Source:   Richard Jacobs of Villanova

Raphael Sanzio "School of Athens" (Fresco, Vatican City) "The School of Athens" by Raphael Sanzio - Fresco (1509–1511)

[To] do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for every one nor is it easy; wherefore goodness is both rare and laudable and noble." — (Aristotle, Ethics II.9))

For Aristotle, the good life does not consist of haphazard and unrelated good conduct. Neither is the good life a serendipitous outcome nor can one wish for it. Instead, Aristotle posits, good acts are intentional. They lead into one another, reinforce one another, and form those patterns of good conduct which reveal the character of a truly happy person.

  • The only way human beings can ensure that their acts will be good is for those acts to become habits (in Greek, έροs; in Latin, mores; in English, customs) that guide human conduct.

  • A habit is something human beings acquire (in Latin, habere, to have) as they utilize the power of intellect to render a judgment about what one ought to do as human beings act with knowledge to will something (in Latin, con-sciere, to act with knowledge, conscience in English). For Aristotle, a habit is a midway point located somewhere between an undeveloped capability and expert operation.

  • Aristotle's teacher, Plato, believed that knowledge is discovered in virtue (in Greek, αρετή; in Latin, virtus) while ignorance is vice. Human beings discover the happy life as they act according to the dictates of knowledge. Hence, the aphorism think before you act.

  • Building upon this tradition, Aristotle distinguished three intellectual virtues that bring happiness: Understanding (νόυs): the habit of first principles, that is, the habitual search to know primary self-evident truths that lie at the root of all knowledge

  • Science (επιστεμή): the habit of drawing conclusions by demonstration from first principles, that is, the habit of knowing particular scientific findings
  • Wisdom (σοφία): the habit of knowing things in their highest causes, that is, ordering all principles and conclusions into one vast body of truth (metaphysics)
  • Aristotle also distinguished two practical virtues through which human beings can search for happiness: Art (τεχνή): the habit of knowing how to make tangible things, how to produce some external object; it includes the mechanical, the liberal, and the fine arts
  • Prudence (φρονήσιs): the habit of knowing how to do things, how to direct activity that does not result in tangible products, for example, how to live a good life

  • Because human beings possess a power of intellect that other nonhuman beings do not, human beings are obliged by their nature to train their abilities to make them fit instruments for the attainment of ones fullest potential, that is, to experience happiness in virtue.

  • No human being is born virtuous and no human being comes to virtue by change but only by long and arduous training that turns the potency for virtue into virtuous acts. In this way, virtue is the result of discipline emanating from the power of the intellect as an individual decides to and disciplines oneself in order to conduct oneself according to the dictates of virtue.

For Aristotle, the fulfillment of desire is happiness, an activity of the mind, achieved as one engages in virtuous conduct. Happiness is not experienced as sensual pleasure but in intellectual delight where the human being consciously wills to act in accord with the dictates of virtue. As virtue becomes a habit, then, the human being achieves greater perfection precisely as a rational animal. While virtue cannot be defined, it is evident in the virtues emanating from the character of wise persons as evidenced in their decisions.

Aristotle developed these ideas by building upon and extending those propounded by his teacher, Plato, who argued that the good life is one that is spent in loving and pursuing truth as well as ruling oneself and others by ordering society according to the dictates of truth. In practice, ethical conduct requires overcoming ignorance and becoming wise (for example, as those who leave the cave in the Phaedo recognize). In contrast, unethical behavior is wickedness or evil that results from one's failure to overcome ignorance.

For Aristotle, then, virtue and a virtuous character provide the foundation for individuals to deal with the important matters of people (in Greek, πολίs, politics). In this sense, leadership is all about character and virtue, a matter more of art and prudence than it is of understanding, science, or wisdom.

A perspective on ethical practice

When people inquire into the right thing, "...we are inquiring not in order to know what virtue is," Aristotle notes in his Ethics, "but in order to become good....[human agents] do not fall under any art [i.e., technique or skill] or precept [i.e., theory] but the agents themselves must in each case consider what is appropriate to the occasion [i.e., practice]..." (italics added, Ethics II.2, p. 183).

For Aristotle, ethics are not a series of norms to be imposed as a template upon people but are, rather, a discursive activity whereby an individual struggles to integrate theoretical notions about what is truly good with technical skills that have proven themselves capable of attaining the good. The ethical thing, then, is the practical thing and is comprised of three elements.

