Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics

In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle conceives ethical theory to be distinct from other theoretical sciences, largely matching the subject matter; good and bad actions. Aristotle, in his writings, made references to Plato and Socrates in exploring the nature of virtue and vices. Just like Plato, Aristotle regarded ethical virtues as emotional, rational and social skills. Aristotle however rejected Plato’s perception that training in metaphysics and sciences is a prerequisite for a good comprehension of an individual good. In order to learn to apply the concepts of right and wrong in different situations, this essay explores Aristotle’s thesis in Nicomachean Ethics that ‘virtue is a disposition concerned with choice’. Alluding with Aristotle’s view, this essay posits that not all actions are inherently bad, since some actions are dictated by the situations at the time of making the choices.

Despite being a student, and a friend to Plato, Aristotle never wholesomely subscribed to Plato theory of morality. Aristotle, like many other Greeks of his time rejected the belief on inherent existence of bad behaviors. In Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle explains that a behavior can neither be evil nor good, but an individual can possess good or bad characters. Aristotle further explained in Nicomachean Ethics that every person is composed of an amalgamation of virtues and vices; virtues being good character traits while vices are bad character traits.


Although Aristotle used the concepts of virtue and vice to develop a thesis (virtue is a disposition concerned with choice), his thesis may be difficult to comprehend without first understanding what disposition implies in the context of his writing. In the context of his writing, Aristotle regarded disposition as one of the three things that constitute the soul; capacities and feelings being the other two. Disposition differs with capacities and feelings, in that disposition is a learned response, while the other two are not learned responses. A person has to learn disposition in response to a situation, for instance, an individual might learn a certain dressing style. In most contexts, it is a norm that men wear pants, and ladies wear dresses and skirts. Nothing really bars men from wearing skirts and dresses, since they are physical able to, but they choose not to. The conclusion is that most men have a disposition to put on pants, and not dresses.

Dispositions is usually variable, and one has to make certain decisions based on the situations and the environment; decisions applying in one context are not necessarily approved in other contexts. Meanwhile, other components of the soul (feelings and capacities), do not vary in the same manner. The non-variability is significant for Aristotle’s Nicomachean thesis, since the choices are applied to virtue. Consequently, Aristotle entrenches in the theory that virtue is a disposition through argument, usually by elimination.

In Nicomachean ethics, virtue is a character trait in people; but if virtue is a component of the soul, then it can either be a feeling, capacity or disposition. Take an example of a doctor who goes to work intoxicated with alcohol, causing erroneous harm to a patient during treatment. It is normal that the drunk doctor takes all the blames and responsibilities for the harm suffered by the patient during reckless diagnosis and treatment. In this case, going to work while drunk is considered non-virtuous, and the doctor exhibits unacceptable character trait when he goes to work drunk. The action of going to work while intoxicated is significant, not because it is integrally wrong; if an individual had an idea of going to work while drunk, they cannot be held accountable for such thoughts until they actualize them. In the highlighted example, the doctor is not held responsible for desire to go to work while drunk, but for causing unfavorable situation out of the drunk situation. In brief, since people can never be held responsible for their emotions and desires, virtue is never considered as an emotion (feeling).

The example of the drunk doctor at work can also be used to demonstrate that virtue is not a capacity. All doctors are capable of getting and treating their patients, and even harming the same patients. However, the fact that all doctors are capable of doing all these, does not mean that they will do them. Concisely, since humans are capable of nearly same things, but not everyone fulfill such capacities, implies that not everyone can be held responsible for reckless actions. In brief, virtue is neither a feeling nor capacity; then the only thing it can be is a disposition. Consequently, every person should be responsible for the choices he or she makes based on vices and virtues. How virtuous an individual is, is dictated by the manner in which they behave in certain situations.

On wrong and right, Aristotle posited that different people can act differently in similar situations, implying that there are no characteristically bad actions. Nicomachean ethics suggests that an action is only bad if performed by an individual based on vice, and good if performed by an individual based on virtue. The position enforces Aristotle’s earlier thesis that virtue is a disposition, since virtuous individuals will strive to make right decisions in all situations.

In application, arguments can be made for and against Nicomachean ethics. An example is a person who acts in self-defense. If a store accountant is attacked by an armed bugler, who is about to hurt him, but he struggles to get the gun from the bugler, and shoots him to save his life, then the store keeper is not regarded as a bad person, or that what he did in defending himself was wrong. As per the situation, the winning argument is likely to be that the store keeper was brave, and that he did the right thing to stop the bugler from stealing, or hurting him and other people.

The arguments against Aristotle’s theory in Nicomachean ethics, suggest that certain actions are morally wrong on all levels, regardless of the reasons for the actions. For example, Christianity considers certain actions as wrong independent of the persons behind the actions, and the reason for the actions. In the view of Christianity, it is wrong to kill another person regardless of whether the person killed have bad or good character traits. The holding argument is this case is that the action is morally wrong.

It is significant to highlight that the Nicomachean Ethics does not necessarily offer a decision procedure. Neither the thesis that a good person seeks what is intermediate, nor the thesis that virtues lie between extremes is intended to be procedures for making decisions while one is at crossroads. Ideally, Nicomachean Ethics are intended to demonstrate what is attractive about virtues, and to help in systemizing people’s understanding of the qualities that are regarded to be virtuous. For instance, once recognized that temperance and courage are characteristics of mean states, then one can be in a position to generalize and identify different positions to locate other mean states of virtue, although they may not be qualities for which there are names.

Although Nicomachean Ethics elucidates the nature of virtue, the actions to be taken at any given time by a virtuous agent depends on different circumstances. The circumstances may significantly vary from one another that there is no possibility for stating rules that are applicable in solving practically every situation. Aristotle believes that Nicomachean ethics apply in many situations, including medicine and navigation. Aristotle holds that a virtuous person easily sees truth in every situation, given that this is their measure and standard, yet an appeal to a good person’s vision is cannot be presumed to imply that such a person has incommunicable and inarticulate insight of the truth. In this view, Aristotle regards a good person as one who is good at deliberations; deliberation being the process of rational inquiry.

Although no possibility exists for writing rules for right and wrong actions in all situations, highlighting what involves right and wrong in the discussion of virtue and vice serve as a guide to wise decision making. Aristotle makes it clear that certain actions and emotions are wrong regardless of the circumstances (such as murder, theft and adultery). He is however quick to retort that the fact that the names convey the wrongness of the actions and emotions should not be inherently taken to mean that the wrongness in the actions derive from linguistic usage.

From a personal point of view, I believe that certain actions are unacceptable in society; stealing, adultery and murder for instance are all bad behaviors. Prior to the study of Nicomachean ethics, I would inherently condemn such actions as bad. However, after a study of Nicomachean ethics, I never consider all actions as inherently bad. Actions such as self-defense in attempted rape, or a mother stealing food to feed her dying child may not be inherently bad. As a Christian though, I must say that my current perception conflicts with the biblical perspective, which does not condone any form of wrong. Concisely, I concur with Nicomachean Ethics on good and bad actions.

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