Law, Politics, and Philosophy

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Aristotle and His Nicomachean Ethics

Aristotle occupies an indispensable position in the study of moral philosophy. So much of what he said has shaped up our thinking today. No serious student or teacher of this subject could intelligently absorb himself in a philosophical discussion without coming to terms with Aristotle’s thoughts.

Together with Socrates and Plato, Aristotle (384-322 BC) completed the triumvirate of the great Greek philosophers. He was born in Stagira in northern Greece and educated for twenty years in the Academy, the famous school instituted by Plato.1 Although he did not become the chosen successor of Plato in the Academy, Aristotle became the most notable pupil of Plato and whose achievement was the only thing that exceeded Plato’s promethian work. After Plato’s death, he returned to Macedonia and became a tutor to Alexander, the son of King Philip of Macedonia and who later created one of the greatest empires in human history. He came back to Athens and established his own school, which he named Lyceum.

He devoted the rest of his life to teaching, writing, and research in a surprisingly broad range of topics, which included metaphysics, logic, ethics, and other philosophical subjects, and physics, biology, psychology, and other empirical sciences. Although he compartmentalized knowledge into many sciences, he did this in line with his over all thrust of constructing a “system” of knowledge that sought to explain everything coherently.

Ethics is one of the major intellectual preoccupations of Aristotle. It may not be as precise as his other scientific treatises, but his ethics, which is based on “character-formation,” serves as a systematic, if not complete, guide to living a good life. He believes that a good life is achieved through a long and rigorous process of habituation to good practices.


What were the works of Aristotle in ethics?  


Aristotle’s ethical teachings were compiled under three titles, each of which was written in a different stage in his career. These include Eudemian Ethics, Magnia Moralia, and Nicomachean Ethics. For most scholars, among these three, the Nicomachean Ethics (NE) is the most complete work that explains his mature views in ethics.2 In this light, our discussion will revolve much around the basic themes of the NE, with special emphasis on character-building and virtues; after all, “ethics” refers essentially and originally to “ethos,” the Greek word for character.

It is particularly important to note that for Aristotle, although ethics has its own distinctive subject matter, it is intimately entwined with politics. As a matter of fact, NE is just the first volume of a two-volume study of politics. Aristotle, in Book I of NE, says that his inquiry is a kind of political science.3 The second volume is entitled “Politics,” which is suppose to be a sequel to the former. Both are practical sciences, dealing with the practical aspects of the human society and how the state and the individual could make good life possible.


What is “teleological” and “naturalistic” ethics?


Aristotle’s ethical account is distinctively labeled as teleological and naturalistic. Teleological because it embraces the belief that man, like any other being, has an “end” (telos), towards which his very existence intends and finds meaning. All actions terminate in this end. His ethics is also naturalistic because it describes the “end” as something natural to man. Thus, the end towards which man’s life is intended is in accordance with his nature.

In the opening lines of NE, Aristotle identifies the good as that at which everything aims.4 The end is good, because everything that fulfills one’s nature is good. If, for example, this paper is read by my students, then the paper fulfills its end as an instructional material. The event of its fulfillment (end) is said to be good because its nature has been actualized. Just like this paper, man’s end is also good because it is the actualization of his nature. Moreover, in achieving this good, it is “nature” that dictates the goodness (or badness) of man’s acts, so that all acts that are “unnatural” are bad or immoral. Suicide, for instance, is bad because it is unnatural for man to take away his own life; what is natural is for him to preserve his life.


What is meant by Rationalism?


Aristotle defines man as a “rational animal.” Man is an animal, but what distinguishes him from other animals is his rationality. Just like other animals, man eats, grows, reproduces, and senses things around him. But unlike them, he thinks — this is something natural to him. He has a grasp of the truth and an idea of the good through which he orders his thoughts and affairs. If man lives by his instincts, he lowers himself to the level of animals. But if he lives in accordance with his reason, he actualizes his essential property (that is, his rationality), and thus fulfills his nature and elevates himself over and above other beings. This theory which upholds reason as the crowning property of man and that which must govern his activities is called “rationalism.”

