How Aristotle Can Help Christian Morality, Part 1

Author Brett Kunkle Published on 05/30/2017

Where is the moral depth in the contemporary evangelical church? Have you ever looked around at the church, pastoral leadership, or even your own life and wondered why they seem to look so different morally from the first-century church and early Christians? Why is it that contemporary Christian thought on ethics and morality seems so thin? In the next few blog posts, I’d like to examine some ancient discussion on virtue and see if there are insights to help the church recapture a richer and fuller vision for our moral life. Given the utter brokenness of the morality of American culture, the church has a tremendous opportunity to lead the culture forward in thinking morally and living life well. So, let’s start with an ancient ethicist, Aristotle.

According to Aristotle, man is a rational agent and his actions are always done for particular reasons. We act purposefully. Thus, for Aristotle, all human activity is directed toward some end (telos) and seems to seek some good. Aristotle’s observation of the teleological structure of rational human action (praxis) serves as a vital step in the development of his ethical view.

For Aristotle, the logic of teleology seems to be pushing us toward some ultimate end that is “complete without qualification.” Why? If there is no ultimate good that grounds all other goods, then our inferential chain suffers from an infinite regress of goods. In her book The Morality of Happiness, Julia Annas concurs: “[A] single final end is what is required to make sense of a single life as a whole. Once I start reflecting on my ends, the thought goes, there is nowhere to stop until I reach the end which my life as a whole is aimed at reaching.”1

Aristotle describes the ultimate end, the summum bonum, that all of human activity is aimed toward:

“Now happiness, more than anything else, seems complete without qualification. For we always choose it because of itself, never because of something else. Honor, pleasure, understanding, and every virtue we certainly choose because of themselves, since we would choose each of them even if it had no further result; but we also choose them for the sake of happiness, supposing that through them we shall be happy. Happiness, by contrast, no one ever chooses for their sake, or for the sake of anything else at all.”2

In contrast to contemporary notions of happiness as mere pleasure, the classical view of happiness (eudaimonia) was a rich concept equivalent to the idea of “human flourishing” or “the good life.” Aristotle observes that happiness is the one end for which there is no other end beyond it. Therefore, on his view, happiness is the proper end of all human action.

But how does one bring about happiness or human flourishing? What is required to achieve eudaimonia? Aristotle argues that the cultivation and exercise of virtue (arête) is central to achieving eudaimonia. In the Nichomachean Ethics he states that “the human good proves to be activity of the soul in accord with virtue...”3

According to Aristotle, a virtue is a habituated disposition to act. Therefore, we acquire virtues by practicing virtuous acts. “We become just by doing just actions, temperate by doing temperate actions, brave by doing brave actions.”4 After the virtues have been “habituated” through practice they become settled dispositions in the soul of the doer.

Aristotle contrasts the virtuous person with the enkratic person. Such an individual may do the virtuous thing but it is not the result of having a stable disposition of character. In a sense, they just “happen to get it right.” However, their actions lack the intentional nature of a truly virtuous act done by a truly virtuous person.5

Moreover, virtue is not only right action flowing from a habituated disposition. Aristotle argues that true virtue entails an affective aspect, as well. There is an appropriate attitude and motivation that accompanies right action. The virtuous person loves the good and thus, the virtuous act is done for its own sake.

Furthermore, Aristotle fills in this account of the role of virtue with his doctrine of the mean. According to Aristotle, the morally virtuous life is moderated by “the Golden Mean.” In other words, virtue “is a mean between two vices, one of excess and one of deficiency.”6 The mean balances virtue between two extremes. For instance, when we examine the virtue of courage we come to see that it is balanced between the appropriate feelings of fear and confidence. Too much confidence leads to rash action, yet too much fear leads to cowardice. The individual who has attained the virtue of courage avoids both vices when he experiences the appropriate amount of fear or confidence in a particular situation. Figure 1.1 lists several examples of virtues and their corresponding vices in excess and deficiency.

Figure 1.1 Virtues and Corresponding Vices According to Aristotle
Activity Vice—Deficiency Virtue—Mean Vice—Excess
Facing loss or death Cowardice Courage Rashness
Bodily appetites or pleasures Insensibility Temperance Intemperance
Giving money Stinginess Generosity Extravagance
Retribution for wrong Injustice Justice Revenge

Although virtue for Aristotle is necessary for achieving happiness, it is not sufficient. He states that “it seems possible for someone to possess virtue but be asleep or inactive throughout his life, and, moreover, to suffer the worst evils and misfortunes. If this is the sort of life he leads, no one would count him happy, except to defend a philosopher’s paradox.”7

Furthermore, Aristotle observes that some of the goods we come to possess are the result of good fortune. They simply do not come to us as a consequence of virtue. However, once we are in possession of these goods our character will determine whether we put them to good use or not. In addition, when misfortune strikes, virtuous character will enable us to prosper even under such conditions. Thus, even though it is not sufficient for eudaimonia, moral virtue remains necessary to human flourishing.

The strength of Aristotle’s ethical view is its concern with moral character. In the next post, we’ll see how Christianity is compatible with Aristotle’s insights and actually completes his account with a robust biblical vision.