The study of ethics is centered around the nature of human well-being. People study ethics in hopes they may gain little nuggets of knowledge that will aid them in improving their quality of life. For some, Aristotelian virtue ethics may provide exactly that. It is simultaneously a philosophy of action and reflection, that attributes to the development and daily enactment of virtue to experiencing a life of eudaimonia (the ultimate human happiness through flourishment). Aristotelian virtue ethics encourages that a virtuous character is developed through reflection, and deliberative action brings into fruition a life in which virtue is enacted daily. This is key to living a good life.
Two kinds of virtues are distinguished by Aristotle. Each pertain to parts of the soul in relation to reason. One pertains to the part which can engage in reasoning, and the other pertains to the part which cannot reason but is still capable of following reason. In turn, intellectual virtues are also divided into two types. Practical thinking and theoretical reasoning. A general look at virtue is taken, followed by the dissection of ethical virtues such as courage. Finally, intellectual virtues such as practical wisdom are considered. Every human is born with the capacity to act ethically virtuous and be practically wise, but most go through two stages to achieve these goals. The first stage occurs during childhood when proper habits must be developed.
According to Aristotle a proper up-bringing is what gives us the insight that eventually allows us to take appropriate deliberative action: action that is best supported by reason when facing diverse situations. An inevitable feature of childhood is having a bundle of disorganized likes and dislikes based on experience and habit that shape your ethical approach. Yet, receiving a sufficiently rich basis for constructive ethical reflection is shaped by early experiences and should be strived for. It is for this reason Aristotle stresses the importance of being brought up well. He also places emphasis on the fact that embracing general rules not is enough to acquire practical wisdom. It is the deliberative execution of social, and emotional skills that follow reasoning which allow us to put our understanding of well-being into appropriate philosophical action. This is acquired through practice.
It is the situations we repeatedly face, beginning in childhood, that evoke the budding emergence of ethical virtue because they require appropriate deliberative response.
The second stage consists of the acquisition of practical wisdom after the ability to reason is fully developed. Ethical virtue is only fully developed when combined with practical wisdom; meaning you don’t first acquire ethical virtues, then later practical wisdom. As we become capable of doing more of our own thinking and rely less on other to tell us what is right, our deliberative skills improve, and our emotional responses are perfected: creating a larger picture of human life.
Aristotle states that ethical virtue exists between a state of deficiency or excess as a golden mean, while considering the capacity of the individual. For this reason, it may be compared to technical skills. Skilled workers, in their work, attempt to strike a balance between the two extremes to avoid excess or deficiency. This can also be seen in an appropriate deliberative response. Someone who is courageous judges to what degree a dangerous situation is worth going up against; fully measuring the circumstances of the situation. He falls somewhere in between being rash: feeling little fear in every circumstance pertaining to peril, deciding it’s worth facing, and a coward who excessively fears and fleas all he perceives to be dangerous. The same rational holds true for ethical virtue according to Aristotle. The intermediate point chosen will vary depending on the situation; given that there are no universal rules for many situations. For this reason, finding the mean is not a thoughtless mechanical procedure. It requires ascertainment of all the details pertaining to the situation and the application of philosophical reflection to determine if the appropriate response is being enacted.
It is evident by Aristotle’s treatment of virtues that occasionally having strong feelings is called for in certain situations. A small degree of anger is appropriate sometimes; but occasionally the circumstance calls for greater amounts of anger to be felt. It is meant to be proportionate to the seriousness of the situation, not to be quantified by a scale. Emotion should never reach a point of undermining reasoning; reaching the point in which you lose control. There are two distinct ways of viewing an adoption of the doctrine of the mean. The first states that virtue lies between the vices of deficiency and excess. The second one states a virtuous person aims to act in a way that is intermediate between extreme alternatives.
