Living Ethically

See also: Ethics and Goodness in Professional Life

There is a saying that nobody looked back from their deathbeds and said that they wished they had spent more time in the office.

Most people would probably sympathise with that point of view. But there are many other things that you might already look back on, if not with regret exactly, at least with a vague feeling that you would prefer to be able to say that you had not done that.

How can you avoid looking back at the end of your life with too many regrets? This is an issue which humans have been addressing for hundreds, if not thousands, of years and at least since the days of Aristotle.

Aristotle (384-322 BCE) was a Greek philosopher and scientist who wrote a number of treatises on ethics and who is considered to be one of the greatest intellectuals in Western history.

This page provides some insights into Aristotle’s teaching to help you to live well.

Six Ways of Living

Aristotle suggested that there were six basic pursuits or ambitions that might shape individual lives. He explained these as:

  • Pleasure, always looking for the ‘feel-good’ factor;
  • Wealth and material things;
  • Status, respect, and fame or influence;
  • Power, and being able to persuade others of your point of view, or get your own way;
  • Knowledge; and
  • A morally virtuous and ethical approach.

No life is going to be entirely shaped by any one of these, but it is likely that most of us will see one of those approaches as our dominant tendency.

Aristotle also suggested that each approach had some drawbacks, which might stop those following them from reaching their full potential. For example, he suggested that seeking out only pleasure left no room for thinking or reason, and those who chose to pursue status might find that they were left high and dry when their followers deserted them, for whatever reason.

Instead, Aristotle suggested that we should try to live and act thoughtfully. We should, he proposed, live in a way that enables us to explore and reflect on the ordinary happenings of life, as well as the extraordinary. We should also try to act out ordinary things in an extraordinary way.

Aristotle’s Ideal Life

Aristotle suggested that you could look back and say that you had lived a ‘good’ life if you had shown:

  • Courage, and not cowardice or impulsiveness and extreme risk-taking;
  • Self-control, instead of self-indulgence or selfishness;
  • Generosity, and not wasted resources or opportunities;
  • Friendliness and politeness, not rudeness, flattery, or other unpleasantness towards others;
  • Tact and discretion;
  • Truthfulness and integrity;
  • Good temper, even in the face of provocation; and
  • Fairness

Aristotle described these as the ‘virtues’ by which he believed people ought to try to live.

Some or all of these ‘virtues’ may seem familiar if you have read other pages on SkillsYouNeed, such as Emotional Intelligence.

That’s partly because these ideas have been around under different guises for a very long time. But just because they have been around a while does not mean that they’re less valid; many would argue that it gives them greater strength because they have been proven over time.

Our page on Ethical Leadership explores the idea of how these ‘virtues’, which have also been described as ‘natural laws’ because they are so deeply embedded in our collective psyche, are important in leaders. But they are also equally important to all of us.

Signs of Flourishing

Aristotle also suggested that there were signs that we could look for in our own and in others’ lives, to see whether we or they were flourishing as people. He thought that these signs, and indeed the flourishing, would mean that a person was growing as an individual and living a ‘good’ life.

These signs are:

They are determined to lead the best life possible, and to find the right way to do that

You will see, for example, that they put their resources and capital, whether personal, social or monetary, towards helping them to live an ethical and ‘virtuous’ life. Any rewards that come their way are also directed towards that ‘good life’.

Their choices and actions are fully human

This may be rather a philosophical point, but it is the idea that we, as humans, are above animals. We have the capacity to reason, and to choose to live within a moral and ethical framework. This fits with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which is explained on our page on Personal Development.

Maslow suggested that we had basic needs, such as a need for food and shelter, which must be met before we could think about anything else. Once we have satisfied these, then we look for safety and security, then love and belonging. At the very top of the hierarchy is self-actualisation, the need for personal growth and development.

The general view accepted by most academics is that animals are not capable of this, so this is what makes us human. Being able to make moral choices is also a human characteristic: nobody expects a fox to understand that it is ‘wrong’ to kill every chicken in the hen house.

They are particularly good at doing ‘good’ things

In this context, ‘good’ means ‘particularly human’, or the ‘virtues’ outlined by Aristotle. He believed that people flourish when they live well, that is ethically and morally.

They are consistent

These are people that you can rely upon to do what is right. They act consistently, and in the way that they should.

They take pleasure in doing the right thing and seek to behave that way ‘just because’

They enjoy living morally and ethically, and value being able to be brave, self-controlled, generous, and so on. They don’t do so for the external rewards and recognition, but because living in this way is the right thing to do and brings its own rewards.

They act well and think well

They explore how to behave well, and also reflect on their own behaviour and learning so that they can grow and learn even more.


It certainly is true that the virtues discussed by Aristotle are very deep-rooted in the human psyche, particularly characteristics like fairness.

Aristotle suggested that if we can live in this way, or at the very least strive to do these things, and occasionally succeed, then we are likely to be happier. He suggested that even if things go wrong, it is still better to act ethically. Overall, we will be happier if we do so. His view was that if all else was equal, he would be happier having lived an ethical life than an unethical one, and he felt that applied to most people: it is a very human characteristic, and that is the basis of his philosophy.