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Nicomachean Ethics (sometimes spelled 'Nichomachean'), is a work by Aristotle on virtue and character and plays a prominent role in defining Aristotelian ethics. The ten books which comprise it are based on notes from his lectures at the Lyceum and were either edited by or dedicated to Aristotle's son, Nicomachus.

Nicomachean Ethics focuses on the importance of habitually behaving virtuously and developing a virtuous character. Aristotle emphasized the importance of context to ethical behavior, and the ability of the virtuous person to recognize the best course of action. Aristotle argued that eudaimonia is the goal of life, and that a person's pursuit of eudaimonia, rightly conceived, will result in virtuous conduct.


Scholars believe that the Nicomachean Ethics was either edited by or dedicated to Aristotle's son and pupil Nicomachus, although the work itself does not explain the source of its name. Though Aristotle's father was also called Nicomachus, Aristotle's son was the next leader of Aristotle's school, the Lyceum, and historians therefore consider him to be more likely to have influenced the collection of Aristotle's lecture notes.


General Ethics

Book 1: The Study of the Good

PP Nic.+Eth.1094a

Goal-directed ethics

Aristotle's ethics is often called teleological or goal-directed. According to Aristotle, every thing has a purpose or end. A knife, for example, has the purpose of cutting things. A good knife is good at cutting things, and therefore knives should be sharp. Similarly, people have a purpose. People should do things that help them fulfill that purpose or end: things that are for their good. There are many actions, crafts, and sciences, the ends turn out to be many as well; for health is the end of medicine, a boat of boat building, victory of generalship, and wealth of household management. But some of these pursuits are subordinate to some one capacity; for instance, bridle making and every other science producing equipment for horses are subordinate to horsemanship, while this and every action in warfare are, in turn, subordinate to generalship, and in the same way other pursuits are subordinate to further ones.

Character-centered ethics

People who do things well and consistently are good people. Each action is not considered as an isolated act (as is often done in other ethical systems), but in relation to a virtuous ideal. This attitude toward ethics is called virtue ethics or character-centered ethics: each person's actions should make that person better and build a better character. Others will recognize you as courageous (Aristotle assumed) if you generally perform courageous acts when the chance arises. The Nicomachean Ethics is considered to be one of the major instances of such virtue ethics.

Of course, this leaves the important question of what human purpose actually is!

The essence and function of being human ("The Function Argument")

Aristotle defined the function of being human (ie: human purpose) when he stated, “if we declare that the function of man is a certain form of life, and define that form of life as the exercise of the soul's faculties and activities in association with rational principle, and say that the function of a good man is to perform these activities well and rightly, and if a function is well performed when it is performed in accordance with its own proper excellence--from these premises it follows that the Good of man is the active exercise of his soul’s faculties in conformity with excellence or virtue, or if there be several human excellences or virtues, in conformity with the best and most perfect among them”- (Book I, Ch. 7 PP Nic.+Eth.1098a14-15) In other words, the overall human function is the soul's activity which expresses or requires reason. The activity of reasoning is what makes you human. The essence of being human is having the ability to reason: all humans possess the essence, but not all function according to it (some have the ability, but do not use it). Furthermore, all human actions taken together comprise the good. Everything we do throughout our lives contributes to the overall function with its own individual quality.

If we live well, ie: according to the proper virtues, this will allow us to achieve what the Greeks called 'eudaimonia'.


Most things are desired for the sake of something else (e.g., we desire food that we might be healthy), but Aristotle argued that there must be something desired only for its own sake. This he identified as happiness, well-being or flourishing (Greek: εὐδαιμονία eudaimonia literally "having a good guardian spirit"). When asked "Why do you desire this?" and then "Well, why do you desire that?" in response to each answer, many people will eventually stop at "in order to be happy." Eudaimonia is not a means to an end, but an end in itself--in fact, Aristotle argued that it was commonly recognized as the ultimate goal of life (Book I, Ch. 4). Happiness thus understood is not a mood or temporary state, but a state achieved through a lifetime of virtuous action, accompanied by some measure of good fortune. It is in this sense that the American Founding Fathers would later advocate the "pursuit of happiness," which cannot be understood as mere contentment or sensual gratification.

However, living according to virtues is often not enough to guarantee a happy life. Another prerequisite (in addition to virtuous behavior) is good fortune which brings one the goods necessary, but not sufficient, for a happy life. Another prerequisite for a happy life is health, which is also desired for its own sake. For Aristotle even the most virtuous of men can be denied happiness through the whims of fortune. As a consequence, one cannot be sure of achieving happiness until one's life is fully played out (Book I, Ch. 9).

