Nicomachean ethics is the main work of ethics of Aristotle. It exposes his teleological and eudaemonist conception of practical rationality, his idea of virtue as mediocre, and his considerations about the role of habit and prudence in Ethics. It is considered the most mature representative of Aristotelian thought (Armstrong, 2017).
Aristotle begins his classes on ethics, according to the notes of his son, discussing the ideas of his teacher Plato. Although it will differ from this in many respects – from an idealism to a realism, if one may say so – the fundamental idea of Aristotle is, as for Plato, the Supreme Good. The supreme good is still and always happiness.
In Book II of Nicomachean Ethics, there is an excerpt that expresses, in an excellent manner, the purpose, object, and subject of the study of ethics: moral excellence, because it is related to emotions and actions, and in these there is excess, lack and middle ground (Aristotle & Irwin, 1999). There is also, in the same way, excess, lack and half-term in relation to actions. Now moral excellence relates to emotions and actions, in which excess is a form of error, as much as lack, while the middle is praised as a right; being praised and being right are characteristics of moral excellence. Moral excellence, therefore, is something like equidistance, because its target is the middle ground. In addition, it is possible to err in several ways, whereas one can only hit one way (also for this reason it is easy to err and difficult to hit – easy to miss the target, and difficult to hit in it); this is also why excess and lack are characteristic of moral deficiency, and the middle ground is a characteristic of moral excellence, for goodness is one, but evil is manifold.
Aristotle deepens the teachings he drew from Plato, and elaborates his ethical theory from the moral structures in the Greek community of the fifth century BC. In general, it can be said that his theory presents the procedure of the prudent man as a value, whose opinion of the older men, the experience of life and the customs of the city are objective conditions for philosophizing politically. Unlike Plato, Aristotle humanized the ultimate end, that is, the ultimate end was affirmed on the earth plane. For this reason, the ethical in Aristotle is understood from the ethos (of the custom), of the concrete way of living prevailing in the society (Aristotle & Irwin, 1999). It’s exactly the ethos which functions as a link between the legal and political spheres. Legal and political orders presuppose ethos.
The work of Aristotle is systematic and it is oriented to the ultimate end, the Supreme Good, identified with happiness, or eudemon, in Greek.
That is why he begins his argument by denying the Platonic postulate, even though such an investigation is made difficult by the fact that the Forms were introduced into philosophy by a friend. But the fact that Aristotle dedicated two books to the friendship, the VIII and IX, indicates well the degree of his relationship with Plato. But “perhaps it would seem better, and indeed it would even be an obligation, especially for a philosopher, to sacrifice even his closest personal relationships in defense of the truth.” The defense of the truth leads him to conclude that “Good, therefore, is not a generality corresponding to a unique form.” This is because good must be something attainable by man, through his activity, Aristotle, faithful to the scientific method, establishes a sort of classification of goods, and a hierarchy in its realization, taking as its criterion the end sought.
Since there is more than one purpose: the end of medicine is health, strategy, victory, and so on, we must pursue the good that is desirable because of something else for the good that is always desirable in itself (Gellera, 2017).
It seems that happiness, more than any other good, is regarded as this supreme good, for we choose it always by itself, and never by something else; but honors, pleasure, intelligence, and all other forms of excellence, although we choose them for ourselves (we would choose them even if nothing came of them), we choose them because of happiness, thinking that through them we will be happy. On the contrary, no one chooses happiness because of the various forms of excellence, nor, in general, for anything beyond itself. Also happiness is not an abstract, ideal form, but “happiness as a way of living well and doing well (Aristotle & Irwin, 1999). “
But even though it is so, it seems that the way of life has profound implications for the understanding and realization of “living well” and “doing well” in relation to the highest good. Hence Aristotle, while discussing the characteristics of happiness, as something to be chosen on its own, questions the practical life of men, especially of the more vulgar ones, which seem to “identify good, or happiness, with pleasure. It then identifies three main types of life:
Pleasant life, whose representatives aim above all to” enjoy life “, resembling” totally to slaves, preferring a life comparable to that of animals “;
Political life, whose examination of the major types “demonstrates that the most qualified and active people identify happiness with honors”, “with a view to recognizing their merits”;
The contemplative life, which seeks only truth and perfection, or the Supreme Good itself, as Aristotle develops throughout the work. (Aristotle & Irwin, 1999)
From this reality comes the need for ethical research and the elaboration of moral norms. In addition to anticipating three modes of consciousness, which alone would require in-depth and rich study. However, from these findings, Aristotle begins to reflect on ethical issues. It is helpful to advance that Aristotle begins with practical examples of everyday life, reflects upon them and returns to them. This procedure identifies the ethical work as well as the object of its study. Therefore, the object of ethics is “practical-moral behavior.” Thus what Aristotle does by referring continually to examples of practical life is ethical, or in other words, the science of morality, since it reflects on moral behavior in order to establish norms, but to indicate the path of “right choice” in relation to the supreme good.
