Ethics of Aristotle

Course No. 408
Father Joseph Koterski, S.J., Ph.D.
Fordham University
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Course No. 408
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Course Overview

What is happiness? What is moral excellence? How can you attain them? Can either be taught? For more than 2,000 years, thoughtful people have been turning to Aristotle (384–322 B.C.) to help them find answers to questions like these. In this meditation on Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, an award-winning teacher shows you the clarity and ethical wisdom of one of humanity's greatest minds.

Professor Joseph W. Koterski directs the M.A. program in Philosophical Resources at Fordham University. He is a recipient of both the Dean's Award for Outstanding Undergraduate Teaching and the Graduate Teacher of the Year Award.

In these lectures, Professor Koterski shows how and why this great philosopher can help you deepen and improve your own thinking on questions of morality and the best life.

Moral Philosophy from a Master of Intelligent Inquiry

Often called "the philosopher of common sense," Aristotle offers an exquisitely balanced account of many ethical questions.

Professor Koterski's aim is to provide you with a clear and thoughtful introduction to Aristotle as a moral philosopher. And he suggests ways in which this thinker from so long ago still speaks to the deep concerns of our own or any age.

After absorbing some important background information designed to introduce you to Aristotle's career and general approach to the various fields of knowledge, you turn to the 10 books (today we would call them chapters) of this brief but towering work.

Probe Key Ideas in Ethics

The rewards of studying Aristotle come not only from mastering the substance of what he teaches but from learning to analyze, apply, and even criticize his very method of reasoning itself.

It's not just about what to think; it's about how to think.

Aristotle, as Professor Koterski emphasizes, was not only a philosopher but a pioneering biologist.

Most of his surviving writings, in fact, actually deal with the life sciences. And in light of the method he used in philosophy, that comes as much less of a surprise than might otherwise be the case.

Professor Koterski's enthusiasm is infectious as he explains the Aristotelian method of tackling a topic by observing and classifying exemplary cases and then seeking to work from those toward an intelligent account of general principles (the famous "inductive method").

Prompted by Aristotle's own commitment to case study, Professor Koterski analyzes examples from literature, history, and his own or common experience to clarify what this most practical of philosophers is driving at in his lucid but densely coiled treatise.

Some Topics You Will Cover

These six hours of carefully organized lectures invite you to join Professor Koterski in considering:

  • Aristotle's account of the four main virtues of courage, moderation, justice, and prudence
  • his claims that happiness (eudaimonia)— not pleasure, honor, or wealth— is the real goal of life, and that virtue is a mean between extremes
  • why he thinks that only moral excellence can make you happy
  • his explanations of how and why people attain— or fall short of— ethical excellence
  • his differences with his teachers Plato and Socrates over the hard question of what knowing rightly has to do with acting rightly
  • where Aristotle's thought fits into the long history of ethical reflection
  • what distinguishes his view of ethics from such other influential schools as utilitarianism or Kant's ethics of the categorical imperative.

Given his concentration on virtue, Aristotle devotes much of the earlier part of his treatise to defining moral virtue, then illustrating it by example.

In the effort to be wisely commonsensical, he stresses that virtue consists of a steady disposition to choose the golden mean between responses that would be excessive or deficient.

But, he insists, this mean should be understood not as the average or the mediocre but as the very peak of excellence. And this holds true whether in regard to our actions or our feelings.

His case studies of virtue feature the traditional set of four cardinal virtues: courage, temperance, justice, and prudence.

Pleasure, Intellectual Virtue, Reason, and True Friendship

In the second half of the Ethics, Aristotle takes up several issues that are crucial to the moral life.

Most significantly, perhaps, he explores the contradictions that are involved in taking pleasure rather than happiness to be the goal of life.

He also compares the notions of well-ordered and badly ordered pleasures to show that while pleasure may not equal happiness, handling pleasure well is a key test of moral excellence.

In Books VI and VII, you find Aristotle's account of the rational component of ethics. He offers a catalogue of the intellectual virtues to match his earlier list of specifically moral virtues. And he address two important issues:

  • the common phenomena of moral weakness and failure
  • the problem, raised by Socrates, of how someone can deliberately do what he or she knows to be wrong.

Since virtue has an irreducibly social dimension, it is important to understand what kinds of friendship there are and how each relates to moral excellence.

