Aristotle defines ethical virtue as a condition by which we have appropriate feelings and responses to various circumstances (1105b25–6).
Imperfect states of character are tendencies to have inappropriate emotional responses or beliefs. The importance of Aristotle’s characterization of these states is his rejection of the thesis that virtue is simply a kind of knowledge and vice a lack of knowledge. Although Aristotle frequently draws analogies between various disciplines and virtue, he claims that the virtues differ from the all other types of knowledge because the virtues are not only intellectual, but also involve an emotional response. By acting excellently, we are able to become excellent human beings and achieve eudaimonia. Furthermore, every ethical virtue is an intermediate between two other states: excess and deficiency (1106a26-b28).
In this respect Aristotle argues that the virtues are no different from technical skills: every skilled worker knows how to avoid excess and deficiency, and is in an intermediate condition between two extremes. Courageous individuals judge that some dangers are worth facing and others not, and experiences fear to the extent that is appropriate to his circumstances. He stands between a coward, who flees every danger and experiences excessive fear, and the rash individual, who faces every danger and experiences little or no fear. Aristotle argues that this same model applies to every ethical virtue; they are all on a spectrum that places the virtues between states of excess and deficiency.
He is careful to add that the mean is to be determined in a way that considers the circumstances of the individual (1106a36-b7). The arithmetic mean between 20 and 10 is 15, but the intermediate point that is chosen by an expert in any technical capacity will vary from one situation to another. There is no universal rule, for example, about how much food an athlete should eat, and it would be absurd to infer from the fact that 5 pounds is too much and 1 pound is too little for me that I should eat 3 pounds.
Finding the “golden mean” in any given situation is not a simple, mechanical, process, but requires a full and detailed understand of the circumstances.Aristotle’s definition of virtues as mean states endorses the idea that we should sometimes have strong feelings when such feelings are appropriate. Sometimes only a small degree of anger is appropriate; but at other times, circumstances call for fury. The correct amount is not some quantity between zero and the highest possible level, but rather the amount that is proportionate to the gravity of the situation. Aristotle is committed to saying that emotions should never become so excessive such that they undercut reason; from this it follows that passion should always fall short of the extreme point at which we would lose control.
Aristotle does not deny that it is possible to reach extreme ends of various emotional states, and that these responses may be appropriate, so long as they do not allow us to lose control.Aristotle’s theory outlines the nature of virtue, but it remains unclear what must be done in any given situation. The correct action made by a virtuous agent depends on the circumstances, and these vary significantly from one occasion to another such that there is no possibility of creating an objective rulebook, however complicated, that addresses and offers a solution to every practical problem. This feature of ethical theory relates to other skills; Aristotle believes it applies to many crafts, such as medicine and navigation (1104a7–10). He claims that the virtuous person “sees the truth in each case, being as it were a standard and measure of them” (1113a32–3); but this appeal to the good person’s judgement should not be taken to mean that he has an inarticulate and incommunicable insight into the truth. Aristotle thinks of the good person as someone who is capable of rational deliberation, and is able to use reason and rational thinking to determine the best course of action. The intermediate point that the good person tries to find is “determined by logos and in the way that the person of practical reason would determine it” (1107a1–2).
To say that such a person knows what to do is simply a way of articulating the point that a virtuous person’s reasoning does succeed in determining what is best in each situation. He is a standard and measure in the sense that his views should be regarded as authoritative by other members of society. A standard or measure is something that settles disputes; and because virtuous people are so skilled at discovering the mean in difficult cases, their advice must be sought and heeded.
Another example of Aristotle’s doctrine is the example of commitment, either to an objective or to an ideal. It can easily be inferred, that a lack of commitment to an agreement is seen as dishonorable, or the lack of commitment to an objective shows a distaste in that objective. In this case, let us focus on the case of commitment to an agreement, which can be interpreted as a form of loyalty. Being overly committed to an agreement can be seen as obsessive, and often harmful; consider the case where you commit to helping your friend. He may at first simply ask for help tending his garden, to which you should, as a loyal friend, oblige.
If he should then ask for your help in harming another, breaking your commitment to help him is a virtuous decision. Thus, it is not simply interpreting a lack of commitment or loyalty as dishonorable, but it is the various contexts in which that commitment is applied that effect out interpretation of the decision. Excellence, in this sphere, depends on being dependable when it is the right thing to do, and avoiding committing to objectives that are perverse. The question of the right amount of loyalty is challenging, as we often question the extent of our obligation to others when determining our actions.