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  • Moral Luck, Poor Upbringing, and the Virtue of Indomitability in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics

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  • Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics describes an ethical system which guides the moral agent to a life of true happiness through moral virtue. Aristotle's virtue ethics nonetheless includes some troubling caveats, namely that students of ethics require a preliminary training in the first principles of ethics acquired through good upbringing, without which the moral agent will be unsuited to an education in ethics. In addition, Aristotle repeatedly emphasizes that the practical value of a moral education significantly relies upon good fortune, because external goods are frequently necessary to facilitate morally virtuous activity. A good moral upbringing, itself being an external good subject to chance, therefore seems critical to Aristotle's ethical framework, despite being given only a brief and peripheral treatment in his Nicomachean Ethics. This omission undermines the practical value of Aristotle's entire schema by implying that moral agency is vulnerable to chance, and that our potential for a truly happy life can be precluded by a poor upbringing. However, on a deeper reading Aristotle can be said to imply that when poor moral luck prevents us from achieving true happiness, there remains a praiseworthy disposition to persevere in the face of misfortune and strive toward an ultimately unattainable end. The unfortunate person of poor upbringing therefore achieves, at best, a deficient degree of moral excellence, an imperfect happiness. Even when this striving toward an unattainable end results in viciousness, we are prone to valourize and empathize with those people who are able to render this quintessentially human weakness, our vulnerability to chance, in a sympathetically beautiful way. In this way, the value of the Nicomachean Ethics for the unfortunate person of poor upbringing can be saved.