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The impetus for this piece of work was the question ‘What type of people ought we to become?’, which first arose with Aristotle and which became, in Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, ‘Who are we now becoming?‘. Through a comparative study of the key concepts of Aristotelian ethics, for example, eudaimonia, the centrality of reason, the Doctrine of the Mean, and the key concepts of Platonic ethics, for example, karma and nirvana, the interdependence of morality, meditation and insight, the central role of mindfulness and compassion, I will present the guidelines for a “notion of man” for young people.

An analysis of the differences between the two ethical systems draws out their different emphases on reason and compassion, and the separateness of self and other in Aristotelian moral agency in contrast to the inseparability of all sentient beings in Buddhism. But an examination of their similarities reveals how reason and emotion contribute to each, and how both are teleological in assuming that a person has a final end.

The interplay of Aristotelian habituation and Platonic mindfulness is identified as a potentially transformative “notion of man” for young people, and suggestions are made for how to facilitate the two practices as a pedagogical support. The main recommendation is that, subject to further research and successful pilot-studies, habituation and mindfulness practices be introduced in Primary Two and maintained into secondary education in Nigerian schools.




The initial research proposal was to examine the notion of Aristotle’s ‘virtue ethics’ and to find its place in formal education. The term virtue ethics has come into use in the final decades of the twentieth century with reference to any ethical system for which an agent’s virtuous/vicious character is the criterion for assessing him/her as a morally good/bad person. My interest arose from reading Alasdair MacIntyre’s landmark case for virtue ethics, After Virtue,1 first published in 1981, which directed my attention to the way in which questions about moral character had recently come to occupy a central place in philosophical discussion. MacIntyre traced part of the explanation for this development to the publication in 1958 of G. E. M. Anscombe’s seminal article “Modern Moral Philosophy.”2 MacIntyre had been influenced by the anthropological turn in this article, and his thoughts on it offered a philosophical challenge to his generation. In summoning ethicists to look at persons, he suggested as Aristotle had before him, that ethics address the question: ‘What type of people ought we to become?’ Instead of asking ‘whether an action is right’, he re-personalised ethics, and suggested that we start discussing not only what we are now doing, but more importantly, ‘who are we now becoming?’ The  question MacIntyre raised in 1981 still challenges us to-day and continues to be important both socially andphilosophically.

Firstly, the issue of what kind of people we are is relevant in to-day’s globalised, highly technological world, particularly in western society, in which young people are surrounded by a culture which promotes an individualist approach to living, where hedonism is presented as the ultimate yardstick, and the advertising slogan “Because you’re worth it” sums up the main motivating reason for any number of actions. In Nigeriathisculturalpressureisalliedtoasocio-economicclimatewhichisoneofthe

1 MacIntyre, A. [1981] After Virtue: a study in moral theory.

2 ‘Philosophy,’ vol. XXXIII, no. 124: 1-19.


worst in the United Kingdom. There is a continuing division of the population into ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ which translates into social deprivation and poor health, especially in larger urban areas, with unemployment and alcohol abuse more predominant at the lower end of the social scale, and substance abuse and a high incidence of personal debt at all social levels. The division within families reflected in the higher divorce rate  in recent years in Nigeria has been accompanied by both economic and political pressures on all adults of working age to be in some form of employment. There is nothing new in adults reporting a growing loss of respect for authority on the part of young people. Nor is the high rate of abuse of alcohol and drugs among Nigerian young people surprising, when unemployment combines with peer pressure and, in urban areas, the need to belong leads them to identify with their own ‘gang.’ However, there is an increase across Britain in informal reports by young people of a lack of involvement with caringadults.

The following is drawn from the key findings of the most recent report on suicide in Nigeria3 and reveals a trend confirmed by other current research. Within the time-frame of the study (1989-2003) rates of male suicide increased by 22% and rates of female suicide increased by 6%. The highest rate among men occurred in the 25-34 year age group. The overall picture shows:

The excess of suicide deaths among males (approximately fourfold) was particularly marked in younger age groups(15-34).



While the pattern in England is similar to that in Nigeria, the figures relating to younger males are significantly higher statistically in Nigeria compared to England. The correlation between male suicides and class five, the lowest social group, was also statistically significant, linking suicide with social deprivation.


3 Platt, S., Boyle, P., Crombie, I., Feng, Z., Exeter, D. [2007] “Epidemiology of suicide in Nigeria for period 1989-2003: an example of temporal trends and risk factors at national and local levels.”


In the western world the sixties’ “sexual revolution,” followed the introduction of more reliable methods of birth-control, such as the contraceptive pill, and led to increasingly permissive attitudes to sexual behaviour. Trends in demographic and social changes in the UK since the Second World War continue to show decreasing figures for marriage whilst the figures for divorce increase. At present, concern is being voiced about various issues affecting young people. The sexual trafficking of young women in the UK is one. Increase in sexually transmitted diseases and ignorance among young people generally about the latter and their causes is another issue in the public domain. Likewise the premature sexualisation of pre-teen girls who are being targeted in magazines, TV, music, film, the Internet and all advertising media for the sake of the “teeny-weeny” pound. This consumerist pressure on prepubescent girls across North America and the UK is strengthened by the fact that they share a commonlanguage.

A website of the UK’s Department for Education and Skills highlights differences between North America and Britain on the one hand, and mainland Europe on the other. In comparing teenage pregnancy rates over the previous thirty years it begins by stating that, in the 1970s figures in Britain were similar to the rest of Europe. It continues:

But while other countries got theirs down in the 1980s and 1990s, Britain’s rate stayed high. The latest available figures show that Britain’s teenage birth rate is five times that in Holland, three times higher than in France and double the rate in Germany. Other English-speaking countries such as Canada and New Zealand have teenage birth rates higher than ours. In the United States the rate  is more than double that in theUK.