This theory permeates the entirety of Aristotle’s ethical work. It is its guiding theme. Goodness of acts and the achievement of the good life are achieved only through the proper exercise and cultivation of the powers of reason. Any act done in accordance with reason is good, whereas any act done contrary to reason is bad.

Nonetheless, unlike Plato, Aristotle states that man is not just a pure mind. Man is a composite of two essential natures: the tangible and the intangible, the body and the soul. While the intangible (soul) is more important for him – thus still indicating the strong influence of Plato – the tangible (body) part remains to be an essential property of man.


What is the End of Man?    


Different ends…

Aristotle states that all human activities aim at some good. This good is the end of man. But there are differences as regards the ends. Some ends are just means to further ends. Ends, which are means, are “activities,” while ends, which are the end of activities, are “products.” When a general, for example, intends to win a war, his end is the victory of his army. But his victory is just a means for peace in his country. Thus, his victory, which is just a means to a further end, is an end as activity, and peace, which is the further end, is the end as product. Naturally, products have more goodness in them than the mere activities.

            Happiness as the ultimate end…

            Aristotle was seeking for man’s ultimate end, that is, the ultimate “product” of all human acts. It is not just an end as activity but an end as the ultimate product of all activities. If this end is that towards which everything terminates and that which does not refer to further ends, then this end is an end-in-itself. For the human beings, this ultimate good or end is Happiness (eudaimonia). Happiness is that which people always choose for the sake of itself and not for something else. Money is not our end, since it is just useful for getting something else. Even intelligence and virtue are not good in themselves, but good only because they make people happy. Happiness is found to be something perfect and self-sufficient, being the end to which all actions are directed.

People may have different opinions about the meaning of happiness. However, the happiness thought of by Aristotle and other Greeks is very much different from its English counterpart. They construed eudaimonia not as a feeling or emotional well-being, but as fulfillment, success, or flourishing, which reflect very significant aspects of the social life of ancient Greeks. For the Greeks, happiness is a matter of living (energeia) the right way. In addition, Aristotle stressed that happiness is something that does not happen in the flickering moments of our lives. Rather it is something that lasts. Good things that happen once in a while are forgetful, but constant joy bears a lasting impact and qualifies for true happiness. True happiness lasts because it is a product of rigorous training and constant application of rules that remain stable and universal throughout our life’s journey.


Happiness as the proper exercise of reason…

Happiness is the intended product of virtuous living. If happiness is the highest human good then it consists of the proper function of man, not just of some of his parts but of his whole being. Man is a hegemony of reason, so to function properly, he must use his highest faculty, which is reason, in ordering all his actions and endeavors. Happiness is then said to be man’s proper and constant exercise of reason.

It would be hard to appreciate Aristotle’s happiness philosophy without going into the intricate details of his discussion of the particular virtues. Happiness is an activity, achieved through a constant and habitual practice, just as a flutist in order to be good constantly develops his skill with the flute. Through his study of the virtue, we are led into a plausible path towards the happiness.



What are virtues?


As the “mean” disposition…

If something functions properly, then it becomes good. But if it malfunctions, then it falls short of goodness. For man, he is said to function correctly if he does the right actions. Actions are product of deliberation or choice. Someone is said to have done the right act if he has made the right choice. And right choice is that which follows the rule of the “golden mean,” which states that the good is always found somewhere between what is deficient and excessive.

Right actions are actions done in moderation, or actions that are neither deficient nor excessive. Exercise, for example, is good if it is just enough to keep one healthy. But excessive (or deficient) exercise is bad because it can damage one’s health. Now, if one constantly does moderate acts, as when he always exercises moderately, then he cultivates a “good disposition” towards exercise and health. This disposition arising from always acting according to a “mean” is human excellence (arête) or virtue.


