Aristotle’s Theory of Moral Virtuosity in Nicomachean Ethics

Aristotle’s Theory of Moral Virtuosity in Nicomachean Ethics

The principle point of Ethics is to achieve a common state of wealth or health among a population. However, the question of a standard of ethics and what constitutes an ethically virtuous individual remains unanswered. As such, the concept of being virtuous is specific to one’s moral philosophy. In this essay I will be arguing for Ancient Greek Philosopher, Aristotle’s, theory of moral virtuosity, as defined in his work, Nicomachean Ethics. I initialize the essay by discussing the philosopher’s point of moral virtuosity lying in self-sufficiency. I contend that the self-sufficiency that adheres to moral virtuosity is achieved through the practical science of rational control. Initially, I outline how virtuosity is defined by Aristotle,  how some virtuous and their corresponding vices assist in allowing for virtuous practice to be pleasant, and how one becomes morally virtuous. I then apply Aristotle’s definition of virtue to the cases of common figures. I finalize the essay by critically analyzing Aristotle’s argument shortly before concluding. 


Moral virtue is defined by Aristotle as being disposed to reacting in the right manner. Aristotle’s adopted a doctrine that explains that the “right” way to behave lies within a mean between excess and deficiency. The choice of aligning with this mean serves as a rational activity by a human being. It is considered irrational to consume too much food, just as it is considered irrational to not consume enough food. All the while, the parameters of “too much” or “too little” are determined by rationality. As such, rationality becomes the determining factor of one’s virtue. The doctrine of mean does not culminate in an objective guide for rational humans however, as what is considered an excess of one man’s virtue may be a deficiency or the mean of another man’s practiced virtue. A mean of between consuming too much food and too little food can be observed. However, a mean can additionally be observed through the quality (healthiness) of the food consumed. The existence of two qualities for measurement within a moral virtue allows for there to be varied spectrums between excess and deficiency as the mean is dependant on an individual’s specific situation.  Additionally, Aristotle asserts that the mean between extremes is not an exact middle and in fact, often closer towards one of the extremes. In the case of the mean of generosity, it is said to often be closer towards extravagance rather than stinginess. Both the generous and the extravagant person recognize that money only has value in spending it on others/themselves, whereas the stingy individual is unable to understand money’s value as they have yet to experience extended spending. This allows for the understanding that Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean was not arithmetical as it did not suggest an equal distance between a virtue and its vices. The value of applying a doctrine towards the practice of virtue and vices is described as necessary as it pertains to the given excellence of an individual. Excellence for a human would consist of exercising rational activities as at it would allow for a human to best perform their conditional function. Just as an eye is considered excellent according to its success in the eye’s conditional function (seeing). 

Courage as a virtue is viewed as a disposition towards how one reacts to a situation of danger. The virtue of courage finds itself as a mean between the polarizing vices of cowardice and fearlessness. Avid reckless behaviour such as extreme dirt biking is not courageous as it only examples a lack of rational fear in the case of potential death. For one to be courageous they must be rational; the courageous extreme dirt biker does not exist, as inherently the dirt biker is countering rationality. The extremity of one’s reaction to danger should be relative to not only their own surroundings (personal experience and equipment on hand) but additionally relative to the apparent experience and equipment held by the enemy. An unarmed, untrained individual attacking an armed, black belt robber is likely not courageous but rather unable to appositely assess the situation at hand. The virtuous individual would have recognized the clear upperhand of the opponent, and would be able to assess that the risk of death is high.  An essential principle of all virtues, courage especially, is that the course of action is undertaken for a noble cause. For one to risk their life in an act of courage, they must first assess the worth of their cause and if they are doing the right thing. Although it may be irrational to attack an armed robber, it may be rational to attack an armed public shooter as the cause of saving lives is decidedly more noble than the cause of preventing money from being stolen. The nobility of a cause can be represented through the rational principle required for assessing how a reaction fits on the spectrum of fearlessness, courage and cowardice. One must logically react to their situation to assure that they are reacting with the right amount of fear or confidence, fighting at the right amount of fierosity for the situation, and undertaking their action for the right reason. The logic of the situation at hand forms courage’s rational principle.

An additional virtue spoken of by Aristotle is Temperance, or the control of one’s self. Temperance is meant as a mean of too much and too little. In all fields of temperance, it pertains to the moderation of pleasure. Aristotle presents a distinction between the pleasures felt by the body and the pleasures felt by the soul. Those who have a profound love of learning are not considered self-indulgent for the pleasure they gain. However, those who take too much pleasure from indulging in food can be considered self-indulgent; it is the consumption, or the feeling, of the food that they grow to indulge in. This is comparable to the idea of a cook not being considered self-indulgent for the amount they love to cook, but instead for the amount of pleasure they take from consuming the food they cook. Insensibility is the opposite of self-indulgence and is incredibly rare among humans. Those who align with insensibility are unable to enjoy pleasure, and as such are considered an extreme that is not of higher value than the virtue of temperance. An individual that withholds themselves from all pleasures is one who lacks the rational to recognize the room for pleasure in their life. As such, Aristotle would not describe an insensible individual as one who is practicing human excellence. The temperate individual is still able to enjoy pleasure, aligning themselves more with self-indulgence than insensibility. In terms of quantities, temperance’s rational principle would then include assessing the right amount to eat in a day and the right amount of food for a human to be healthy. 

