Aristotle, the last of the “big” three Greek philosophers, treats ethical theory as generalizations that do not serve to explain how to make the proper decision in a situation, but function instead to make explicit what moral goodness is. In fact, he simply contends that the ethical man will know how to act justly in all situations–different situations require different considerations, and according to Aristotle, the ethical man will adjust to each situation and make the right decision. Still, Aristotle does explore his conception of goal of the ethical life, which is eudaimonia, or “human well-being.” Eudaimonia is the final goal of all human activities–it is desirable in of itself, it is not desired for the sake of some other good, and other goods are desirable for the sake of eudaimonia.
Eudaimonia, however, is not to equal to hedonistic pleasure. Aristotle asserts that both intellectual and moral virtue are necessary to leading the ethical life. Intellectual virtue concerns rationality. Moral virtue involves irrational passions that must be adequately controlled by reason. Aristotle lists the specific virtues, such as courage and temperance, in the Nicomachean Ethics. Furthermore, Aristotle believes that the virtues are a mean between two inexcusable extremes. Courage, for example, lies in between cowardice and rashness–the courageous man won’t cower in fear unnecessarily, but he will fear dying meaninglessly and ignominiously.
Surely, Aristotle’s conclusions that virtue lies in between two extremes, that the ethical goal is that which all else is done, and that the ethical man will make moral judgments, make intuitive sense. I plan, however, to criticize the third conclusion (that the ethical man will make moral judgments) because it isn’t very enlightening and because it leaves Aristotle’s ethical theory incomplete in the modern sense. How does the ethical man know what the moral decision is? According to Aristotle, the ethical man knows how to act morally because he is an ethical man. Of course the ethical man will make moral decisions–part of being an ethical person involves taking moral actions; Aristotle’s conclusion smells of circular reasoning here. Furthermore, Aristotle’s ethical theory does not explain how to act morally–he speaks very generally of what it means to be a moral agent. More recent ethical theories usually attempt to explain more specifically how to determine the ethical course of action, which may involve, for example, seeking the greatest collective happiness (utilitarianism) or deigning certain actions to be intrinsically meaningful (deontology). Thus Aristotle’s ethical theory is lacking in modern context due to its lack of specifics.
I will have to concede, however, that Aristotle defends his use of circular reasoning to some extent in the Nicomachean Ethics and that he does not intend to provide an ethical theory that explains what to do in ethical dilemmas. Furthermore, Aristotle clearly examines a possible ethical goal of life, or eudaimonia, while providing an intuitively appealing definition of virtue as a mean between two extremes. Aristotle is indisputably, even for those that find his ethical theory to be lacking, a philosophical figure that cannot be ignored.