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Aristotelian ethics

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Aristotle believed that ethical knowledge is not certain knowledge (like metaphysics and epistemology) but is general knowledge. Also, as it is not a theoretical discipline, he thought a person had to study in order to become "good." Thus, if a person was to become virtuous, they could not simply study what virtue is, they had to actually do virtuous activity.

We are not studying in order to know what virtue is, but to become good, for otherwise there would be no profit in it. (NE 2.2)

The highest goodEdit

In order to do this, Aristotle had to first establish what was virtuous. He began by determining that everything was done with some goal in mind and that goal is 'good':

Every skill and every inquiry, and similarly, every action and choice of action, is thought to have some good as its object. This is why the good has rightly been defined as the object of all endeavor. (NE 1.1)

But, if action A is done with the goal B, the goal B would also have a goal, goal C. Goal C would also have a goal and this would continue until something stopped the infinite regress. This was the Highest Good.

Now, if there is some object of activities that we want for its own sake (and others only because of that), and if it is not true that everything is chosen for something else - in which case there will be an infinite regress, that will nullify all our striving - it is plain that this must be the good, the highest good. Would not knowing it have a great influence on our way of living? Would we not be better at doing what we should, like archers with a target to aim at? (NE 1.2)

Aristotle said the Highest Good must have three characteristics:

  • desirable for its own sake
  • not desirable for the sake of some other good
  • all other ‘goods’ desirable for its sake

Aristotle resolves this Highest Good in eudaemonia, which is usually translated as "happiness," but could also be "well-being" or "flourishing."

What is the highest good in all matters of action? As to the name, there is almost complete agreement; for uneducated and educated alike call it happiness, and make happiness identical with the good life and successful living. They disagree, however, about the meaning of happiness. (NE 1.4)

Happiness and the function of humanityEdit

Aristotle contended that happiness could not be found only in pleasure, as "it would be absurd if the end were amusement and if trouble and hardship throughout life would all be for the sake of amusing oneself." He also surmised that it was not in only fame and honor, as "it seems to be more superficial than what we are looking for, since it rests in the man who gives the honor rather than in him who receives it." He finally finds happiness "by ascertaining the specific function of man. In the case of flute players, sculptors, and all craftsmen - indeed all who have some function and activity - 'good' and 'excellent' reside in their function. Now the same will be true of man, if he has a peculiar function to himself."

But what is this function that will bring happiness? To determine this, Aristotle analyzed the nature of the soul. Aristotle saw the soul as existing in three parts, each of which had a specific function:

  • Nutritive Soul (vegetative soul) - found in plants, animals and human beings; responsible for growth and reproduction
  • Perceptive Soul (sensitive soul) - found in animals and man; responsible for perception via the senses
  • Rational Soul - found in humans only; responsible for thinking

Thus, a human's function is to do what makes it human, to be good at what sets it apart from everything else: the ability to reason or Nous. Or, as Aristotle concludes, "The function of man is activity of soul in accordance with reason, or at least not without reason." He identifies two different ways in which the soul can engage in: reasoning (both practical and theoretical) and following reasoning. A person that does this is the happiest because they are fulfilling their purpose or nature as found in the rational soul.

(The wise person will) be more than human. A man will not live like that by virtue of his humanness, but by virtue of some divine thing within him. His activity is as superior to the activity of the other virtues as this divine thing is to his composite character. Now if mind is divine in comparison with man, the life of the mind is divine in comparison with mere human life. We should not follow popular advice and, being human, have only mortal thoughts, but should become immortal and do everything toward living the best in us. (NE 10.7)

In other words, the thinker is not only the 'best' person, but is also most like God.

Developing ethicsEdit

Contrary to the teachings of Plato, his teacher, Aristotle firmly believed that all human beings (then interpreted as free males) are born with the potential to become ethically virtuous and practically wise. To achieve these goals, they must go through two stages:

  1. Develop proper habits during childhood.
  2. Combine ethical virtue with practical wisdom once reason is fully developed.