Relativity of the Golden Mean…

The “mean” or the “midpoint” between the excessive and the deficient is relative to each individual. The level of prudence necessary for a priest differs from a layperson. The level of courage necessary for a soldier differs from a schoolteacher.  More so, some extremes are closer to the mean than others. Rashness, for instance, is closer to courage (mean) than cowardice. This shows that the ethical mean is not a mathematical mean. It is that difficult middle which balances all aspects of human life. The difficulty in striking the mean explains its label as the “golden” disposition for acting. Mastery of this rule is a sign of virtuosity.


The Cycle…

Aristotle states that right actions, if constantly practiced, bring about good habits. The structure of the good habits in turn defines a good character. And someone with a good character produces good acts, thus, repeating the cycle all over again but now with more ease and pleasure than before. A good character does not happen in an instant; it takes a lot of practice and habituation.

Moreover, to be a good person requires, not just being good in a particular aspect, but being good holistically instead. Having good study and prayer habits, for example, do not make a person good, unless they are complemented by the rest of other good habits, such as proper exercise and socialization.


The two types of virtue…

There are two types of virtue: the intellectual and the moral. Intellectual virtues are excellences involving skills in mathematics, philosophy, and other speculative sciences. Moral virtues, on the other, are excellences that focus on the actions; they are learned through habits. While the moral virtues dispose us to behave in the right way, the intellectual virtues dispose us in reasoning properly about ethical matters.


The various moral virtues…

Here is a table listing all the moral virtues with their corresponding vices (deficiencies and excesses) and spheres of feeling:

Courage is confidence in face of fear, and endurance or poise in the presence of pain.5 It does not mean fearlessness, for this constitutes the vice of rashness or overconfidence. Its deficiency is cowardice.

Temperance is a mean concerned with bodily pleasures.6 It is the moderate enjoyment of temporal pleasures. Its excess is licentiousness; its deficiency is called insensibility, although this name is just an stipulation of Aristotle for this rare vice.

Generosity or liberality is the mean in relation to wealth, i.e. to the taking and giving of wealth, more especially the giving.7 Its excess is prodigality or squander, and its deficiency is illiberality. The former vice is for Aristotle more favorable than the latter because it can be checked by teaching the value of money. Magnificence, which also involves the sphere of getting and spending but in a major sense, requires a good sense of taste. The deficiency of this state is called niggardliness, and its excess vulgarity.8 In face of honor (in the smaller scale), it is good to have a proper ambition, but vicious if excessive or deficient.9 Magnanimity, which also involves the sphere of honor and dishonor, but in a major sense, is the disposition of knowing the honor your worthy of.10 A magnanimous person is great and always seeks his rightful place. Its excess is vanity or conceit, and its deficiency is pusillanimity.

            Patience or even temper is the appropriate disposition towards anger.11 Its excess is called irascibility, and its deficiency is lack of spirit, though the latter is more favorable than the former. These names are again stipulations of Aristotle.

            Friendliness (for lack of word) is the mean state when it comes to social conduct.  Its excess is obsequiousness or flattery, and its deficiency is bad temper or belligerence. “A person who is always pleasant with no ulterior motive is obsequious, while he who is so with a view to benefiting himself with money or what it buys is a flatterer. While the person who objects to everything is bad-tempered and belligerent.”12

            Truthfulness (for lack of word) is the mean state for self-expression or matters about claims. Boastfulness, which is claiming of esteemed qualities one does not have or has to a lesser degree, is the excess, and self-depreciation, which is disclaiming those he has or play them down, is the deficiency.13

            In social intercourse or amusements, wittiness or seemliness is proper to the mean state.14 It is wrong to converse/joke too much, as in the case of a buffoon, or not to converse/joke at all, as in the case of a boor.

            Modesty, which is not properly a virtue, is feeling which a refined youth should be properly disposed to feel in instances of error and shame. A virtuous person have no need of modesty because he does not do things which would disgrace him. In order that he becomes virtuous, the youth needs to feel shame in the mistakes they would inevitably commit.


