The Nicomachean Ethics By Aristotle
He begins by giving an elaborate explanation of who should study ethics and the method they should follow. He says that it is important not to demand too much precision in a subject like ethics that is concerned with concepts such as ‘beautiful’ and ‘just.’ One should not demand mathematical demonstrations of philosophical concepts. Ethical study involves study of concepts. For instance, the definition of the concept ‘beautiful’ is associated with conventional wisdom and opinion of people, some may agree with a definition while others may disagree and therefore, these concepts lack mathematical consistency.
Aristotle was a student of Plato but he refuted his idealistic approach that is famous as the Theory of Forms or Ideas. Plato believed that there is a universal quality that is common in all things that can be classified in a certain category or under a single name. For example, the beauty of a flower and the beauty of a woman are different from each other but they must be in possession of something in common to be classified as beautiful. Plato believed that this common thing is the ‘Form’ or ‘Idea’, which in itself is invisible, unchanging and eternal. Everything that we perceive as beautiful is beautiful because it participates in some way in the ‘Form of Beauty.’ And while beautiful people may die and beautiful flowers may wilt, the ‘Form or Idea of Beauty’ is eternal. Plato posited that everything in the world is but a poor reflection of the ideal world of Pure Forms that underlies our experience. He believed the goal of life is to contemplate the true nature of Forms and to train the mind to see beyond experience. However, Aristotle disproved of this approach and posited that true wisdom is gained by examining the objects of experience and not from trying to look beyond them.
Aristotle was an empiricist and he discarded Plato’s theory on account of non-tangibility between the forms and the material world of substances. He proposed that Forms are imminent in object and do not exist in another realm in their pure form as posited by Plato.
Aristotle believes in the teleology of nature, the multiplicity of various virtues and says that nature works towards a telos or end goal. Every human activity is targeted at some end that is considered good. There are ends that are ends in themselves and can be regarded as the highest of them all, while there are some ends which serve only as a means to some higher ends and these ends can be classified as subordinate ends.
Aristotle says that the study of the nature of Good is important as it is a part of politics which is concerned with achieving the highest ends for human life. He proposes a simple premise that everyone wants to be happy and then goes on to elaborate that the supreme good is happiness, however most people disagree over what constitutes happiness. Some may equate it with sensual pleasure but human life is governed with rationality and sensuality is clearly not the goal. Some others consider honorable life as the goal as they believe it is a way to recognise their inherent goodness. So an empirical examination reveals that contrary to Plato’s Form of Good, there are many versions of Good. Aristotle therefore decides to not concern himself with the Form of Good but with the practical task of finding answer to the question ‘How to be good?’
Practical actions directed towards achieving a state of happiness constitutes the ultimate good for Aristotle. He examines the nature of happiness and discusses the best way to be happy. He says both are important, happiness of the individual as well as the community.
And in order to be truly happy, one must lead a virtuous life. Then he goes on to discuss the specific virtues and the process by which these can be realized. He says a person’s virtue begins with his intention to be virtuous which is the result of their understanding and rationality. Absolute virtue leads to absolute happiness and only performing virtuous actions is not sufficient unless done in the right state of mind for the right reasons. He reaffirms that auctioning virtuously is a voluntary choice and that people are independent to make their choices. Their choice determines their actions and character.
He evaluates various virtues such as temperance, generosity, bravery, truthfulness etc. Each of these character traits exist in a spectrum, with conditions at either extremes corresponding to the excess or deficiency of the trait. The excess of bravery, for example, is rashness. The deficiency of bravery is cowardice. The goal of the virtuous person should be to maintain an intermediate position between the extremes. He calls this position the "golden mean." Then he says that these means are relative to the character of the person in question. These means are not the same for everyone.
Aristotle emphasises that a life of study is the path that leads to ultimate happiness. It is the only way a person can discover his mean as study opens the avenue for correct reasoning and understanding. It helps a person understand which direction he must pursue to get closer to their golden mean. He says that a study of political system also reveals how politics affects the virtue of its citizens and thereby facilitates the construction of a system that is best to serve and considers enforcing a life of virtue and happiness guided by reason and understanding.