Happiness and Virtue Theory - Ch. I and II of the Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle

Happiness is Found Through Fulfilling the Soul

Aristotle begins by making a revolutionary point, that the end of moral action is happiness. It is therefore also a first principle from which we act as well. This happiness will be achieved when the soul achieves that which perfects it, virtue. The term "soul" here is being used in a different way than we tend to understand it today. By soul Aristotle means that which informs us to be human, and thus includes not just the highest aspects of our nature, but the lowest ones as well. He divides the soul into two fundamental distinctions, the irrational soul and the rational soul. 

The Soul's Parts - Vegetative, Sensual, and Rational

The irrational soul is made up of man's nutritive powers of growth and shared with everything that is living. Aristotle holds that since this part of us is not controlled by us at all (these processes run on their own within us) then they are not really subject to virtue or vice, as the good or wicked man's body will digest food or heal its wounds all the same. The second part of the soul is one which is caught between the irrational and rational, and that is the senses and appetites. Here Aristotle says that our appetites are things that are formed and and shaped by the virtue of reason. They do not have reason by their own power, but they are guided by reason like a child is guided by a parent. In the wicked man, the appetites will follow his wickedness, and in the temperate man likewise. Therefore, when speaking of finding virtue, we must distinguish virtue in the sense of the appetitive or the rational as such. Then there is the rational part of the soul which is the highest aspect of human nature. 

"For we speak of some virtues as intellectual and of others as moral. Wisdom, intelligence and good judgment are intellectual virtues. Liberality and temperance are moral virtues. For when we describe a person's character, we do not say that he is wise or intelligent but that he is gentle or temperate. Yet we also praise a wise person with respect to his mental state, and such mental states as deserve to be praised we call virtuous." 

Moral Virtue is Developed by Experience and Right Reason

Aristotle says that the intellectual virtues must be cultivated by study and learning, while the moral virtues must be practiced as a habit. The moral virtues are not born into us, rather we must start trying to do them in order to obtain them. Only in practice can we transform ourselves to become what we seek. Like the building or musical arts, students need teachers to guide them into the art, so too with moral virtue. "In short, character traits are the results of activities corresponding to the character trait themselves. It is our duty therefore to give a certain character to the activities, as the character traits depend upon the differences of the activities." Logically, then, Aristotle mentions that we should begin this practice of moral virtue from our youth. 

How does one know what is the virtuous action, though? Aristotle says that we must act in accord with a "common general principle of right reason." Aristotle admits the difficulty of this, though, as even if one sets out a general principle regarding what is right in a particular domain, translating that into this individual and circumstantial situation is not perfectly possible. There is always some disconnect between the universal law and the particular situation it's being applied to. "But we must admit at the outset that all reasoning upon practical matters must be like a sketch in outline, it cannot be scientifically exact." Aristotle says that we must use our experience to find the golden mean between excess and deficiency in the virtue that we are in pursuit of. 

"For, we must judge of what we cannot see by the evidence of what we do see. It is so, as we observe, regarding health and strength. For, we must judge of what we cannot see by the evidence of what we do see. Excess or deficiency of gymnastic exercise is fatal to strength. Similarly an excess or deficiency of meat and drink is fatal to health, while a suitable amount produces, augments and sustains it. It is the same then with temperance, courage, and the other virtues. A person who avoids and is afraid of everything and faces nothing becomes a coward. A person who is not afraid of anything but is ready to face everything becomes rash. Similarly, he who enjoys every pleasure and never abstains from any pleasure is overindulgent. He who avoids all pleasures, like dull people do, is an insensible sort of person. For temperance and courage are destroyed by excess and deficiency but preserved by the mean state."

Virtue also increases the better we get at it. In fact, again we can use our experience to test how far along we are with the virtues. Aristotle says that we test this by the fact if we experience either pleasure or pain in the face of the virtuous action. If we still experience pain, then we do not have the virtue. If we have begun to experience pleasure at the idea of the virtuous action, than we do. Hence we must learn the right way to experience pleasure and pain. "This is true education..."

Moral Virtue Requires a Choice

There is a rough correlation between the three parts of the soul mentioned - vegetative, sensual, and rational - and three productions of the soul. Aristotle talks about the experience of emotions which are free of morality because we do not choose them. Morality and virtue require a deliberate choice for or against them. The range of human emotions are also accompanied by pleasure and pain depending on our relationship to those emotions. Next, the sensual appetites dispose us toward a relationship to the action of virtue or vice, and thus produce habits in us. Thirdly, faculties are that which allows us to do or experience something. "If then the virtues are neither emotions of faculties, it remains that they must be moral states."

