Happiness Is Living Virtuously
Classic Philosophical Questions Part 4 - Ethics
Aristotle, from Nicomachean Ethics
Kem Stone - 22 September 2007
Aristotle’s argument for the virtue of moderation is one of the most widely known philosophical doctrines of all
time. Even people unfamiliar with Greek philosophy will practice what Aristotle prescribes, as even without
argument the idea of finding the mean in all our actions and emotions just makes sense. As an ethical theory, it
suffers from several flaws, but there are also great strengths which for the most part overshadow the technical
problems of the argument. I will examine the argument and then discuss what I see as its major weaknesses and
Aristotle begins by clarifying what we are after when we consider the motivation behind our actions, which is
happiness for its own sake. As opposed to things like honour, pleasure, and intellect which are often sought as
means to something else, happiness is an intrinsic good which human beings strive for as the ultimate end. For
Aristotle, happiness is not a fleeting emotion but a state of being in which the soul flourishes in accordance with
man’s proper function. “If we define the function of Man as a kind of life, and this life as an activity of soul, or a
course of action in conformity with reason, if the function of a good man is such activity or action of a good and
noble kind, and if everything is successfully performed when it is performed in accordance with its proper
excellence, it follows that the good of Man is an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue” (170). Thus for
Aristotle, happiness is living virtuously.
Virtue is partly intellectual and partly moral, and here Aristotle is mostly concerned with moral virtue. Intellect can
be fostered by teaching, but moral virtue can only be brought about through habit. “It is by doing just acts that we
become just, by doing temperate acts that we become temperate, by doing courageous acts that we become
courageous” (170). Moral states are the result of performing the activities that correspond to the states
themselves, but only if 1- the agent knows what he is doing, 2- he does it deliberately for its own sake, and 3- he
does it as an instance of a settled moral state. Essentially, an act is virtuous if it is done knowingly, willingly, and
for the sake of its virtue. A just or temperate deed is that which a just or temperate person would do in the spirit
of the just and the temperate.
What follows is Aristotle’s argument that virtue “is a state of deliberate moral purpose consisting in a mean that is
relative to ourselves” (172). For Aristotle, the virtue (or excellence) of a man is a moral state that makes him
perform his proper function well (as the excellence of the eye is to see well). Now, in everything it is possible to
take a greater, smaller, or equal amount, either absolutely or in relation to ourselves. In relation to ourselves, this
means that the mean is neither too much nor too little, and will not be the same for everybody. Our actions and
our emotions admit of these properties of excess, deficiency, and mean—it is always possible to go too far or not
far enough in regard to anger, pity, pleasure, pain, etc. Therefore there are many ways of going wrong but only
one way of going right—which is to practice everything in moderation. Excess and deficiency are vices, while the
mean is the virtue.
Aristotle qualifies this by pointing out that not everything admits of a mean state. For instance, malice and
shamelessness are intrinsically evil emotions, while murder and theft are intrinsically evil actions. It makes no sense
to say one is not malicious enough, or that a few murders are acceptable as long as a man does not take it too
far. Things that are already excesses or deficiencies do not admit of a mean state, just as mean states do not
admit of excess or deficiency (one cannot be too temperate).
To better illustrate his point, Aristotle offers a long list of examples, of which I will only mention a few. In respect
of fear and confidence, courage is the mean state while foolhardiness is the excess and cowardice the deficiency.
In respect of man’s pursuit of pleasures, temperance is the mean while licentiousness (gluttony) is the excess and
insensibility the deficiency. In regards to money, the mean state is liberality (generosity) while prodigality is the
excess and illiberality (stinginess) the deficiency. And in respect of honour and dishonour, highmindedness (pride)
is the mean, while vanity is the excess and littlemindedness (shyness) the deficiency. The list goes on, but each
example serves to illustrate the broad applicability of the concept and greatly appeals to common sense.
