Moral Knowledge and the Acquisition of Virtue in Aristotle's Nicomachean and Eudemian Ethics

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IN BOTH THE EUDEMIAN ETHICS AND THE NICOMACHEAN ETHICS, Aristotle says that the aim of ethical inquiry is a practical one; (1) we want to know what virtue is so that we may become good ourselves and thereby do well and be happy. By classifying ethical inquiry as a practical endeavor, Aristotle is rejecting a view that he attributes to Socrates according to which ethics is a kind of theoretical science. In theoretical sciences, such as geometry or astronomy, the knowledge of a particular subject matter is sought as an end in itself, and the possession of such knowledge is sufficient to make one a geometer or an astronomer. In rejecting this model Aristotle argues that the knowledge of virtue is sought not solely for itself but in order to inform praxis and in order that we become virtuous and good, not by knowing what the virtues are but by cultivating them in practice.

Merely accepting the idea that ethics is a practical enterprise in the sense outlined above, however, does not commit one to a more specific conception of the relationship between attaining a general knowledge of virtue and being able to perform the activities that are essential to cultivating virtuous states of character. The extent to which one can acquire a general knowledge of ethical matters before one has engaged in the practical affairs of life, for instance, remains an open question. In the discussion that follows, I will argue that Aristotle's views in the Eudemian Ethics (EE) leave open the possibility of a "theory first" approach to ethical development. According to this approach, it is possible to acquire general moral knowledge independently from one's experience with the practical affairs of life and to benefit from using this knowledge to shape one's subsequent activities. I will also argue, however, that Aristotle explicitly rejects this conception of ethics in the Nicomachean Ethics (NE) where he embraces instead what might be called an "experience first" approach to ethical development. In the NE, Aristotle places constant emphasis on the importance of gaining a knowledge of particulars that comes from practical experience not only in order to act well, but to be able to acquire and to benefit from a general knowledge of ethical matters. I will also suggest that this emphasis on experience results from a clarification that Aristotle makes in the NE of the relationship between actions, emotions, and states of character in order to avoid a puzzle or aporia to which the account of the acquisition of virtue in the EE is left open. Finally, I will suggest that the underlying reasons motivating this difference in emphasis support the view that the NE is later than the EE and that, as such, we should take the view expressed in the NE to represent Aristotle's considered view on this matter.

The differences between the EE and the NE that I will discuss are subtle and for this reason they have been largely overlooked. So I want to emphasize that important questions about the role of philosophical inquiry in the development of virtue and the practical role of general moral knowledge ride on these differences. In taking a clear and unambiguous stance on these issues in the NE, Aristotle is explicitly ruling out answers to these questions which were perfectly consistent with the account of these issues in the EE. I argue below that this marks an important shift in Aristotle's thinking.

Finally, a word of clarification is in order. In referring to the NE and the EE in what follows I mean to refer only to the books that are unique to each work. Because there is some controversy over the place of the common books (NE 5-7 and EE 4-6) my analysis of the two treatises will rely almost exclusively on material from these non-common books. I will explain my reasons for doing so near the end of the following discussion.


The Practical Science of Virtue. In the EE Aristotle tells us that Socrates did not ask how and from what virtue is produced because he took all of the virtues to be forms of knowledge and he therefore thought that one could become virtuous by attaining a knowledge of virtue just as one could become a geometer by acquiring the knowledge of geometry. …


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