Moral Virtue Allows us to Choose Well

As we begin to practice acting virtuously we begin to become good at choosing that virtue, like a painter who practices becomes good at painting. Part of this choosing well is the ability to choose the mean between two extremes related to the virtue. This mean could be in relation to two extremes as such, or in relation to the individual. For example, as such I can choose between the minimum and maximum amount of food that could be bought at the market in an hour. Or I can choose in relation to me, the money that I have, my budget, my hunger, how many mouths I have to feed. The mean for me would be choosing in accord with my situation. This is moral virtue. 

"Thus it is possible to go too far, or not to go far enough, with respect to fear, courage, desire, anger, pity, and pleasure and pain generally, and the excess and deficiency are both wrong. But to experience these emotions at the right times and on the right occasions and towards the right persons and for the right causes and in the right manner is the mean or the supreme good, which is characteristic of virtue. Similarly there may be excess, deficiency, or the mean, regarding actions. But virtue is concerned with emotions and actions, and here excess is an error and deficiency a fault, while the mean is successful and praiseworthy, and success and merit are both characteristics of virtue"

Aristotle admits that there are many more ways to mess up and be vicious than to hit the mean and become virtuous, it is a hard endeavor. "Virtue then is a state of deliberate moral purpose consisting in a mean that is relative to ourselves, the mean being determined by reason, or as a prudent person would determine it." Virtue, at the same time it is the mean, is also a peak because it embodies the highest good that we can attain to. 

Some Actions Are Always Wrong

One might logically then ask, what about certain actions that seem to be on the moral extreme, like murder. If only someone found the right person and means to murder would it be the golden mean. No, Aristotle says that there are some actions that cannot have a mean and cannot ever be done in the pursuit of virtue. These actions are intrinsically wrong. "There are some whose very name implies wickedness, as for example, malice, shamelessness, and envy, among emotions, or adultery, theft, and murder, among action."

Twelve Examples

Aristotle gives us twelve examples of finding the golden mean with real situations. 

With regard to fear and confidence. Coward ------------- Courage ------------- Rash

With regard to pleasure and pain.  Insensible ------------- Temperate ------------- Overindulgent

With regard giving and taking money. Stinginess ------------- Generosity ------------- Extravagance

With regard to large sums of money. Pettiness ------------- Magnanimity ------------- Vulgarity

With regard to honors and dishonors. Timidity ------------- Self-Confidence ------------- Conceit

With regard to ambition. Unambitious ------------- Has No Name ------------- Overambitious

With regard to anger. Impassive ------------- Good Tempered ------------- Ill tempered

With regard to telling the truth. Ironical ------------- Truthfulness ------------- Boastful

With regard to "pleasantness in amusement." Humorless ------------- Witty ------------- Buffoonary

With regard to "pleasantness in social life." Morose ------------- Friendly ------------- Obsequious

With regard to expression of emotion. Shameless ------------- Shameful ------------- Always Shameful

With regard to righteous indignation. Envy ------------- Righteous Indignation ------------- Malice

Other Tips

Aristotle gives the aspiring virtuous man a few other pieces of advice in these first two chapters. He says that sometimes one may not be able to choose that which is perfectly virtuous, and so thus choose the least evil possible. He says that it is important to know yourself and your own unique proclivities because there is a certain sense that you have to perfect the virtues that you need most in your own life. Finally, he says that we must be careful with pleasure because pleasure is blinding and is very hard for us to judge properly. Rather we should seek to tame the desire for pleasure and make sure we are on the path of virtue. In all these things we need to be using our experience and perceptions to guide us in the application of right reason. 


In summary, Aristotle's virtue theory of ethics could go something like this ... All men desire happiness as their final end. To attain happiness is to fulfill the purpose of telos of our nature. Our nature has three parts, the vegetative, sensual, and rational. The sensual and rational are ones that deal with man's desire for friendship, success, skill, and contemplation of truth. They are also moral choices. The man who is able to train their senses and appetites to choose that which is virtuous, in the right amount and in the right way, is the one who is develops the habit of virtue. The habit of virtue leads man properly to his telos, and thus to happiness. The essence of virtue in these two chapters can be properly summed up by this quote. 

“But to give it to the right people, to give the right amount of it and to give it at the right time and for the right cause and in the right way, this is not what anybody can do, nor is it easy. That is the reason why it is rare and praiseworthy and noble to do well.”


1 - Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics