The Ethical Theories of Aristotle
Aristotle’s thoughts on ethics conclude that all humans must have a purpose in life in order to be happy. I believe that some of the basics of his ideas still hold true today. This essay points out some of those ideas. It was Aristotle’s belief that everything, including humans, had a telos or goal in life. The end result or goal was said to be happiness or “eudaimonia”. He explained that eudaimonia was different for each person, and that each had a different idea of what it meant. Further, he said that people must do things in moderation, but at the same time do enough.
Throughout the history of Western civilization, people have asked themselves questions about how to lead their lives and achieve happiness. Major philosophers have debated this idea, arguing for different ways of orienting their lives, commenting and criticizing their precursors in the process. Two of the most important of these thinkers were Aristotle and Immanuel Kant, who both drafted different ethical theories, while staying within the boundaries of what is considered standard in the Western philosophical tradition. Specific differences in their contexts lead to major dissimilarities in their theories. However, both theories have aspects which may be considered correct, and others that are incoherent. While both on the pursuit of happiness, Aristotle and Immanuel Kant hold different ethical theories, where the former looks to a domestication of man in order to achieve the soul’s optimization in accordance to a cosmic order, while the latter seeks to establish the rational, intentional and autonomous adherence and enforcement of a universal moral law. Aristotle’s Ethics is the first known ethical treatise, which is still studied to this day. This Greek thinker lived in the fourth century BCE and many credit him, along with Socrates and Plato, with inaugurating the Western philosophical tradition. He took a more empirical approach than Plato did, looking to study philosophy in relation to the natural world. The topics of his texts vary, and include physics, biology and zoology in this respect; on the other hand, he also disserted on logic, aesthetics and politics. As he took a more particular approach than Plato did, he looked for the correct way for men to lead their practical lives, being the first to write a text about ethics, a discipline that he believed was not theoretical in nature. Happiness was achieved by practical execution, which would optimally, but not necessarily, be optimized by a proper philosophical inquiry.
Kant criticized Aristotle’s view that virtue is seen as the middle between the two poles. He said that “the distinction between greed (as a sin) and frugality (as a virtue) is not to say greed. Excessive frugality, but greed has a completely different principle: the principle of economic saving, he is not to enjoy personal wealth but to possess this wealth, but at the same time deny any enjoyment from it.” (Liang, 2014). Their views on virtue and sin are fundamentally different. According to Aristotle, virtue is a condition, and sin is extreme. In Kant’s view, it is meaningless to look at sin in this way. Desire can be excessive, and desire can be inadequate, but the guidelines cannot be so. One cannot possibly overdo it when following its guidelines. From Kant’s point of view, distinguishing virtue from sin is not the degree to which one adheres to a certain criterion, but the nature of the norm that one follows. This can be illustrated by greedy examples. What makes greed a sin is that greedy people set pure wealth possession as the ultimate goal and make it a thing that seems to be a principle. In Kant’s view, the factor that distinguishes virtue from self-control is that virtue is based on the principle of “inner freedom”, that is, based on a moral principle chosen by the actor freely. Therefore, whether it is self-control based on purely tactful considerations or self-control by simple habits that do not require the use of principles, it cannot be regarded as a virtue in the sense of Kant. As Kant said, “Because this habit comes from the principles of deliberation, unwavering and constant purity, this habit will be like any other rational mechanism of mechanical practice, and it is impossible for all situations. There is no loss, and there is no guarantee that we will win the battle when we resist the many changes caused by the new temptation.” (Allison, 2010).
All things considered, one should also know that excesses or deficiencies of actions will result into vices and moderation of actions is vital in achieving desired virtues. Pleasures and pains accompany pursuit of actions because excessive pleasures results into overindulgence, which is a vice, while too much pain results into great fear, which is also a vice. Hence, moderation of actions enables one to achieve moral virtues, though it is hard to determine what are the actions, and the extent of exercising them.
Liang, S. (2014). Zhong guo wen hua yao yi. Wuhu: An hui shi fan da xue chu ban she.
Joachim, H. and Rees, D. (1985). Aristotle, the Nicomachean ethics. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.
Allison, H. (2010). Kant’s theory of taste. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
MacIntyre, A. (2006). Ethics and politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.