Aristotelian ethics Essay

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Aristotelian ethics is focused on the search for happiness through virtue. Happiness functions as the chief and final end of man while virtue is a mediated state in between the irrational tendencies of man. The Aristotelian ethical system is primarily focused on the notion of virtue and value of the golden mean which focuses on practicality as a method of achieving happiness in opposition to self-realization.

According to Aristotle, ethical knowledge is not precise compared to the study of mathematics or the sciences, but a practical discipline; that in order to be good or virtuous is not to quantify it as a study but to actually experience becoming good or virtuous. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotles work breaks away from the reason-centered philosophies of his predecessors namely Plato and Aristotle concerning the reason-based pursuit of the highest form of good through an empirical and a goal-centered approach.

The attainment of the good is the foundation of Aristotelian ethical principles; ethics during the context of classical Greek philosophy is primarily concerned on living the good life through the moderation of actions. This notion of good however is different from the hedonistic perspectives concerning the happiness. Hedonism centers its beliefs on pleasure as the purpose or final end of man while Aristotles ethics are primarily directed to the practice and experience of life through virtue and mediation.

He argues that the rational and irrational tendencies of the soul such as aspirations, desires, wants, and needs, have an ultimate end. Happiness is the final end of such tendencies; however, the process in which happiness may be achieved may go against the dictates of the soul because of subjectivity. Contrary to Platos self-existing good, happiness is practical rather than an ideal; it can be attained in the sense that an individual must experience it. The highest form of good must be desirable in itself and not to function to some other self-serving purpose.

For Aristotle, happiness is found in the everyday experiences of life and work that is unique to rationalistic human soul. The individuals purpose is to act upon what is inherently human, that is, to attain happiness through experience. The fulfillment of such end leads to the state of eudaimonia, literally meaning happiness. Eudaimonia is a state of state of mind rather than an interpretative or emotive understanding of happiness per se. In order to achieve such, Aristotle first defines the distinct parts of the human soul, the notion of virtue and its function as part of experience.

Happiness is subjective to the individual since there are many forms and concepts wherein happiness can be interpreted; pleasure leads to a state of temporal and physical happiness but does not eternally reside on the individual. The multitude of perspectives concerning the attainment of a universal idea of happiness is a dilemma; since experience provides a subjective interpretation of a phenomenon, there may be no existing universal idea. As narrated in the Ethics: And so the man who has been educated in a subject is a good judge of that subject, and the man who has received an all-round education is a good judge in general.

Hence a young man is not a proper hearer of lectures on political science; for he is inexperienced in the actions that occur in life (Aristotle 3). For Aristotle, experience and practicality are the foundations of ethical belief. In contrast with his predecessors mode of ethical discipline, Aristotle argues that ethics cannot be derived from an abstract notion such as Platos Theory of Forms where the self-existing good remains self-evident and unchangeable. This reason-based or rationalistic approach is refuted with Aristotles empirical standpoint.

Experience, according to Aristotle, is a unique human condition and its uniqueness provides the basis for the formation of a practical ethical system of belief. In order to understand the concept of virtue, Aristotle first divides the parts of the human soul into two parts, the rational and irrational soul which is further subdivided into three categories, namely: the vegetative, appetitive, and calculative value. The irrational part of the human person is related to the animalistic soul or instinct (nutritive value), while the rational soul is the distinguishing factor against pure instinctive tendencies.

Thus, rational nature of the soul is the definition of the human persona humans has the ability to reason (calculative/appetitive) and impose control on irrational tendencies. The normative control over irrational desires is also a part of Aristotles biological differentiation between man and animal. Animals rely on instinct or desire which is irrational, to maintain their survival. The control of the irrational nature (appetitive) leads to the formation of moral virtue while the perfection of the pure rationalistic soul which provides intellect and reason (calculative) is known as an intellectual virtue.

Thus, moral virtue falls under the middle ground between the intellect, which regulates it, and the passions, which virtue attempts to control. Virtue is defined as a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean, i. e. the mean relative to us, this being determined by a rational principle, and by that principle by which the man of practical wisdom would determine it (Aristotle 35). Virtue, in accordance with experience, is based from practical knowledge. Contradicting the notion of the self-existing good, practical knowledge replaces the notion of self-existing truths.

