We are not studying in order to know what virtue is, but to become good, for otherwise there would be no profit in it. (NE 2.2)
Aristotle believed that ethical knowledge is not precise knowledge, like logic and mathematics, but general knowledge like knowledge of nutrition and exercise. Also, as it is a practical discipline rather than a theoretical one; he thought that in order to become "good", one could not simply study what virtue is; one must actually be virtuous. Analogously, in order to become good at a sport like football, one does not simply study but also practices. Aristotle first establishes what was virtuous. He began by determining that everything was done with some goal in mind and that goal is 'good.' The ultimate goal he called the Highest Good: happiness (Gk. eudaimonia - sometimes translated as "living well").
Aristotle contended that happiness could not be found only in pleasure or only in fame and honor. He finally finds happiness "by ascertaining the specific function of man". But what is this function that will bring happiness? To determine this, Aristotle analyzed the soul and found it to have three parts: the Nutritive Soul (plants, animals and humans), the Perceptive Soul (animals and humans) and the Rational Soul (humans only). Thus, a human's function is to do what makes it human, to be good at what sets it apart from everything else: the ability to reason or logos. A person that does this is the happiest because he is fulfilling his purpose or nature as found in the rational soul. Depending on how well he did this, Aristotle said humans belonged to one of four categories: the Virtuous, the Continent, the Incontinent and the Vicious.
Aristotle believed that every ethical virtue is an intermediate condition between excess and deficiency. This does not mean Aristotle believed in moral relativism, however. He set certain emotions (e.g., hate, envy, jealousy, spite, etc.) and certain actions (e.g., adultery, theft, murder, etc.) as always wrong, regardless of the situation or the circumstances.
In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle often focused on finding the mean between two extremes of any particular subject; whether it be justice, courage, wealth and so forth. For example, courage is a mean between two feelings (fear and confidence) and an action (the courageous act). Too much fear or too little confidence leads to cowardice, and too little fear or too much confidence can lead to rash, foolish choices. Aristotle says that finding this middle ground is essential to reaching eudemonia, the ultimate form of godlike consciousness. This middle ground is often referred to as The Golden Mean.
Aristotle also wrote about his thoughts on the concept of justice in the Nicomachean Ethics. In these chapters, Aristotle defined justice in two parts, general justice and particular justice. General justice is Aristotle’s form of universal justice that can only exist in a perfect society. Particular justice is where punishment is given out for a particular crime or act of injustice. This is where Aristotle says an educated judge is needed to apply just decisions regarding any particular case. This is where we get the concept of the scales of justice, the blindfolded judge symbolizing blind justice, balancing the scales, weighing all the evidence and deliberating each particular case individually. Homonymy is an important theme in Aristotle’s justice because one form of justice can apply to one, while another would be best suited for a different person/case. Aristotle says that developing good habits can make a good human being and that practicing the use of The Golden Mean when applicable to virtues will allow a human being to live a healthy, happy life.
But, if action A is done with the goal B, the goal B would also have a goal, goal C. Goal C would also have a goal and this would continue until something stopped the infinite regress. This was the Highest Good.
Aristotle said the Highest Good must have three characteristics:
Aristotle resolves this Highest Good in eudaemonia, which is usually translated as "happiness," but could also be "well-being" or "flourishing."
But what is this function that will bring happiness? To determine this, Aristotle analyzed the nature of the soul. Aristotle saw the soul as existing in three parts, each of which had a specific function:
Aristotle claims a human's function is to do what makes it human, to be good at what sets it apart from everything else: the ability to reason or Nous. Or, as Aristotle concludes, "The function of man is activity of soul in accordance with reason, or at least not without reason." He identifies two different ways in which the soul can engage: reasoning (both practical and theoretical) and following reasoning. A person that does this is the happiest because they are fulfilling their purpose or nature as found in the rational soul.
In other words, the thinker is not only the 'best' person, but is also most like God.
This does not mean Aristotle believed in moral relativism, however. He set certain emotions (e.g., hate, envy, jealousy, spite, etc.) and certain actions (e.g., adultery, theft, murder, etc.) as being always wrong, regardless of the situation or the circumstances.
