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Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics: Book II

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he subject of ethics is a complicated one. To deal with it successfully one needs maturity of judgment and familiarity with a wide range of relevant facts. The results of ethical inquiry cannot be established with the same degree of certainty that is possible in the more exact sciences. Nevertheless, reliable results can be obtained and these can be most helpful in guiding one toward a more adequate understanding of what it means to live at one's best.

Aristotle's conception of goodness is stated in the opening sentence of Book II in his Nicomachean Ethics. It states, "Every art and every kind of inquiry, and likewise every act and purpose, seems to aim at some good; and so it has been well said that the good is that at which all things aim."1 This view appears obvious considering the meaning of the word "good" as it is used in everyday life. An act is good if it satisfies a particular need. The satisfaction of this need is then considered good if it is a means for satisfying some further need, and this in turn is good if it will satisfy still another one. Eventually, this process must reach some point that is no longer a means for some further end but is an end in itself. This final end or goal of life is what Aristotle means by the highest good. It is the purpose of the study of ethics to discover the nature of this highest good and to find the appropriate means for its realization (Hutchins 348).

According to Aristotle there are two types of virtues. These virtues are moral and intellectual. Intellectual virtue is the result of learning. Moral virtue, on the other hand, comes about as the result of habit and practice. For example, the skills of the arts and crafts are obtained through exercising that skill habitually. However, the same factors that produce any excellence or virtue can also destroy it, whether by intellect or morale.

In chapter two the problems of right and wrong actions and proper conduct are discussed. Aristotle's conception is that one's actions govern the characteristics one develops. The nature of moral qualities is such that they can be destroyed either by deficiency or excess. Just as too much or too little food or water is bad for the body. Aristotle believes that the man who fears everything becomes a coward and the man who fears nothing becomes a fool and neither is able to gain the virtue of ethics, because excess or deficiency destroys them, which holds true to all virtues (Hutchins 349).

The pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain are the main causes of evil action. Pleasure can make men do things that are not noteworthy and pain can deter them from doing noble things. To determine whether or not one is in full possession of a particular virtue or excellence, the pleasure or pain that accompanies the exercise of that quality can be used as a guide. Because moral excellence is associated with pleasure and pain, chapter three in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics focuses on four main ideas dealing with pleasure and pain. These ideas can be summarized as such: virtue or excellence is concerned with pleasure or pain. The actions that produce virtue are identical in character with those that increase it. These same actions differently performed can destroy virtue, and virtue finds expression or is actualized in the same activities that produce it (Hutchins 351).

However, Aristotle also notes that when making virtuous decisions, there are three factors which determine our decisions in all our actions: the noble or morally fine, the beneficial or expedient, and the pleasurable. The base, the harmful, and the painful are also three factors that determine avoidance in our actions. In pertaining to pleasure Aristotle believes that the good man will make the good decision and the bad man will make the bad decisions based on these factors.

According to chapter four, a virtuous act is not virtuous only because it is an act of a certain quality or kind, but must also be in a certain frame of mind. In order for this to occur a person must satisfy three conditions. First they must be fully conscious of what they are doing. Second they must deliberately choose or will his action, and must choose it for its own sake, and last the act must proceed from a fixed moral disposition. Therefore, the acts of a virtuous man would be considered to be virtuous, however a man who performs a virtuous act is not necessarily himself virtuous, but can become virtuous simply through his virtuous acts. According to Aristotle, "virtues arise in us neither by nature nor contrary to nature; but by our nature we can receive them and perfect them by habituation."2 It is believed that for knowledge of moral philosophy without the exercise of morality is of little value (Hutchins 350).

To gain value one must

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