A Charming Look at Friendship

Aristotle's account of friendship in Books VIII and IX may, perhaps, be the most charming part of his entire text.

Using a threefold distinction based on the precise object of affection prominent in various relationships, Aristotle distinguishes the best sort of friendship (friendship of character) from friendships of pleasure and friendships of utility.

You learn Aristotle's method for sorting out and evaluating the different kinds of friendships, as well as his practical advice for this part of the well-lived life.

In his final books, Aristotle brings you back full circle to the argument about happiness with which he began. He states his reasons for thinking that a knowledge and practice of ethics is not self-sufficient, but points beyond itself to at least one fuller project essential to human flourishing.

Aristotle wrote a book on that fuller project. It is called The Politics. But that must await another course.

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12 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    The Philosopher of Common Sense
    How does Aristotle go about building his theory of human moral activity? Why does he place virtue or excellence at the core, and what does he mean by virtue anyway? How does his work compare with other important approaches to ethics, such as Kant's? x
  • 2
    What Is the Purpose of Life?
    How do Aristotle's thoughts about happiness and virtue fit into his larger philosophy? What does he mean by calling us "rational animals"? And why does he argue that ethics is part of a larger project, called politics, without which full human flourishing is impossible? x
  • 3
    What Is Moral Excellence?
    Where does virtue come from? Can you acquire it? Are some people born to it? How can you know it when you see it? What are the implications of Aristotle's definition of virtue as a mean between extremes? x
  • 4
    Courage and Moderation
    Although Aristotle has no explicit concept of "freedom," his treatment in Book III of voluntary consent, knowledge, and moral responsibility is a landmark in the history of ethical thought. Here you trace its immediate application to two of the "cardinal" moral virtues. x
  • 5
    The Social Virtues
    Are the virtues that Aristotle describes as crucial to life in society still normative, or are they peculiar to his own society? Attending to how he makes distinctions and argues his case will help you assess this issue, and deepen your appreciation of the entire work. x
  • 6
    Types of Justice
    Is justice a simple unity, or does it have several kinds? How can Aristotle describe virtues as relative without being a relativist? What are the implications of his influential distinction between natural and legal justice? x
  • 7
    The Intellectual Virtues
    What are the excellences of mind proper to humans? Why does the very idea of ethics imply that there must be such virtues? What roles do art and science—conceived as habits of mind—play in a well-lived life? x
  • 8
    Struggling to Do Right
    Socrates held—perhaps ironically—that knowledge and virtue are the same. What does Aristotle think of that idea? How does he deal with the relation between knowing what is right and doing what is right? x
  • 9
    Friendship and the Right Life
    What are the different types of friendships? What are the motivations and expectations—appropriate and inappropriate—that tend to go with each? x
  • 10
    What Is Friendship?
    In Book XI you find Aristotle at his most practical, offering advice on topics such as whether to break off a friendship, on the limits to the number of friends you can have, and on the link between friendship and virtue. x
  • 11
    Pleasure and the Right Life
    Is being pleasant what makes something good? Is pleasure the same as happiness? How does Aristotle support his own view of the relationship between pleasure, virtue, and happiness? x
  • 12
    Attaining True Happiness
    Learn how Aristotle brings his argument about happiness and virtuous activity full circle at the end of the Ethics, and then suggests that ethics points beyond itself toward the topics of two of his other works, the Politics and the Metaphysics. x

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  • 72-page printed course guidebook
  • Suggested readings
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Your professor

Joseph Koterski, S.J.