Each is believed to be a collection of Aristotle's lecture notes (although authorship of the Magna Moralia is disputed), possibly containing several different lecture courses, which can be sparse and difficult to read.
The scholarly consensus is that Eudemian Ethics represents Aristotle's early ethical theory, and the Nicomachean Ethics appears to build upon it. Some critics consider the Eudemian Ethics to be "less mature," while others, such as Kenny (1978), contend that the Eudemian Ethics is the more mature, and therefore later, work. Books IV-VI of Eudemian Ethics also appear as Books V-VII of Nicomachean Ethics.
Scholars believe that the Nicomachean Ethics and the Eudemian Ethics were either edited by or dedicated to Aristotle's son and pupil Nicomachus and his disciple Eudemus, respectively, although the works themselves do not explain the source of their names. Although Aristotle's father was also called Nicomachus, Aristotle's son was the next leader of Aristotle's school, the Lyceum, and historians therefore consider him to be more likely to have influenced the collection of Aristotle's lecture notes.
A fourth treatise, Aristotle's Politics, is often regarded as the sequel to the Ethics; Aristotle's Ethics states that the good of the individual is subordinate to the good of the city-state, or polis. Aristotle's On the Soul may be considered a prequel to his Ethics, especially in its discussion of the rational soul.
Socrates was the first Greek philosopher to concentrate on ethics. This concentration on ethics probably started as a response to sophism, which was a popular school of thought at the time that emphasized rhetoric, moral relativism and argument against traditional Greek religion (they used rhetoric to argue against many other traditions too). Sophists raised many moral problems in contemporary society without offering solutions.
Socrates, Plato and Aristotle all taught character-based ethics in which people should pursue virtue (arete) to attain happiness or flourishing (eudaimonia). All saw virtuous behavior as something which can be taught and practised. They all thought that ethics is based on reason, and that there were logical reasons for behaving virtuously. This contrasted with the moral relativism of the sophists, who argued that many different behaviors could be seen as ethical by different societies. In fact, similar arguments still occur in philosophical ethics today.
In light of these fundamental similarities, the differences in ethics between Socrates, Plato and Aristotle seem slight. The major difference is that Socrates and Plato thought that knowledge of virtuous behavior was enough to ensure that people followed it, and that nobody did evil knowingly. Aristotle disagreed (and most later philosophers agree with him on this point), saying that many people know the bad effects of their actions, but give in to their desires anyway because of weak wills. Plato presented only four cardinal virtues: wisdom, courage, temperance and justice. Aristotle expanded and elaborated on this list quite extensively.
In the twelfth century, Latin translations of Aristotle's works were found, enabling the Dominican priest Albert the Great and his pupil Thomas Aquinas to combine Aristotle's philosophy with Christian theology. Later medieval church scholasticism insisted on Thomist views and suppressed non-Aristotelian metaphysics. Aquinas' work Summa Theologiae contained many volumes, fifteen of which were concerned with ethics and values. It argued that a rational foundation for ethics was compatible with Christianity, enabling it to borrow many ideas from the Nicomachean Ethics. Eudaimonia or human flourishing was held to be a temporary goal for this life, but perfect happiness as the ultimate goal could only be attained in the next life by the virtuous. New theological virtues were added to the system: faith, hope and charity. Supernatural assistance was also allowed, helping people to be virtuous. Many important parts of Aristotle's ethics were retained however. Thomism, the name given to the beliefs of Thomas Aquinas, is particularly influential: it has been a part of official Catholic doctrine since the time of Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903).
Seventeenth century empiricism challenged Aristotle's metaphysics so successfully that doubt was cast on the rest of his philosophy too. The Nicomachean Ethics remains viable today however--it relies on neither non-material entities such as souls or rights nor on a deterministic view of causation.
Recent and contemporary moral philosophers influenced by Aristotle include Bernard Williams, Ayn Rand, Martha Nussbaum, John McDowell and Rosalind Hursthouse, and those who fully continue the tradition of Aristotelianism include Alasdair MacIntyre.