This post is the second post in a series on developing your own ethical system in order to live with greater confidence, purpose, and integrity. You can read the first post in the series here.
You might not realize this, but one of the best reasons to develop your own ethical system is because it can help you flourish as a human being. When we flourish, we live a life of purpose and meaning, and we develop all our human capacities—our intellectual and emotional and ethical capacities—to their fullest extent.
When we do this, it makes our life feel robust and vibrant. We feel like our “cup runneth over”, so to speak.
The question is, how can we develop our own ethical system in order to flourish? There are many ways to address this question, but I am going to draw on the writings of the Greek philosopher Aristotle to answer the question in this particular post. Don’t worry if you don’t like Aristotle or philosophy or ancient Greeks.
This post won’t be scary, and I promise you are going to finish it with clear, practical tips you can incorporate into your life to make it better.
What would Aristotle Do?
If Aristotle was here today, he would tell you that everything you do in your life is aiming for a final goal, and that final goal is happiness.*
Sounds reasonable right? We all want to be happy.
Aristotle cautions us, however, that we often believe that certain things will bring us happiness that are not stable sources of happiness.
For example, we might think that pleasure—feeling good—brings us happiness. So, we constantly pursue activities that makes us feel good—like eating, drinking, having sex, sleeping, buying stuff, going on vacations.
Now, there’s nothing wrong per se with any of these activities, and Aristotle concedes that they can certainly bring happiness temporarily. But he argues that when we pursue any of these things excessively, they can ruin our happiness.
Aristotle has a compelling point. If eating becomes our only goal in life, it can cause us to stuff ourselves, eat things that make us feel sick, and to neglect developing other important areas of our life.
Eating ice cream is awesome. But if eating ice cream becomes our only goal in life, this can undermine our happiness.
If drinking becomes our only goal in life, it can numb our feelings and thinking. It can also cause us to forget large parts of our lives or to act in dangerous, violent, or otherwise inappropriate ways.
If having sex becomes our only goal in life, it can cause us to neglect our own safety and health; to use and hurt other people; and to undermine respectful and loving relationships.
We get the picture.
Aristotle thinks the same thing is true with other seemingly good things like honor, wealth, and even intelligence.
For instance, if we make honor (a good reputation) our only goal and pursue it excessively, this can cause us to care too much about people’s good opinion of us. And given that people sometimes think badly of us through no fault of our own, caring excessively about their opinion puts our happiness under other people’s control rather than under our own control.
If we make accruing wealth our only goal and pursue it excessively, this can cause us to prioritize work over our most important relationships and other important dimensions of our existence.
If we make becoming more intelligent our only goal and pursue it excessively, it can cause us to neglect other important parts of our life, to neglect relationships, and to become a know-it-all.
So, the question is whether there is something we can make our goal and that we can pursue with all our heart that actually does make us happy instead of undermining our happiness?
Aristotle believes there is.
What Makes us Happy?
To help you understand what Aristotle believes our goal should be and how it is connected to happiness, it is important to consider what makes human beings different from other non-human animals.
What would you say it is? What makes us different, for example, from dogs or lions or dolphins or squirrels or any other animal?
Aristotle says it is our rational capacity. By this, Aristotle means that human beings can step back from the world and deliberate about what is good and bad, just and unjust, beautiful and ugly, right and wrong. And human begins can also act upon these observations to make the world better, more just, more beautiful, and right.
Lions and other animals cannot deliberate in an ethical way like humans can. This doesn’t negate the importance of animals, and certainly not all humans develop their deliberative ethical capacities well.
Because it is our rational capacity that sets us apart from other species on the planet, Aristotle believes that it is the purpose of human beings to learn to use their rational capacities with excellence through acting well in the world. When we do this, Aristotle believes we achieve happiness.**
We’ll explore further why this is so shortly.
But first, let’s look at how Aristotle believes we act in order to use our rational capacities with excellence.