            Intellectual virtues…

            The soul is divided into the rational and irrational part, and the rational part is further divided into the contemplative and calculative.15 The best states of each sub-part define the intellectual virtues. While moral virtues deal with the proper management of our feelings, passions and appetites, intellectual virtues deal with the proper utilization of our rational faculties by which we arrive at truth and the good.

            Intellectual virtues must complement the moral virtues, for although knowledge is useless without action, action without the light of reason is futile.

            There are five intellectual virtues, namely, scientific knowledge, skill, practical wisdom, wisdom, and intellect.

            Scientific knowledge is the virtue by which we demonstrate and arrive at truth, using the methods of deduction and/or induction.16

            Skill is a productive state involving proper reasoning; and its contrary, lack of skill, is a productive state involving false reason.17

            Practical wisdom or prudence, which is one of the most important virtues, helps us deliberate nobly about what is good and beneficial for living well generally.18 It helps us grasp the right principles of action without which a man cannot truly be virtuous. As pointed out by Aristotle, it is that which links the intellectual and moral virtues together.

            Intuition  or intellect is the state concerned with the first principles from which scientific truths are derived.19

            Wisdom, which is the most precise of the sciences, is the combination of intellect/intuition and scientific knowledge.20

            While we envision our ends through prudence, resourcefulness or good deliberation helps achieve these ends. In practical matters which involve  the determination of the right action or decision, the natural gifts of understanding, judgment, practical wisdom/prudence, and intuition are necessary and important.


What is Character?


            Its Meaning…

Character is derived from the Greek word χαρακτερ which originally connotes a mark impressed upon a coin. It then evolved into the word used generally to mean a distinctive mark by which one thing is distinguished from another. Today, it primarily means the assemblage of qualities that distinguish one individual from another.

Character, inasmuch as it is an observable phenomenon, is now a subject matter properly tackled by psychology. Nonetheless, modern empirical psychologists trace their roots in the philosophical treaties of Aristotle with regards to his discussion of character. Among the Greek moralists, he has provided the most psychologically insightful account on character for the modern empirical psychologist. His account provided them with an ample amount of data regarding character-building very much applicable to child rearing and other socially oriented matters.


            As a part of the soul…

According to Aristotle, character is a part of the soul. The soul has three components: passions, faculties and states of character.  The passions are man’s feelings, desires, fears, anger, ambitions, and others. The faculties are man’s natural capacities and potencies for feeling and acting. And the states of character are thought to be the complex tendencies or dispositions to act and feel in certain ways under certain circumstances. Nature allows us to have characters because they are ingrained in our souls. Nonetheless, they are just ingrained “potencies” and it is up to us to perfect them through habit.


As a disposition…

Character is a disposition:  it is a disposition to act and also a disposition to feel. For Aristotle, character is determined by actions and at the same time it determines future actions.  It is determined by a long-term practice of actions developed into habits, which in turn will be the pattern for which actions are to be undertaken. Character also involves emotions so it is a disposition to feel. By emotions we mean the cultivated and habituated, and not the immediate impulses.

Virtue is a character or disposition.21 It is not a feeling or a faculty. Feeling may move us to act and faculty determine our capacity for feeling, but only in virtue is man a subject of praise or blame.


What are the Different States of Character?


Virtuous and Vicious…

A person who always does virtuous things, towards the right people, for the right end, and in the right way by striking the mean, will certainly be a virtuous person. While a person who always does vicious things by repeated actions of extremes and deficiency will certainly be a vicious person. The character of a virtuous person is cultivated first by habituation. Eventually, this constant practice will lead to knowledge and understanding of the action itself. And when one fully understands the whys of his actions then he will learn to enjoy and continue choosing them for their own sake, and thus act out of a settled state of character.22 A virtuous person necessarily takes pleasure in his actions. Thus, one’s enjoyment of his actions serves as a proof that he is a virtuous person.