Aristotle brings forth the additional argument that a morally virtuous individual should take pleasure in the practice of moral virtues. This can be taken once again into the context of temperance as the temperate individual resists from pleasures and takes pleasure in that very fact of abstinence. On the contrasting side, those who are annoyed by the idea of resisting pleasures and instead choose to indulge are considered self-indulgent. The reasoning for this is said to be within human excellence. The reasoning for humans committing bad acts stems from the pleasure that is gained through the action. Similarly, the reasoning for humans committing noble acts is a result of withstanding pain. As such, resisting pleasures (in the right amount) or withstanding pain is an example of human excellence as it furthers the human conditional function of committing rational activities that result in good.

The value of training humans to enjoy the practice of moral virtue is defined by Aristotle through the value of practical wisdom. Practical wisdom is the the capacity to determine what proper moral virtue consists of, and additionally recognizing what contributes to it. Practical wisdom is said to be a trained ability. Knowledge and experience are essential to practical wisdom as knowledge of particular situations is required to gain practical wisdom. Aristotle states that since experience becomes so essential to practical wisdom, practical wisdom is partially dependant on education in youth as it forms the basis of one’s moral education (the certain way in which one is brought up that determines what one ought to be pained by and what one ought to take pleasure in). Moral education is able to form a basis for practice of moral virtue as pleasures and their correlating actions reinforce each other; what we enjoy doing we eventually get better at through the practice of that pleasure and, what we become better at we learn to enjoy more. Similarly to the practice of moral virtues is the practice of an instrument. A flute player continues to progress in skill through practice,  once progressing in skill in playing the flute, the flute player begins to enjoy practicing even more as it becomes more habitual to them. Moral education is able to take the form of early progression in flute practice, it forms the basis for an eventual habit. Good habits are able to guide an individual towards thinking in good ways and eventually, feeling pleasure and pain in the right way. This is comparable to the tilling of soil in preparation for a seed; the formation of good habits, or the initial care for the soil, allows for the seed to prosper in growth, then becoming a healthy, well accustomed plant (a morally virtuous individual). As such, habitual practices from early on become guiding of additional good habits in life.

The idea of practical wisdom can be applied to an individual who has the virtues of courage and temperance. In the case of courage, the courageous individual knows that if there life is in danger of sudden death, the right amount of feriosity to fight said threat with is a high amount of feriosity. This is an understanding that has been gained through knowledge that develops the rational of what the right cause for risking your life is, experience of practicing courageous virtue, and the understanding of what is considered cowardice and fearlessness in a given situation. Similarly, a temperate individual is able to utilize practical wisdom in the case of when is the right time to stop consuming food. Supposing that this individual has eaten 2000 calories already within a given day, they would recognize that the continued consumption of food on this day would only be to over-indulge in the pleasure of consumption. This is an understanding that is gained through the knowledge of why it is good to resist the pleasure of extended consumption, and the experience that has guided the habit of eating the right amount of food.

The practice of the moral virtues of courage and temperament are additionally shown through the actions and emotional responses of the literary character of Shakespeare’s, Romeo and Juliet, Romeo. 

Romeo examples practical wisdom through courage in the reaction of refusing to fight Tybalt when challenged to a duel, and through the action of killing Paris. In the response of refusing to fight Tybalt, Romeo reflects the virtuous ability of assessing what cause is worth working his life for while additionally reflecting the ability to assess what is cowardice and what is fearlessness within the given situation. Tybalt’s reasoning for the challenge of a duel was of Romeo attending the Capulet ball uninvited. Romeo reflects practical wisdom in deciding that the cause was not worthy of potential death. Additionally, Romeo utilized practical wisdom in the response of fighting with feriosity and killing Paris. After being accosted by Paris for attending the Capulet grave site, Romeo pleads with Paris to depart so as to avoid a potential fight. Romeo properly assessed his inability to remove himself from danger and responded by recognizing that he must fight to save his life as it is of a noble cause. It is through the pattern of exercising the moral virtue that one can be established as being courageous. By reflecting the habitual practice of moral virtue in courage, evidence supports Romeo being established as courageous.

The virtue of temperament is additionally reflected through Romeo’s described indulgence in kissing, and through Romeo’s control over his anger when challenged by Tybalt. Romeo is told by Juliet, “you kiss by th’ book” (Shakespeare, 107), meaning that Romeo commits the pleasurous act in decency, not in copious amounts yet not void of indulgence. This attribute of Romeo is reflective of the temperamental response of Romeo being aware of the right amount to kiss Juliet. Romeo’s emotional response of refusal to fight Tybalt, even when provoked, is a reflection of Romeo being conscious of the right amount of anger to respond to the situation at hand with. The moderation shown through Romeo’s indulgence and emotional responses gives evidence for Romeo being a temperate individual. 

