3 Aristotle’s Ethics and Virtues

after Lysippos [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Aristotle, 384–322 BCE,  was a Greek philosopher and scientist born in the city of Stagira in the northern section of Greece. Along with Plato, Aristotle is known as a founding “Father of Western Philosophy”, and philosophy has grown up from his teachings thousands of years later.

The excerpts that follow include reflection on happiness  (in Aristotle’s terms, this is known as eudaimonia) and on moral virtues, which Aristotle considered key to the living on an ethical and good life.

You might want to watch this CrashCourse Video on Aristotle’s “virtues and vices”

Aristotle and Virtue Theory

Then, before you start your reading  spend some time thinking about how you communicate digitally–do you use Snapchat?  Email? Texting? Facebook? How do you communicate through your chosen tools? Did you know that this choice of digital platforms, and how you use them, is an ethical choice, requiring thought about a virtue or two?

Check out this Minnesota writer Alexis Elder [1] from the publication The Conversation.

How Aristotle Can Help You Avoid Social Media Faux Pas


Excerpts from Nicomachean Ethics




11. We Must Now Discuss Pleasure. Opinions About It.


The consideration of pleasure and pain also falls within the scope of the political philosopher, since he has to construct the end by reference to which we call everything good or bad.

Moreover, this is one of the subjects we are bound to discuss; for we said that moral virtue and vice have to do with pleasures and pains, and most people say that happiness implies pleasure, which is the reason of the name μακάριος, blessed, from χαίρειν, to rejoice.


  1. some people think that no pleasure is good, either essentially or accidentally, for they say that good and pleasure are two distinct things;
  2. others think that though some pleasures are good most are bad;
  3. others, again, think that even though all pleasures be good, yet it is impossible that the supreme good can be pleasure.


virtue overcoming vice statue, Giambologna [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
Virtue Overcoming Vice

(1) It is argued that pleasure cannot be good,

(a) because all pleasure is a felt transition to a natural state, but a transition or process is always generically different from an end, e.g. the process of building is generically different from a house;

(b) because the temperate man avoids pleasures;

(c) because the prudent man pursues the painless, not the pleasant;

(d) because pleasures impede thinking, and that in proportion to their intensity (for instance, the sexual pleasures: no one engaged therein could think at all);

(e) because there is no art of pleasure, and yet every good thing has an art devoted to its production;

(f) because pleasure is the pursuit of children and brutes.




(2) It is argued that not all pleasures are good, because some are base and disgraceful, and even hurtful; for some pleasant things are unhealthy.


(3) It is argued that pleasure is not the supreme good, because it is not an end, but a process or transition.—These, then, we may take to be the current opinions on the subject



Is happiness everything?  Is it the end goal for human living?

Check out this opinion from the New York Times:

The Universe Doesn’t Care About Your Purpose




12. Answers To Arguments Against Goodness Of Pleasure. Ambiguity Of Good And Pleasant. Pleasure Not A Transition, But Unimpeded Activity.


But that these arguments do not prove that pleasure is not good, or even the highest good, may be shown as follows.

In the first place, since “good” is used in two senses (“good in itself” and “relatively good”), natures and faculties will be called good in two senses, and so also will motions and processes: and when they are called bad, this sometimes means that they are bad in themselves, though for particular persons not bad but desirable; sometimes that they are not desirable even for particular persons, but desirable occasionally and for a little time, though in themselves not desirable; while some of them are not even pleasures, though they seem to be—I mean those that involve pain and are used medicinally, such as those of sick people.

In the second place, since the term good may be applied both to activities and to faculties, those activities that restore us to our natural faculties [or state] are accidentally pleasant…


Again, it does not necessarily follow, as some maintain, that there is something else better than pleasure, as the end is better than the process or transition to the end: for a pleasure is not a transition, nor does it always even imply a transition; but it is an activity [or exercise of faculty], and itself an end: further, it is not in becoming something, but in doing something that we feel pleasure: and, lastly, the end is not always something different from the process or transition, but it is only when something is being brought to the completion of its nature that this is the case.

For these reasons it is not proper to say that pleasure is a felt transition, but rather that it is an exercise of faculties that are in their natural state, substituting “unimpeded” for “felt.” Some people, indeed, think that pleasure is a transition, just because it is in the full sense good, supposing that the exercise of faculty is a transition; but it is in fact something different.