Aristotelian reflection on ethics comprises two categories of virtues: moral virtues, based on will, and intellectual virtues, based on reason. As an example of moral virtues, we have: courage, generosity, magnificence, sweetness, friendship and justice. The intellectual virtues are: wisdom, temperance, intelligence and truth.
An action can be considered as righteous when it realizes the balance of moral virtues and when it reaches the intellectual virtues (Crisp, 2014). The goal of moral action is justice, just as truth is the goal of intellectual action. In the broad sense, justice configures the exercise of all virtues, observing the instance of otherness. In the strict sense, it stands as an ethical virtue that implies the principle of equality. Based on this premise, Aristotle begins his ethics from the social reality of his time. The central point becomes the concept of activity; activity in the sense that man must make the most of his natural dispositions (aptitudes).
Man must seek this perfection in order to achieve happiness.
The concept of eudemonia is linked to the concept of justice presented by Plato in the Republic, which also understands the notion of justice as a virtue that needs to be practiced constantly and cannot be taken as continuous acquisition, but as a political exercise, as expressed in the Book II, Chapter 6, of Nicomachean Ethics (Aristotle & Irwin, 1999). Aristotle presents the meaning of the concept of virtue as habit, that is, something that exists in potency but that needs to be developed. Nature offers the conditions of possibilities so that man can develop his aptitudes according to his rational essence, in which case justice as an ethical value is revealed in our acts, so “all virtue and all technique are born and developed by exercise.
It is observed that the practice of virtue is not confused with a mere technical knowledge, compliance is not enough, and conscience of the virtuous act is required. The man considered righteous must act by virtue of his rational will. In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle enumerates three conditions for an act to be virtuous, namely: first, man must be aware of the justice of his act; second, the will must act motivated by its own action; third, one must act with unshakeable certainty of the correctness of the act (Aristotle & Irwin, 1999). Virtues are dispositions or habits acquired throughout life and are based on the idea that man should always perform the best of himself. Virtue will be a kind of middle ground, a middle term between extremes, thus avoiding excess and deficiency, since justice is a virtue that can only be practiced in relation to the other and in a conscious way. The object of justice is to realize happiness in the polis, its opposite, injustice, may occur by lack or by excess.
Aristotle distinguishes two classes of justice: the universal and the particular. Universal justice means justice in the broad sense that can be defined as conformity to the nomos (legal norm, custom, social convention, tradition). This constituent norm of nomos is addressed to all. The action must correspond to a type of just that is the legal just. The member of the polis relates to all others, despite virtually, and shares with all the effects of his attitude or omission. The universal justice emphasizes the importance of legality as one of the aspects that underlies social cohesion. The community exists virtually in the person of each member. The virtuous man is one in which, according to his action, the essential element passes through the observance of the principle.
Private Justice means in a strict sense the habit of achieving equality. This type of justice refers to the other in the sense of a direct relationship between parties, typical of the city experience. This type of justice is linked to universal justice, because the transgressor of private justice is also committed before the nomos. The particular fair presents itself in two distinct forms: the particular distributive fair that marks the distributive justice and the fair corrective particular that presents the corrective justice. The idea of distributive justice arises in the sense of equality in due proportion.
This modality of justice regulates the actions of the political society with its members and aims at the fair distribution of public goods: honors, wealth, social charges and obligations. This practice is also based on equality that is not confused with a mathematical and rigid, but geometric or proportional equality that observes the duty to give each one what is due to him; observes the natural gifts of the citizen, his dignity, the level of his functions, his training and position in the organizational hierarchy of the polis. The principle of equality contained in this type of justice requires unequal treatment, because being different according to merit, the benefits to be attributed must also be different. For Aristotle, moral excellence is not emotion or faculty, but a disposition of the soul – exactly a disposition to choose the middle ground.
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