Criticism of Plato's theory of forms

As part of the defense of his own ethical system, Aristotle criticized the main ethic prior to his: Plato's idea of a "universal good" (see Theory of forms). Aristotle believed that Plato erred in assuming that Forms were 'otherworldly'. This error was the result, Aristotle believed, of Plato's assumption that since the human mind could contemplate a particular object and its abstract form separately then both must exist separately. Aristotle claimed that the human mind naturally thought in the abstract and that the fact that a person could separate forms from objects in their own mind didn't necessarily mean that forms existed separately from objects (Book I, Ch. 6).

Virtue (Arete): traditional Greek virtues

“Virtue (arete) then is a settled disposition of the mind determining the choice of actions and emotions, consisting essentially in the observance of the mean relative to us, this being determined by principle, that is, as the prudent man would determine it.” (Book II, Ch. 6 PP Nic.+Eth.1106a15

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle tries to address the traditional Greek virtues (Greek: αρετη arete) of his time, in large part accepting contemporary virtues and explaining them. It is important to recognize that these virtues are not always the same as modern or Christian virtues—Aristotle views pride or magnificence (rather than humility) as a virtue, for example. Arete may also be translated as excellence, and for Aristotle (as opposed to some earlier Greek philosophers) arete is limited to things which humans may excel at, but that animals, plants and inanimate objects cannot. Height and strength may be excellent physical attributes, but they are not limited to people and so Aristotle does not consider such things as virtues. He divides the virtues into intellectual and moral virtues.

To reiterate: each of these virtues can be acquired through practice over time. A person becomes more courageous by continually choosing courageous acts over cowardly or foolhardy ones, for example.

Book 2: Moral Virtue

PP Nic.+Eth.1103a

Moral virtues are close to what we would call virtues today. Aristotle lists the following as moral virtues: courage, temperance (moderation), liberality (moderation in giving and taking money), magnificence (correctly dealing with great wealth or power), pride (claiming what is due to you), gentleness (moderation with respect to anger), agreeableness, truthfulness, wittiness and justice.

The Golden Mean

PP Nic.+Eth.1105b

In order to be happy a person must find the mean between two extremes. A courageous person is the mean between the extremes of cowardice and foolhardiness. A soldier who is a coward will not fight in a war even though they have more than enough resources to defeat the enemy quite easily, while the foolhardy soldier will fight in a war when they are very poorly equipped. Aristotle defined the mean when he stated, “But though our present account is of this nature we must give what help we can. First, then, let us consider this, that it is the nature of such things to be destroyed by defect and excess, as we see in the case of strength and of health (for to gain light on things imperceptible we must use the evidence of sensible things); both excessive and defective exercise destroys the strength, and similarly drink or food which is above or below a certain amount destroys the health, while that which is proportionate both produces and increases and preserves it. So too is it, then, in the case of temperance and courage and the other virtues. For the man who flies from and fears everything and does not stand his ground against anything becomes a coward, and the man who fears nothing at all but goes to meet every danger becomes rash; and similarly the man who indulges in every pleasure and abstains from none becomes self-indulgent, while the man who shuns every pleasure, as boors do, becomes in a way insensible; temperance and courage, then, are destroyed by excess and defect, and preserved by the mean.

The excellent archer will find the mean between the two extremes when trying to hit the target, and he will not aim with force in excess like Machiavelli states to do in his book the Prince, “Let him act like the clever archers who, designing to hit the mark which yet appears too far distant, and knowing the limits to which the strength of their bow attains, take aim much higher than the mark, not to reach by their strength or arrow to so great a height, but to be able with the aid of so high an aim to hit the mark they wish to reach.” A follower of Aristotle will seek to find the mean in every action whether it deals with pleasure, honor, or expression of reason because they will understand that virtue is a mean. In order to seek the good they must also use reason as a guide to seek the virtue/mean.

As stated in the inscription at the temple at the Oracle at Delphi, a person should do nothing to excess. The inscription should have also included the words, find the mean. Temperance is the virtue that is the mean in order to control emotions, courage is the mean when seeking honor, and wisdom is the mean when seeking knowledge.

A general must seek to find courage the mean between cowardice and foolhardiness, in order to gain honor. A person who seeks pleasure must find the mean between becoming a drunkard and not drinking at all. A person who seeks pleasure through eating must find the mean between being a glutton and being anorexic. A person who seeks pleasure through sex must find the mean between abstinence and nymphomania. A person who seeks honor through knowledge must find the mean between ignorance and seeking knowledge to excess (Socrates did not listen to this). Plato stated that the mean between ignorance and wisdom was “right opinion.”