The Platonic notion of understanding these truths is through self-recognition of ignorance as an obstacle of intellectual illumination. In contrast, the practicality of experience acts as the foundation of virtue that is learned through the uniqueness of human experience. Experience is then essential in acquiring these virtues rather than acknowledge the presence of such through the affirmation of doubt. Platos theory as exemplified in the Allegory of the Cave calls for the self-affirmation of I know nothing in order to determine the absolute or ideal knowledge that exists in the realm of the forms.

Aristotle deviates from this rationalistic approach as he emphasizes on practicality in determining truths. Further, Aristotle explains: since things that are found in the soul are of three kinds passions, faculties, states of character, virtue must be one of these (Aristotle 43) The soul as expressed in its dualistic rational and irrational parts, contain passions, faculties, and other states of character. The passions consist of the emotional either accompanied by pleasure or pain (e. g. joy, sorrow). The faculties of the soul is the capability of these emotions (e.

g. being happy, joyful, etc. ), while the states of character is the middle ground in-between the emotional opposites (e. g. consumed or weakened by anger). Virtue is then a mediation of the passions which acts upon the faculties of the soul and leads to the essence on the states of character. One of the important notions in Aristotelian ethics is the notion of the Golden Mean. The golden mean separates human action (e. g. passions) into virtue and vice. The mean, in context with experience, provides the avenue of practicing virtue in the process of attaining happiness.

Virtues are either at mean or in opposition (virtue and vice). Vices are further categorized either in its extreme or deficient sense while moral virtue functions as the regulating principle situates action in moderation. For example, the virtue of modesty is the mean between the vice of deficiency (shamelessness) and extreme (bashfulness). The virtue of courage is the middle ground between rashness and cowardice. The concept of the golden mean is dictated by the functions of rationality wherein behavior is formed through experience.

It however cannot be quantified through a mathematical or logical proposition; meaning to eat 100 times in excess means it cannot be justified by starving oneself in 50. This ethical system is solely dependent on the conception of rationality on the part of the individual in relation to the uniqueness of experience. The value of virtue is the understanding of mediation in action rather than performing in excess or deficiency. To understand the middle ground of opposite actions leads to intellectual calmness or realization; that to be in excess and deficient leads either through temporary happiness (pleasure) or the lack of it (pain).

In addition, the task of finding the middle ground in vices is a difficult task. According to Aristotle: Hence also it is no easy task to be good. For in everything it is no easy task to find the middle, e. g. to find the middle of a circle is not for everyone but for him who knows; so, too, any one can get angry that is easy or give or spend money; but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for everyone, nor it is easy. (Aristotle 49)

To easily determine the middle ground of vices cannot be applied for the totality of every individual since the irrational soul still acts upon its instinctive nature. In relation to the Platonic challenged posed by the Theory of Forms, the attainment of the good is solely dependent on the individual to countermand the irrational passions in order to redirect the soul and purpose in attaining its final end. Platos challenge is focused on the breakaway from ignorance to understand the ideal world in which the world of illusions is based from.

Aristotle on the other hand, focuses on the importance of experience and practical knowledge; to know happiness means we have to experience happiness. Aristotles happiness is attained through the practice of virtue and the regulation of the golden mean. However, Aristotle argues: So much, then, is plain that the intermediate state is in all things to be praised, but that we must incline sometimes towards the excess, sometimes towards the deficiency, for so shall we most easily hit the mean and what is right (Aristotle 50).

In order to understand the mean, Aristotle again notes the importance of experience. The individual must therefore experience the extreme opposites of the passions (vice) in order to determine the golden mean. For example, one cannot know the virtue of courage if one does not become a coward (deficient) or be rash (excess) in actions. It is only after experience teaches the individual the value of virtue and virtue in turn, leads to the attainment of eudaimonia in which happiness is eternal.


Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics (M. Ostwald, Trans. ) New York: Collier Macmillan. 1962

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