Aristotle's Republic or, Why Aristotle's Ethics Is Not Virtue Ethics

Stephen Buckle 


Modern virtue ethics is commonly presented as an alternative to Kantian and utilitarian views—to ethics focused on action and obligations—and it invokes Aristotle as a predecessor. This paper argues that the Nichomachean Ethics does not represent virtue ethics thus conceived, because the discussion of the virtues of character there serves a quasi-Platonic psychology: it is an account of how to tame the unruly (non-rational) elements of the human soul so that they can be ruled by reason and the laws it imposes. This is explicitly stated in Book X, where it is also affirmed that the question of which laws reason should impose is addressed in The Politics. The Ethics and Politics can therefore be seen as a unity—as Aristotle's version of Plato's Republic—and it is the failure to recognize this that explains Aristotle's misappropriation by the modern virtue ethicists.