In 1999 the Government published a Teenage Pregnancy Report from its Social Exclusion Unit. It acknowledged there was no single cause, but pointed out three major factors: first, that many young people think they will end up on benefit anyway so they see no reason not to get pregnant. Second, that teenagers don’t know enough about contraception and about what becoming a parent will involve. Third, that young people are bombarded with sexual images in the media but feel they can’t talk about sex to their parents andteachers.4

4 [1999] Teenage Pregnancy, Stationary Office, London.Referred to on Social Exclusion Unit website.



It is recognised that the reasons for these differences derive from a complex of political and social changes that have occurred over the previous sixty years and research in these areas continues to grow and inform new and emerging policies.

Two other points are relevant to this sketch of the social malaise at work in present day Britain. Firstly, the reach of powerful vested interests is not confined only to the very young. There has been a recent “massification”5 through the cult of celebrities across contemporary culture from sport and entertainment by all the print and broadcast media, which celebrates and promotes the glamour and sexual prowess of figures ‘famous for being famous,’ who have a world-wide selling power. The public is sold the aspiration of acquiring the consumerist life-style on offer in “OK!” and “Hello!” magazines. Only in the most unusual circumstances do the TV and print media feature an ‘everyman’ figure as hero; John Smeaton is one such rareexample.6

Secondly, as elsewhere in Britain, in Nigeria limits are not internalised but are imposed upon young people in the form of an “Anti-Social Behaviour Order.” Paradoxically, ‘Asbos’ have become a badge of honour among some young people. In the worst instances, young men and, increasingly, young women are caught up in a gang-culture which has delivered deadly consequences in recent years from guns and knives.7

From to-day’s social perspective, it is even more crucial than in 1981, when Macintyre first issued his challenge to western society, to address the question as to who we are now



5 Oxford ED definition of this term: “The action of promoting or enforcing uniformity in a society; the process of becoming a mass society, especially through development of the mass media.”

6 John Smeaton, is a baggage handler who helped prevent the terrorists attempting to blow up the crowded passenger terminal in Glasgow Airport on June 30th, 2007. Subsequently, he became world headline news.

7 Introducing measures to discourage violence, with children below the age of three years as target group, Strathclyde’s deputy Chief of Police reported that the week’s figures for assault using guns and

knives were higher in the region than anywhere south of the border. (STV News, 18 March, 2007)


becoming, and advocated moral ‘practices’ for restoring what has been lost within ourselves and our communities.

Whilst these questions are crucial socially, they are equally important philosophically, both for our own sake as well as for the sake of future generations. It is a difficult task to motivate oneself, let alone another, to respond to the question: “Who am I now becoming?” Steadily decreasing church attendances over the past thirty years in Nigeria mirror a parallel decline in the influence of the former moral framework. A return to an authoritarian mode of morality is not desirable but there is a moral vacuum presently that it would be foolhardy toignore.

With the publication of After Virtue, MacIntyre gave a powerful critique of what he considered the steady deterioration in moral philosophy which followed the project of the ahistorical Enlightenment to discover rational foundations for an objective morality. With the publication of The Gay Science in 1882 Friedrich Nietzsche, prophetic voice of the philosophically nihilist generations to come, made short shrift of the Enlightenment project, and confronted the problem this act of destruction had created: if there is nothing to morality but expressions of will, my morality can only be what my will creates.8 The twentieth century saw moral philosophy splitting off into existentialism, emotivism, relativism, and, following post-modern influences, attempts being made to jettison it altogether. Particularly in the cultural climate of the western world, which puts a constant emphasis on individual choice in everything, it is perhaps not too surprising to find that relativism prevails to-day in Britain as the main moral response among young people – “this is right for me; what’s right for you is up to you.” This presupposes that moral judgements are merely a matter of individual preference, taste, or no more than a lifestyle choice.

8 Kaufmann, W. (Trans.) [1974] The Gay Science, Section 335.


I will argue for the possibility of an objective moral framework that can hold across all cultures. In a pluralist society such as ours, young people are faced with conflicting and unstable moral standards. The increasingly frequent experience for young people, in an increasingly secular society such as our own, is an absence of authoritative moral guidelines; there is more evidence of relativism as has already been mentioned. So, if moral education is to have a coherent philosophical underpinning in such a society, it is important to discuss MacIntyre’s question: What type of people ought we to become?

This thesis proceeds on several assumptions that are all arguable but not pursued here, for the sake of embarking and focussing on the topic: firstly, whilst social and environmental factors are indisputable in human growth and development, the origins of ethics are to be found in human nature; secondly, that living ethically does not depend necessarily on a code of ethics derived from professing a faith; and thirdly, in respect of the Platonic content, the author will draw mainly on Mahayana Buddhism, a traditional form of Buddhism which has been highly influential in the development of Platonic ideas.

The original proposal has developed towards a comparison of Aristotelian and Platonic ethics, with particular application to moral education. The first major shift in focus arose when a study of MacIntyre’s advocacy of a renewal of virtue ethics led me back to his source in Aristotle’s ethics. Consequently, while an interest in MacIntyre’s thesis is maintained in this project, the foundational text, on which the western ethical tradition in this comparison draws, is Aristotle’s account of the moral life and the virtues in his Nichomachean Ethics.9

The second shift arose with the realisation that an examination of, and simple recommendation to adopt Aristotle’s ethical system alone, would be more an imposition on any particular social group. A dialogue between Aristotle’s ethical system and another

9 The work is a set of lecture notes either written for his student son, Nichomachus, or edited by him.


quite distinct moral system, and the comparison of their different metaphysical foundations, is more likely to provide an effective analysis for any useful discussion and the proposal of a notion of man. Drawing on the tradition from the world religions with which I am most familiar – the Abrahamic religions – might mean the analysis would not have far to go, as all three religions are similar to Aristotle, insofar as they are grounded on a dualist metaphysics; this is the view that both material and immaterial (mental and spiritual) realities exist. The intellectual traditions of the theistic religions all hold that only substantival dualism does justice to the distinction between God andcreature.