Remember that for Aristotle, using our rational capacities with excellence is directly tied to our ability to make the world more just, beautiful, and right. And this makes sense. We aren’t really using our rationality well if we make the world more unjust, ugly, dangerous, unfair, and bad for ourselves and others.
So how do we act with excellent rationality?
Aristotle discusses a variety of virtues that he believes helps us to act with excellent rationality. I have included a list of his virtues below and beside each virtue, I included a brief description of the virtue, as well as the problems we encounter when we have too much (an excess) or too little (a defect) of this virtue. The list is a bit long, I admit, but take some time to read it because it relates to you and an exercise at the end of the post you might choose to do.
Courage: We demonstrate courage when we rise to the challenge in frightening situations. If we have an excess of courage, we act recklessly. If we have a defect of courage, we act cowardly and fail to act when and how we should.
Temperance: We demonstrate temperance when we avoid extremes in our actions, especially actions that pertain to physical pleasures. For example, if we are temperate about eating, we eat good food so that we are satisfied and have energy. If we are temperate about drinking, we drink the right amount so that we enjoy alcohol and perhaps relax a little bit. On the other hand, if we have a defect of temperance, we eat and drink too much so that we impair our physical, emotional, and mental health. In addition, if we have an excess of temperance (Aristotle believes that’s a problem, too!), we do not have enough good physical pleasures in our life and are overly ascetic.
Liberality: We demonstrate liberality when we are appropriately generous with our money and resources. If we have an excess of liberality, we give and spend too much and may run up debt or deplete our bank account in a reckless and irresponsible way. If we have a defect of liberality, we are stingy and live in a Scroodge-like manner.
Magnificence: We demonstrate magnificence when we use our money to live a tastefully comfortable and rich life. If we have an excess of magnificence, we may fill our life with gaudy and tasteless possessions. If we have a defect of magnificence, we may live an overly ascetic life and not pay enough attention to beauty and comfort.
Magnanimity: We demonstrate magnanimity*** when we give ourselves proper respect as human beings. If we have an excess of magnanimity, we are vain and think too highly of ourselves. If we have a defect of magnanimity, we are excessively and unhealthfully modest, unconfident, and shy.
Proper ambition: We demonstrate proper ambition when we set goals and pursue projects that are in line with a proper respect for ourselves. If we have an excess of ambition, we may have reckless and vain goals. If we have a defect of ambition, we might have overly modest goals or lack goals altogether.
Patience: We demonstrate patience when we maintain calmness, composure, and control in the face of annoyance and frustration. If we have a defect of patience, we fly off the handle in anger and act impulsivity. If we have an excess of patience, we lack spirit and are overly passive.
Truthfulness: We demonstrate truthfulness when we are honest in all our dealings. If we have a defect of truthfulness, we are dishonest and untrustworthy. If we have an excess of truthfulness, we overshare and divulge too much information about ourselves.
Wittiness: We demonstrate wittiness when we respond with appropriate humor to ourselves and the world. If we have an excess of wit, we may be a smart-ass, or we may make inappropriate jokes. If we have a defect of wittiness, we are dull and humorless.
Friendliness: We demonstrate friendliness when we are kind and affable to those around us. If we have an excess of friendliness, we become intrusive and violate people’s boundaries. If we have a defect of friendliness, we are cold and aloof.
Modesty: We demonstrate modesty when we act with a proper view of ourselves in relation to those around us and claim an appropriate amount of attention. If we have a defect of modesty, we try to hog all the attention through our clothing or behavior. If have too much modesty, we may hid out in the wings too much.
Righteous Indignation: When we demonstrate righteous indignation, we are appropriately angry at injustice and mistreatment. If we have an excess of indignation, we get angry all the time at trivial matters. Or we may feel as though we are always mistreated and not properly recognized by everyone. If we have a defect of indignation, we turn a blind eye to injustice and mistreatment.
How Does This Apply to Acting Rationally with Excellence and to Happiness?
Aristotle believes our goal in life is to develop all of these virtues, avoiding either an excess or a defect of them, until we cultivate a stable character infused with all of the virtues.
