Intro to Ethics: Aristotle

by Luke Muehlhauser on June 16, 2009 in Ethics,Intro to Ethics

intro_to_ethics

Welcome to my course on ethics. Last time, we discussed the ethics of Plato. Today, we look at Aristotle (384-322 BCE), whose ethical ideas are still very much alive.

Plato (left) & Aristotle (right) in Raphael's "The School of Athens"

Plato (left) & Aristotle (right) in Raphael's "The School of Athens"

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics opens with a sentence that still influences moral philosophies today:

Every craft and every inquiry, and similarly every action and project, seems to aim at some good; hence the good has been well defined as that at which everything aims.

Aristotle reached for the ultimate good with another famous sentence:

If, then, there is some one goal among those which we pursue in our actions, which we desire for its own sake, and if we desire other things for its sake… it is plain that this would be the good and the best of goods.

Aristotle named this ultimate good eudamonia, meaning happiness or, better yet, “flourishing.” Why is this the ultimate good? Because it is what we seek for it’s own sake. We may seek wealth or intelligence, but only because they bring eudamonia. But we wouldn’t seek eudamonia for the sake of something else.

Aristotle offered a practical ethics. His ethics is the study of human eudamonia, the activities of eudamonia and how to achieve eudamonia.

Of what, then, does eudamonia consist? Aristotle thinks it comes from achieving one’s purpose. The purpose of a musician is to play good music, the purpose of a soldier is to defend the state well, and so on. But is there a specific purpose shared by humans as a species, and not as men with specific careers? We share some purposes – like growth – with the plants, and some others – like feeling – with the animals, but rationality is exclusively human. Therefore, the purpose of humankind is to use one’s rationality well, and this is what will bring eudamonia.

Using one’s rationality well means good thinking, and also thinking well about non-rational things. The former concerns the intellectual virtues (wisdom, intelligence), the latter concerns the moral virtues (generosity, moderation). And these virtues are not inborn, but the result of training.

For Aristotle, these virtues are in accordance with “the mean” between two extremes. For example, the virtue of courage lies on the mean between a vice of excess (rashness) and a vice of deficiency (cowardice).

Aristotle’s chosen list of virtues adheres to “the code of a gentleman” in the Greek world of his day. Thus, we do not find a virtue of “meekness,” which did not arrive until Christian times. Nor do we find “curiosity,” which is a virtue of the scientific age. (Aristotle himself exhibited much curiosity, but did not recognize it as a virtue.)

Though many of Aristotle’s virtues sound questionable or irrelevant to us today, his ethics mark the beginning1 of virtue ethics, a moral philosophy focused on the development of a good character rather than on moral rules or consequences. Many forms of virtue ethics are still defended today.

Next, we look at a radical shift in ethical thought: Christianity.

  1. Plato’s ethics can also be thought of as a form of virtue ethics, but his was not nearly as influential as Aristotle’s. []

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Lorkas June 16, 2009 at 7:52 pm

We share some purposes – like growth – with the plants, and some others – like feeling – with the animals, but rationality is exclusively human.

I don’t know if you constructed this statement or if you’re paraphrasing Aristotle, but growth is actually something we share with all living things, and “feeling” (if you mean “sensing pressure on one’s body” or something like that) is pretty common as well. Plants, fungi, and even bacteria have that.
Rationality needs to be better defined before we can talk about whether or not it exists in other living things, but you have to get pretty specific before you narrow it down to just human beings.

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Aron June 17, 2009 at 2:15 am

A general question on ethics: say that DU is true.  What is then the status of all previous considerations in practical ethics, which will have been based on bad meta-ethical theories?

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Reginald Selkirk June 17, 2009 at 6:11 am

Aron: A general question on ethics: say that DU is true.  What is then the status of all previous considerations in practical ethics, which will have been based on bad meta-ethical theories?

Say that relativity is true. What then becomes of previous theories, e.g. classical Newtonian mechanics?
To answer this analogical question, Newtonian machanics is still taught in schools, and is used in non-relativistic applications. Classical Newtonian mechanics is not “bad,” it is just not the most accurate theory in certain applications involving extremes of speed or mass.
 

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lukeprog June 17, 2009 at 6:33 am

Aron,

Previous answers given in applied ethics may turn out to be true, or they may turn out to be false. To me, those questions are empirical questions. For most of them, we’ll have to wait and see.

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Aron June 17, 2009 at 12:21 pm

Reginald Selkirk,
I don’t think the analogy is very helpful. Newtonian mechanics is a description of how matter behaves. Not the most accurate one, but still highly useful. A meta-ethical theory is not a description of how people behave (morally), but rather a theory about the nature of moral statements. A meta-ethical theory can therefore be “bad” if it refers to things which do not exist.
Does this make sense?

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Aron June 17, 2009 at 12:28 pm

Luke,
 
I guess what I meant to ask was this: finding the best meta-ethical theory available and defending it rigorously is quite time-consuming (as I’m sure we all know). Not everyone who wants to do “good” is philosophically disposed. What about people who decide they want to do such things without venturing into meta-ethics? Surely this must be a legitimate choice?

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lukeprog June 17, 2009 at 3:42 pm

Aron,

Oh, yes, then I misunderstood your question. If someone wants to be moral but doesn’t have the time to study meta-ethics, I suppose they’ll have to defer to moral experts. Unfortunately, they disagree quite thoroughly right now. But that is true in many subjects, not just philosophical ones.

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Reginald Selkirk June 18, 2009 at 8:50 am

We share some purposes – like growth – with the plants, and some others – like feeling – with the animals, but rationality is exclusively human.

Uh oh: Scientists Show Bacteria Can ‘Learn’ And Plan Ahead

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Reginald Selkirk June 18, 2009 at 8:53 am

Aron: A meta-ethical theory is not a description of how people behave (morally), but rather a theory about the nature of moral statements. A meta-ethical theory can therefore be “bad” if it refers to things which do not exist. Does this make sense?

I guess you’re saying that meta-ethical theories strive to give the correct explanation, not supply correct moral positions (?)
 

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Lorkas June 18, 2009 at 12:35 pm

Reginald Selkirk: Uh oh: Scientists Show Bacteria Can ‘Learn’ And Plan Ahead

I was intrigued, but then I read the article and realized that the “learning” is all done by natural selection. Alas. Natural selection is cleverer than bacteria are.

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harvey July 6, 2009 at 3:46 am

What most have failed to catch on is that Aristolian ethics are based on friendship.

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