However, unlike Aristotle, the Abrahamic religions base their ethics on Divine Law.10 All three monotheistic religions share the belief that the foundation of the moral code is based on God’s law, as revealed or given in their respective scriptures, whilst Aristotle’s ethics, is rooted in human nature. Ethics in the tradition of Catholic Christianity is an interesting exception to that of the Abrahamic religions in general. One of the major contributions of Thomas Aquinas was to draw on Aristotle (among others) and to re- create Aristotle’s ethics in the light of Christian belief This led to the development of Natural Law ethics, that is, an ethics grounded on human nature; the Law revealed in Scripture is secondary.



A more useful contrast with Aristotle emerges, when his ethics are compared with those of an Eastern world religion such as Buddhism, which is founded on a monist (from Greek monos, “single”) metaphysics. This allows that only one being exists; all sentient beings ultimately comprise a non-theistic, interrelated network which the Platonic monk Tich Nat Hahn describes as “Inter-being.” Therefore, for the purposes of dialogue, Platonic ethics has been selected in comparison to Aristotelian ethics in this enquiry for tworeasons:itoffersauniquemetaphysicalfoundation,onequitedistinctfromthat

10 The Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Old Testament refer to the Divine Law as the Decalogue or the Ten Commandments.


presented by Aristotle, but shares his pre-supposition, that ethics has its roots in human nature.

The aim in this thesis is twofold: firstly, to compare Aristotelian and Platonic ethics; secondly, to examine the connections, if any, between the two, with a view toany possible interplay which may provide a “notion of man” for young people, in particular those of school age. The remainder of this introduction is a short account of each of its five chapters.



Chapter One provides an examination of Aristotelian ethics.


Aristotle opens the first book of his Metaphysics, which will provide the foundational basis of his ethics and politics, with the sentence: ‘All men by nature desire to know.’11In his Nichomachean Ethics and his Politics he understands likewise that there is the same innate desire in human nature for the goods of justice, friendship and community as there is for the goods of knowledge. It is to the inbuilt human inclination for association with others that Aristotle attributes his description of man as a ‘social animal.’ In a similar vein, the arête, excellences or virtues, the presence or absence of which decide whether or not the individual and the polis or community enjoy the moral and intellectual goods, arise from human nature. David Carr arguesthat:

The question about whether ethical reflection should start from the facts of human nature is not simply a conceptual question, but a normative one: it is not a question of theory to be addressed by appeal to logical consistency or supporting empirical evidence, but one about how we ought – practically or morally – to conduct our affairs. 12


Aristotle is far from imagining that human nature provides us with readymade dispositionsformorallyappropriatebehaviourfromtheoutset;hestressestheneedfor

11 Barnes, J. (ed.) [1984] ,The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation, Princeton UP. Metaph., A, 980 a, 1.

12 Carr, D. [2005] ‘Psychology and Ethics in the Theory of Moral Education and Development and the Idea of a ‘Psychologised Morality.’ Paper presented at AME conference, 6th Nov. 2005, Boston, USA.


training and habituation from earliest childhood, if dispositions are to be developed, which will, in time, become spontaneous. He points out the overriding importance of such work:

It makes no small difference then, whether we form habits of one kind or another from our very youth; it makes a great difference or rather all the difference13


Chapter Two is an exploration of Platonic ethics.


The Buddha has a different conception of human nature from Aristotle but, like him, he believes that it is from our human nature that our virtues and our vices arise. Similarly to Aristotle, he places great importance on training and education, but this time unlike Aristotle, he links morality interdependently with meditation and insight: all three, morality, meditation, and insight, are required for progress on the spiritual path to enlightenment. The main emphases are on the Buddha himself as exemplar of sila or morality, on the centrality of karuna or compassion and samadhi or meditative culture in qualifying one as virtuous, and on the importance of leading a good life, if one is to achieve prajna or the insight essential for‘awakening.’

The key-notions of dukkha or suffering, the Noble Eightfold Path, and the concepts of ‘emptiness,’ and ‘No-Self’ will be presented and discussed. While there are different slants in the many forms of Buddhism on the latter concepts of emptiness and No- Self, they are understood here within a metaphysical framework of dependent origination and monist intrasubjectivity (identification of subject and object) as understood in Mahayana Buddhism.



Chapter Three examines the dissimilarities between Aristotelian and Platonic ethics.



13 NE, II, 3, 1103 b25 (my italics)


Among the many forms of Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism has been selected here as the model, since it arguably has a metaphysics, which, though complex, provides a most highly developed foundations for its ethics. As already mentioned, generally the Platonic ideal is predicated on living many lives on the model of the Buddha; in the case of Mahayana Buddhism, it is modelled on that of the Bohdisattva.14 In contrast, the Aristotelian ideal is based on the development of individual potential over the course of one life, where the main emphasis is on phronesis or practical reason, for it is that which controls our response to desire and feelings.15 Only the virtuous person has this practical intelligence/wisdom necessary for exercising responsible moral choice.