But does developing such a character really bring happiness?
Consider what destroys happiness in people’s lives. Certainly people can suffer unhappiness because they lose friends or family or because they have a reverse of fortunes.
However, people can survive these ordeals and even thrive and be happy in spite of them.
But what about when people destroy their own happiness because they drive away loved ones through cruelty, stinginess, and coldness? What about when they destroy their own happiness and health by excessive drinking, spending, and partying? What about when they break the trust of everyone around them through dishonesty and recklessness?
The point is that while the loss of loved ones and reverses in fortune can bring pain into our lives, these events often dampen our happiness temporarily. On the other hand, the destruction we cause through our own vice and lack of virtue is often profound and long-lasting (unless we mend our ways).
On the flip side, people can suffer a great deal of misfortune, but if they have strong character, this often helps them maintain peace, meaningful relationships, good reputation, and purpose in the midst of suffering. This leads to stable happiness.
That Aristotle is on to something.
How to Apply This to Your Life
At this point, you may wonder how you can apply Aristotle’s philosophy to your own life so that you can flourish and be happy.
Here is an assignment for you that can help you do just that:
One: Choose one of the virtues from Aristotle’s list above—like courage or magnanimity or proper ambition or wittiness—that you would like to develop in your own life.
Two: Once you choose a virtue, spend some time studying the description of it above, and make sure you get a clear idea of what the virtue is, along with what an excess of the virtue and a defect of the virtue is.
Three: If you need to gain a clearer picture of the virtue, along with its excess and defect, spend some time googling the virtue (along with its excess or defect) so that you can better understand what the expression (or distortion) of the virtue is.
Four: Take some time to imagine what it would look like if you acted according to this virtue in a wide variety of situations in your life. For example, if you want to develop more courage in your life, what would it look like to be courageous at work? At school? In your friendships and romantic relationships? With your family? In your relationship with yourself?
Five: Also take some time to imagine what it would look like if you acted with an excess or a defect of this virtue. For example, if you want to be more courageous, what does it look like when you act recklessly in these different areas of your life? (Recklessness is an excess of courage.) What does it look like when you act cowardly in these areas of your life? (Cowardice is a defect of courage.)
Six: Get a piece of paper or journal and a writing utensil and answer the following questions:
- What is one way you can show more of the virtue you have chosen in one area of your life this month?
- What would an excess of this virtue look like in your life?
- What would a defect of this virtue look like?
Seven: For the rest of the month at the end of each week, revisit what you wrote in #6. Draw this scale on your paper or in your journal, labeling first what virtue you are working on:
- The virtue I am working on: ___________________
_____________________________________ Excess Virtue Defect
Each week, place an X on the scale that indicates if you are closer to the right amount of virtue or to its excess or defect.
See if you can get closer to the right amount of virtue by the end of the month. If you are not sure what a right amount of this virtue would look like, consider a person who exemplifies this virtue in his or her life. Use this person’s behavior as a guide to help you move towards the right amount of the virtue.
Eight: At the end of the month, make a decision. You can keep working on this particular virtue, or you can choose another virtue to work on for the next month.
Aristotle believes that the way to authentic happiness, or human flourishing, is through cultivating the appropriate amount of all the virtues in our life.
Stay tuned for future posts about other systems of ethics that help you cultivate a good human life.
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*I have drawn on Aristotle’s works Nicomachean Ethics (especially Books 1 and 2) and his Politics (especially Book 1) to write this post. You can read these works and the the specific books mentioned at the links below:
**The Greek word for happiness is eudaimonia ( εὐδαιμονία). English doesn’t have an exact translation for this Greek word, so it is usually translated happiness. However, the word also has connotations of flourishing and blessedness. So, Aristotle thinks that when you cultivate the appropriate amount of the virtues, you are happy in a way that helps you flourish and live a life of blessedness. #blessed
***I really like the word magnanimity. It comes from two Latin words, magnus (big) and animus (spirit). Magnanimous people have a big spirit.