Royal Institute of Philosophy Lecture Series


Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics1

Rosalind Hursthouse

Our understanding of the moral philosophy of Aristotle is hampered by a number of modern assumptions we make about the subject. For a start, we are accustomed to thinking about ethics or moral philosophy as being concerned with theoretical questions about actions—what makes an action right or wrong? Modern moral philosophy gives two different sorts of answers to this question. One is in terms of a substantial ethical theory—what makes an action right or wrong is whether it promotes the greatest happiness, or whether it is in accordance with or violates a moral rule, or whether it promotes or violates a moral right. The other sort gives a meta-ethical answer—rightness and wrongness are not really properties of actions, but in describing actions as right or wrong we commend or object to them, express our approval or disapproval or our emotions concerning them. But the ancient Greeks start with a totally different question. Ethics is supposed to answer, for each one of us, the question ‘How am I to live well?’ What this question means calls for some discussion.


1 I am grateful to Gavin Lawrence for his detailed and helpful criticism of an earlier draft of this paper and for much discussion on the topics discussed herein over the years. All references to the Nicomachean Ethics have been given in terms of the so-called ‘Bekker numbers’ which are standardly used for giving exact references to Aristotle's writings. They also enable one to identify a passage on the page of any good translation, for instance the current Penguin edition of the Ethics introduced by Jonathan Barnes.