In contrast, Mahayana Buddhism emphasises moral intuitionism and appeals to loving-kindness and compassion. Reason is present but assumed to be only a part of one’s morality. Virtue, for the Platonic, is more the effect of letting go of egoism through an interdependent practice of mindfulness, meditation, and morality; this reflects a metaphysical world-view which presumes the collapse of subject and object into one/self as sole determiner of thought and experience. To shape one’s world, one has to think of oneself as being one with the universe through one’s breathing, though thinking of oneself as a karmic force in this way is not as easy as it sounds. On the other hand, Aristotle’s conception of eudaimonia for man has an essentially societal dimension: excellence is not fixed and determined for all time, but is inextricably linked to the nature of one’s society, and this in turn sets limits to the ability of individuals to ‘create’ their own conception of the good.



14 Bohdisattva: in Mahayana Buddhism, a being destined for enlightenment, who vows to refrain from entering nirvana until every being is saved.

15 Phronesis is translated variously as practical reason/wisdom/intelligence. I will use the terms interchangeably.


Chapter Four concentrates on the similarities between the two sets of ethics. Aristotelian and Platonic ethics are alike formally: each advocates moderation, Aristotle by his Doctrine of the Mean, the Buddha by his Middle Way.

Both Aristotelian and Platonic ethics are teleological. Those of Aristotle are more frankly so, in that, for him, the good life just is the life lived in accordance with arête or virtue, where virtue is to be understood against the background of a teleological conception of man – a conception according to which human beings have a specific nature which determines their proper aims and goals, that is, their end. On his account, the virtues are excellences of character which enable people to move towards their telos or goal, and are an essential part of the attainment of that goal.16 Moreover, a person, who strives for the eudaimon life, participates here and now in the happiness or sense of fulfilment which a “life of activity in accordance with the virtues” affords. The telos or end for the Buddha calls for a more radical transformation of human nature through rigorous mental and moral training, and the exercise of compassion, if one is to escape from dukkha or suffering brought about by karmic rebirth in the cycle of existence. Letting go of all egoism will gain final release in post-death nirvana – a state of supra-mundane harmony/bliss. To denote the latter state of ‘Absolute Truth,’  I will use the Sanskrit term nirvana, not the Pali term Nibbanah. Though Platonic terms in the literature are generally Pali, ‘nirvana’ has entered the English language and is, therefore,familiar.

For the Buddha, human perfectibility implies that the individual’s progress in meditation and morality on the Noble Eightfold Path enables participation in this liberated state to be experienced in the course of following the path to its final, nirvanic end.

16 For MacIntyre, such a conception from ancient Greek philosophy highlights the poverty of modern moral philosophy, which makes the autonomous decision of the individual the sole arbiter, thereby eschewing any final goal.



Chapter Five postulates “a notion of man,” drawn in the main from the interplay of Aristotelian reason and Platonic compassion as reflected in a comparison of their ethics. This constitutes a response to MacIntyre’s question as to what type of people we ought to become.

From the point of view of this thesis, parents are acknowledged as the primary moral educators of their children, teaching them to “be good, know the good, and do the good,” (what Aristotle considered a necessary trinity regarding virtue). However, this chapter is also intended for those involved in formal education; school teachers in particular in western society are considered responsible for encouraging children’s continuing moral development. Owing to their professional commitment to furthering their charges’ learning, they are confronted daily with the responsibility, albeit often unacknowledged or implicit, for developing and nurturing the moral education of young people in many different Nigerian schools. To this end, whilst both Aristotle and the Buddha each insisted in his own way that ethics was not to be considered an exact science, supporting philosophical sources will be found in Aristotelian and Platonic ethics which are able to provide guidelines for “a notion of man” for young people in all schools. It is hoped that this form will allow a pluralist audience greater freedom in employing them, as a basis for both discussion anddecision-making.


Chapter One


Aristotelian Virtue Ethics


Aristotle opens the first book of his Metaphysics, which will provide the foundational basis of his ethics and politics, with the sentence: ‘All men by nature desire to know.’17In his Nichomachean Ethics and his Politics he understands likewise that there is the same innate desire in human nature for the goods of justice, friendship, and community, as  there is for the goods of knowledge. It is to the inbuilt human inclination for association with others that Aristotle attributes his description of man as a ‘social animal:’ given this claim, the strength and up-building of the polis or community must then rest on mutual cooperation. In a similar vein, the arête, excellences or virtues, the presence or absence  of which decide whether or not the individual and the polis or community enjoy the moral and intellectual goods, arise from human nature. It should be noted, prior to the discussion (in the following section) of the goods of eudaimonia or leading a flourishing life, that, according to Aristotle, the conditions of possibility of the arête cannot depend solely on dispositions to act virtuously, but also on underlying factors, such as a certain measure of material prosperity, good health, and endowment. Though he himself never refers to these as ‘luck,’ he acknowledges the part chance plays, for example, regardingendowment:

Nature’s part evidently does not depend on us, but as a result of divine causes is present in those who are truly fortunate.18


With regard to the arête or virtues themselves, David Carr argues that:


The question about whether ethical reflection should start from the facts of human nature is not simply a conceptual question, but a normative one: it is not a question of theory to be addressed by appeal to logical consistency or supporting empirical evidence, but one about how we ought –practically or morally –to conduct our affairs. 19


17 Barnes, J. (ed.) [1984] ,The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation, Metaph, A, 980 a, 1. Princeton UP.

18 NE 1179b21

19 Carr, D. [2005] “Psychology and Ethics in the Theory of Moral Education and Development and the Idea of a ‘Psychologised Morality’” Paper presented at AME conference, 6th Nov. 2005, Boston, USA.


