Aristotle and Virtue Ethics


Found in The Nicomachean Ethics

Aristotle, besides being one of the most influential ethical theorists historically, is also the main historical source of what is today called “virtue ethics.” This passage comes from his discussion of the relationship of virtue to human nature.

“Men fancy that as it is in their power to act unjustly, so it is an easy matter to be just. But it is not so. To lie with your neighbour’s wife, or to strike your neighbour, or to pass certain coins from your hand to his is easy enough, and always within your power, but to do these acts as the outcome of a certain character is not an easy matter, nor one which is always within your power.”* (FROM: 9.: Sundry questions about doing and suffering injustice) - Aristotle

This statement comes from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, the work generally regarded as the most mature statement of Aristotle’s ethical theory. For the most part, Aristotle thinks of ethics in terms of virtue. Virtues are states of character that then lead to certain types of actions. For example, if honesty is a virtue, then to say one is honest one must be disposed to act honestly in all situations that call for it. A single act of honesty is all to the good, but that does not make one an honest person. That requires a fixed disposition to act honestly in all situations which in turn requires the building of a habit of honesty. This process of habituation is not easy as the first part of this quotation states. What is interesting about this quotation is that it suggests that having a fixed disposition to do wrong is also not easy. His point is not to suggest that we would want such a character, as we would for a virtue like honesty, but rather that human nature is not very consistent in itself in either direction, and thus character building requires discipline and training.