Book 3: Courage and Temperance

PP Nic.+Eth.1109b

Chapters 1-5: The Will

Aristotle divides actions into three categories: voluntary, involuntary (unwilling), and nonvoluntary actions. "Virtue however is concerned with emotions and actions, and it is only voluntary feelings and actions for which praise and blame are given; those that are involuntary are condoned, and sometimes even pitied." (Book III Ch 1, PP Nic.+Eth.1109b30) Virtues are based on voluntary actions.

Aristotle makes a subtle distinction between involuntary and nonvoluntary actions thus: "A man who has acted through ignorance, then, if he is sorry afterwards, is held to have done the deed involuntarily or unwillingly; if he is not sorry afterwards we may say (to mark the distinction) he did the deed 'not-voluntarily;' for, as the case is different, it is better to have a distinct name." (Book III Ch 1 PP Nic.+Eth.1110b20) This ignorance is ignorance of the facts of the situation, not ignorance of what is fitting, which cannot be excused.

Aristotle doesn't fully develop the concept of free will, and (following Socrates and Plato) does not mention the possibility of deliberate wrong-doing, only that "It is not about the ends, but about the means that we deliberate" (Book III Ch 3 PP Nic.+Eth.1112b11) and "choice or purpose implies calculation and reasoning" (Book III Ch 2 ).

Chapters 6-12: Courage, Temperance and Profligacy

Book 4: Other Virtues

PP Nic.+Eth.1119b

Aristotle describes other virtues, including liberality, magnanimity, amiability, sincerity, wit, and modesty.

Ethics within Society

Aristotle's emphasis on the growth of character is centered on the individual, but not to the exclusion of a person's relationships with others or participation in society. In fact, large portions of the Nicomachean Ethics discuss friendship, justice and politics.

Book 5: Justice

PP Nic.+Eth.1129a

Aristotle defines justice as a virtue by using the golden mean, saying that justice is the mean between committing injustice and suffering from it. Since he admits that suffering from injustice is involuntary, this definition is generally regarded as being "asserted merely in order to bring justice into line with other virtues already discussed" (Coppleston, A History of Philosophy, Vol I: Greece and Rome, p.342), and therefore is not a useful guide to virtuous action.

Aristotle also distinguishes between distributive and retributatory justice. Retributive justice, or punishment for things done wrong, is similar to criminal courts. Distributive justice is conceptually similar to civil courts and awarding financial compensation.

People should not be held accountable for involuntary actions, ie: things they were forced to do, or that they did in ignorance of the facts, which may be called mistakes or mishaps. Voluntary unjust actions can be divided according to whether they were premeditated or not. Crimes done due to emotion rather than reason (ex: sudden anger) are acts of injustice, but the person who does things in the heat of the moment should not be regarded as a wicked or unjust person. Premeditated unjust actions can only be done by unjust or wicked people, Aristotle thought. This may seem fairly sensible, but is an important departure from Socrates and Plato who held that people never did things which they realized were wrong, and that all evil was caused solely by ignorance.

Book 6: Intellectual Virtue

PP Nic.+Eth.1138b

Aristotle enumerates five intellectual virtues: Knowledge, art, prudence, intuition, and wisdom. Most of these would not be called virtues today, but they are important because they allow us to recognize the golden mean in a particular situation and then to behave according to it. Prudence or phronesis means behaving according to the golden mean generally, and is used to find the moral virtues, each of which is a golden mean between two imprudent behaviors or vices.

Book 7: Evil and Pleasure

PP Nic.+Eth.1145a

Chapters 1-10: Evil

There are three 'undesirable forms of moral character', or evils, namely: vice, incontinence and brutality. Vices are extreme behaviors between which lies virtuous behavior (see earlier section, The Golden Mean). Brutality is often used as a term of reproach ("you brute!"), but in actuality instinctual undesirable animal-like behavior is (Aristotle believed) quite rare in humans. Not all types of brutality are bad; for example, nail-biting is a brutish behavior which may be uncouth, but doesn't really affect morals. Behaving excellently means rising above our brutal animal natures, however, as the heros and gods did.

Incontinence is bad behavior motivated by passion for immediate pleasure, whereas continence (which is preferable) means rationally calculating actions and so withholding from doing bad things. A hot temper is a form of incontinence. Aristotle noted that Socrates held that there was no such thing as incontinence, but this seems counter to common sense (see the section on Justice, above). While people often realize that incontinent acts are bad, they give in to weakness and immediate pleasure anyway.