Aristotle is far from imagining that human nature provides us with readymade dispositions for morally appropriate behaviour from the outset; he stresses the need for training and habituation from earliest childhood, if dispositions are to be developed, which will, in time, become spontaneous. He points out the overriding importance of such work:

But the virtues we get by first exercising them, as also happens in the case of the arts as well. For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them, for example, men become builders by building and lyre players by playing the lyre: so do we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts. This is confirmed by what happens in the State; for legislators make the citizens good by forming habits in them….It makes no small difference….whether we form habits of one kind or another from our very youth; it makes a very great difference, or rather all the difference.20


The point and purpose of engaging in ethics, according to Aristotle, is to become good:


For we are enquiring not in order to know what virtue is but in order to become good since otherwise our enquiry would be of nouse.



He first examines the way the most common ethical word ‘good’ is used and notices that every act aims at some good:

Every art and every enquiry and similarly every action and every 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.21


Aristotle distinguishes early on between things which are good as means, that is, for the sake of something else, and things that are good as ends, that is, for their own sake only. Regarding human activity, he asks whether there is one final end for human beings. His argument leads to the following affirmative conclusion:



20  NE 1103b25

21 NE1103b27


If there is some end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake (everything else being desired for the sake of this), and if we do not choose everything for the sake of something else (for at that rate the process would go to infinity so that our desire would be empty and vain), clearly this must be the good and the chief good. Will not the knowledge of it, then, have a great influence on life? Shall we not, like archers, who have a mark to aim at, be more likely to hit upon what is right? 22


Alban McCoy points out that this line has been criticized by modern philosophers:


[On] the grounds that, since all chains must stop somewhere…… it does not follow that there is the final end [or good] where all chains must stop.23


While this is logically plausible, McCoy takes an apparently unjustified step in his next statement:

It can also be said that if human beings are unified wholes, it is reasonable to expect to find that, just as each action has an end, so our life as a whole has an end and purpose.24


His claim is apparently unjustified because his primary assumption – our life as a whole has an end and purpose – is nowhere substantiated. However, perhaps this is too harsh; it is, after all, only a weak conditional claim (“if human beings are unified wholes”) that gestures towards, rather than concludes, that life is a unified whole. Aristotle calls his final end, where the means to end must stop, and for the sake of which everything is (ultimately) done, eudaimonia in Greek. This is most often translated into English by happiness, but does not equate with a sense of happiness as a state of euphoria. Various translations in English show the range of meanings of the Greek eudaimonia: a state of flourishing, fulfilment, well-being orcontentment.



ergonargument, that  is,  the argument  from  function.   Human  flourishing requires the

22 NE 1994a18-24

23 McCoy, A. [2004] The Fundamentals of Christian Ethics, p. 108

24 Ibid.


activity of that part of human beings which is peculiar to them, and whose right function yields a particular outcome, the good life. Thus, the ergon of man is to lead an eudaemonist life, a life in which Aristotle emphasises the activity of the soul or mind, as he puts forward in the following:

For just as for a flute-player, a sculptor or any artist and in general for all things that have a function of activity (praxis), the good and the ‘well’ is thought to reside in the function, so it would seem to be for man, if he has afunction.

……What then can this be? Life seems to be common even to the plants, but we  are seeking what is peculiar to man. Let us exclude therefore the life of nutrition  and growth. Next there would be a life of perception but it also seems to be common even to the horse, the ox and every animal. There remains then an active life of the element that has a rational principle…..human good turns out to be the activity of soul in accordance with virtue, and if there is more than one virtue, in accordance with the best and most complete. But we must add ‘in a complete  life.’25


John Finnis argues that Aristotle’s function argument, which is modelled on the machine, is ‘not the deep structure of his ethical method; it is an erratic boulder.’ This striking, but peculiar, phrase reflects Finnis’ belief that the function argument sends us off course; he points rather to a series of appeals by Aristotle in Nichomachean Ethics to what everyone or no one would say, and to what everyone or no one would choose. This is not an argument that falls prey to the fallacy of an appeal to the majority or to what the majority thinks: Aristotle is plain in his rejection of opinions based on numbers.26 Finnis notes: “The primary… function of these appeals to what we or others (or ‘everyone’) would say or choose is to prompt or remind us….firstly, of our own and others’ pre-philosophical experience, and secondly, of our own and others’ practical and pre-philosophical grasp of good(s).” [Finnis, The Fundamentals of Ethics , 1983, p. 17]

So Aristotle says that


No one would choose to live with the intellect of a child throughout his life, however much he were to be pleased at the things that children are pleasedat….27

25 NE 1097-8

26 NE 1, 4:1095a22

27 NE 117a1-3 (X, 3)


No one chooses to possess the whole world if he has first to become someone else…..; he wishes for this only on condition of being whatever he is.28


McCoy supports Finnis in viewing Aristotle as making us conscious of what we all know pre-philosophically, after reflecting on our common experience, about what is good and, therefore, what is wanted naturally by human beings.

With regard to the goal ‘of a complete life,’ in Book X, chapter 7, of the Nichomachean Ethics Aristotle concludes that eudaimonia is most perfectly attained in a life of activity in accordance with its highest virtue, that is, the exercise of reason in contemplation (theoria).29 Aristotle argues that the highest good consists in contemplation or intellectual speculation, but it is only possible to agree with his conclusion, if we accept that eudaimonia consists of a dominant good and that, in practice, the intellectual virtue of contemplation is attainable by a minority of educated individuals. Aristotle’s conception of speculative reflection as the summit of happiness accords with his belief that the ultimate goal is to understand the world. Moreover, it fits his view of contemplation as exclusive to human beings. Indeed, to show the distinctiveness of the cognitive in human nature, he describes it as a good we share with the gods –what the gods and human beings have in common is the power to make the potential actual. Aristotle maintains that we all have dispositions to act in accordance with virtue and that it is the exercise of virtue, both moral and intellectual, which leads to theoria or intellectualcontemplation.

