Notes on Nicomachean Ethics Book II

Chapter 1

Aristotle now discusses what virtue or excellence must be. In Book One, Ch. 13, he had said that people distinguish 2 kinds of virtue or excellence: "intellectual" virtues such as theoretical wisdom (wisdom involving knowledge of theories, among other things, as described in the Metaphysics), understanding, and practical wisdom (discussed below); and "moral" or "ethical" virtues or excellences, such as courage, generosity, self-control/moderation, and justice. The "moral" virtues are the subject of the Nicomachean Ethics, and as Aristotle notes, the name 'ethics' in Greek reflects the fact that virtues seem to be developed by means of habit (ethos in Greek). That is, virtues are not inborn, to Aristotle, though the capacity to develop virtues is inborn in all of us. And of course, it is not all habits that impart virtues; there are also habits that work against virtues. For example, if we develop the habit of paying no attention to money or to other people's needs, we are unlikely to become generous (at least, not consistently generous); if we develop the habit of never trying anything new or unknown, we will not learn certain kinds of courage.

Chapter 4

Aristotle suggests that we become virtuous by performing virtuous acts, or by acting virtuous. But he is aware of how odd that sounds. He clarifies the contention by saying that he does not mean that merely happening to perform any action that happens to be just makes you just, that merely happening to do something courageous (or something courageous people do) means that you are courageous, etc. First of all, some awareness and skill are involved. We don't say that a person is literate if he or she can copy letters that someone else wrote, while not knowing how to read him- or herself. Similarly, we don't say that a person is just if he or she did something just without knowing that it was just, or without knowing why it was just - or if he or she only did it because someone else told him/her what to do, or forced him/her to do it.

Moreover, says Aristotle, "an act is not performed justly or with self-control [simply] if the act is of a certain kind, but only if in addition the agent [(person who does the act)] has certain characteristics as he/she performs it" (1105a). That is, being morally virtuous or excellent requires more than simply doing the right thing. You also have to do it in a certain way, for certain reasons, in order to have true excellence:

- you must know what you are doing (you're not being generous if you don't know the value of what you give, for example)

- you must choose to act the way you do (as opposed to being forced to do something, or doing something by accident)

- you must choose to act this way or to do this thing for its own sake (you're not being courageous if you are acting only to impress people, and would not do the same thing if no one was watching. You must choose your action because you think that it is good in itself.)

- your act must "spring from a firm and unchangeable character or habit" (you have not acted with moral excellence if you acted on a whim, or if you simply did what your friends were doing without considering whether this was an appropriate thing to do - and why. You must try to be consistent, and if that turns out badly, you must try to understand why.) (1105a-b)

Chapter 6

Aristotle now tries to determine what virtue or excellence (arete) involves. He concludes that "virtue or excellence is a characteristic involving choice; it consists in observing the mean [(middle point)] relative to us, a mean which is determined by reason, such as a person of practical wisdom would [use to] determine it." (1107a)

For example, Aristotle will say in Chapter 7, we consider what we call "courage" to be a virtue (a good quality to have), and it is a mean or middle point between cowardice and recklessness. We consider what we call "moderation" or "self-control" to be a virtue, and it is a mean between insensitivity (lack of feeling or desire; or refusal of all feeling or desire) and indulgence. In other words, a person is thought to be cowardly if he/she runs away or surrenders at the slightest sign of threat or danger, or if he/she exhibits a lot of fear at situations that are not really very dangerous (or, not considered dangerous by his/her society's standards) - and acts on that fear. A person is considered to be reckless if he/she does dangerous things unnecessarily, or shows no fear at things that are considered (in his/her society) to be very dangerous, etc. The person who is considered courageous is one who exhibits a level of fear that is considered (in his/her society) to be appropriate in each situation, who faces necessary dangers without letting fear get the better of him/her (this is not the same as not feeling fear at all), and who does not do dangerous things that are not necessary.

This raises two issues that must be discussed.

Practical wisdom is discussed in Book Six, Chapter 5. There Aristotle says that practical wisdom is a "truthful characteristic of acting rationally (literally, 'along with reason') in matters good and bad for humans." That is, it involves being aware of and preserving (not denying or ignoring) what is true, and choosing and acting on this in a reasoning way. The person with practical wisdom (if such a person exists) will be one who can see what is good for him- or herself and for humans in general. Practical wisdom, then, includes both an aspect of understanding and an aspect of action. One who claims to know what to do in a given situation but then does not act on this will not have practical wisdom.

Aristotle's point concerning virtue or excellence would be that virtue or excellence involves choosing and doing something appropriate (neither excessive or deficient) in each situation where choice is involved. But he emphasizes that some people will not be good judges of this, at least at first. They may not recognize when choice is really possible, or may not realize what choices they have. They may be mistaken about what is really appropriate in each situation. Only the person who has practical wisdom will know what is right, and will be able to explain why that is what is right.

This does not mean that we must wait around for someone who convinces us that he/she has practical wisdom to tell us what to do - for if we lack practical wisdom, we might not be able to tell who really has it. At the same time, Aristotle is cautioning us against assuming that we already know what is right. Instead, he seems to be suggesting that the search for and development of practical wisdom is an ongoing process, and that it is important for each one of us to start the process now. That is, we must start by doing what we think is the "mean" in each situation that involves a choice. We may start by trying to live up to our society's standards, in so far as we recognize them. But that is not enough, because we must come to understand whether these things are really the best to do, whether they really have the best effects, why they should be chosen, what makes a particular result the one most worth seeking, and so on. We must observe and investigate both the actions we perform and the standards we used in choosing them; and we must evaluate the actions, their results, and our standards. (This may mean searching for a clear standard, as Socrates did...) Only if we can show that we understand why an action or its reason is best, will we really be able to be virtuous or excellent. In the meantime, the best thing will be to start the investigation of this (recall Socrates at Apology 38a) - that is, the best thing will be to search for virtue and practical wisdom. This will require both action and contemplation or reasoned investigation.