The first element of ethical practice is knowledge. For Aristotle, knowledge includes data are both factual (i.e., what the case truly is) as well as theoretical (i.e., what the good truly is). This knowledge, in turn, provides a framework for deliberating about the most appropriate technique(s) by which the good can be attained in their organization.

Ethical practice requires a second element: possession of the skills (or techniques) necessary to achieve the desired good. To act ethically, Aristotle maintains that individuals must be experienced and proficient in those skills associated with best practice. As an individual hones these skills—perhaps by engaging a mentor to work through typical problems associated with failure and to develop the skills attributed with success, muddling through training exercises, or simply by immersing oneself in one’s responsibilities—individuals hone the techniques of best practice. Well-honed techniques are like arrows in a hunter’s quiver, that is, they comprise an arsenal of proven and reliable skills that can be called upon to solve problems as they arise in practice.

Most importantly, however, an Aristotelian perspective of ethical practice entails a third element: deliberation. It is not enough for an individual to know what is good or to have at one’s disposal an arsenal of proven skills and techniques. To act ethically, one must give careful consideration to those ideas concerning the good and then freely select a course of action from among equally plausible alternatives for which one bears personal responsibility. What to an outsider appears to be a rote and routine decision-making process is, for the expert, a result of intense practice and discipline that culminates in a sustained focus upon virtue which directs the individual’s mind and body to respond appropriately and responsibly to the unique situation presenting itself.

For Aristotle, then, an individual’s choice is ethical when it integrates a rational principal with a practical technique through discursive thought. And, when an individual enacts this choice, the course of action brings about the greatest amount of good for which the individual bears personal responsibility (Ethics III.3, p. 202).

In contrast to these three behaviors, ethical practice—from a distinctively Aristotelian perspective—makes itself evident through one's character as that person selects a course of action that proceeds "from a firm and unchangeable character" (Ethics II.4, p. 187). When, for example, a person is confronted by a dilemma and makes a decision about "what is appropriate to the occasion," this individual’s ethical practice manifests itself, Aristotle asserts, in a virtuous character evidenced in the results of one's decision-making practice, that is, practical wisdom. It isn’t so much what one does that is crucial for ethical decision making as it is why does what one does and the quality of character revealed in that person's practical decisions. The ethical person, then, is an individual who not only possesses wisdom theoretically but also expresses it in very practical ways.

Aristotle’s proposition of the "Golden Mean"

What, then, is the right thing to do? (Sergiovanni, 1990).

Aristotle roots his paradigm in actual practice rather than in theoretical ideas or technical skills. Whereas his teacher, Plato, sought to direct the power of the human will toward eternal truths, Aristotle, on the other hand, argued that decisions about the right thing to do is an eminently practical matter, a choice one can select from along seven continua of possible excessive and defective virtues, including courage, liberality, magnificence, pride, anger, truth, and indignation. These are the virtues manifest in the character of those who makes ethical decisions.

Take the virtue of courage (Ethics II.7, p. 191), for example.

It would seem rather obvious that people should be taught about courage as well as how to act courageously, for the good life depends upon an individual who stands for something (Sergiovanni, 1992). Aristotle reminds his readers, however, that "courage" is located somewhere along a continuum of possible expressions of courage. Furthermore, depending upon the idiosyncratic circumstances in which a person is immersed, this mean is located somewhere between a defect, fear, and an excess, confidence.

For Aristotle, it is not enough to require that people act courageously, as if there is one and only one way to express this virtue in actual practice. In some cases, it would be important that a person experience fear and treads carefully, factoring her fear and trepidation into her deliberations about what she ought to do. The opposite situation might also be the case. That is, a person might be overly fearful of something, becoming paralyzed in one's ability to act courageously. Thus, while some might think that fear is an impediment to courageous action, Aristotle points out that fear can (and perhaps should) influence one’s deliberations. But, extreme fear is a defect, debilitating to ethical practice.

At the opposite end of the continuum is another aspect of courage, "confidence." Confident people act with a sense of calm assurance that what they are doing is the right thing to do. Contrast these people with those who exude supreme confidence, acting with complete assurance when, in point of fact, such self-confidence unwarranted. Like its opposite, fear, confidence can influence a person's deliberations about what she ought to do in a particular situation, positively or negatively. Thus, while some might argue that confidence is a prerequisite to courageous action, Aristotle argues that exuberance is an excess about which people ought to be concerned because this expression of confidence is debilitating to ethical practice.

