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Nicomachean Ethics | Book 3 | Summary

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Summary

Section 1

Virtue concerns feelings and actions that receive either "praise or blame." However, which actions can people be held responsible for? Aristotle says this involves first defining which actions are voluntary and which are involuntary. The trickier cases—which Aristotle calls mixed—are actions done to avoid a greater evil or to pursue a greater good. He gives the example of a tyrant telling someone to do something shameful to save their children. Aristotle argues these actions may be unwelcome, but they are still voluntary, since the person has a choice. However, Aristotle qualifies it by saying the person would not choose to have to make the choice. It becomes a hard decision about what to endure and for what price, and situations such as these lead to blame or pardon.

Only forced actions or actions taken because of ignorance are truly involuntary. A forced action has an external cause, like an earthquake or a strong wind—and the person contributes nothing to it. Involuntary actions caused by ignorance are not so straightforward. Aristotle distinguishes between "action caused by ignorance" and "action done in ignorance." For an example of an action done in ignorance, Aristotle discusses someone committing an act caused by "drunkenness or anger." The cause in this instance is not ignorance. Something caused by ignorance happens when someone acts without knowing one of "the particulars" of what they do, such as why they do it, to whom, or what the outcome will be. Further, involuntary acts—either forced or by ignorance—will lead to regret. Aristotle says it is "absurd" to say that pleasant things or actions caused by "spirit or appetite" are like external things that can compel or force people to act instead of "ascrib[ing] responsibility ... to himself as being easily snared by such things."

Section 2

Decision plays a key role in virtue, since decisions set the virtuous apart from the vicious even more clearly than actions do. However, what is decision exactly?

Although all decisions are voluntary—within a person's control—not all voluntary acts are decisions. A child or an animal can act voluntarily but cannot make a decision. A spontaneous or "spur of the moment" act is not a decision either.

Furthermore, decisions are not appetites, wishes, or beliefs. Unlike appetite, decision is not based on "what is pleasant or painful." Someone with a strong will and who has self-restraint will act based on decisions, not based on desire for pleasure or fear of pain. People decide on actions to promote an end they desire. Someone may wish to be happy, for example, but they cannot decide to be happy. They can, however, decide to take actions that lead to happiness. Unlike beliefs, which are either true or false, decisions are either good or bad. Therefore "decisions to do good or bad actions," not beliefs, shape character. Someone can have true beliefs, but vice can still lead them to make poor decisions. Decisions require "reason and thought" and seem to arrive from deliberation.

Section 3

We deliberate about only what is within our control, as an individual or by enlisting others to help make decisions. Deliberation happens when "the outcome is unclear and the right way to act is undefined." The purpose of deliberation is usually to find the right means to achieve a certain end. Deliberation itself is a type of inquiry leading to decision. Thus, a decision is "deliberative desire to do an action."

Section 4

Wishes are desires for the good. However, since not everyone has a correct understanding of the good, wishes are really for the "apparent good" of each individual. A "base" or vicious person may wish for something they believe is good without understanding that the outcome will be bad. They may choose a pleasure that "appears good when it is not." An excellent person, meanwhile, will exercise correct judgment and see which desires are truly good. They do not need to wish for an "apparent good" since they can judge good accurately. In this way excellent people function as a "standard and measure" of truth. An excellent or virtuous person will always wish for the actual good.

Section 5

Virtue and vice, therefore, are within an individual's power to achieve. Legislators punish anyone who breaks the law through "vicious actions," implying the lawbreakers had an ability and responsibility to act another way. People become unjust or intemperate through doing unjust or intemperate actions, which they can control but choose not to. Virtues are entirely voluntary, but actions and states are voluntary in a different way. Actions are voluntary from beginning to end when it comes to particular circumstances, but people do not always know the state they will achieve through the effects of their actions. They can still control their capacities for certain actions, though, and lead themselves in the direction or a good or bad state.

Aristotle then says he will proceed to define the different virtues of character individually and in depth.

Section 6

Aristotle begins his discussion on specific virtues. He begins with bravery. Bravery does not mean the absence of fear, but fear of the right things. A good person should be afraid of a bad reputation and of committing criminal actions. People show their bravery most clearly when the stakes are highest, such as in life-or-death situations. Aristotle uses a soldier's death in war as an example of a "fully brave" death under the "finest conditions." The soldier goes to war for the "fine" or noble reason of defending their country or city, and their death will bring them honor. The brave person also faces life-threatening danger on the battlefield, which requires strength and courage.

Section 7

The truly brave person "stands firm against the right things." The excessively fearless person is a "madman," while the rash or overly confident person boasts and pretends to be brave. A coward fears the wrong things in the wrong way. The brave person is hopeful and confident, showing courage when it is necessary. The opposite example, Aristotle suggests, is dying to avoid pain, such as from "poverty or erotic passion," which would be considered cowardice, not bravery. In general, a brave person stands firm against an evil.

Section 8

Five conditions are similar to, but not quite, bravery. Citizens act bravely when they want to win civic honors and avoid public shame and reproach. Experienced people act bravely because of their knowledge, such as soldiers in wartime. However, their experience just makes them seem brave; if their experience leads them to believe they will fail, they may not act bravely any longer. People who act on spirit, or people who meet danger impulsively, lack the discretion of the brave—They are more like good fighters responding to instincts of pleasure and pain, lashing out (pleasure) when they've been wounded (pain). Although spirited people, if they learn discernment, they can easily become brave. Hopeful people overestimate their abilities and are not truly brave. Neither are people who act in ignorance.

Section 9

A truly brave person will have "the right state" about frightening things. They will fear death, because the more virtuous they are, the more they will enjoy life. Brave people do not always make the best soldiers for this reason.

