Nicomachean Ethics

Bk. II



Goods/Excellences/Virtues of the Soul: Two Types


(1) Virtues of Thought - Wisdom, Comprehension, Intelligence, etc.

(2) Virtues of Character - Generosity, Temperance (Moderation), etc.


thos = character

(Note: ethos = habit)


(1) Intellectual Virtues: "arises and grows mostly from teaching"

(2) Ethical Virtues: "results from habit"



 Virtues of Character (Ethical Virtues) result from Habit, or Training

"none of the virtues of character arises in us naturally."  

"the virtues arise in us neither by nature nor against nature. Rather, we are by nature able to acquire them."

"we become just by doing just actions, temperate by doing temperate actions, brave by doing brave actions."

"A state <of character> arises from <the repetition of> similar activities"


e.g. "Refraining from pleasure makes us become temperate, and when we have become temperate we are most able to refrain from pleasures. And it is similar with bravery; habituation in disdaining what is fearful and in standing firm against it makes us become brave, and when we have become brave we shall be most able to stand firm."

"Hence we must display the right activities, since differences in these imply corresponding differences in the states. It is not unimportant, then, to acquire one sort of habit or another, right from our youth; rather, it is very important, indeed all-important."


NB: Moral Luck of having the right 'trainers' in one's youth


 Feelings vs. Capacities vs. States

Feelings: "By feelings I mean appetite, anger, fear, confidence, envy, joy, love, hate, longing, jealousy, pity, in general whatever implies pleasure or pain"

Capacities: "By capacities I mean what we have when we are said to be capable of these feelings"

States: "By states I mean what we have when we are well or badly off in relation to feelings. If, e.g., our feeling is too intense or slack, we are well or badly off in relation to anger, but if it is intermediate,  we are well off"


Virtues are States of Character (i.e. Dispositions)

"First, then, neither virtues nor vices are feelings." 

"For these reasons the virtues are not capacities either."

"If, then, the virtues are neither feelings nor capacities, the remaining possibility is that they are states [of character]."



The Doctrine of the Mean

"these sorts of states naturally tend to be ruined by excess and deficiency."

"By vitue I mean virtue of character; for this <pursues the mean because> it is concerned with feelings and actions, and these admit of excess, deficiency and an intermediate condition."

"Virtue is concerned with feelings and actions, in which excess and deficiency are in error and incur blame, while the intermediate condition is correct and wins praise, which are both proper features of virtue. Virtue, then, is a mean, insofar as it aims at what is intermediate."

"Some vices miss what is right because they are deficient, others because they are excessive, in feelings or in actions, while virtue finds and chooses what is intermediate."




(1) Courage: virtue that is the mean between the vice of being cowardly (excess of fear) and the vice of being foolhardy (deficiency of fear)

"The same is true, then, of temperance, bravery and the other virtues. For if, e.g. someone avoids and is afraid of everything, standing firm against nothing, he becomes cowardly, but if he is afraid of nothing at all and goes to face everything, he becomes rash."

Feeling: fear

Action: standing fast (when appropriate; see below)


(2) Moderation: virtue mean between being intemperate (excess of pleasure) and boorishness or insensibility (deficiency of pleasure)

"Similarly, if he gratifies himself with every pleasure and refrains from none, he becomes intemperate, but if he avoids them all, as boors do, he becomes some sort of insensible person. Temperance and bravery, then, are ruined by excess and deficiency but preserved by the mean."


Feeling: ? (seems to be a matter of "having appetites", not a feeling)

Action: gratifies certain pleasures at certain times [see below]


"We can be afraid, e.g., or be confident, or have appetites, or get angry, or feel pity, in general have pleasure or pain, both too much and too little, and in both ways not well; but <having these feelings>


[ 1 ] at the right times,

[ 2 ] about the right things,

[ 3 ] towards the right people,

[ 4 ] for the right end,

[5 ] and in the right way,


is the intermediate and best condition, and this is proper to virtue. Similarly, actions also admit of excess, deficiency and the intermediate condition."


"And so for this reason also excess and deficiency are proper to vice, the mean to virtue; 'for we are noble in only one way, but bad in all sorts of ways."


Other virtues of character/ethical virtues:




Good Temper


Other virtues (social virtues)


Good wit




Mean is relative to us - how?

"Virtue, then, is


(a) a state that decides,

(b) <consisting in a mean>,

(c) the mean relative to us,

(d) which is defined by reference to reason,

(e) i.e. to the reason by reference to which the intelligent person would define it.


It is a mean between two vices, one of excess and one of deficiency."


NB: does "relative to us" mean relative to me vs. you, or relative to this situation vs. that situation?


Not all Feelings and Actions have a Mean

"But not every action or feeling admits of the mean. For the names of some automatically include baseness,

e.g. spite, shamelessness, envy <among feelings>,

and adultery, theft, murder,

among actions. All these and similar things are called by these names because they themselves, not their excesses or deficiencies, are base."

Hence in doing these things we can never be correct, but must invariably be in error. We cannot do them well or not well –– e.g. by committing adultery with the right woman at the right time in the right way; on the contrary, it is true unconditionally that to do any of them is to be in error."

"<To think these admit a mean>, therefore, is like thinking that unjust or cowardly or intemperate action also admits of a mean, an excess and a deficiency. For then there would be a mean of excess, a mean of deficiency, a excess of excess and a deficiency of deficiency."

"Rather, just as there is no excess or deficiency of temperance or of bravery, since the intermediate is a sort of extreme <in achieving the good>, so also there is no mean, and no excess or deficiency, of these <vicious actions> either, but whatever way anyone does them, he is in error."



Virtue requires both Action and Pleasure in Action

"But <actions are not enough>; we must take as a sign of someone's state [of character] his pleasure or pain in consequence of his action. For if someone who abstains from bodily pleasures enjoys the abstinence itself, then he is temperate, but if he is grieved by it, he is intemperate. Again, if he stands firm against terrifying situations and enjoys it, or at least does not find it painful, then he is brave, and if he finds it painful, he is cowardly."

"virtue of character is concerned with pleasures and pains."

"virtues are concerned with actions and feelings; but every feeling and every action implies pleasure and pain; hence, for this reason too, virtue is concerned with pleasures and pains."

"For it is pleasure that causes us to do base actions, and pain that causes us to abstain from fine ones. Hence we need to have had the appropriate upbringing –– right from early youth, as Plato says –– to make us find enjoyment or pain in the right things; for this is correct education."

"virtue is the sort of state [of character] <with the appropriate specifications> that does the best actions concerned with pleasures and pains, and that vice is the contrary."



The Fine (The Noble) = The Expedient = The Pleasant

"There are three objects of choice –– fine, expedient and pleasant –– and three objects of avoidance –– their contraries, shameful, harmful and painful. About all these, then, the good person is correct and the bad person is in error, and especially about pleasure."

Virtuous agent will do what is fine/noble, this will also be in his best interest, and he will take pleasure in it.


Not Enough to Perform Virtuous Action

(1) Agent must know that the action is the virtuous one

(2) Agent must decide to perform the virtuous actions because it is virtuous

(3) Agent must perform action from a firm and unchanging state of character or disposition


"But for actions expressing virtue to be done temperately or justly it does not suffice that they are themselves in the right state. Rather, the agent must also be in the right state when he does them. First, he must know <that he is doing virtuous actions>; second, he must decide on them, and decide on them for themselves; and, third, he must also do them from a firm and unchanging state."


"Hence actions are called just or temperate when they are the sort that a just or temperate person would do. But the just and temperate person is not the one who <merely> does these actions, but the one who also does them in the way in which just or temperate people do them."