Ethics: Aristotle



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Ethics: Aristotle
We have seen that Greek philosophy was highly speculative, especially in metaphysics (Remember Thales & the others -- the one substance behind all reality is water? air? fire? earth?), where they tried to discover the true nature of the world by reason alone. This had an immediate impact on their ethics; e.g. Plato considered “goodness” to be a quality prior to and even greater than God, in which God in some way participates and so is called “good”, because of the belief he already had in the theory of forms. The Stoics were strict determinists, who therefore had to question whether one can even speak of morally responsible behaviour if behaviour is fixed by natural laws. This non-scientific approach has us try to discover the nature of “the good life” through simple reflection.
Aristotle’s Doctrine of the Mean


  • Aristotle broke with the ethics of those who preceded him

    • He examined the behaviour and speech of various people in everyday life, and built up a fund of empirical data

    • He noticed that we spoke of some people who lead what others generally consider to be a “good life”, and others a “bad life”

      • It seemed to him that the common element in both was happiness: good people were happy, and bad ones weren’t

      • This led him to assert (in answer to the first question classical ethicists addressed; i.e. “What is the good life for a human being?”) that “The good life is a life of happiness.”

  • As it stands, this is too vague: exactly what does the word “happiness” mean?

    • Aristotle tried to clarify this by defining Happiness as “an activity of the soul in accord with perfect virtue”

      • Unfortunately, this is just as vague; no one has ever been able to figure out exactly what he meant by it

    • An interesting point, though, is his idea that happiness is an activity; it is something dynamic, not static

      • i.e. it is not a fixed goal that we can arrive at in the way we arrive at our destination at the end of a trip; it is a characteristic that accompanies certain activities as we do them

      • in that sense, happiness is like other characteristics of our lives; e.g. persistence. A student who pursues their studies persistently does not arrive at a goal called “persistence”; it is a characteristic of the way they do their work. Happiness is like this: it is a way of engaging in the various activities of life.

  • In answer to the second classical question of ethics (“How should people behave?”), Aristotle logically went on to argue that “People ought to behave so as to achieve happiness.”

  • This also seems vague, but Aristotle spells it out in his doctrine of the mean (also called the “golden mean”)

    • Being happy is like being well-fed.

      • How much food should a person eat in order to be well fed? There is no general answer to this question – there are too many variables, and the correct amount for each individual can only be determined through trial and error, eating various amounts between too much and too little. This is not the same as eating an “average” amount, because it varies with the individual.

    • Moral behaviour is like that – the proper way for one to behave is in accordance with the mean, not through the pursuit of any virtue to an extreme

      • for example, courage is the mean between cowardice and rashness, pride the mean between vanity and humility, and so on

      • to be happy, then, people must act moderately, striving for the mean between two extremes – and this will mean different things for different people

  • Notice this implies a criticism of & disagreement with Plato

    • There is not one and only one good life for all people. There are various correct ways of living for different people; there are many good lives. What is good for one person may not be good for another, and prior to actual experimentation one can’t predict the correct way of living for another through reason alone -- this makes Aristotle a relativist and empiricist (vs. Plato the absolutist and rationalist)

    • Aristotle also disagreed with Plato’s view of virtues as habits. Aristotle argued that there is no truly moral behaviour without understanding and choice – we do not praise or blame someone if we believe that he/she didn’t understand what they were doing, or were forced to do it

    • Finally, Aristotle also disagreed with Plato’s view that knowledge of the good will necessarily lead to good behaviour

      • Simple observation is enough to show that people experience moral weakness and lack of self-control

      • Self-discipline (learned in youth) as well as knowledge is needed if we are to understand what the “golden mean” means for us in adult life




  • Criticisms of Aristotle

    • There seem to be two problems with Aristotle’s approach to ethics

      • There are some things in which there is no middle ground, and therefore no “golden mean”

        • E.g. where is the middle between keeping a promise and breaking it? between telling the truth and lying? With regard to things like these, Plato’s absolutism seems to work better than Aristotle’s relativism

      • Aristotle is primarily proposing a philosophy of moderation, but there are cases where “immoderate” behaviour is proper behaviour

        • a person who is by temperament passionate and romantic may find that “moderate” behaviour does not suit them at all, and makes them miserable rather than happy – can anyone be happy if “forced” to control oneself in all situations of life?


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