Outline of Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics

Do you want to be happy? Aristotle tells you how! This post covers portions of Books I and II of Nicomachean Ethics.

For Aristotle, virtue = functioning in excellence

Here’s an outline of his main points in the first two books.

I All human activities (I.1-5)

A. Aim at some good

B. Is there an End [goal, purpose] in itself as a good?

C. Political Science studies the good of humankind

D. Happiness is good in itself, the final end

E. Criticism of Plato (too much on ideas, abstractions)

F. Happiness

1. Not mere pleasure

2. Not honor

3. Not virtue by itself

4. Not money making

G. Repeat: Happiness is final good in itself

1. Self-sufficiency is connected

II. Function Unique to Man (I.6)

A. Life and Nutrition?

1. Plants have that

B. Life of sensation?

1. Animals have that

C. By the way active life is best for human

D. Activity of the rational part of man’s being

“The function of man is activity of soul in accordance with reason . . . and virtue” (I.6)

III. Virtue (II.1 to End)

A. Two kinds

1. Intellectual (e.g. prudence, practical wisdom)

2. Moral

B. Acquisition

1.. Intellectual: Teaching

2. Moral: Practice, training

a. Harpist practices, so a brave person practices courage (e.g. in battle)

C. Reason and virtue are sketchy

D. Deficiency and excess introduced

E. Doing virtue is not random or lucky

1.. Know what you’re doing

2. Deliberately choose to do it

3. Do it out of firm character

F. Nature of Virtue

1. Not emotions

2. Not faculties (capacities for emotions)

3. Moral states

a. Do good or bad emotions

b. Good moral state makes a person good and able to do his function well

G. The Mean, the Excess, and the Deficient

1. Mean = Virtue = Just right, a balance

2. Excess = Vice = Too much

3. Deficient (or defect) = Vice = Too little

H. Aristotle speaks:

“Virtue then is a state of deliberate moral purpose, consisting in a mean relative to ourselves, the mean being determined by reason or as a prudent man would determine it” (II.6)

I. Explanation of Quotation

1.. Deliberate moral purpose: You must not do it randomly or even always naturally

2. Relative to us: If you’re shy, practice social skills, public speaking

3. Reason: there is inherent evil (e.g. no “mean” for adultery)

J. Final words of advice

1. Know Yourself!

2. Be on guard against pleasure!

3. It is hard to be and do good, so practice makes perfect

In the Table, below, Aristotle didn’t cover some of these virtues (e.g. humble) because he lived before Christianity. But let’s make this table contemporary by including more virtues.

Aristotle’s Golden Mean (Contemporized)

Vice: Excess (Too Much) Virtue: Mean (Just Right) Vice: Deficiency (Too Little)





Emotionally Self-Controlled



Sexually Self-Controlled









Properly Proud

















ARTICLES IN SERIES (alphabetical order)

Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics

Clifford’s Ethics of Belief

Descartes’s Meditations I and II

Hick’s Evil and God of Love

Hume’s Argument against Design

Hume’s Theory of Knowledge

James’s Will to Believe

Kant’s Ethics

Locke’s Theory of Knowledge

Mill’s Ethics

Nietzsche’s Madman and the Death of God

Paley’s Watchmaker and Design Argument

Plato the Soul Man

Plato’s View of Justice and the Soul

Rachels’s Moral Objectivism

Ryle’s Category Mistake

Sartre’s “Existentialism and Humanism”

Socrates’s “Apology”


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