About Your Professor

Joseph Koterski, S.J., Ph.D.
Fordham University
A member of the Society of Jesus, Father Joseph Koterski is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Fordham University, where he specializes in the history of medieval philosophy and natural law ethics. Before taking his position at Fordham University, Father Koterski taught at the Center for Thomistic Studies at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. He earned his doctorate in Philosophy from St. Louis University, after...
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Ethics of Aristotle is rated 4.4 out of 5 by 78.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding Lecturer I thoroughly enjoyed the course and consider Father Koterski an outstanding teacher. The content of the course was excellent and its delivery was superior. This is one of those courses that I'm sure I'll revisit specific lectures from time to time. I highly recommend it!
Date published: 2020-08-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Christian Aristotelianism A lovely course. Father Koterski knows his material well and delivers it with humanity and clarity. His understanding of Aristotle is informed by Christian ethicists (such as St. Aquinas) who appropriated and built on Aristotle's thought. In some cases, the effect is to somewhat discolour the pagan and heroic Greek worldview in favour of the more familiar Christian one. For example, in his presentation of the moral virtues, the virtuous (moderate) disposition is shown as compatible with the purpose built in to the human being by a loving Creator. The existence of natural purpose in a living, animistic universe is downplayed, along with the heroic dimension of virtue as excellence, the full and splendid realization of the potential inherent in the human species.
Date published: 2019-01-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Ethics of Aristotle Ethics of Aristotle surprised me in its clarity of presentation. If you have any interest in the philosophy of life, get it!
Date published: 2019-01-05
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Great Introduction to Aristotle's Ethics In college I had taken a required course called Introduction to Philosophy and it was taught by one of the most boring professors I had ever had in my college career. As a result of his monotone voice and boring lectures, I was completely uninterested in the subject material, which included Aristotle. Recently, I've been studying Stoicism and wondered how it compared to Aristotle's philosophy and decided to purchase this course. To my surprise, the professor did the work for me and compared Aristotle's ethics to the Stoics themselves! I would recommend this course to anyone who has ever been curious about Aristotle, his ethics, or Western philosophy in general. However, if you are not curious or not a philosopher, you may find this course to be a bit dry.
Date published: 2018-12-14
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Well written course and easy to follow. Enjoyed the simplicity of the language used, which allowed a novice like me to follow.
Date published: 2018-04-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Ancient Wisdom that Applies to our Daily Lives! As a speaker to CPAs and attorneys on the subject of professional and personal ethics, this course title intrigued me. After listening to the course, I gained infinitely more material for future presentations. Further, I appreciated the cites of quotes that fully explained a statement given by Aristotle. The ethics of humans today is derived from centuries ago. However, mankind's dilemmas are not too different from those faced by our ancestors. This course is an excellent reference tool and the coursebook a resource I have almost worn out. If you are seeking a baseline, explanation and the creation of corrective actions in your personal life, this course is a great start. The professor is an obvious expert and can take an abstract subject and apply it in practical ways.
Date published: 2018-03-26
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Only on lecture 3 and disappointed. I wanted to learn specifically about Aristotle's writings and teachings and not listen to sermons from a priest on how these may apply to current life situations such as college freshmen and what his mother thought or taught. I was not interested in how I should live my life but specifically what Aristotle taught and thought - not what the lecturer believes other than what he thought Aristotle believed.
Date published: 2017-11-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from You might see my review below this title I listened to this course because I had the feeling that I was being unethical about certain things. It turns out that I wasn't actually being unethical. I was just using too much garlic in my cooking resulting in an unbalanced flavor profile. I was glad that Aristotle (via Father Koterski) was able to clear this up for me. This is a good introduction to Aristotle's ethics, which now I feel I should read. I've got a translation of it, and it doesn't look too long (fewer than 200 pages). This course is also well organized -- a systematic progression through the ten books of the Nicomachean Ethics with explanations and examples along the way. Some of the other reviewers didn't think much of Father Koterski's presentation, but I thought it was fine. He is not the most excited of lecturers, but that's okay. Not everyone has to scream at the top of their lungs and tap dance and perform karate kicks or whatever. Given Aristotle's emphasis on moderation, Koterski's low-key style is thematically consistent. He speaks somewhat slowly, and occasionally had the habit of finding more than one syllable in a mono-syllabic word. Example: "five" became "fi-eye-ve". But that didn't bother me. I often think the world needs a few more syllables. I had the audio option, and I think that's fine. I don't even know if there is a video option. One of the things I liked was that I could hear Koterski shuffle his notes a couple of times, old-school style. I also heard someone cough in lecture three, but they must have gotten him a glass of water because he was quiet the rest of the time. I also felt that this was an appropriate academic presentation. There isn't any preaching or anything like that here. The only thing that might have indicated the lecturer's religiosity (other than introducing himself as Father Koterski and referring to his own religious training a couple of times) was his use of examples -- Augustine, Dante, Aquinas. But in the context of the lectures, these examples were apt and made sense.
Date published: 2016-12-12
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