Understanding Ethical Deficiency Through Aristotle

Dylan Sapienza
5 min readSep 25, 2020

In Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, he sets out on the project of understanding the good and how one ought to live in order to live a good life. In discussing how humans can live a good life, he does little to touch on what he would describe or define as a bad life. Without his express explanation, could we imagine a conception of what Aristotle’s views would be on how one could live a bad life, one lacking any ethical good? Using Aristotle’s ideas of eudaimonia, the function argument, and virtues, it is possible to negate these concepts to get an accurate idea of the perfectly unethical life and a framework of how Aristotle would define living an ethically deficient life.

Before we can begin to make any claims about Aristotle’s views on ethical deficiency, we must first understand his views and arguments on how humans ought to live an ethical life. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics begin by observing that there exist many goods of which people can strive for. These separate ideas of good cloud thinking about how one ought to live, even sometimes coming in conflict with each other. Aristotle seeks to take these disjunct goods and unify them under one concept. This would allow for a wide all-encompassing idea that could be more generally understood. He conceptualizes this as the highest good using the word eudaimonia to address this. Eudaimonia, synonymous with happiness, is a state of being we ought to achieve. While having a clear theory of ‘the good’ creating a target, Aristotle needs to continue and flesh out eudaimonia. He lays out that it should have the properties of being chosen only for its own sake and self-sufficient. Here he formulates his Function Argument. Aristotle observes that all things that exist, exist with a specific function or purpose. Naturally, he wanted to understand what the human function could be. By anchoring down the highest good to this idea of function it beautifully frames how well someone is living based on their performance in their function. He reasons that whatever the human function is must be unique from the other things around us. Thus, he arrives at the human function of using our reason. This general function of reason allows for a bevy of different disciplines to exist in accordance with and in pursuit of eudaimonia. To further build up his ethics he introduces his virtue theory as a means to describe in more detail how we should live. He defines a virtue as the mean between the extremes of a state. These states are to be understood as a way of being. For example, the virtue of bravery is the mean between the extremes of cowardice and rashness.

With these ideas of eudaimonia, human functions, and virtues we can start to formulate the view opposite of Aristotle’s. Starting with eudaimonia, what would be the exact inverse of this concept? The highest bad? And what would a life striving for this non-eudaimonia even look like? Eudaimonia was closely translated to happiness and was something chosen purely for its own qualities. Non-eudaimonia in that case would be perfect misery. A life where one would strive for something that had no inherent value for its own sake. To better understand how this might make sense we need to construct this same inverse on his function argument. This point presents us with two possible ways to understand ethical deficiency within the function argument contradiction and failure. Surely one could be ethically bankrupt by simply failing at their human function. In the case of the harpist, this would translate to poorly playing the harp, not putting enough time into it, getting distracted by other things. However, I think it would be interesting and helpful to define a perfectly deficient life to better understand these ethical missteps. This is where purely restating the function argument reversed can help accomplish this. One of the central tenants of the function argument was to pursue something. Something about our humanity which made us unique. So, are we to define the new anti-function merely the opposite of what Aristotle’s positive findings were, to live a life devoid of rationality? Or should we even take a step further from whence he began and excel at something perfectly anti-unique? A candidate for this would be mere existence. For all things have this quality, humans, animals, plants, and rocks. This then would entail that a life lived purely to exist, not engaging in any uniquely human qualities, would be a model of an unethical life for Aristotle. Is this sort of life even possible? Pictures of a person lying motionless resembling an inanimate object seems somewhat realistic, but would it be possible to truly abstain from thought and inner reasoning, a uniquely human activity? These sorts of arguments against the feasibility of this scenario do not impair the overall idea being laid out. This exists to create a sort of ethical spectrum to understand where we may compare the ethical value of our life. Now we have integrated both eudaimonia and the function argument into Aristotle’s anti-ethics we need to figure out how his virtue theory can find a place here. His idea of virtues and the mean work to give us more concrete ways to understand an ethical life and how to achieve it. How would it look and feel to apply our negation to his virtue theory? All we would need to do is invert the scale. Favoring the extremes over the mean. A life lived from the extremes and avoiding any middle would be in accordance here. At first, this may seem to be at odds with our previous understanding of the perfectly unethical life. It would be hard to say that a life spent purely existing as we previously saw would be a life lived on the extremes. If we tried to assess where a rock would exist on this scale it would run into similar problems. Is a rock astoundingly brave non-flinching at anything or is it paralyzed in fear of everything? It would make the most sense to say it is not on the spectrum of this state at all. It seems that our previous understanding around the issues of negating the function argument applies here. To live a life on the extremes would be just a failure of Aristotle’s idea not necessarily a true contradiction. Perhaps a truer contradiction rather would be a life devoid of any even potentially virtuous states at all.

From Aristotle’s definition of the good life and ethics, we first understood and restated his positions. Then from this positive understanding of the good life, we sought to find and define how he might think about an ethically deficient life. Instead of making this definition the failing to attain all the different ideas and concepts he establishes, we attempt to craft a contradicting view of the perfectly unethical life. From this process, we found that the unethical life is one of pure existence, completely absent any of the things that make us uniquely human or any potentially virtuous states.