Language of Ethics in Aristotle: Facets of Inexactness and Appearance (in Books One – Four). Part I

     In the First Book of Nicomachean Ethics that can be considered as the introduction of Aristotle to this treatise, with different wordings but a shared tenet many times he mentions to the methodic points that should be taken into consideration by his students at the school and readers of this writing. For these points are materialized and manifested in the teaching, speaking and writing of its maker and introducer too, and we should not take them at face value. As a result, having a precise conception and understanding of these points that function as guiding steps are very crucial for according to Aristotle, “well begun is half done” (1098b).

Initially, Aristotle depicts a panorama of what he wants to work on. His intended field of research/teaching has a specific subject; data; method and learner (for he is a master with specific school and students). These dimensions are repeated and scattered in Book One as his introduction, but here in an organic way, we try to collect and bring them together in one place. These characteristics all together with their opposites should be understood in their Aristotelian meanings. For on the whole they necessitate a specific kind of reasoning, speaking and writing language that a reader should be aware of.

First of all, we are informed by Aristotle that ethics belongs to the “practical” field in distinction of “non-practical”. I think he means that in the ethical field through practical reason by acting/nonacting (not with theory and technic) in this or that kind we become ethical or non-ethical human beings (1103b). Then in accordance with this specific field of knowledge, he considers its subject; data; method; and students in their own particular qualities.

The “subject” of ethics is good (s) from a “practical” point of view and, as a result, we can speak about the nature of it in “outline / περιλαβεῖν” that is a general description or plan of the essential features but not the detail. In other words, speaking about the nature of such a realizable and attainable category cannot be done in detail and minutes. For example, in regard to giving a precise definition of happiness, he says in outline that it should have relation with the specific life or exercise of man that is assigned for him by nature and according to this guidance happiness “is the exercise of this faculty in accordance with excellence or virtue,…” and then we can fill in the details with the available and extant items or by the items that will come up in the passage of time (1098a). The same idea is repeated in his introduction in regard to the prosperity and adversity of the descendants and friends of the dead (1101a); and nature of the soul for understanding human excellence (1102a).

Then, with regard to this state of ethics subject, we have to expect a specific kind of “accuracy/ἀκρίβεια” that is and should be distinct and different from accuracy in other disciplines. It means that in ethics, we will not and cannot reach to the “theoretical truth” but to some approximation of it that is called “practical truth”. Thus, Aristotle does not negate truth, but in ethics a specific kind of it is intended and it is not something good or bad for the nature of our subject-matter dictates it (1098a).

Beside this quality on the macro level, according to Aristotle, there are ambivalences about the “moral virtues” on the micro level as necessary particulars on the way to happiness and it seems that there is not homogeneity among people about them. These two characteristics construct a specific state for the nature of ethics subject that is inexactness or “uncertainty / πλάνην”. Consequently, people are wandering and stray and there is no certainty and a given clear-cut direction.

Now with regard to his outline of ethics “subject”, we consider Aristotle understanding of ethical “data”. In him, ethical data is not limited to the concrete and objective aspects or facts and beliefs are considered data too. It means that what the people say and opine about ethics and ethical issues should be considered as ethical data (1098b).

Normally, we expect the mentioned characteristic of ethics subject spills over to its data too and it is so. For Aristotle numerates two qualities for ethical data which one of them is πλάνην or uncertainty (as he mentioned before and we are familiar with) and the added new one is “Διαφοράν / difference”.  For some, the sum result of this uncertainty and differences leads to this conception that distinctions between ethical data are merely conventional / constructed and none of them are natural or essential. Besides, as a result of this situation, ethical matters are not amenable to immutable laws for conventions bring with themselves changeability.

The next issue is the appropriate method of ethics. With regard to the distinctions and specifications among disciplines, Aristotle suggests the plurality of methods instead of universality. As a result, ethics has a specific subject, data and end it should have its own method too. According to him, there are two methods, one that begins from the archai; and one that works up to them (1094b), which the former is ethics method. But there are two kinds of archai, those that are “known in itself” and those that are “known to us” as human beings and ethics method has relation with the latter one. Accordingly, the suitable method of ethics is proceeding from our human principles.

And if these archai/principles will be evident for those who are concerned, the question about their “whyness” will not arise, but if it is not so, there will be questioners and learners and this issue shapes Aristotle fourth and last point.  For him, those who are concerned with ethics are not homogenous and accordingly he classifies them: those who know that they know the reasons and as a result in the precise meaning they are not learners; those who do not know but listen to those who knows; those who do not know that they do not know; those who do not know and do not heed the words of those who know; those who are young in years and lack the experience of the life affairs; and those who are young in character because of feelings influence over them. Thereby Aristotle delineates the limit of himself as the master of philosophical ethics and those who could come to his lyceum and considered as his learners (10951a, 1095b).

Such a “complexity” necessitates a specific kind of differentiated “logos” – that consist of speaking/writing/logic - in order to reach to a coarse and rough, in opposition with exact, accurate, and precise, version of ethical truth and besides providing and processing certain kind of reasoning, premises; statements; and conclusions. In Aristotle, according to the natures and capacities of the subjects there are different grades of reasonings and it means that there is a direct proportion between them. Now what we have said before becomes relevant and functional in meaningful ways. According to our reading, Aristotle depicts the subject of ethics in general terms, besides, its data are uncertain and different. Thus, he says that in the distinctions of the other subjects/data it is “inexact” and reasoning about it is inexact too (1094b20).