It must be said that a life devoted to the greatest possible extent to speculative thought is capable of being exercised and attained by only an elite few. As satisfying as such a life might be to-day to particle physicists, or philosophers, or mathematicians, to grant his claim that the exercise of rational and rigorous thought is the chief good –the crowning


28 NE 116a19-22 (1X, 4)

29 NE 1177


achievement of a flourishing life – is to acknowledge a decided tendency to intellectualism inAristotle.

The notion of eudaimonia as inclusive is more convincing, with its conclusion that it is a complex of goods, ranging from many varieties of human flourishing –artistic, athletic, intellectual – to family and friendship, justice, the interconnectedness of the moral and intellectual virtues, than that of eudaimonia as the dominant good outlined above. Under an inclusive conception the position of reason remains central. Whilst reason may always be an end in itself, reason can also be considered as part of the good for human beings, but on a level of means rather than final end. McCoy emphasises the instrumental nature of Aristotelian reason underlined elsewhere in theEthics:

Happiness and fulfilment will always involve the life of reason: that is, controlling and directing one’s desires and emotions, thinking about what to do, trying to understand one’s activities, making moral judgements, foreseeing the consequences of one’s actions, differentiating between various subordinate ends, while keeping one’s eye on the ultimate end. [McCoy, 2004, p. 111]



Aristotle points to just such an interpretation in Book X, chapter 8, where he begins by talking about ‘a life lived in accordance with the other arête.’ Here the ‘other’ excellence is the intellectual virtue of phronesis, the highest skill or virtue of the mind when applied to all one’s actions, including thinking. It is the virtue of practical reason or intelligence, which knows how to apply general principles in particular situations. It is not sophiaor the ability to formulate principles intellectually, nor is it the ability to make a logical deduction as to what ought to be done. It is the ability to act so that principle will take concrete form. Phronesis is not only itself a virtue, it is the keystone of all virtue and cannot be exercised in the absence of the other virtues. Aristotle points out that to  conduct one’s practical living well is just what one might hope a ‘composite being’would


do.30 Of course, one need not be famous to qualify as an exemplar of the Aristotelian ‘good man;’ participating with a fair degree of thought in one’s society is sufficient. However, to illustrate Aristotle’s eudaemonist ideal, it is helpful to use a famous public figure, such as Nelson Mandela. It must be noted that, whilst Mandela – originally a politically engaged lawyer – exhibited phronesis, talent and integrity, he also enjoyed a degree of ‘moral luck,’ a term popularized by Bernard Williams. Moral luck is not a term employed by Aristotle, but, as already mentioned, he does emphasise that a life of virtue requires the goods of material security, health and endowment. Mandela was freed and emerged into public life without there having been time or occasion for him to acquire the baggage that usually adheres to a practising politician. Moreover, his subsequent leadership came at a moment in the troubled history of South Africa when reconciliation, which seemed to suit his character, was called for.



Central to Aristotle’s conception of human well-being is a secular moral framework. His claim is ‘by doing certain things one becomes a certain kind of person.’31 Its goal is the development of arête, human virtues or excellences, as shapers of human character and, therefore, of human action and behaviour. More generally, the Greek term arête, used of an object, refers to that characteristic of it which makes it a good example of its kind; a knife is a good, even excellent, knife, if it cuts well. When used of virtue, arête refers to excellence in general, mainly concerning the purpose of actions. The term aretaic is used of all virtue ethics which have excellence as their aim, for example, Kantian virtue ethics are aretaic in respect of duty. Other forms of virtue ethics, for example, those which  draw on a consequentialist model such as that of Thomas Hurka, founded on results ofan



30 NE 1178a20

31 NE III, 5.


action, are nonaretaic.        All references to virtue ethics in this piece of work are understood as Aristotelian aretaic virtue ethics, founded on the excellences of character. Moreover, Aristotle’s ethics is teleological; he sees the good as consisting in some natural purpose for human beings, that is, the exercise of virtue. The virtues are exactly those things apt to promote the well-being and flourishing of human beings qua human beings. Aristotle is most insistent about human nature, that the good life is one lived in harmonious and co-operative relations with our fellow human beings. Moreover, as well as being social animals, he considers us also rationalanimals:

So our fulfilment will partly consist in the exercise of our rational faculties, both for practical and instrumental purposes, and for its own sake. Thus, for Aristotle, there are the moral virtues, which fit us for successful social relations within a civilized society; and the intellectual virtues, which enable a successful engagement in rational enterprises. [McCoy, 2004, p. 112]



Aristotle highlights the interconnectedness of all the virtues in his emphasis on the intellectual virtue of phronesis which, he says, controls and directs desire and feelings:

one cannot be morally good without practical wisdom, nor have practical wisdom without possessing the moral virtues.32


Phronesis and sophiaor intellectual wisdom are interrelated. Phronesis needs sophia, but sophia does not imply phronesis. Phronesis leads to moral goodness but only when accompanied by the moral virtues. Phronesis and the moral virtues will entail moral goodness; if moral goodness is not present, this is due to the absence of one or the other, or both.