Aristotle believes that every ethical virtue is an intermediate condition between excess and deficiency. For example, fear isn't bad in and of itself, it is just bad when done in excess or deficiency. A courageous person judges that some dangers are worth facing and others not, the level of fear is appropriate to the circumstances. The coward flees at every danger, although the circumstances do not merit it. The rash person disregards all fear and dives into every danger no matter the consequences. Aristotle identifies the virtue as being the 'mean' of the situation. Thus, there is no way to form a strict set of rules that would solve every practical problem. "The virtuous person sees the truth in each case, being as it were a standard and measure of them."

This does not mean Aristotle believed in moral relativism, however. He set certain emotions (e.g., hate, envy, jealousy, spite, etc.) and certain actions (e.g., adultery, theft, murder, etc.) as being always wrong, regardless of the situation or the circumstances.

Types of peopleEdit

Depending on the level to which a person is able to use his or her Nous in accordance with reason, they may fall into one of four categories:

  • Virtuous - those that truly enjoy doing what is right and do so without moral dilemma
  • Continent - does the virtuous thing most of the time, but must overcome conflict
  • Incontinent - faces the same moral conflict, but usually chooses the not virtuous thing
  • Vicious - sees little value in virtue and doesn't attempt it

Three Ethical Treatises Edit

Three treatises of Aristotle's ethics survive today:

Each is believed to be a collection of Aristotle's lecture notes (although authorship of the Magna Moralia is disputed), possibly containing several different lecture courses, which can be sparse and difficult to read.

The scholarly consensus is that Eudemian Ethics represents Aristotle's early ethical theory, and the Nicomachean Ethics appears to build upon it. Some critics consider the Eudemian Ethics to be "less mature," while others, such as Kenny (1978), contend that the Eudemian Ethics is the more mature, and therefore later, work. Books IV-VI of Eudemian Ethics also appear as Books V-VII of Nicomachean Ethics.

Scholars believe that the Nicomachean Ethics and the Eudemian Ethics were either edited by or dedicated to Aristotle's son and pupil Nicomachus and his disciple Eudemus, respectively, although the works themselves do not explain the source of their names. Although Aristotle's father was also called Nicomachus, Aristotle's son was the next leader of Aristotle's school, the Lyceum, and historians therefore consider him to be more likely to have influenced the collection of Aristotle's lecture notes.

A fourth treatise, Aristotle's Politics, is often regarded as the sequel to the Ethics; Aristotle's Ethics states that the good of the individual is subordinate to the good of the city-state, or polis. Aristotle's On the Soul may be considered a prequel to his Ethics, especially in its discussion of the rational soul.

Nicomachean ethicsEdit

Main article: Nichomachean Ethics

In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle focuses on the importance of continually behaving virtuously and developing virtue rather than committing specific good actions. This can be opposed to Kantian ethics, in which the primary focus is on individual action. Nicomachean Ethics emphasizes the importance of context to ethical behaviour — what might be right in one situation might be wrong in another. Aristotle believed that happiness is the end of life and that as long as a person is striving for goodness, good deeds will result from that struggle, making the person virtuous and therefore happy.

Influences of earlier Greek ethical systems Edit

Aristotle's ethics builds upon earlier Greek ethics, particularly that of Aristotle's teacher Plato and his teacher, Socrates. One important distinction is that Socrates didn't leave any written work, Plato left works aimed more toward popular consumption, and Aristotle left more scholarly works. More frequently than Plato, Aristotle notes exceptions to his general rules and the lack of precision in his ethics. The overall directions of each of these philosophers, however, were quite similar.

Socrates was the first Greek philosopher to concentrate on ethics. This concentration on ethics probably started as a response to sophism, which was a popular school of thought at the time that emphasized rhetoric, moral relativism and argument against traditional Greek religion (they used rhetoric to argue against many other traditions too). Sophists raised many moral problems in contemporary society without offering solutions.