Incontinence may be contrasted with profligacy (a vice), in which a person sees no reason to avoid excessive amounts of pleasurable activities. Aristotle claimed that incontinence is better than profligacy because of its fleeting nature and naturalness rather than premeditation. He felt that while profligacy was chronic and incurable, incontinence was intermittent behavior, and curable.

Chapters 11-14: Pleasure

Aristotle discusses pleasure in two separate parts of the Nicomachean Ethics (book 7 chapters 11-14 and book 10 chapters 1-5), but I have integrated both here for clarity's sake.

He disavows both the ideas of Speusippus (Plato's nephew and successor) who held that all pleasure was bad and Eudoxus (another contemporary philosopher) who held that all pleasure was good, and takes a more moderate stand. According to Aristotle, pleasure (which includes intellectual pleasure) is not simply caused by lack of pain or relief from pain. In fact, the use of pleasure solely as an antidote to pain can lead to addiction and a worthless personality.

Furthermore, pleasure is not the same thing as happiness. Pleasure is regarded like satisfaction as a positive effect which reinforces an activity. While some pleasures lead to (long-term) happiness, others do not. There are good and bad forms of pleasure depending on the sort of activity they are associated with. Of course, virtuous activity is associated with the good type of pleasure, and vice is associated with the bad type. "Pleasures of a certain kind are pursued by brutes and children, and .. freedom from the corresponding pains is pursued by the prudent man" (Book 7, ch 12). This is why acts should be done for their own good, rather than for the pleasure which may result directly from them.

Books 8 and 9: Friendship

PP Nic.+Eth.1155a

Aristotle argues that friends can be viewed as second selves. Just as virtuous behavior improves oneself, friends can improve each other--this is the importance of friendship, and the reason it may be regarded as a type of virtue. The success or failure of a friend can be like one’s own success or failure. Aristotle divides friendships into three types, based on the motive for forming them: friendships of utility, friendships of pleasure and friendships of the good.

Friendships of utility are relationships formed without regard to the other person at all. Buying merchandise, for example, may require meeting another person but usually needs only a very shallow relationship between the buyer and seller. In modern English, people in such a relationship would not even be called friends, but acquaintances (if they even remembered each other afterwards). The only reason these people are communicating is in order to buy or sell things, which is not a bad thing, but as soon as that motivation is gone, so does the relationship between the two people unless another motivation is found.

At the next level, friendships of pleasure are based on pure delight in the company of other people. People who drink together, or share a hobby may have such friendships. However, these friends may also part--in this case if they no longer enjoy the shared activity, or can no longer participate in it together.

Friendships of the good are ones where both friends enjoy each other's characters. As long as both friends keep similar characters, the relationship will endure since the motive behind it is care for the friend. This is the highest level of relationship, and in modern English might be called true friendship.

Book 10: Pleasure and Politics

PP Nic.+Eth.1172a

Chapters 1-5: Pleasure (part 2)

See book 7, chapters 11-14 for a complete discussion.

Chapters 6-9: Politics

“For though this good is the same for the individual and the state, yet the good of the state seems a grander and more perfect thing both to attain and to secure; and glad as one would be to do this service for a single individual, to do it for a people and for a number of states is nobler and more divine.” Nicomachean Ethics, Book I Ch ii, translated F.H. Peters (1893: Oxford). Here Aristotle describes the relationship between ethics and politics, saying that politics is essentially ethics on a larger scale (cf. Socrates' suggestion in Plato's Republic, Book II, that he discuss the justice of the state, rather than of the individual, since the former "is likely to be larger and more easily discernible").

Indeed, Aristotle believes that politics should be a noble pursuit to which ethics is an introduction. The last chapter of the Nicomachean Ethics states “Since then our predecessors have left this matter of legislation uninvestigated, it will perhaps be better ourselves to inquire into it, and indeed into the whole question of the management of a state, in order that our philosophy of human life may be completed to the best of our power.” Nicomachean Ethics, Book X Ch ix, translated F.H. Peters (1893: Oxford). He continues his discussion in the Politics.

Important quotes

  • Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim. - 1094a (Book I, Ch. 1)
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See also


  • Nichomachean Ethics, translated by Terence Irwin (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1985)
  • Nicomachean Ethics: Aristotle with an introduction by Hye-Kyung Kim, translated by F.H. Peters in Oxford, 1893. (Barnes & Noble, 2004)

External links

de:Nikomachische Ethik fr:Éthique à Nicomaque he:האתיקה של אריסטו ru:Никомахова этика fi:Nikomakhoksen etiikka

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