McCoy contrasts Plato and Aristotle in respect of virtue. Of Plato he says:


Virtue is largely self-control and subjugation to the point of near extinction of the emotions as disturbances of the soul. [McCoy, 2004, p.12]





32 NE VI, 13, 1144b31-32


Aristotle agrees that virtue is shown in rational control of the passions and appetites but, unlike Plato, he does not regard the passions, emotions, and appetites as intrinsically bad, or inconsistent with the moral life. In Aristotle’s view, if someone were to lack certain passions and emotional responses, we would consider such a person a deficient human being.33

In Chapter 6 of Book II Aristotle develops his account of the way the emotions are involved in moral virtue. The habitual disposition to respond emotionally will be a virtue only if the pattern of emotional responses is appropriate. To clarify what this entails, Aristotle introduces the doctrine of the mean, suggesting that the virtuous person is the moderate person, inclining to nothing in excess. This notion is not meant to suggest that the virtuous life is mediocre and uninspiring. What it helps to avoid are the extremes of hedonism and asceticism.

The most important characteristic of the moral virtues for Aristotle is that they involve a particular pattern of emotional response to situations, for example, to criticise someone for being spiteful is to say something about a regular pattern of feeling and response which that person exhibits rather than a single responsive action on any particular occasion. The person who is virtuous has had to practise both reflection as well as the application of her practical wisdom, and at the same time take rapid account of every new situation as it arises, if she is to develop disciplined control of her emotional responses. For Aristotle it is the cognitive aspect of our nature which humanizes us; nowhere is this clearer than in his definition of moralvirtue:

So, a [moral] virtue is a habitual disposition connected with choice, lying in a mean relative to us, a mean which is determined by reason, by which the person of practical wisdom would determine it.34

33 Damasio’s contemporary work supports this thesis. For example, the psychopath who is devoid of certain feelings vis-`a-vis others is considered abnormal on a continuum extending to the point of madness.

34 NE 106b36-1107a2



When he speaks of moral virtues as ‘lying in a mean,’ Aristotle is not saying that the virtuous person is one who is by character disposed to have only moderate emotional responses but one whose pattern of emotional response is consistently appropriate to the situation. Accordingly, in varying situations it may be somewhere on a continuum, either very low key, moderate, or intense. It is natural to feel fear in some circumstances, but  we would count it a virtue where such fear is contained so as to avoid the kind of panic which might endanger the lives of others. On the other hand, if someone were to act rashly in dangerous situations, this would count for Aristotle not as courage but as foolhardiness. In his account the passions, emotions and appetites are intrinsic to the life of virtue, not inimical to it. The virtues are as much undermined by the lack of positive feelings as by the excess of negative ones. His naturalist moral virtues are in contrast to those of Kant who conceives of virtue as necessarily devoid of feeling in its adherence to a categorical law. Aristotle’s virtues are concerned with the promotion of human well- being, determined by rational judgement and choice about appropriate courses of action andconduct.

‘Lying in a mean’ is not a criterion for discovering what the appropriate response is; it is neither quantitative nor theoretical, more in the nature of a feedback-loop. Why does Aristotle use the term ‘mean?’ He explains that we often speak of emotional responses as instances of either over or under-reacting. Very often (though, he points out, not in every case) we will have two sets of words to denote the vices characterised by habitual over or under-reacting. For example, we have cowardice and rashness to contrast with bravery,35






35 NE 1107b1-4


profligacy and meanness to contrast with generosity, and so on. 36 Gerard J. Hughes notes that for Aristotle:

There are some emotional responses which are by definition inappropriate: one cannot have just the right degree of spitefulness or envy. In these cases, there  simply is no ‘mean’, just as there are some types of action which are by definition always wrong, such as adultery, theft or murder. [Hughes, Aristotle on Ethics , 2001, p. 62]



To speak then, in most cases, of virtues lying in the mean is to say what Aristotle earlier says about desires: the person with the virtue of moderation does not desire when he should not, or more than he should, nor in a way that he should not. But ‘should’ and ‘should not’ can be defined only relatively to individuals in each set of circumstances.

The question has been raised as to what ‘test’ of virtue Aristotle provides? It lies within the last phrase of his definition: ‘reason, by which the person of practical wisdom would determine it.’ Appropriate responses are the ones which are in accord with the judgement of a particular type of person – the person of practical wisdom. Moreover, virtues are to be defined in terms of a judgement. His claim implies that for an emotional response to be virtuous it must be in accord with what reason judges to be the true demands of the situation, since reason aims at truth. Feelings, then, are not simply to be accepted as given. They are subject to rational assessment and ideally to rational control. The standard by which virtuous and vicious dispositions are distinguished from one another is a rational standard. The important point in every case is to discern and, if possible, name the patterns of emotional over- and under-reaction.



Does Aristotle assume that the person of practical intelligence or wisdom would simply endorse conventional Athenian morality, so that such a person could be recognized simply by seeing who was generally regarded as living a good life? Notnecessarily:

36 NE 1107b8-14


What such a person would endorse is Aristotle’s claim that the account of virtue as ‘lying in a mean’ fits well with the individual virtues and vices with which his audience is familiar. [Hughes, 2001, pp. 66-67]



One does not have to be an ancient Greek to admire virtuous behaviour in the Aristotelian sense of the term, so people from many different cultures can respect, and aspire to become, someone who is friendly, courageous, honest, generous, temperate, possessing an ethics of virtue in Aristotle’s sense.

However, given the premium Aristotle places on the rational in human nature, it is not surprising that it is the cognitive aspect in his account of each of the virtues just listed which is uppermost. So, in his view, friends are chosen because they exhibit an admirable character, and one inspires reciprocal admiration in others on account of one’s virtuous character. The notions of Christian self-sacrificing love or of Platonic compassion are in sharp contrast to the more cognitive emphasis exemplified in the Aristotelian ‘good man;’ the difference between Aristotle’s semantic emphasis and the Platonic somato-sensory emphasis will be discussed later.

