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Philosophy 302: Ethics
Aristotle's Ethics

Abstract:  Aristotle's ethics is a common sense ethics built on naturalism and self-realization.  Of all the classical theories considered here, his is the farthest from an ethics of self-interest.

I. With respect to the good, right, happiness, the good is not a disposition. The good involves a teleological system that involves actions.

 

A. Good is that which all things aim. Something is good if it performs its proper function. E.g., a good coffee cup or a good red oak.

 

 

1. A right action is that which is conducive to the good, and different goods correspond to the differing sciences and arts.

 

 

2. "The god" or best good is that which is desired for its own sake and for the sake which we desire all other ends or goods. For human beings, eudaemonia is activity of the soul in accordance with arete (excellence, virtue, or what it's good for). Eudaemonia is living well and doing well in the affairs of the world.

 

B. The good of human beings cannot be answered with the exactitude of a mathematical problem since mathematics starts with general principles and argues to conclusions.

 

 

1. Ethics starts with actual moral judgments before the formulation of general principles.

 

 

2. Aristotle presupposes natural tendencies in people.

 

C. Aristotle distinguishes between happiness (eudaemonia) and moral virtue:

 

 

1. Moral virtue is not the end of life for it can go with inactivity, misery, and unhappiness.

 

 

2. Happiness, the end of life, that to which all aims, is activity in accordance with reason (reason is the arete or peculiar excellence of persons).

 

 

 

a. Happiness is an activity involving both moral and intellectual arete.

 

 

 

b. Some external goods are necessary in order to exercise that activity.

II. The Good Character.

 

A. People have a natural capacity for good character, and it is developed through practice. The capacity does not come first--it's developed through practice.

1. The sequence of human behavior raises the question of which is preeminent--acts or dispositions.  Their interaction is broken by Aristotle's distinction between acts which create good dispositions and acts which flow from the good disposition once it has been created.
2. Arete is a disposition developed out of a capacity by the proper exercise of that capacity.

 

 

3. Habits are developed through acting; a person's character is the structure of habits and is formed by what we do.

 

B. Virtue, arete, or excellence is defined as a mean between two extremes of excess and defect in regard to a feeling or action as the practically wise person would determine it. The mean cannot be calculated a priori.

 

 

1. The mean is relative to the individual and circumstances. For example, consider the following traits:

 

 

 

Defect

Mean

Excess

 

 

 

 

 

 

cowardliness

courage

rashness

 

 

 

 

 

 

humility

pride

vanity

 

 

 

 

 

 

frugal

giving

 liberal

 

 

 

 

 

2. The level of courage necessary is different for a philosophy teacher, a commando, and a systems programmer.

 

 

3. Phronesis or practical wisdom is the ability to see the right thing to do in the circumstances. Notice, especially, Aristotle's theory does not imply ethical relativism because there are appropriate standards.

 

 

4. In the ontological  dimension, virtue is a mean; in the axiological dimension, it is an extreme or excellence. Martin Luther King, Jr. relates his struggle to understand this difference in his "Letter from Birmingham Jail" when he wrote, "You speak of our activity in Birmingham as extreme… But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love… Was not Amos an extremist for justice… Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel… Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.''

 

 

5.Some presumptively virtuous behaviors can be an extreme as when, for example, the medieval philosopher Peter Abélard explains, No long time thereafter I was smitten with a grievous illness, brought upon me by my immoderate zeal for study. (Peter Abélard, Historia Calamitatum trans. Ralph Adams Cram (St. Paul, MN: Thomas A. Boyd, 1922), 4.)

 

 

6. In the ontological  dimension, virtue is a mean; in the axiological dimension, it is an extreme or excellence. E.g., Hartmann's Diagram:

 

 

 

7. Pleasure and pain are powerful determinants of our actions.

III. Pleasure is the natural accompaniment of unimpeded activity. Pleasure, as such, is neither good nor bad.

 

A. Even so, pleasure is something positive and its effect is to perfect the exercise of activity. Everything from playing chess to making love is improved with skill.

 

B. Pleasure cannot be directly sought--it is the side-product of activity. It is only an element of happiness.

 

C. The good person, the one who has attained eudaemonia, is the standard as to what is truly pleasant or unpleasant.

IV. Friendship: a person's relationship to a friend is the same as the relation to oneself. The friend can be thought of as a second self.

 

A. In friendship a person loves himself (egoism) not as one seeks money for himself, but as he gives his money away to receive honor.

 

B. The kinds of friendship:

 

 

1. Utility

 

 

2. Pleasure

 

 

3. The Good--endures as long as both retain their character.

V. The Contemplative Faculty--the exercise of perfect happiness in intellectual or philosophic activity.

 

A. Reason is the highest faculty of human beings. We can engage in it longer than other activities.

 

B. Philosophy is loved as an end-in-itself, and so eudaemonia implies leisure and self-sufficiency as an environment for contemplation.


 Recommended Sources

Quiz on Aristotle's Ethics:  Aristotle's ethical theory reviewed in true/false questions.
Quiz on the Doctrine of the Mean:
A short quiz on Aristotle's Doctrine of the Mean from Introduction to Philosophy.
Aristotle's Ethics: An excellent discussion from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy of Aristotle's ethics drawn from the Nicomachean Ethics and the Eudemian Ethics by Richard Kraut.

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