest edition of the book by Irwin. It has a good revised translation with generous notes that include a summary of the argument of each chapter. (The Ethics, is a compilation by his son Nicomachus, or possibly the notes were dedicated to him, and thus it is called the Nicomachean Ethics.)