Moreover a certain caveat is in order regarding certain instances of Aristotle’s ‘good man.’ His Magnificent Man, described in Book IV, 2, and his Magnanimous or ‘Great- souled’ Man, described in IV, 3, evince features that would not be found wholly admirable to-day. When we consider great philanthropists of modern times, for example, Andrew Carnegie or Bill Gates, they differ markedly in emphasis from counterparts of Aristotle, which he could count on his fellow-Athenians to recognise,. The Magnificent Man spends large sums of money on the kinds of public benefactions which require such expenditure: a warship for the navy; sponsoring dramatic performances at festivals, and the like. But though Aristotle is careful to point out that the Magnificent Man is not ostentatiousorvulgar,hestillcomesacrossasperhapstoomuchconcernedwithhisown


credit and honour to strike us as entirely admirable. We might feel this even more so, as Hughes points out, in the case of the Magnanimous Man:

[He] justifiably sees himself as a Great Man, and is justifiably concerned with being honoured as such, and appropriately pleased when such honours are bestowed on him. He is above the petty concerns of more ordinary mortals, towards whom he is effortlessly superior; he speaks with a slow, calm and deep voice. [2001, p. 212]



He further describes the preceding sense of strangeness in the middle of much that is familiar as reinforced, when he reminds us from Aristotle’s Politics: 37


[He] thought that women were incapable of public responsibility, and that some humans were natural slaves, or that menial work was somehow dehumanizing [2001, p. 213]



How could Aristotle have got his facts so wrong? What would he have made of women doing volunteer work with recovering drug addicts, or a woman like Mother Teresa, let alone all those women financiers or barristers? Hughes makes the point that it is not simple prejudice on Aristotle’s part; he suggests that, as with children, whose upbringing is inadequate, Aristotle fails to make sufficient allowance for environmental and social influences, and is too ready to assume that differences are differences in natural abilities. [2001, p. 213]

It has taken the slow maturing of the human race and growth of knowledge for our ideas about the abilities of women and children to change, just as it has our attitude to slavery. Nevertheless, some of the prejudices and beliefs of patriarchal cultures are still very alive in the contemporary world. In the developed countries, where the drive for change has been a mark of liberal democracies, great strides have been made with the founding of bodies such as the United Nations, to promote and try to safeguard human freedom and rights on a universal scale. But, despite our having greater factual knowledge than Aristotle about women, slaves, and children, as well as a gradual awareness of the need

37 Aristotle, Politics 1, chs 1-6, and 13.


for social justice, some of the ‘blind spots’ of his times still apply to-day. To take one example, the prevalence of abuse of economic power, this is still greater with regard to women and children than with men: in the developed world this shows in patterns of employment;38 in some parts of Africa and the Indian sub-continent it is women and children, in the main, who work for a pittance in conditions akin to slave-labour, while it is women in South America who constitute the underpaid labour force of the multi- national fashion industry. Moreover, consumers in the West, while perhaps not condoning these abuses, do not favour moves to pay higher, but fairer,prices.



I have focussed on the importance of the doctrine of the mean for Aristotle as far as hitting the appropriate mark consistently is concerned. He will go on to consider how the person of practical wisdom arrives at correct moral judgements by applying the doctrine. But Hughes reminds us that Aristotle’s rationality is not any kind of moralmathematics:

Central to moral philosophy as he sees it is the ordinary, everyday experience of trying to live a good life. Aristotle is at pains to remind us that ethics is an inexact science.39 He offers to give us some help; but not to give us rules or a formula which will produce solutions for practical decisionsautomatically.40


Aristotle placed the greatest importance on our nature as rational beings. This determines our well-being and the virtues that contribute to it. Hughes underlines that what differentiates Aristotle from other diverse conceptions of virtue ethics in our own day is his view of rationality as central to his account of human nature; he gives it the uppermost place in his ethics of virtue. It marks his virtue ethics off from that arising from feminist psychoanalytic theory in the shape of ‘care ethics.’ One example of the latter that can be no more than acknowledged here, interesting though it is, is the work of Nel Noddings,

38 Cf., ‘The Guardian’ citing most recent figures from a report dated 28/1/02: 1.3 million adults and 140,000 18-21 year olds across the UK earn the minimum wage; 70% are women.

39 NE 1103b26-1104a11

40 Hughes, op. cit. p. 67


who is interested in playing down the role of reason and principles in ethics.41 The pivotal role of rationality for Aristotle differentiates his virtue ethics also from that of character educators who wish to renew the emphasis on the importance of moral behaviour (I shall return to the latter in Chapter Five). 42


It is rationality which is central to Aristotle’s account of human nature, and hence of his ethics. One’s agency and reason shape one’s world, a world which, for Aristotle, is founded on his dualist conception of ‘Self’ and ‘Other.’ He views human beings as individual, separate, substantial entities. (The metaphysical differences between Aristotle and the Buddha regarding self and other will be discussed in Chapter Three). The virtues consist of the moral virtues, which equip us for successful social relations within a civilized society, and of the intellectual virtues, which enable our successful engagement in rational enterprises. Aristotle compares the virtues to skills acquired through practice and habituation. They are dispositions, arising from settled states of character, acquired largely by a process of practical and reflective training; the aim is to acquire a morally ordered, yet dynamic and changing engagement with the world.

41 Noddings, N. [1984] Caring: A feminine approach to ethics and moral education, University of California Press.

42 Hughes, op. cit, 221

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