An important point to consider is that “it is in some cases the deficiency and in others the excess which is the more
opposed to the mean” (174), which Aristotle shows is for two reasons. The first lies in the thing in itself. For
instance, in respect to courage, it is plain that cowardice by its very nature is further from the mean than
foolhardiness. The other reason lies in our own nature. Generally speaking, we are more naturally inclined
towards one end or the other in most cases. In regard to seeking pleasure, we are much more inclined to the
excess than the deficiency, which makes licentiousness further from the mean than decorum.
These considerations are helpful when we try to apply these principles to how we conduct ourselves, as Aristotle
admits that it is difficult to find the mean in anything. For instance, “anybody can give or spend money, but to give
it to the right persons, to give the right amount of it and to give it at the right time and for the right cause and in the
right way, this is not what anybody can do, nor is it easy” (175). Because of the difficulty in finding the proper
moderation, we must begin by choosing the lesser of two evils and steering clear of the evil which is further from
the mean. And because the mean is always relative to ourselves, we must take care to observe in all cases
whether we are naturally more inclined to the excess or deficiency, “and then we must drag ourselves in the
direction opposite to them; for it is by removing ourselves as far as possible from what is wrong that we shall
arrive at the mean, as we do when we pull a crooked stick straight” (175). The general rule that Aristotle
prescribes is to sometimes incline towards the excess and sometimes towards the deficiency, and in this manner
we will have the easiest time of hitting the mean, and thus of attaining excellence.
It cannot be denied that there is wisdom in Aristotle’s claims, but the main problem is that it deals with too many
abstracts to constitute any solid ground for a complete ethical system. When we consider the examples he gives,
such as temperance being the mean in regards to pursuit of pleasures while licentiousness is the excess and
insensibility the deficiency, we run into some problems when we attempt to draw the lines separating these
qualities. How much pleasure is too much, and how little is too little? What basis do we have to go on other than
observing how others behave?
It would seem that in different times and different cultures, we would have different ideas as to what is too much
or what is not enough. Thus this system seems to collapse into relativism—Aristotle even admits that what is
excess and what is deficiency are relative to ourselves and are different for every person. He offers us the useful
prescription to “avoid the lesser of two evils” but on what basis do we determine which evil is greater? It may
seem that cowardice is worse than foolhardiness, but on what basis do we form this judgment other than our own
opinion? And if we are defining the good purely out of what we are inclined to believe is good, our ethical system
is just as hollow as if we had no system at all.
But in spite of this, the concept of moderation and excess is a valuable one, and as an ethical theory it does have
strengths that other systems lack. First and foremost, it is grounded in common sense, and is based on what it
takes for a man to function properly in society. This is a far more solid basis than command-based ethical
systems, which derive their legitimacy from God or some other supernatural force of which the existence is
dubious and disputable. Aristotle does not say we ought to practice temperance because Zeus commands it, but
that we ought to do so because it will allow us to achieve happiness. Thus we behave virtuously for our own
good within this life, and not for fear of punishment or hope of reward in another.
Another great strength this system has is its broad applicability, and compatibility with all other ethical systems.
Although the conceptions of what is excessive and what is deficient may change from time to time and place to
place, the concepts of excess and deficiency themselves are universal and can be understood in any time or
culture. For instance, there may be nothing in this system to condemn slavery as an institution, but for a culture
with an institution of slavery it will prescribe treating one’s slaves without excessive cruelty or excessive
pampering. In other words, there is no ethical principle undiscovered or unaccepted which could render this
Finally, it is always important to consider in regard to any ethical system what the results would be if the system
were universally adopted, and it is plain to see that only good could come from the widespread acceptance of
these ideas. I can imagine no great harm befalling mankind if we all conducted ourselves according to the idea
that all things must be done in moderation. If all people avoided excess or deficiency in regards to all of their
actions and emotions, it is likely that the universal condition of humanity would improve greatly, as so many evils
result in taking things too far (as in the cases of war or ethnic cleansing) or not far enough (as in establishing human
rights or working to solve global problems such as climate change). Therefore although I believe Aristotle’s
system is not enough to form a complete ethical system in itself, I would recommend the inclusion of these
principles as part of any greater moral framework.