As a consequence, Aristotle reminds his readers that the virtue of courage is a very practical matter, one that can be expressed in at least four different ways, the most appropriate expression resulting from deliberation. Stated in another way, to be courageous is the consequence of a careful calculation about what good is being sought in a troubling dilemma and the course of action that best resolves the conflicting values manifesting themselves in that dilemma. For people, then, the virtuous thing to do is not to act courageously as if there exists only one courageous way to act. Rather, acting courageously requires balancing the oftentimes conflicting and sometimes contradicting aspects of courage—fear and confidence—enacting the most appropriate mean, given factual circumstances.

As Aristotle discusses this matter:

Virtue, then, is a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean, i.e., the mean relative to us, this being determined by a rational principle, and by that principle by which the [individual] of practical wisdom would determine it. Now it is a mean between two vices, that which depends on excess and that which depends on defect; and again it is a mean because the vices respectively fall short of or exceed what is right in both passions and actions, while virtue both finds and chooses that which is intermediate. Hence in respect of its substance and the definition which states its essence virtue is a mean, with regard to what is best and right an extreme. (Ethics II.6, p. 190)

Aristotle maintains that six other virtues are equally bounded by vice, one form revealing an excess in one’s character while the other reveals a defect. Liberality, for example, can degenerate into prodigality or meanness (Ethics II.7, pp. 191-192; IV.1, pp. 210-215); magnificence can be polluted by vulgarity or niggardliness (Ethics IV.2, pp. 215-218); pride is bounded by vanity and humility (Ethics II.7, p. 192; IV.3, pp. 218-223); anger by irascibility and equanimity (Ethics II.7, p. 192; IV.1, pp. 210-214); truth is destroyed through an excess, boasting, or a defect, modesty (Ethics II.7, p. 193; IV.7, p. 193); and, indignation lies somewhere between envy and spite (Ethics II.7, pp. 193-194). Each continuum displays the extreme expressions of a particular virtue, whereby the excesses and defects stand in opposition not only to each other but also to the mean. These seven virtues and their possible combinations along each continuum—as they are enacted by people and exhibited in a virtuous character—distinguish ethical practice.

Aristotle reminds his readers that it is no easy task to find the mean "but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for every one nor is it easy; wherefore goodness is both rare and laudable and noble" (Ethics II.9, p. 195). The philosopher’s interest is that ethical practice influence and shape events in the real world in order that real people may experience true happiness. To be truly happy, therefore, one must act virtuously, that is, to experience the virtues "at the right times, with reference to the right objects, towards the right people, with the right motive, and in the right way" (Ethics II.6, p. 190).

Ethical practice, then, is an exercise of the intellect and will as people meld ideas about what virtue requires with the skills of best practice and direct these efforts toward the attainment of virtue in concrete circumstances. By engaging in ethical practice, human beings express their excellence as rational creatures (Ethics I.13, p. 179).

In sum, Aristotle’s discussion about ethical practice veers away from abstract theories concerning the good as well as skills that enable the good to flourish. By locating ethical practice in practical wisdom—a golden mean—the philosopher challenges those who teach and study organization theory to concern themselves with the real choices that people make as well as with those principles by which ethical persons act, so that when they are confronted by the realities of practice in human organizations, these women and men avoid falling into excess or defect.

Of particular import is one implication of Aristotle's thought, namely, that because ethical practice concerns both virtue and living virtuously, ethical practice can be taught and inculcated. The intellectual virtues (for example, pure ideas like courage) are not innate to human creatures; instead, the virtues owe their birth and growth to good teaching. Likewise, acting virtuously is not in-born; instead good teachers enable students to learn how to act virtuously and to take delight in doing good. For these reasons, educating people in ethical practice requires both experience and time (Ethics II.1, p. 181).

Aristotle's purpose for shifting discussion from abstract, intellectual matters and concrete, technical matters to practical matters seems not so much related to his disinterest in the former, for even he argues that ethical practice must not neglect the good as either an idea or as a discipline. Aristotle appears to be more interested in the latter, practical matters and, in particular, how ethical decision making is a matter of character and how one's character influences other human beings to become ethical by inculcating into one's own character the qualities of virtue evident in the person's character.


Aristotle. (1958). Nicomachean ethics (W. D. Ross, Trans.) In J. D. Kaplan (Ed.), The pocket Aristotle (pp. 158-274). New York: Washington Square Press.

Sergiovanni, T. J. (1990). Value-added leadership: How to get extraordinary performance in schools. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers.