Aristotle, Book II, Nicomachean Ethics

In Book II of the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle discusses the nature of the virtues. I am rereading the book for something like the umpteenth time. Three excerpts left strong impressions on me, but first I would like to make some comments.

On Pleasure and Pain. The appeal of the first excerpt is that Aristotle makes room for pleasure and pain in ethical life. He makes a subtle argument, claiming that pleasure accompanies virtue but is not itself the aim of virtue. Hence, the virtuous man takes pleasure in performing virtuous deeds yet would not say that he is performing these deeds for the sake of pleasure.

By this argument, Aristotle does not fall into hedonism or Kantianism. Hedonists argue that the end of our actions is the maximization of pleasure or the avoidance of pain. Aristotle will have none of this, saying instead that the exercise of courage especially is not “essentially pleasant” (this from Book III, ix.5). In contradistinction, Kantians argue that what we ought to do is only contingently related (at best) to what we want to do. So, if my mother asks me to take out the trash, then doing what I should (fulfilling an obligation) is not doing what I want (playing video games, say).

I am inclined to think that, in the history of Western thought, Kantianism comes into being around the time that ethical life has broken down. To see this, consider a case in your own life in which ought and want are in conflict with each other. My wager is that something deep has already gone amiss with this relationship, this institution, this way of life.

On Practice. Aristotle claims that talking about virtue and being virtuous are analytically distinct. Hence, enrolling in a seminar on ethics (or metaethics) remains separate from exercising the virtue of courage in the face of danger. Aristotle is interested in the latter, as I am also.

On Liberality. We come now to the question of the mean, which is essentially a rule of thumb for action. The mean can be translated longwindedly as “doing the right thing in the right way for the reason for the right end.” Not a law, a rule, a procedure, a number, the mean carries the sense of ‘just right,’ as when someone acts with ‘just the right touch.’ In the case of liberality, it is a question of being generous enough: always a delicate matter to be sussed out in context and by means of good practice.

And now for the three excerpts. Enjoy.

Pleasure and Pain

An index of our dispositions is afforded by the pleasure or pain that accompanies our actions. A man is temperate if he abstains from bodily pleasures and finds this abstinence itself enjoyable, profligate if he feels it irksome; he is brave if he faces danger with pleasure or at all events without pain, cowardly if he does so with pain.

In fact pleasures and pains are the things with which moral virtue is concerned.

For (1) pleasure causes us to do base actions and pain causes us to abstain from doing noble actions. Hence the importance, as Plato points out, of having been definitely trained from childhood to like and dislike the proper things; this is what good education means.


Thus although actions are entitled just and temperate when they are such acts as just and temperate men would do, the agent is just and temperate not when he does these acts merely, but when he does them in the way in which just and temperate men do them. It is correct therefore to say that a man becomes just by doing just actions and temperate by doing temperate actions; and no one can have the remotest chance of becoming good without doing them. But the mass of mankind, instead of doing virtuous acts, have recourse to discussing virtue, and fancy that they are pursuing philosophy and that this will make them good men.

The Mean of Liberality

In regard to giving and getting money, the observance of the mean is Liberality; the excess and deficiency are Prodigality and Meanness, but the prodigal man and the mean man exceed and fall short in opposite ways to one another: the prodigal exceeds in giving and is deficient in getting, whereas the mean man exceeds in getting and is deficient in giving.