i was watching the Philosophy for Beginners by Marianne Talbot and in session 3 about ethics she was describing the idea of Aristotle about the right action and it say

the right action is the act that would be chosen by the virtuous person .

then it says

a virtuous person is someone who

  1. knows which is the right action
  2. performs the right action
  3. and performs the right action for the right reason .

i find this a circular reasoning since ; if I'm going to decide if an action is morally right or wrong i have to find a virtuous person but in order to find one i need to know if the person knows the right action . but the only way to be sure that they know the right action is for me to know the right action so i can test them !

  • While this is atypical of how one approaches Aristotle, there are other cultures where it is natural to start with an almost perfectly circular reasoning, and then use the "almost" part to inject meaning. There are pros and cons to both approaches, but we Westerners almost universally gravitate to closed acyclic definitions. – Cort Ammon Aug 12 '15 at 5:50

You have to consider that Talbot's book is for beginners and that it oversimplifies a lot of stuff. In this case, explaining Aristotle's ethics in terms of 'the right action' makes it easy to compare his view on ethics with that of Kant, who believed that the right action can be determined using the categorical imperative, and with that of Mill, who believed that the right action is the one that causes more happiness. But this is a simplification.

So the problem is not Aristotle, but Talbot. I'll just list the inaccuracies:

  • Virtues are habits, so one can know the right action, perform it for the right reason, and still not posses the relevant virtue.

  • Aristotle claims that the man of practical wisdom is always able to choose rightly, not the virtuous person. Since practical wisdom requires life experience, one can be virtuous without being wise.

  • For Aristotle, choosing correctly involves judging practical situations appropriately. This judgment involves not only knowing what is good, but also seeing what the particular situation requires. This is the reason you can't really make general claims about 'the right action' in Aristotle's theory, because minute differences in a situation can change what's right to do.

  • Casting Aristotle theory in terms of 'the right action' ignores the fact that, for Aristotle, the point of ethics is not to know stuff, but to achieve eudaimonia. Hearing your elders, receiving proper education and practicing virtue is all you need for this; you don't need a method to decide 'the right action'.

I highly recommend Anscombe's Modern Moral Philosophy if you want to see the contrast between Aristotle and modern ethics. If you want to delve into the details of Aristotle's views on practical reason Wiggins' Deliberation and Practical Reason is good.


The basic term in Aristotle (Nicomachean ethics = EN) is the term "virtue". Aristotle introduces and examines a series of virtues - e.g., in Latin: prudentia, fortitudo, temperantia, iustitia. Often, but not always they follow the principle: Virtue is located between two extremes.

Aristotle emphasizes that one needs some experience of life to put in practice theoretical knowledge about virtue. Therefore one should regard people with more experience in acting virtuously. (EN II, 1f.)

Considered that way I do not think that it is a vicious circle.

  • then how do we know if a person is experienced in what we want to consult them ? how are we going to examine them by looking at their experiences if we do not know what is the right action ? – kiyarash Aug 10 '15 at 10:22
  • First, one has to know concerning which virtue one has a question. So one has to know Aristotle's list of virtues. Secondly, one has to find a person who presumably has experience with acting according to this virtue. To find out the degree of experience, one can interview the candidates. - You write "how are we going to examine them by looking at their experiences if we do not know what is the right action ?" You must not know the action before, but you must have theoretical knowledge about the virtue. Then the expert of the virtue in question will advice you concerning the right action. – Jo Wehler Aug 10 '15 at 11:12
  • lets assume we are talking about prudence (which is the ability to judge between actions with regard to appropriate actions at a given time) . if we are going to interview candidates we need to study their previous choices of actions but we still do not have any definitions of what is the right action (what is the prudent action) theoretical or not; so how are we going to interview them ? how are we going to gain theoretical knowledge about prudence ? our starting question itself was what is a right (prudent) action ? i think this is again circular !? – kiyarash Aug 10 '15 at 16:18
  • Prudence is one of the most comprehensive virtues, not the least because it is necessary for practising some other virtues. I recommend to study book VI of EN. Prudence (Latin: prudentia) translates the Greek phronesis. It is also paraphrased as practical wisdom. EN, VI,5 (= 1140 24f) starts the description of persons with prudence. To read this passage is the best way to gain theoretical knowledge about Aristotle's concept of prudence. And the best way to act with prudence is "Practice, practice, practice!" :-) - under the guidance of a person experienced in this kind of virtue. – Jo Wehler Aug 10 '15 at 17:22

To take one example, consider the virtue of courage. Aristotle describes in 1116a and 1116b of Nicomachean Ethics (as just two examples), several examples of courageous and uncourageous behavior, frequently quoting Homer for his examples. One of the roles that Homer played in Ancient Greece was providing a large part of the canon for such examples. (Other examples of virtuous behavior also would have been taken from history, but as in their day as in ours would be subject to partisan bias.)

This also would have been needed because there was a view that was expressed by Herodotus and by Aristotle:

Moreover, to be happy takes a complete lifetime; for one swallow does not make spring, nor does one fine day; and similarly one day or a brief period of happiness does not make a man supremely blessed and happy.

So, for Aristotle the best examples of blessed people would have already lived. These people are easily identified because they are already part of the canon.


It appears like circular reasoning; but it isn't quite because it analyses the virtuous person in terms of knowing what to do (1) and doing or performing it (2); and that these two parts need to be tied together (3)

looking at the contrapositives might make this more easy to understand:

  • If one knows the right thing but doesn't do it - then one isn't virtuous

  • If one does the right thing but didn't do it deliberately (say you were ordered to do it, or it happened by accident) - then one isn't virtuous.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.