Aristotle’s Account of Virtue ethics can be found in his great work, the Nicomachean Ethics

Ethics is a practical science:

Aristotle considered ethics practical. He rejected the doctrines of innate knowledge and the ideas of Plato. As per this doctrine, moral evaluations of daily life (morality/character) presuppose a “good”, which is independent of experience, personality, and circumstances.  He taught that all knowledge begins in the sense of experience.

Moral Relativism

For him, ethical knowledge (moral standards) comes from personal experiences, and experience differs from person to person; hence there are no known absolute moral standards, and any ethical theory must be based in part on an understanding of psychology and firmly grounded in the realities of human nature and daily life. It means moral truth is not the same for all people, at all times and in all places.

Ethical inquiry

For Aristotle, moral principles are immanent(आसन्न) in our daily activities and can be discovered only through a careful study of them. It is for this reason that Aristotle begins his ethical inquiry with an empirical study of what it is that people fundamentally desire. And what are the inherent potentialities of that person?

Eudemonia/ Happiness /Good life/Flourishing life  

Aristotle believed human nature is positive because he said that human is not only political and social animal but also ethical d rational animal. He also believed that every man wants/desires to live a Happiness/Eudemonia/Good life/Flourishing life.


To achieve eudemonia being ethical one need to be virtuous. For him, virtue means a type of excellence.  How this excellence can be achieved? It can be achieved by the examination of human nature as he argued that all living things have inherent potentialities as per their naturally assigned functions because Aristotle conceived of the universe as a hierarchy in which everything has a function. The highest form of existence is the life of the rational being, and the function of lower beings is to serve this form of life (rational beings). From this perspective, Aristotle defended slavery—because he considered barbarians less rational than Greeks. This line of thought makes sense if one thinks, as Aristotle did, that the universe as a whole has a purpose and that human beings exist as part of such a goal-directed scheme of things,

Now it is their (human) nature and highest goal (Eudemonia) to develop these potentials. It is the idea that an investigation of human nature can reveal what one ought to do (his potentialities). For Aristotle, an examination of a knife would reveal that its distinctive capacity is to cut, and from this one could conclude that a good knife is a knife that cuts well.  In the same way, an examination of human nature should reveal the distinctive capacity of human beings, and from this one should be able to infer what it is to be a good human being.

What, however, is the potentiality of human beings? For Aristotle, this question turns out to be equivalent to asking what is distinctive about human beings.  This, of course, is the capacity to reason. The ultimate goal of humans, therefore, is to develop their reasoning powers Hence he concluded that wisdom is the highest virtue. When they do this, they are living well, by their true nature, and they will find this the most rewarding for individuals and the well-functioning of the universe as a whole.

He explained excellence/virtue as a quality that enables an object to perform its purpose or function; For instance,

RacehorseTo be fast
AdministratorFollow the rules
FarmerProduce the crops

But there are also virtues that it is good for any human being to possess, the qualities that enable them to live a good life and to flourish as a human being. These include

  • capacities for friendship,
  • civic participation,
  • aesthetic enjoyment, and
  • intellectual enquiry.

Types of virtues

  • Moral virtues: are exercised through action.
  • The intellectual virtues: which are exercised in the process of thinking, and

The doctrine of the mean

Aristotle argues that each moral virtue is a sort of mean lying between two extremes, this idea became the basis of his Doctrine of the Mean. It means one should avoid extremes while taking decisions; for example, courage is a meaning between no action at all or aggression/extreme action/extreme action.


However, Aristotle maintained that this principle is not a precise formulation. Saying that courage is a meaning between rashness and cowardice does not mean that courage stands precisely in between these two extremes, nor does it mean that courage is the same for all people. Aristotle reminds us that there are no general laws or exact formulations in the practical sciences. Rather, we need to approach matters case by case, informed by inculcated virtue and a fair dose of practical wisdom.

Now the question arises that how one can develop virtue.

According to Aristotle, we learn moral virtues primarily through habit and practice rather than reasoning and instruction. For him, habit is instrumental to the development of virtue because it is considered to be the consistent pattern for doing virtuous actions. For Aristotle, habitual behaviour is important for being virtuous.  A generous person is routinely generous, not just generous occasionally.

Four cardinal virtues

As per Aristotle, there are many Moral virtues but four of them are the most important for humanity (cardinal virtues of Plato) includes:

Aristotle’s Concept of Justice

Justice means we are giving people what they deserve. It means people should not get less than what they deserve and not more than what they deserve, but they should get what they deserve. The key element of justice, according to Aristotle, is treating cases alike.

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Aristotle’s Concept of Justice

Political Justice:

Power should be distributed among the virtuous and not among all. Justice only exists when mutual relations are controlled by law and law is found only among those liable for injustice (Importance of law).

Individual justice:

The moral disposition renders men appropriate to do just things and wish for just.

Distributive justice:

Fair distribution of benefits and burdens or just relations between members of society.

Corrective justice:

To safeguard the rights and liberties of citizens.

The intellectual virtues/wisdom

Aristotle rejected Plato’s concept of an ideal world as he argued that there is no ideal world; hence he replaced the ideal world with WISDOM. He further categorised wisdom as

  • Theoretical wisdom and
  • Practical wisdom.

For Aristotle, practical wisdom is an intellectual virtue. Having practical wisdom means being able to assess what is required in any situation. This includes knowing when one should follow a rule and when one should break it and it requires the involvement of knowledge, experience, emotional sensitivity, perceptiveness, and reason.

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