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Aristotle's Set of Ethics Represented in Nicomachean Ethics: Analytical Essay

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Aristotle was born around 384 BC in the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedonia where his father was the royal doctor. He grew up to reach a state where one could say that he is indeed the most influential philosopher to have ever lived with nicknames like the philosopher or the master. Aristotle worked with Plato for a period then he ventured on his own and established a little school called the Lyceum. Many of his books are actually lecture notes and one of the most important books that he wrote is the Nicomachean ethics. As the title indicates Aristotle is concerned with laying out a set of ethics, however instead of simply giving people a set of rules and how they should behave; he focuses on the type of people they should become. He is actually trying to provide the reader with practical advice here not just philosophy. {}

In book two of the Nicomachean ethics, he talks about the nature of virtue ethics and he suggests that all good and successful people have some plain virtues and proposed that we should get better at pinpointing these virtues so that we can nurture them in ourselves and honor them in others. Aristotle also observes that every virtue seems to be situated in the middle of two vices and it occupies what he termed the golden mean which is a perfectly balanced between two extremes of character “one involving excess (and) the other deficiency”. {Aristotle 32} However, he states that there are some exceptions and one should not mix up this talk about the golden mean in virtue ethics and generalize it to whatever sort of thing we want to talk about.

Aristotle says that there are some things some actions and some emotions, which do not admit to any sort of virtuous mean. They are bad, morally defective by their very nature and there is no way of making them into something good. He says that the very names of some of them imply evil, deficiency, or badness in some sense and it is not possible to go right with regard to them. They may be brought into some sort of a situation where socially we could use them to get certain things done that might lead to some sort of good but in the person themselves they are a bad thing period. Moreover, it does not matter in certain respects how much of it one has or who one feels it towards; it is still a bad thing and it is a worse thing of course if one has more of it.

To support his claim he gives an example of such emotions and the first one that he starts talking about is Malice {Epikhairekakia}, which literary means setting your hands to wickedness, setting your hands to badness or setting your hands to vice and this is great example of what has been mentioned earlier that the badness of an emotion is integrated in its very name. When we talk about somebody being malicious in terms of their emotions, we mean that they have a drive for doing bad things or harming people just for the sake of doing it or for pleasure, not even necessarily to get anything tangible out of it.

Shamelessness or Anaiskhuntia is another example of an emotion that is bad in its very nature. Shamelessness in English is ordinarily taken to be the antonym of shame, which is a kind of fear felt about one’s social image or reputation being in some way damaged or tarnished, and this feeling of shame is not just felt in relation to other people but also in relation to oneself. However, Aristotle sees things differently when it comes to shame for he says that Shame stems not from the contemplation of loss of reputation or honor in the “abstract, but from specific acts or events that bring about disgrace for example throwing away one’s shield or fleeing; for they come from cowardice. Also confiscating a deposit, or wronging someone; for they come from unjustness. And sleeping with the wrong people, or those who are related for they come from sensuality”. {Konstan 101} And based on this Shamelessness, as Aristotle clarifies “does not seem to be a distinct emotion that is shame’s opposite, but rather a lack of feeling or insensibility /Apatheid/ in respect to the kinds of ills that arouse shame.” {Konstan 100}

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Another emotion, which cannot be seen as good is Envy. According to Aristotle Envy is never good and there is no way of making it into something good at all. An envious person is aroused at the sight of goods that somebody else enjoys but instead of being happy that they enjoy them, he feels pain because they are not his and Aristotle thinks that this is something, which is fundamentally bad.

On the opposite side of things, Aristotle introduces another set of emotions, which are good by their very nature, and are indeed signs of good character. One of these emotions is what we translate typically as Emulation and it is a kind of pain that we feel when somebody else enjoys something good we wish we had so it looks like envy but it is not because the pain in this case is not accompanied by ill-wishes but with a recognition that we still have some work to do before we can enjoy the fruits of our labor. For example when one starts out in a profession, he sees people who are higher up in position and in a very good condition which might bother the person and make him wish to be like that so he starts working hard in an attempt to get to where they are and have what they have.

Another Emotion which is good by its very nature is pity which in its broad term can also mean compassion or sympathy and it consists of feeling pain at another person’s undeserved pain or suffering. The person who feels pity is always troubled when he sees people being hurt, being put down or being injured and he has a need to intervene or help in any way possible to stop that harm from happening.

Towards the end of book two of the Nicomachean ethics, after Aristotle listed off the various virtues and their opponent vices, he talks about another exception to the golden mean of virtue ethics. This exception is related to emotions that can themselves be arranged in relation to each other where one would be the mean state as opposed to other states that would be the extremes. And to back up this argument Aristotle introduces a spectrum between three different Emotions {feelings} and they are Envy, Righteous indignation and Malice. Of course, the extremes in this spectrum would be Malice and Envy since they are inherently bad emotions as we discussed earlier, so the mean state in this layout is Righteous indignation {Nemesis}, which means feeling upset, feeling pain or becoming irritated at somebody who is enjoying a fortune which he does not deserve. Righteous indignation is not like Envy; it is not bad because it is kind of setting things right by taking actions against those who got away with what they shouldn’t have gotten away with like the bank robber who is enjoying his fortune and never get caught or a killer who got away with murder and so on. Therefore, when Righteous indignation occurs we think of that as kind of poetic justice and we feel a sense of things being set the way they ought to be. Therefore, “nemesis is a curiously complex emotion, involving both a painful and a pleasurable response to states that may be either good or bad: pleasurable if they are deserved, otherwise painful.” {Konstan 115} In addition, Aristotle points out that the feeling of nemesis in a certain way contributes to the virtue of justice – it does not automatically lead to it but it kind of leads the way- and on the opposite hand the other extremes on the scale like Envy and Malice lead the way to injustice.

Finally, we can say that all these emotions – the ones that are bad by their very own nature like envy and malice and the ones that are good like Emulation and Pity – are part of our moral existence as human beings. And these emotions whether we feel them, how much we feel them or who we feel them in relation to are quite important and should not be overlooked. After all, they are all tied with our moral life and with how we evaluate other people whether they deserve to have pleasure, deserve to have pain, deserve good fortune or deserve bad fortune and so on.

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Aristotle’s Set of Ethics Represented in Nicomachean Ethics: Analytical Essay. (2022, September 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved January 29, 2023, from
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