Student objections to the Nicomachean Ethics

(From a particularly productive dialogue about the NE. The objections did not, of course, start off as this polished and distinct.)

-When I look at my life, I already think my passions fall somewhere in the middle of two extremes. But I don’t already think I’m virtuous. So how can virtue fall be an action in the mean?

-But if we take “in the mean” as doing the right thing in the right circumstances in the right amount to the right people etc. etc. then, all of a sudden, being in the mean seems to involve an impossibly difficult checklist of characteristics that no one could ever be sure they met.

-Who is the model of the virtuous life? It doesn’t seem that Aristotle comes up with many (Solon gets mentioned, but still). But isn’t it pretty common to have someone who we look up to as virtuous? And even if the good persons I know avoid extremes, this doesn’t seem to be the very reason why I call them good.

-I experience human life more as a person being “luminous” than as having moderated passions.

-Aristotle insists that this is a “how-to manual” of right human function. He also claims it is a rough sketch or outline. How can a how-to manual be written as a rough sketch or outline?

-When I read the Sermon on the Mount, I think “wow, I’ve got a lot to work on”, and “yes, these are some very difficult problem areas in my life”. When I read the Ethics, I don’t think that.

-When I read the parables of Christ, I can generally tell who acted well and who didn’t. But my standard isn’t who acted in the mean.

-Is this account really all that compatible with other accounts of human happiness? Aristotle, for example, has no sense that man is called to have a continuous dialogue with God. Aristotle gives man a fundamental independence from this relationship, and those of us who see such dialogue as necessary are left to try to shoehorn it into a system where it isn’t really called for and which makes no room for it.



  1. wlindsaywheeler said,

    March 23, 2012 at 9:43 am

    First, one must understand the “virtuous” life. What is virtue?

    Virtue is “To be a man”; it is the excellence of being a man. How can one live the truth without manliness? How can one live the truth without prudence, temperance, and righteousness?

    The Mean is NOT “doing the right thing at the right time”. The Golden Mean is a Law of Nature that exists in the Godhead to the lowliest atomic particle. Proportion and harmony exist thru out nature. Even The Good, done to the wrong proportions, does evil. It is carved on the walls at the Temple of Delphi: “Nothing too much”. That is the Golden Mean.

    Aristotle may not have had a presence of “a continuous dialogue with God” but the people who he borrowed his philosophy did! The Dorians did have a relationship with their God. It is they who had the idea of “theosis”. That is why they were not to be disturbed during the Carneia where they sent up tents so they could commune with their god Apollo.

    Virtue is Excellence. As God is perfect and good, man must also be perfect and good so that he can have a relationship with God and being perfect requires Virtue which is in the Golden Mean.

  2. E said,

    December 4, 2012 at 11:14 am

    1) The Golden mean depends on your vices and virtues and the amount of each of these you have in a given situation. If, for example you are too reckless and not that much of a coward (which are both vices according to Aristotle) then you would be more courageous (virtue) than someone who is more of a coward rather than reckless.

    2) You know you met the characteristics, since you feel “eudaimonia” that you didn’t experience before (when you hadn’t met them). Eudaimonia is the state when a human being flourishes, that is, develops his/her character and full potential with reason guidance.

    3, 5)There is no specific model of virtuous life, since Virtue ethics depend on each person’s character and, thus, the virtues depend on which “side” of a vice one tends to and forms the Golden Mean for him/her. If there was a specific model, then they wouldn’t be called “Virtue ethics”, but either “consequentialist”, or “deontological”. It is a rough outline, since, like you said, there is no specific model of virtuous life.

    4) Luminous can be defined in several ways. I could claim that I feel luminous in a state of eudaimonia, for instance.

    6) In my view, you have a lot of work to do to achieve Eudaimonia, to reach your full potential and flourish. And that is because Eudaimonia is not simple a feeling like happiness, where you have a terminal amount of happiness that you can possibly feel. Eudaimonia is like a never-ending scale, since we always evolve as beings throughout our lives.

    7) Christianity is a different moral system, that follows a rather altruistic behaviour. In some cases described in Christ’s parables there is a mean, though (shame & shamelessness are vices and modesty is a golden mean, irascibility & lack of spirit are vices and patience is a virtue). But, in cases of altruistic behaviour, an action may seem a moral one, but at the same time one can argue that an ethical egoist’s action is moral when he/she takes into account the true value of the individual’s life and choices.

    8) Virtue Ethics indeed focus on the person, rather than his/her dialogue with God, which is rather supported by the Divine Command theory, a deontological, not “virtuous” argument.

    What I believe could be a possible objection to Aristotle’s theory is the fact that the guidelines you need in some cases must be clearly defined. For example, your parents are charged with murder and their only alibi is the fact that they were at home at the time the crime was committed. Your parents were not at home though and claim that they did not commit the crime. You are called to testify about whether your parents were at home at that specific time, but you know they weren’t. Would you lie? A consequentialist would say “yes”. A deontologist would say “no”. But, in terms of virtue ethics, we are not given the proper guidelines for a moral action at the specific *circumstances*.

    Thank you for your time! 🙂

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