Two pages of Book I of the Letter-Books of the City of London, written during the period 1399-1421 AD, showing entries in English, French, and Latin, on display at the London Metropolitan Archives.“But to say that pleasures are bad because some pleasant things are unhealthy, is like saying that health is bad because some healthy things are bad for money-making. Both are bad in this respect, but that does not make them bad: even philosophic study is sometimes injurious to health.”


As to pleasure being an impediment to thinking, the fact is that neither prudence nor any other faculty is impeded by the pleasure proper to its exercise, but by other pleasures; the pleasure derived from study and learning will make us study and learn more.


That there should be no art devoted to the production of any kind of pleasure, is but natural; for art never produces an activity, but only makes it possible: the arts of perfumery and cookery, however, are usually considered to be arts of pleasure.


As to the arguments that the temperate man avoids pleasure, that the prudent man pursues the painless life, and that children and brutes pursue pleasure, they may all be met in the same way, viz. thus:— As we have already explained in what sense all pleasures are to be called good in themselves, and in what sense not good, we need only say that pleasures of a certain kind are pursued by brutes and by children, and that freedom from the corresponding pains in pursued by the prudent man—the pleasures, namely, that involve appetite and pain, i.e. the bodily pleasures (for these do so), and excess in them, the deliberate pursuit of which constitutes the profligate. These pleasures, then, the temperate man avoids; but he has pleasures of his own.




13. Pleasure Is Good, And The Pleasure That Consists In The Highest Activity Is The Good. All Admit That Happiness Is Pleasant. Bodily Pleasures Not The Only Pleasures.


But all admit that pain is a bad thing and undesirable; partly bad in itself, partly bad as in some sort an impediment to activity. But that which is opposed to what is undesirable, in that respect in which it is undesirable and bad, is good.

It follows, then, that pleasure is a good thing…Moreover, there is no reason why a certain kind of pleasure should not be the supreme good, even though some kinds be bad, just as there is no reason why a certain kind of knowledge should not be, though some kinds be bad.


Key Takeaway

“…if he is to be happy, a man must have the goods of the body and external goods and good fortune, in order that the exercise of his faculties may not be impeded. And those who say that though a man be put to the rack and overwhelmed by misfortune, he is happy if only he be good, whether they know it or not, talk nonsense.”


And on this account all men suppose that the happy life is a pleasant one, and that happiness involves pleasure: and the supposition is reasonable; for no exercise of a faculty is complete if it be impeded; but happiness we reckon among complete things; and so, if he is to be happy, a man must have the goods of the body and external goods and good fortune, in order that the exercise of his faculties may not be impeded. And those who say that though a man be put to the rack and overwhelmed by misfortune, he is happy if only he be good, whether they know it or not, talk nonsense.

Because fortune is a necessary condition, some people consider good fortune to be identical with happiness; but it is not really so, for good fortune itself, if excessive, is an impediment, and is then, perhaps, no longer to be called good fortune; for good fortune can only be defined by its relation to happiness.


Again, the fact that all animals and men pursue pleasure is some indication that it is in some way the highest good:

“Not wholly lost can e’er that saying be
Which many peoples share.”


But as the nature of man and the best development of his faculties neither are nor are thought to be the same for all, so the pleasure which men pursue is not always the same, though all pursue pleasure.

Yet, perhaps, they do in fact pursue a pleasure different from that which they fancy they pursue and would say they pursue—a pleasure which is one and the same for all. For all beings have something divine implanted in them by nature.


But bodily pleasures have come to be regarded as the sole claimants to the title of pleasure, because they are oftenest attained and are shared by all; these then, as the only pleasures they know, men fancy to be the only pleasures that are. But it is plain that unless pleasure—that is, unimpeded exercise of the faculties—be good, we can no longer say that the happy man leads a pleasant life; for why should he need it if it be not good? Nay, he may just as well lead a painful life: for pain is neither bad nor good, if pleasure be neither; so why should he avoid pain? The life of the good man, then, would be no pleasanter than others unless the exercise of his faculties were pleasanter.


