44 - The Goldilocks Theory: Aristotle's Ethics

Peter looks at one of Aristotle’s most popular works, the Nicomachean Ethics, and its ideas about happiness and virtue.

Press 'play' to hear the podcast: 

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Further Reading: 

• D. Bostock, Aristotle’s Ethics (Oxford: 2000).

• S. Broadie, Ethics with Aristotle (Oxford: 1991).

• J.M. Cooper, Reason and Human Good in Aristotle (Cambridge, MA: 1975).

• A.O. Rorty, Essays on Aristotle’s Ethics (Berkeley: 1980).

• J.O. Urmson, Aristotle’s Ethics (Oxford: 1988).

Stanford Encyclopedia: Aristotle's Ethics

joe's picture

I don't understand :(

I don't *get* what an Aristotilian virtue is - other than that virtuous people instinctively do good things because it makes them happy, and that these tend to be somewhere between too much and too little of two extremes. Isn't that a circular argument?

Also I don't understand how this doesn't just come down to perception. Virtuous and wise person X might show many virtues in his dealings with his community, which generally makes him happy. But what if X is living in an unvirtuous community (say that requires the life and death of slaves to function)? Is X virtuous or not? Can X really experience, even if he is not aware of the unjustice on which his life is built? Can his love and service of community be both a virtue and a vice at the same time?

Peter Adamson's picture

Aristotle's virtue

Hi there,

I might have said in the episode that Aristotle is more trying to analyze what virtue is than telling us how to be virtuous, or what virtue "looks like" (if we are well-brought-up we should be able to recognize virtuous actions and see examples of them). And he's telling us at least two significant things we might not have noticed, namely that virtue is (a) a disposition, i.e. a tendency to do a certain kind of thing in a certain kind of situation; and (b) specifically a disposition to spot and then choose the mean between extremes. Neither of these points is circular and both are controversial (when Aristotle considers other contenders he says that others have said that virtue is perhaps knowledge -- as Socrates said -- or that it is a god-given inspiration; these would be very different from the "disposition" view).

And then you are right that it has a lot to do with perception. As I say virtue involves discerning what the right/mean-between-extremes choice would be. But what that leaves out is that the virtuous person will want to do the right thing, s/he will enjoy doing it and do so out of habit, etc. This is what distinguishes virtue from mere self-control (enkrateia: where I want to do the wrong thing but force myself to act rightly).

Does that help?


joe's picture

political science

Thanks for this, Peter. I guess I see it as circular because if you don't have any objective standards for behaviour, then the only reason you know adultery is bad is because good (well trained, virtuous, middle aged) people don't do it.

I was listening to Dominic Scott on one of the next podcasts, and you and he were talking about the beginning of the Ethics and the emphasis on political science in Book 1 Ch 2.

I think maybe this begins to pull things together - maybe this is addressed to a Platonic aristocratic group of people trained/in training for leadership. Maybe the idea is to tell these people to believe that their good training and instruction has impacted on their 'state of being' and that they can trust in their own instincts rather than grasping towards some Platonic perfection. As I was reading it again, I was thinking of it as a kind of ancient version of the Kipling poem 'If' - apparently with the idea that if you give someone a few general boundaries and a bit-of-a-nudge, they'll end up a Man, owning all the Earth, and happy.

My criticism is that nobody can ever discern "what the right/mean-between-extremes choice would be" because there will always be further levels of complexity beyond that which they perceive - I'm not sure you (one in general) can ever tell whether any action is really virtuous. What about the person who has had all the same training and life experience but goes on to do the things Aristotle describes as vices? Are they not suddenly to be considered virtues because the virtuous person is doing them?

Peter Adamson's picture

Ethics and politics

Yes, that is a very good point - we might think that (part of) what Aristotle is doing in the Ethics is giving guidance -- maybe to current or potential politicians -- about how to organize society such that people will become virtuous, where we all know what sorts of actions count as virtuous but don't understand it in analytical detail.

Regarding your last point, more generally I think that ethical theories can serve different purposes. In some cases moral theorists want to build morality from the ground up, like Kant's categorical imperative -- so that if you started as it were with a blank piece of paper and the rules of reason, you could work out what is right and what is wrong. But other moral theorists, like Aristotle, accept that people generally have pretty good ethical instincts or beliefs and are offering something different, namely a systematization or explanation of those beliefs. On behalf of this approach I'd point out that if a theory "started from scratch" and then in the end told you for instance that it is morally ok to torture the innocent for no good reason, then you would immediately reject the theory without bothering to look at the details. So all moral theory needs to answer to our moral intutions. The only question is what role they play -- do you start from them and build up, or instead use them as a check on some kind of abstract construction? (Of course even if you start with the intuitions, as Aristotle does, you might be able to correct or refine the intuitions in light of the consistent and worked-out theory that you arrive at - we don't need to say that all moral intuitions are always correct, or deny that there are hard cases where our intuitions fail us.)

In light of this, I think to your last point Aristotle would just say that well-raised people do perceive the mean and choose it gladly, so the possibility of managing this is not open to question -- we see it happen all the time (any time we think of an action we admire morally). The question is how they are doing it, and how to go about raising people to act like that and not viciously. Your objection only arises if we take seriously a more aggressive moral skepticism which threatens to throw all our moral intuitions out of the window, demanding that we start with the blank piece of paper. I think Aristotle would probably say, "why would you think that is a good way to do moral theory?" And to be honest I think he's right!

joe's picture


I've not yet tried to grapple with Kant. I guess I just see people as a mix of different things and motives and morals. Generally I think that even when we try to do things 'for the right motives' it can be said on a different scale/level to be morally wrong. Working to feed our children might be clearly said to be a virtue, but what if that excludes other children? What if other children have had to die in order for us to have the lifestyle we enjoy? And so on.

And the notion that well-raised people are more moral than others seems to fly in the face of experience. Well raised people are just immoral in different ways.

Anyway, I appreciate the discussion, I've found it hard to find anyone who can talk to me about Aristotle, so thanks for your time again.