In Book II, Aristotle distinguishes a virtuous person from someone who is good only accidentally; he proposes three criteria, to wit: firstly, that the person acts with knowledge that what he does is right; secondly, that he acts from rational choice; and, thirdly, that the he has a firm and unshakeable character.23


Continent and Incontinent…

When a virtuous person reacts to the things around him, there is harmony in his emotions and reason.24 The virtuous person’s soul then, is whole, unified and not tattered.  This is what distinguishes the virtuous person from other states of being such as continence, incontinence and vice.  The continent and the incontinent persons are divided by the conflict of their desire and will.  Like the vicious person, one part of their soul is upset at being restrained, and another is delighted by the intended action.25 This dichotomy tears them apart. In contrast to a vicious person, the continent and incontinent persons have internal conflicts, but are, nevertheless, more aware of their inner conflicts than the morally vicious person. Continence is essentially a kind of self-mastery; right reason overcoming negative desires.26 The continent person recognizes what he should do and does it, but to do so he must struggle against the pull of recalcitrant feelings. On the other hand, incontinence is a kind of softness or inconsistency. He knows that his actions are wrong, but still does them because of his feelings.27 The incontinent person in some way knows what he should do, but fails to do so because of recalcitrant feelings.


Divine Virtue and Brutishness…

For Aristotle, divine virtue and brutishness are the best and worst moral states possible to every individual. Divine virtue, on the one hand, is considered as virtue that exceeds the usual human mode of virtuosity. It is virtue in the fullest sense; a state close to divinity. Brutishness, on the other hand, is a moral state close to being an animal. It is a disposition wherein thoughtful action is absent and, therefore, only involuntary wrongdoings are present. In a sense, the agent in this state looses the highest part of his nature and tends to be an animalistic and irresponsible agent.


How is a Good Character built?

            By giving the correct fundamentals…

The human mind starts to know something either in an a priori or a posteriori manner. The goodness of virtue or habit is not a naturally acquired knowledge innate to us since birth. They are known a posteriorily in the sense that we acknowledge them first as given to us as “the that.28 But the human mind must justify the “that” taught to them in their initial encounters of what is good. So, the essentiality of the “that”, the good fundamentals, could only be fulfilled when one understands and applies it from the heart. The “that” must be complemented by the “because” for it to be complete. So in order for one to become familiar with common beliefs he needs a good upbringing.29

To have good fundamentals is the first step in having a good character. If one has a good upbringing and correct fundamentals then he has the correct starting point.30 The importance therefore of the fundamentals lies in its being an indispensable starting ground or origin for the development of a good character. This is why, for Aristotle, goodness could only be found and achieved in a selected few.

For Aristotle, the proper way of acquiring the fundamentals is through habituation.31 There are three modes of acquisition: induction, perception and habituation. The starting points for ethical actions are acquired through habituation just as bodily actions are acquired through perception of some bodily necessity.


By habituation…

As stated above, the origin of a good character is the acquisition of good fundamentals through habituation and internalization. Habituation, therefore, is the process by which the origins of character development take shape. It is a developmental process in which one increases his power of discernment in his perceptual, affective and deliberative capacities. It is not solely a rigid process of constructing a mind of tabula rasa into a mechanistic one. Aristotle insinuated that in the process of habituation the agent must be able to know that he is doing a virtuous action, decide on them and do the actions from a firm and unchanging state.32 Habits are therefore voluntary and moral actions.

Aristotle says that all are born with the potential to be morally virtuous, but it is only by behaving in the right way that people train themselves to be virtuous.

Aristotle’s theory of habituation speaks loudly of his general goal of imparting a practical science. Ethics is practical and it becomes useless if it remains in the domain of the abstract. Habituation is not mere theoria; it is essentially praxis. The notion therefore of character is not merely an abstract concept equally the same as modern concept of “personality” but a state which necessarily arises from the repetition of similar activities.33


Are we Responsible for our Character?

