Module 6: Aristotle Philosophy 240: Introductory Ethics Online CCBC Author: Daniel G. Jenkins, MA Updated May 2008
This module is meant to accompany Chapter 12: The Ethics of Virtue in Rachels Elements of Moral Philosophy, 5 th edition. Module Goals: After completing readings, presentations, discussions, and coursework for this module, you will be able to: Identify and explain core aspects of Aristotelian Ethics Apply Aristotelian Ethics in moral decision-making Analyze the usefulness and critique features of Aristotelian Ethics Synthesize Aristotelian Ethics with other theories in the academic study of Ethics
Now that we have discussed Platos Ethics, we can move on to Aristotle. As mentioned previously, Aristotle was part of a highly influential philosophical lineage beginning with Socrates – Socrates taught Plato, and Plato taught Aristotle. Together, this triad of thinkers helped lay the foundations of Western culture. One of Aristotles more notable students, Alexander the Great, was one of the most successful military commanders in history, and conquered most of the world known to the ancient Greeks. Aristotles Ethics can be seen in part as an answer to the general absolutism in Platos Ethics, and in particular to Platos assertion that there is one and only one good life for everyone to lead.
Aristotle lived from about 384-322 BCE, in Athens, Greece. He was the first to create a comprehensive system of philosophy, encompassing morality and aesthetics, logic and science, politics and metaphysics. Aristotle's views on the physical sciences profoundly shaped medieval scholarship. His works contain the earliest known formal study of logic. In metaphysics, Aristotelianism had a profound influence on philosophical and theological thinking in the Islamic and Jewish traditions.
Empiricism in Ethics Aristotle thought the primary route to knowledge of the world was sense experience. Instead of thinking about the nature of the good, as Plato did, Aristotle went out and asked people what kinds of lives were good lives. Take a moment and make a short list of three things you think are most important to leading a good life.
Happiness Aristotle noted that the characteristic all good lives have in common is happiness. But different things might make us happy. Can we say seemingly disparate goals point towards a similar kind of good life?
Intrinsic and Instrumental Aristotle draws a distinction between instrumental goods and intrinsic goods. An intrinsic good is something that is good in its own right. An instrumental good, on the other hand, is good only insofar as it leads to some other good. Happiness, Aristotle thought, was the only ultimate intrinsic good.
What is happiness? According to Aristotle, the word for happiness was eudaimonia, translated from the Greek as meaning, literally, good spirit. Aristotle defines happiness thusly: happiness is an activity of the soul in accordance with perfect virtue.
Happiness as an activity People tend to think of happiness as something we arrive at – a certain fixed goal that awaits us if we behave in certain ways. When we think this way we tend to think that happiness is an object we can arrive at or possess, and our advertising-laden culture encourages just this sort of mentality. Think about your own life. Was there something you wanted very badly when you were a child? Something for a birthday or holiday, and you got it? How long were you happy as a consequence of this gift?
Happiness is not a goal or an object for Aristotle. It is instead something that accompanies certain activities, instead of being the goal of activities. A person who persists in doing something, like going to the gym, does not arrive at a goal or possess an object called persistence. Instead, persistence is a way of doing things, like refusing to be defeated by circumstances. Happiness, like persistence, is a way of engaging in the various activities of life, such as eating, making love, working and so on. If a person does these things in a certain way then we declare that person to be happy.
Perfect Virtue How can we do things happily? Aristotle says the answer to happiness is found in virtue. Virtues are character traits. We all need to develop the same virtues to live happily, but we made need to emphasize different virtues to different degrees depending on what kind of life we want to lead.
The Doctrine of the Golden Mean The doctrine of the golden mean maintains that perfect virtue is perfectly balanced virtue. Virtues fall on a spectrum or scale. As long as we are not extreme in our virtue, that is, as long as we are not deficient or in excess but at some point in between on the spectrum of virtue, we can do things happily.
Bravery Consider the virtue of bravery. On the deficient end, we have cowardliness – the unwillingness to engage in any conflict. On the excess end, we have foolhardiness – the willingness to engage in any fight, regardless of the consequences. How much bravery do you need to do things happily if you are, say, a soldier? BRAVERY Cowardliness[ I * ]Foolhardiness We tend to think that soldiers need an amount of bravery approaching the upper end of the scale.
But how much bravery does a computer programmer need to do things happily? BRAVERY Cowardliness[ * I ]Foolhardiness A computer programmer probably does not need as much bravery as the soldier in order to do things happily. Aristotle says the virtues are the same for everyone. Both the soldier and the programmer need bravery if they are to do things happily. But they can balance how much bravery they need against the demands of the specific life they are trying to lead. As long as they are not deficient or excess, they are within the mean. For Aristotle, the mean is not a mathematical average, but a point between two extremes.
Breaking with Plato Plato thought there was one and only one good life to lead Aristotle thought there were as many good lives as there were different kinds of people All good lives strive towards happiness We can do things happily if our virtues are balanced for our particular life and aims
Criticism But are there problems with Aristotelian Ethics? Think for a moment about what you believe to be good acts, or virtues conducive to leading a good life. Can they or should they all fall along a spectrum as Aristotle suggests?
Some goods do not fall along a spectrum, but are either on or off, like respect for life or promise keeping. There are some goods that seem to result from excess or deficiency, like love or asceticism. While these may not be virtues, many would not consider a life without love a good life, and this suggests virtue does not tell the whole story of the good life. Lastly, Aristotelian Ethics fails to provide an adequate model of decision-making. For example, does Aristotelian virtue Ethics help you decide what to do in the case of Baby Teresa?
Summary Aristotle was an epistemological empiricist who based his philosophy on experience. He draws a distinction between instrumental and intrinsic goods, and thinks the ultimate intrinsic good is happiness. He defines happiness as an activity of the soul in accordance with perfect virtue. This means that happiness is not an object or goal, but a way of doing things in accordance with our uniquely human capacities. Perfect virtue means balanced virtue, and while different people may lead different kinds of lives and emphasize some virtues more than others, we all need to develop the same set of virtues in order to do things happily. We can employ the doctrine of the Golden Mean to see that we are balancing our virtues at some point between excess and deficiency.
Summary, continued Aristotle fails to acknowledge that some goods cannot fall on the spectrum that the Golden Mean dictates because they are either on or off so to speak, and that some goods do result from excess or deficiency. Also, while virtue Ethics is nice inasmuch as it emphasizes leading a happy life and perfecting our character, it gives us no model of decision-making or resolving ethical dilemmas. If the subject interests you further, see Aristotles Ethics, in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, available on the web at http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-ethics/ http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-ethics/
Congratulations! Youve just completed the presentation for Module 6. Once you have also completed the assigned reading from the textbook, please proceed to the Assignments and Discussion tabs in WebCT to complete relevant coursework for this module. If you have any questions please contact me.contact me