Socrates, Plato and Aristotle all taught character-based ethics in which people should pursue virtue (arete) to attain happiness or flourishing (eudaimonia). All saw virtuous behavior as something which can be taught and practised. They all thought that ethics is based on reason, and that there were logical reasons for behaving virtuously. This contrasted with the moral relativism of the sophists, who argued that many different behaviors could be seen as ethical by different societies. In fact, similar arguments still occur in philosophical ethics today.

In light of these fundamental similarities, the differences in ethics between Socrates, Plato and Aristotle seem slight. The major difference is that Socrates and Plato thought that knowledge of virtuous behavior was enough to ensure that people followed it, and that nobody did evil knowingly. Aristotle disagreed (and most later philosophers agree with him on this point), saying that many people know the bad effects of their actions, but give in to their desires anyway because of weak wills. Plato presented only four cardinal virtues: wisdom, courage, temperance and justice. Aristotle expanded and elaborated on this list quite extensively.

Influence on later thinkers Edit

Aristotle was taught in Athens until 529 AD when the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I closed down non-Christian schools of philosophy. Aristotle's teachings spread through the Mediterranean and the Middle East, where early Islam supported rational philosophical descriptions of the natural world. Avicenna and Averroes were Islamic philosophers who commented on Aristotle as well as writing their own philosophy in Arabic.

In the twelfth century, Latin translations of Aristotle's works were found, enabling the Dominican priest Albert the Great and his pupil Thomas Aquinas to combine Aristotle's philosophy with Christian theology. Later medieval church scholasticism insisted on Thomist views and suppressed non-Aristotelian metaphysics. Aquinas' work Summa Theologiae contained many volumes, fifteen of which were concerned with ethics and values. It argued that a rational foundation for ethics was compatible with Christianity, enabling it to borrow many ideas from the Nicomachean Ethics. Eudaimonia or human flourishing was held to be a temporary goal for this life, but perfect happiness as the ultimate goal could only be attained in the next life by the virtuous. New theological virtues were added to the system: faith, hope and charity. Supernatural assistance was also allowed, helping people to be virtuous. Many important parts of Aristotle's ethics were retained however. Thomism, the name given to the beliefs of Thomas Aquinas, is particularly influential: it has been a part of official Catholic doctrine since the time of Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903).

Seventeenth century empiricism challenged Aristotle's metaphysics so successfully that doubt was cast on the rest of his philosophy too. The Nicomachean Ethics remains viable today however--it relies on neither non-material entities such as souls or rights nor on a deterministic view of causation.

Twentieth century philosophers whose ethical works were influenced by Aristotle include Alasdair MacIntyre, Bernard Williams and Ayn Rand.

Criticisms Edit

Aristotle, more than Socrates or Plato, defends the existing mores of his time. Although he argues for many values which many of today's philosophers agree with, the things he values include slavery, sexism and rule by a small leisure class, all of which seem unethical according to today's standards.

In fact, all of Aristotle's ethical teachings upheld contemporary society and values. This in itself has been criticised because it offers no reasons for rebellion or adherence to society's values. Bertrand Russell even said that

"He shows no sign of having had any of those experiences which make it difficult to preserve sanity; all the more profound aspects of the moral life are apparently unknown to him. He leaves out, one may say, the whole sphere of human experience with which religion is concerned. What he has to say is what will be useful to comfortable men of weak passions; but he has nothing to say to those who are possessed by a god or a devil, or whom outward misfortune drives to despair." -- A History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell 1945, p184.

His doctrine of finding the Golden Mean through phronesis has also been criticized: "Knowing how to act, the possession of practical wisdom, means having an 'eye' for solutions; and that can only be developed through a combination of training in the right habits and direct acquaintance with practical situations." But this is not enough because "The world is full of problems--about forms of war, about war itself, life and death, sex, race and religion--to which Aristotle's bland assurance, 'Maturity will bring an answer', scarcely seems an adequate response." "Ethics in Ancient Greece" by Christopher Rowe, in pp128-9 of Blackwell Companions to Philosophy:A Companion to Ethics, ed. Peter Singer, 1991.

See alsoEdit

External linksEdit

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