Nichomachean Ethics – A Book Reivew

I’m convinced John B. Watson plagiarized this book to found behaviorism. Good on you, John.

So, we’ve covered Mill’s utilitarian ethics  (a post that did surprisingly well) and Kant’s deontological ethics (which was a lazy post, I admit), now for a very different approach: Aristotle’s virtue ethics, straight out of his Nicomachean Ethics. I’ve found that when I’m reading philosophy, I cannot help but blindly agree with everything the author says, like a faithful child to his prankster parents, like a star-struck fan to his idol. I trade criticism for intellectual submission, never doubting their claims for a second–until I read another philosopher, that is, and grow shameful and aghast at my past susceptibility. How could I possibly believe that? Clearly, this is right! And then I read another philosopher and the cycle continues. I suspect this will be the case until I get an understanding of each major philosophical schools, and then perhaps I will see where I fit! Regardless, this blind faith in the author makes for a great, deep read. Let’s jump into Aristotle.


Keep in mind, Aristotle’s virtue ethics is eudaimonistic (it believes actions which lead to well-being are the most ethical), and empirical (focused on what can be observed, as opposed to rationalistic which concerns what can be arrived at a priori, through reason). So is Mill’s utilitarianism! But trust me; they’re pretty different! Where Mill’s utilitarian ethics focused on happiness in and of itself, reached by any means, as ethical, Aristotle focuses on flourishing in and of itself, reached only in adherence to his function argument.

So, what is this function argument? In an (incomprehensible) sentence, it is performing one’s ergon with arete to reach a state of eudaimonia. But let’s break that down, and let’s learn something about tea along the way:

Ergon: Aristotle believes that each species has a distinctive function which is unique and “highest” to it. This is its ergon. For example, our friend Camellia sinensis (the tea bush) is a plant, so it can grow, but so can all other plants–so this isn’t its ergon. More uniquely, it can kill. Its leaves and stem are filled with a lethal pesticide which kills the bugs that bite it. (This pesticide is what gives the tea leaves their flavor when steeped in hot water–In other words, we’re using its evolved defense mechanism against it, but, at the same time, we manipulate natural selection by re-planting and breeding the shrubs–we’re really something, aren’t we?) So, Camellia sinensis’s ergon, if you’ll humor the idea, is its production of this pesticide, which so sets it apart from its leafy counterparts.

Arete: But how Camellia sinensis-y is a tea bush if it can’t produce its trademark pesticide? Aristotle would say not very Camellia sinensis-y at all! That is, he would say pesticide-free tea brush isn’t performing is ergon with arete. If it were filled to the brim with pesticide, killing every bug that came across it and being picked and re-breeded by humans for its incredibly rich flavor, it would be performing its ergon with arete. In a word, it would be excellent at its distinctive function.

Eudaimonia: Our pesticide-free tea bush will never reach eudaimonia, unfortunately, because that is only reached when one performs his ergon with arete. It is a state of flourishing, performing your species’ distinctive function with excellence.


But does this have to do with ethics? Moreover, what does it have to do with Homo sapiens? To answer these questions, we must apply the function argument to our species.

What’s our ergon? We certainly do more than grow, so this cannot be it; it is not pesticide but blood which runs through our veins; perhaps we have advanced sensory perception–no, dog have better smell, jaguars better movment. But what about reason? If our cities, texts, inventions, and sciences say anything of us, it that, compared to the rest of the natural world, we are pretty unique in our ability to have higher-faculty thought. So, it must be reason that is our ergon, so Aristotle claims, because, without it, a human is just another animal.

How do we perform it with arete? How do we reason excellently? Well, let’s break this down. It’s the mind that reasons, so Aristotle says, which can be divided into three parts: [i] the nutritive mind (which deals with autonomic things such as digestion, growth, and respiration), [ii] appetitive mind (which deals with desires, instincts, and feelings), and [iii] rational mind (which deals with reason). I’ll skip about eighty pages forward here and just tell you his answer: reasoning excellently is habituating your appetitive mind to be in harmony with your rational mind. That is, you reason with excellence if you know and like to do ethically correct things–he calls this being temperate.

But how do we habituate these minds? I’ll skip a few more pages and just give you the answer to this one too: with phronesis. Phronesis is a virtue of thought. It lets us apply the universal ethical laws to particular situations which we encounter. For example, perhaps universal murder is wrong, but what about in the particular event that you are about to be murdered and must murder the murderer? A good phronesis would tell you that it’s ethical to do this. It finds the golden mean, the perfect moderation of an action–not too little not too much (too much courage is rash, too little is cowardly, but phronesis will tell you the ethical moderation, if its well-trained).

How do we train our phronesis to be good? Through habituation (pretty much psychological behaviorism via operant conditioning–we stop doing things if they are punished and keep doing them if they are rewarded). If we always do the right thing, even if its hard, and were raised and taught to know what is good and what is bad, then we can have a good phronesis and be ethical, temperate people!

There you go. Aristotle just gave you the meaning of life and a game plan to get there! Or maybe he was wrong. We can never know for sure! In short, philosophy is a contradiction game–everyone claims to be right, but, by definition, all but one (or all with no exception) must be wrong.