Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics: Summary & Analysis

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  • 0:01 The Best of Three Lives
  • 0:43 A Practical Approach
  • 1:48 Moral Responsibility
  • 3:10 Role of Pleasure & Politics
  • 4:34 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine has an M.A. in American Studies. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

In this lesson, you'll develop an understanding of Aristotle, including his view of moral responsibility and ethics. You'll also better understand what he thought was the purpose of human life.

The Best of Three Lives

If you had to guess what the philosopher Aristotle thought would be the best kind of life to live, what type do you think he'd recommend? A life of pleasure, a life of politics, or a life as a philosopher?

If you said a life as a philosopher, pursuing knowledge and understanding, you'd be right. Yet, he has a lot to say about why this is the case and isn't entirely negative about pleasure and politics either.

In this lesson, you'll get Aristotle's insight into ethics and, in particular, his approach to moral responsibility and the best way to live. We'll use his text Nicomachean Ethics as our main reference.

A Practical Approach

Like others before him, such as Socrates and Plato, Aristotle was a Greek philosopher who was interested in the best way to live a good life and to cultivate virtue. In particular, he believed virtue to be something that a person not only needs to understand but that a person also needs to live out in their actual lives.

He didn't view ethics as a purely intellectual pursuit to understand what it means to live a better life. Instead, an understanding of ethics is both intellectual and also a way to actually become better. Aristotle aimed for ethics to be both an intellectual and a practical pursuit, with the ultimate goal of human well-being and happiness.

Aristotle believed that being raised well and developing virtuous habits could help a person to live well. He felt that children could benefit from learning how to live a good, virtuous life, starting at an early age, and practicing virtues, such as a willingness to act courageously or to cultivate good relationships.

Moral Responsibility

When we do something that others would view as immoral or unethical, such as taking money that's not ours, we expect that some type of blame would be placed on us when others find out. Likewise, if we do something especially virtuous, such as risking our life to save another's, we might expect praise for this. Our moral responsibility for a particular action, therefore, is the blame or praise that our actions deserve. For Aristotle, a person only deserves blame or praise for their actions when they're acting voluntarily.

How do you know if someone is acting voluntarily? Aristotle proposed two conditions that have to be met for a person to be held morally responsible for an action. One is that the person must be in control of their actions. No one can be forcing the person to take a particular action. So, if I am being held at gunpoint and told I must steal money from another person, I'm not to be blamed.

Secondly, a person must be aware of what they're doing. So, if I accidentally injure someone with my car because I didn't realize they were taking a nap underneath it, I am not to be blamed. In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle goes on to discuss in much more detail what conditions make an action worthy of praise or blame.

The Role of Pleasure and Politics

Spending one's life focused on questions of what actions are worthy of blame or praise might sound bland at first. Yet, Aristotle was ultimately aiming to understand what is the purpose of our lives and how to be the best version of what we are capable of becoming.

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