 Chapter 4   Excerpt showing an example of the extremes of a virtue: Liberality[generosity]


Let us speak next of liberality. It seems to be the mean with regard to wealth; for the liberal man is praised … with regard to the giving and taking of wealth, and especially in respect of giving. Now by ‘wealth’ we mean all the things whose value is measured by money.

jewelsFurther, prodigality and meanness are excesses and defects with regard to wealth; and meanness we always impute to those who care more than they ought for wealth, but we sometimes apply the word ‘prodigality’ in a complex sense; for we call those men prodigals who are incontinent and spend money on self-indulgence. Hence also they are thought the poorest characters; for they combine more vices than one. Therefore the application of the word to them is not its proper use; for a ‘prodigal’ means a man who has a single evil quality, that of wasting his substance; since a prodigal is one who is being ruined by his own fault, and the wasting of substance is thought to be a sort of ruining of oneself, life being held to depend on possession of substance.

This, then, is the sense in which we take the word ‘prodigality’.


Now the things that have a use may be used either well or badly; and riches is a useful thing; and everything is used best by the man who has the virtue concerned with it; riches, therefore, will be used best by the man who has the virtue concerned with wealth; and this is the liberal man. Now spending and giving seem to be the using of wealth; taking and keeping rather the possession of it. Hence it is more the mark of the liberal man to give to the right people than to take from the right sources and not to take from the wrong. For it is more characteristic of virtue to do good than to have good done to one, and more characteristic to do what is noble than not to do what is base; and it is not hard to see that giving implies doing good and doing what is noble, and taking implies having good done to one or not acting basely. And gratitude is felt towards him who gives, not towards him who does not take, and praise also is bestowed more on him. It is easier, also, not to take than to give; for men are apter to give away their own too little than to take what is another’s. Givers, too, are called liberal; but those who do not take are not praised for liberality but rather for justice; while those who take are hardly praised at all. And the liberal are almost the most loved of all virtuous characters, since they are useful; and this depends on their giving.

The Miser, by Jan Steen [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsThose who are called by such names as ‘miserly’, ‘close’, ‘stingy’, all fall short in giving, but do not covet the possessions of others nor wish to get them. In some this is due to a sort of honesty and avoidance of what is disgraceful (for some seem, or at least profess, to hoard their money for this reason, that they may not someday be forced to do something disgraceful; to this class belong the cheeseparer and every one of the sort; he is so called from his excess of unwillingness to give anything); while others again keep their hands off the property of others from fear, on the ground that it is not easy, if one takes the property of others oneself, to avoid having one’s own taken by them; they are therefore content neither to take nor to give.

Others again exceed in respect of taking by taking anything and from any source, e.g. those who ply sordid trades, pimps and all such people, and those who lend small sums and at high rates. For all of these take more than they ought and from wrong sources. What is common to them is evidently sordid love of gain; they all put up with a bad name for the sake of gain, and little gain at that. For those who make great gains but from wrong sources, and not the right gains, e.g. despots when they sack cities and spoil temples, we do not call mean but rather wicked, impious, and unjust. But the gamester and the footpad (and the highwayman) belong to the class of the mean, since they have a sordid love of gain. For it is for gain that both of them ply their craft and endure the disgrace of it, and the one faces the greatest dangers for the sake of the booty, while the other makes gain from his friends, to whom he ought to be giving. Both, then, since they are willing to make gain from wrong sources, are sordid lovers of gain; therefore all such forms of taking are mean.

And it is natural that meanness is described as the contrary of liberality; for not only is it a greater evil than prodigality, but men err more often in this direction than in the way of prodigality as we have described it.


divider between body and bibliography


Liberty Fund   http://oll.libertyfund.org/

Nichomachean Ethics

The Nichomachean Ethics of Aristotle, trans. F.H. Peters, M.A. 5th edition (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Truebner & Co., 1893).

Author: Aristotle

Translator: F.H. Peters


  1. Professional title Assistant Professor Bio Dr. Elder is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at UMD. She works in Ethics, Social Philosophy, Metaphysics (especially social ontology), Philosophy of Technology, and Moral Psychology. She tends to draw on ancient philosophy - primarily Chinese and Greek - in order to think about current problems. Teaching interests include a variety of courses in applied ethics, where she enjoys working with students to explore the many ways philosophical issues can crop up in life


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