Section 10

First, Aristotle declares that temperance and bravery are "virtues of the nonrational parts." Then he says temperance is concerned with pleasures, not pains. Aristotle distinguishes between pleasures of the soul, like learning and listening to stories, and pleasures of the body, like experiences of the five senses. Temperance concerns only pleasures of touch and taste, specifically eating, drinking, and sex.

Section 11

Although appetites for nourishment and sex are natural, intemperate people indulge these appetites to excess. An intemperate person may eat and drink until they are too full. They may choose bodily pleasures at the expense of other things and feel pain when they do not get them. A temperate person has a moderate and reasonable appetite for bodily pleasures. It is rare to find "someone [who] finds nothing pleasant," so Aristotle does not discuss the deficiency of temperance, only the excess, intemperance.

Section 12

Intemperance is more voluntary than cowardice, since it is natural to run from pain but not natural to overindulge in pleasure. Ideally, appetites should follow reason the way a child follows a teacher.

Analysis

Aristotle consistently anticipates objections to his argument. Section 1 deals with an objection to his theory that people are responsible for their virtuous actions, and therefore for their happiness. What about situations where someone has no choice? Aristotle responds by defining what "choice" really means. An action taken under duress because of "fear of greater evils" has an involuntary element—no one would choose to be in the situation. Nevertheless, they are still making a decision rooted in their character. They pick whatever option seems best in terrible circumstances, even if it is something they would not have done otherwise. The only "forced" actions are ones in which the agent has no choice whatsoever, not even a bad one. Aristotle resists the idea that anyone can be a victim. He encourages his reader to feel empowered to make their own moral choices.

He also will not give the reader an easy pass for ignorance. Genuine involuntary actions caused by ignorance, he implies, rely on crucial misinformation and end in regret. It is possible to make mistakes and still be virtuous, but only if you were aiming to do the right thing. He distinguishes between a nonvoluntary action, which an ignorant and vicious person might do without regretting it, and a truly involuntary action. Even actions people might think of as involuntary, such as eating to satisfy hunger, are still centered in a choice to appease the appetite. Moreover, unlike animals, humans can be praised and blamed for their actions. In Section 5 he explains that while humans may not be responsible for the actions caused by ignorance, they are responsible for the ignorance itself. They should have known better.

The concepts of decision and deliberation are used to explain voluntary action further. Everything people do, they do for a reason. Aristotle assumes human beings make rational choices, deliberating about a desired outcome and then deciding which actions will help them get there. Since character is the result of decisions over time, practice in decision-making is essential. Eventually the virtuous person will appreciate good actions for their own sake, and decision-making will be easier.

However, to deliberate well, humans need a solid moral center to begin with. They should not aim for the most efficient methods to achieve an outcome, but for the "fine" or best possible methods. A good choice does not just get someone to the desired result. It is a genuinely good action, result or not. For this reason, Aristotle thinks we should not base our choices on wish and belief. Beliefs can be inaccurate, wishes can be impractical, and both are subjective. Aristotle makes an epistemological claim, or a claim based on the nature of human knowledge, about the excellent person—this person will always choose the genuine good.

As Aristotle discusses deliberation, he uses logic to explain deliberation's relevance to human effort. All deliberation is inquiry, but not all inquiry is deliberation. In Section 3, he employs a variation of the logical syllogism, or a major and minor premise leading to a conclusion. Deliberation is about actions humans can take, and actions are taken to promote certain ends or goals. Therefore, we deliberate in order to promote certain ends or goals.

Since humans are in charge of their own deliberation, they are in charge of their decisions and actions, and consequently of their character state. Everyone who has chosen vice could have chosen virtue at one point. Moreover, depending on their vice, they may be capable of change. He uses medicine again as an example of human willingness to shift blame. Although no one chooses to be sick, they may choose not to do what it takes to get better. He acknowledges that people may not be aware of the "cumulative effect" of their actions. A sick person may follow the doctor's orders and still get sicker. However, people can always control their choices.

His discussion of bravery centers on ancient Greek culture's reverence for the military. Death in war was considered "the greatest and finest danger" and the best way to die, since soldiers defended the common good. Since readers understand the importance of decision, they can grasp how true bravery involves a decision. Death from "shipwreck or sickness" is not brave. Facing danger foolishly is not brave either. The truly courageous person assesses the risks and rewards. Even soldiers under a commander show bravery only if they act for the right reasons and fear the right things.

Not every seemingly courageous act is brave, as Aristotle illustrates in Section 8. Bravery is an internal state defined by "concern for the fine," not just by the magnitude of danger faced or the level of honor earned. The brave person will feel fear, but their fear will not paralyze them. The brave person is mortal with a natural aversion to death and pain. Unlike the rash person, the brave person takes sacrifice seriously.

The temperate person will still enjoy pleasure, but their pleasure will not consume them. Aristotle limits his discussion of temperance and intemperance to physical desires. These are the only desires liable to do lasting harm. Gluttony, drunkenness, and adultery, for instance, can impact health and relationships. Temperance is marked by an absence of intense appetite for physical pleasures and a natural preference for moderation. Continence, a similar virtue analyzed in Book 7, is marked by an ability to overcome intense appetite. Aristotle views continence guardedly, as a "mixed state" rather than a full virtue since the appetite for wrongdoing is still present. In a sense, temperance is easier to achieve than continence.

Nevertheless, intemperance is hard to control. Each vice needs separate training to avoid overindulgence. This is where early education comes in. Since children "live by appetite," they have to learn how to obey reason. Aristotle has a certain sympathy for appetites. He knows cowardly actions result from the natural tendency to avoid pain. Still he thinks no one who lives according to their bodily desires will be happy. They will be overcome by appetite and fear, and never fulfilled.

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