According to Aristotle, argument, reasoning, speaking and making statements in ethics return to its subject-matter; data; method and learners that on the whole influence the ethical argument and its constituents. Ethical arguments are constructed in two general and particular levels in which the former pertains to the notions and actions in general; and the latter to the individual actions. It means that on the general level, there are no exact and fixed laws but there are sketchy arguments; and because the individual cases cannot be placed under any established and defined cast, on the particular level the agent him-/her-self should decide what to do or not to do (1094a). It means that, in general terms that consists of the same occasions, the same means and the same circumstances, we can say that in ethical virtues to fall short and to exceed are alike fatal; or the pleasure or pain that accompanies the acts must be taken as a test of the formed habit or character because in general many factors establish and construct such a state (1104b); and this or that is the definition of virtue and vice (1107a). And when an individual wants to do an ethical act, he or she should act or not act with considering these general notions in connection with the specific time, place, manner, conditions, circumstances, occasions, and the like.

Thereby the “general/non-specific” guides will be realized by the “ethical agents” in individual cases and events in the form of “situational” guides and as a result, the ethical statement should be made in “general / not absolute” terms. It seems that for Aristotle this particularity has two aspects: one with regard to the specific qualities of the virtue that will manifest themselves through and in action; and the other with regard to the specific person / case that is the agent and those who are receiver – in this relation we can consider the table of virtues and vices at 1107b and afterwards. Interestingly, during thinking and speaking about the particulars sometimes we experience lexical shortcomings and the need of introducing new names and idioms are felt in order to capture the subtleties. And it can be assumed as a problem in making ethical particular statements when we have not the pertinent particular terms (1110b). For in thinking and speaking about the general, we work rather easily with a few general terms and they are sufficient for us, but it is not the same in relation to particular micro cases and it is an issue that Aristotle indicates in some places of his discussion about the particular virtues and vices (see especially 1108a,15). As a result, it is very basic to know the names and contents of the particulars. On the whole, there are categories that in accordance with the intended particular case should be specified: doer; deed; the patient; instrument; the way; for the sake of; and the result (1110b). Thus, in any ethical event far from universality, the particular content of each the mentioned categories should be specified in order that making a suitable and a justifiable ethical statement becomes possible.

In this relation, I want to re-read Aristotle account of proairesis / preference (1111b5-1112a15). Initially, in a short phrase consists of logical terms he writes that it “appears” that the genus of preference is “will” and then begins his negative procedure in order to show that proairesis is not appetite; anger; wish; and opinion (both its general and particular versions). Then he reaches to this positive main question:  “τί οὖν  ποῖόν τι ἐστίνἐπειδὴ τῶν εἰρημένων οὐθέν;/ Then how a thing is it when of the mentioned is not” (1112a10). We need a literal translation in order to see the quality of his answer to this kind of question.  He does not make a purely theoretical question about the “what is preference?” But a practical one “how thing is preference?” Aristotle answer to his question consists of three interconnected elements: an appearance that at the beginning he mentioned; a commonsensical intuition; and a (folk) etymology of the Greek word proairesis. And we can say they are justifiable characteristics of a practical reasoning about an ethical subject in the form of premises that basic term in them is “seeming/dokei” and thereby it gives them general spirit and not universal /monolithic one.

This latter issue becomes salient in Aristotle account about bouleusiV/ deliberation that is also the cause of preference. Ethics is essentially the sphere of human actions in which human beings are actors. It means that apart from matters that are products of nature, necessity and chance in which they shape different and distinct branches of knowledge, there is a specific exclusive human field that belongs to the reasonable actions of human beings. Matters of this sphere are general, inexact, relative /non-absolute; uncertain, possible, nonsystematic, instrument (s)-oriented/ not end-oriented, conceptual/non-perceptual, and unpredictable (see the list of these in 1112b-1113a).

Up to here, I have shown that in the field of happiness and moral virtues, as a methodological point Aristotle mentions to the quality of reasoning about practical matters (1104a) in distinction from theoretical and technical ones.

     In the next part of the article I am going to try to make some suggestions of English version for Greek word δοκεῖ / seeming that Aristotle uses in his texts.

 Author: Mostafa Younesie



Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, H. Rackham (Trans.), Loeb Classical Library edition 1962.

- Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, F. H. Peters (Trans.), Barnes & Nobles 2004.

- Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, Robert C. Bartlett & Susan D. Collins (Trans.), University of Chicago Press 2012.

- J. A. Stewart, Notes on the Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle, BiblioLife 2009.

- John M. Tutuska, Aristotle’s Ethical Imprecision: Philosophic Method in the Nicomachean Ethics, Dallas University Press 2010.

- Georgios Anagnostopoulos, Aristotle on Variation and Indefiniteness in Ethics and Its Subject Matter, Topoi 15:107-127, 1996.


Published 29.12.2017

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