Bust of Aristotle. Marble, Roman copy after a Greek bronze original by Lysippos from 330 BC; the alabaster mantle is a modern addition.

Aristotle’s ethical philosophy is concerned with the human pursuit of happiness through developing virtue of character. Within this philosophy, virtues are idealized as the selection of a positive intermediate position, referred to as the “golden mean”, between two negative positions encompassing the extremes, or vices, of excess and deficiency.

For example, courage is the golden mean between the excess of rashness and the deficiency of cowardice; and temperance is the golden mean between the excess of indulgence and the deficiency of indifference. 

Aristotle defines virtuous actions as being supported by deduction and reason, rather than being influenced by emotion. Identifying the most negative and most positive positions for a particular situation is a skill learned through accumulated knowledge and past experience. It is a weakness of ethical character to allow emotion to become a stronger motivation than choosing the rational course of action, as it may be discovered too late that the emotionally influenced act has resulted in undesired consequences. The ethically “good” choice of action is reached through a process of deliberation involving rational analysis.

Aristotle did not intend to present virtue-based philosophy as a procedure for making decisions in the solution of ethical problems, as the definition of virtue is often ambiguous and subjective in a practical setting. Its purpose is to provide examples of virtuous characteristics as a guideline for identifying intermediate positions as virtues in a more generalized sense. Thus, the concept of seeking a golden mean is useful for solving ethical problems through its application in considering the extreme actions and selecting a good compromise.

Table of Virtues and Vices[edit | edit source]

Sphere of Action or Feeling Excess Mean Deficiency
Fear and Confidence Rashness Courage Cowardice
Pleasure and Pain Licentiousness/Self-Indulgence Temperance Insensibility
Getting and Spending (minor) Prodigality Liberality Illiberality/Meanness
Getting and Spending (major) Vulgarity/Tastelessness Magnifiicence Pettiness/Stinginess
Honour and Dishonour (major) Vanity Magnanimity Pusillanimity
Honour and Dishonour (minor) Ambition/empty vanity Proper ambition/pride Unambitiousness/undue humility
Anger Irascibility Patience/Good Temper Lack of spirit/unirascibility
Self-expression Boastfullness Truthfulness Understatement/mock modesty
Conversation Buffoonery Wittiness Boorishness
Social Conduct Obsequiousness Friendliness Cantankerousness
Shame Shyness Modesty Shamelessness
Indignation Envy Righteous indignation Malicious enjoyment/spitefulness

Aristotle (1955). The Ethics of Aristotle: The Nichomachaen Ethics. (rev. ed.) (J. K. Thomson, trans.). New York: Viking. p. 104.

Application of Aristotelian Ethics

Aristotle's ethical theory differs from most in the sense that it is the decision is not action-based. Action-based theories, such as Kant's Duty or Mill's Utilitarianism, concern themselves with the application of an ethical criteria to a specific situation. While following the latter two theories, one would often find themselves asking "What should I do in this situation?" Aristotle would opt to ask "What kind of character should I portray in dealing with this situation." In this way, Aristotelian Ethics is primarily character based, where individual qualities are the basis of action.[edit | edit source]

Perhaps the safest way to exercise Aristotle's theory would be to emphasize character, rather than get lost in the complexity of the 'golden mean' analysis. Due to the character-base, using Aristotelian ethics alone to resolve specific cases is always difficult, primarily due to the fact that "what should I do?" is always asked after "what do I want to become?" This theory is frequently criticized for failure to reference specific situations, as well as to subscribe to definite moral principles to resolve such situations. The idea of character is often unclear, and thus this theory may lack the precision and impartiality that others may provide. It is important to remember that precision in ethical matters is rare, and should not be expected. Following this ethical theory may not always result in successfully choosing a path of action, however it is very important in establishing values one would like to portray.

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