Through philosophical reflection Aristotle examines the nature of aretê, how friendship and pleasure exist in relation to achieving eudaimonia. Parallel to reflection, a clear understanding of how the many goods aimed for in life, such as, pleasure, wealth, honor, friendship and virtue fit together as important components to living the good life is paramount. Humans beings have many varying views on what constitutes as the greatest good. Most agree on that which is good: being healthy, experiencing pleasure, having friends, having virtues such as temperance. Yet opinions vary on which good is of the upmost importance; which will lead to living the good life. Aristotle is in search of highest good: that which is desirable for itself and not for the sake of some other good. A good which all other goods are desired for its sake. He feels it is ethical reflection that will enlighten us enough to reach a true answer and ultimately allow us to bask in the benefit of resolving this disagreement. Here the intention behind further exploring ethics does not take on the form of other disciplines, such as theoretical discipline. We ask what the greatest good is to better help us develop a fuller understanding of what appropriate philosophical action is, so that we may perhaps lead the best life achievable. We don’t not search for an answer simply for the sake of knowing.
Yet ethics and other theoretical and practical inquiry do not differ completely. In all cases, you cannot start without initial assumptions. These initial assumptions are what is used as the first stepping stone towards progress towards understanding why things are the way they are. Someone who does not first make observations of biological processes or astronomical phenomena cannot develop a sufficient understanding of the ins and outs of these sciences. Another point to consider along with that is that ethical progress can only be made if we have come to enjoy that which is generous, just, and all other things that are virtuous. A virtuous person takes pleasure in exercising intellectual skill, as does anyone whom has developed skills in performing a difficult and demanding task. Furthermore, when placed in situations in which one must make an appropriate deliberative decision, they do not have to fight against an internal strain wishing they act in ways which are not virtuous. There is no pressure from within to do something considered shameful. There is no distress from abstaining from a pleasure that should be forgone. This is important because ethical exploration should be worthwhile and enjoyable, rather than a burden or constraint. So, when we engage in such, we question what it is about doing so that is so pleasurable. This permits us to be able to make a comparison to all other things that are good: honor, friendship, and pleasure alike. We can question whether any one is more desirable than another.
Aristotle discerns Eudaimonia as the highest good because we choose happiness as the end which we wish to achieve. Goals such as being in good health are subordinate to experiencing eudaimonia, for they are sought for the sake of hopefully achieving well-being. They are not which well-being consists of. Yet it doesn’t do one much good to simply acknowledge that happiness is the highest good. Aristotle’s theory to what leads to experiencing eudaimonia is that happiness is not a virtue, but rather, it is virtuous activity. To reach such an end Aristotle argues we must determine that which happiness is composed of. He concludes that happiness is composed of activity of the rational part of the soul in accordance with virtue; the ability to take appropriate deliberative action that is best supported by reason. It is our capacity to use reason as a guide that sets us apart from other species, and is what gives us the potential to better our lives. To live well, one must consistently engage in that which actualizes the virtues of the rational part of the soul for the entire duration of life.
It’s important to remain aware of the emphasis Aristotle places on the role of possession of other goods (wealth, power, and friends) to be happy. Their acquisition, may not be the final goal; yet they play a key role in the journey. Why would possession or lack of possession have any importance when it comes to achieving eudaimonia, when eudaimonia consists of virtuous activity? It is because these other goods allow for engagement in virtuous activity and without them the chance to act virtuously to some extent diminishes. Finding many opportunities to take appropriate deliberative action, becomes a harder task when you are weak, ugly, childless, and friendless. It seems then that happiness can be easily robed by chance, and that to some extent requires good fortune. Yes, fate may play a part in having the opportunity to be surrounded by those who help us become virtuous; but the responsible predominately rests on our shoulders to acquire virtue through philosophical reflection, and exercise them through appropriate deliberative action. Aristotle insists acting towards achieving the highest good is not something that is left up to chance. We forge our own path.
Aristotelian virtue ethics is simultaneously a philosophy of action and reflection, that gives great evidence that happiness is composed of activity of the rational part of the soul in accordance with virtue; the ability to take appropriate deliberative action that is best supported by reason. It serves as guide for developing virtuous character by pointing to what leads to constructive ethical reflection, that later leads to the fruition of appropriate deliberative, which again, is action that is best supported by reason when facing diverse situations. It sets us up for philosophical reflection, and leading a life in which virtue is enacted daily. For some it provide exactly the little nuggets of knowledge that will aid them in improving their quality of life.