Since habituation is a product of active deliberation and voluntary action, it is evident that character, the result of habituation, accounts for the responsibility of the person. Yet, one might object that people should not be held responsible for their voluntary actions because being negligent or evil may be part of their character. But Aristotle firmly holds that a person is always responsible for his character as well as his actions arising from his character: “…A man is himself responsible for becoming careless, because he lives in a loose and carefree manner; he is likewise responsible for being unjust or self-indulgent… For a given kind of activity produces a corresponding character.”35


Is a solitary life better than a shared life?


Contemplative Life…

For Aristotle, contemplation is the excellence of man’s intellect. Since the intellect is the highest thing in man, and the objects that it apprehends are the highest things that can be known,contemplation is the highest form of activity.36 Man can therefore be happy by himself when he engages in contemplation.

Unlike any other activity, contemplation is the most continuous activity. It is also the most pleasant and most self-sufficient. Aristotle also says that contemplative life is a god-like life because we come closer to the Divine realities. In Book X, chapters 7–8, he gives it a special position, making  it the pinnacle of a well-lived  life, the highest of all human activities.


Shared Life…

Although one can achieve happiness in his solitude through contemplation, Aristotle asserts that friendship is a better condition than solitariness. A self-sufficient life is one whose activities are intrinsically worthy.  It has its ends which are worth choosing regardless of what may become of them.  Aristotle is not concerned to justify friendship because it conduces to or promotes self-development but because it is part of a self-contained, fully realized life.

Aristotle says that even the contemplative man needs external goods in order to be happy. These goods may be good birth, good children, and beauty. Man is a political animal and there is nothing more that affirms this statement than his life as essentially openness for friendship.


Types of Friendship…

It is remarkable to note that two of the ten books of the Nicomachean Ethics is devoted to friendship (philia). This is because philia involves a wide variety of human relationships, and not because it is of more importance than the subject on contemplative life.

There are three types of friendship: friendship based on utility (pragma), friendship based on pleasure, and friendship based on goodness of character. The first two are superficial and not long-lasting because they are based on an unstable foundation. The third, however, is the best type because it is based on a stable ground. It is the love for “who” the other person is and not the love for “what” the other person can give. A virtuous person treats others according to their personhood and not according to what they can give him. He treats others as individuals who has persons and not merely as objects of his personal interests.

To know the goodness of one’s life, one needs to have intimate friends whose lives are similarly good, since one will be able to evaluate life when it is not his own. Man knows the kind of life that he has through his friends; his alter egos.

It is in living in activity with others that one becomes more continuously active and more fully happy.  A solitary life will be a hard life, for it is not easy to keep up a continuous activity by yourself as you will easily get tired of what you’re doing.  Unlike the solitary person, one who engages in activity with others will have the joy of companionship.37


Final Words


According to Aristotle, our life’s project is to be happy, and building a good character is necessary. Put simply, our happiness consists in having a balanced life.

For many reasons contrary to our present understanding, Happiness for Aristotle is living a moral life. It is having the stability and consistency of character. It is thriving in a strong disposition, a flourishing,  that neutralizes the seducing power of pleasure.

In order to achieve happiness, it is imperative that one has already developed a good character. A virtuous person is a happy person while a vicious person is a miserable person, even though it may seem, as usually the case, that the latter enjoys more the luxuries in life.



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This entry was posted on January 29, 2012 by in Uncategorized.




Tuguegarao City, Cagayan Atty. MICHAEL JHON M. TAMAYAO manages this blog. He is currently starting his private law practice. Contact:; Tel. No. 09353343739. PROFILE: Atty. Tamayao is currently teaching law, philosophy and social sciences at the Cagayan State University. He finished his Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy degree at the Faculty of Philosophy, University of Santo Tomas and graduated in 2005, garnering the highest academic honors in that Academic Year. He pursued Licentiate in Philosophy and Master of Arts in Philosophy degrees at the same university, completing them both in 2007. In 2009, he took up Bachelor of Laws and Letter at the Cagayan State University, where he also teaches. He passed the 2013 bar exams, and now currently taking up Master of Laws and Letters at the San Beda Graduate School of Law.

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January 2012
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