Although the examples given suggest that Romeo maintains the moral virtues of both temperance and courage, it is possible that the responses and emotional reactions undertaken by Romeo may be  due to continence in the particular examples’ faucets. Aristotle states that it is possible for one to do wrong whilst knowing what is the right thing to do. Assuming this assertion, one who recognizes a particular virtue does not necessarily possess the moral virtue in excellence. This holds influence within Romeo’s acts of temperament as it is possible that although the mean between too little and too much was reached, Romeo has not accurately assessed the mean for every scenario provoking of courage. Although Romeo controlled his anger and resisted from fighting Tybalt, it is possible that in a slightly varied scenario Romeo would not have been able to control his temper and would have instead decided to risk his life in fighting (then aligning closer towards fearlessness rather than cowardice). Similarly, information is lacking in order to establish Romeo as a fully courageous individual. In order to finalize Romeo as a courageous individual, Romeo’s regular application of practical wisdom towards situations provoking of confidence or fear would need to be recognized. Without this recognition, Romeo’s pattern of courageous exampling could easily be contrasted by a similar linking of conclusions in which Romeo reacted with cowardice or fearlessness. 

Within Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle insists that his listed virtues are traits that would exhibit human excellence for those living within a community. I agree with this argument as a result of the community based nature of multiple of the virtues that culminate in human excellence. A common goal among a population builds a sense of community. This is exampled through the building of any civilization requiring a common agreeance among its inhabitants. The inherent goal of virtues being to pursue human excellence gives way to the the idea that Aristotle’s virtues assist in creating a sense of community. Since a common goal among a population builds a sense of community, a sense of community is built through a population practicing moral virtues as they are all pursuing human excellence. Justice as a virtue is able to show intrinsic value in the context of a community as it is directly related to human relations. By publicly agreeing upon what is or isn’t just in a given situation, and similarly the construction of laws by a society, the practice of the virtue of justice becomes requiring of community. Meaning not only does it assist community but it is in part responsible for the construction of communities. Friendliness additionally has value to a community as it instrumentally promotes trading and sharing among humans. Friendliness isn’t directly what builds community in this instance therefore it is of instrumental value. Communities thrive when human relations are positive as it reflects the status of ongoing trades. 

The increase in the practicing of moral virtues as a result of reinforcement of action and enjoyment can be compared to the reinforcement of human excellence amongst virtues themselves. An example of virtues reinforcing one another is the reinforcement between virtues, pride and temperament. Aristotle defines being proud as believing one’s self to be worthy of excellent things. Temperament reinforces the virtue of pride as the small scale of achieving great things requires self-control. In order to become a political leader you must believe yourself to be worthy of it (pride) as well as maintain the right amount of pleasures in your life (temperament) as required to gain the role. Additionally, some virtues are required to be understood before taking on others. Aristotle defines the virtue of truthfulness as a kin to straightforwardness and wit as a buffoonish display of absurdity. However, in order to determine what is absurd (gain an understanding of wit), one must understand what is straightforward (practice truthfulness). 

A flaw that could be identified within Aristotle’s theory of moral virtue is the theory of moral virtue’s inability to decipher how one without practical wisdom can identify the proper mean within a virtue. This retort has particular influence within the virtue of temperament. One is said to require practical wisdom in order to identify the accurate temperament for a context but the identification of an accurate temperament is not achieved without practical wisdom. If one does not maintain practical wisdom, how are they able to identify what is right or wrong in order to move towards reinforcing good habits (i.e how can a habit be reinforced without the habit first being formed)? Moral education is listed as partial reasoning for the existence of practical wisdom in an individual yet if one has missed the accurate moral education, by Aristotle’s’ definition, they seem to lack the requirements to eventually gain practical wisdom. The system of virtue ethics relies on practicing reinforcement of what is good and what is bad. Those without practical wisdom are unable to reinforce what is good and bad through practice as they lack the moral education required to define good and bad. As such, Aristotle’s presentation of the system of virtue ethics can be viewed as flawed in being unable to assist those without practical wisdom. 

Aristotle would likely respond to this given criticism by stating that practical wisdom is a capacity rather than a disposition. One of the most important elements required for maintaining practical wisdom is knowledge of particulars. If an individual has experienced a lack of lessons for a moral education, they could partially obtain education through eventual knowledge and experience throughout their life (as these are two partial elements of moral education). As such, an individual who lacks practical wisdom could gain knowledge towards what is right and wrong and therefore, could move towards reinforcing practice to become morally virtuous. This supposed response from Aristotle is accurate and defining of the inherent quality of rational within humans. The flaw of a virtue system not being able to assist individuals without practical wisdom stems from practical wisdom and moral virtues being described by Aristotle as mutually dependant. 



Silvermoon, Crystal, and William Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet. Manga Classics, 2018.