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Aristotle’s Ethical Theory and Its Influences

Aristotle creates a unique understanding of ethics and moral values, virtue, and honesty. Thus, Aristotle’s moral ideas and moral ideals are, in some degree, the product of his time, and cannot be expected to be adequate in the world of today. Scientific and material progress has extended man’s moral horizons. His increasing power to determine his own environment, including now the power to make human survival impossible, has produced problems which Aristotle could not envisage. The history of moral ideas is not a subject in which philosophers, at least recently, have shown as much interest as perhaps they should.

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The three main works by Aristotle devoted to ethics are Politics, the Nicomachean and the Eeudemian ethics. Continuing on in his writings from Politics, Aristotle discusses two types of business and trade activity, the distinction of which is at the root of a major business and social problem that causes much mental anguish and soul searching among present-day businessmen: the difference between careful management of household goods and what may seem to many to be merely a selfish profit orientation. He approves of the first but not the latter. In the management of the household he approved of the fair exchange of one commodity for that of another commodity (barter) or the selling of a commodity for money in order to purchase another commodity (Hamburger 1971, p. 54). On the other hand, he did not approve of the use of one’s skill or goods to make an excess profit. He described this as the use of money to purchase a commodity and then turn around and sell it at a large profit or to take money and use it to make more money and on into infinity (what he termed “usury”).

Aristotle’s description of ethics is based on the concepts of virtue and morality. Aristotle contrasts the virtues, as being acquired powers, first with the powers of ‘things that exist by nature, his instance being the natural tendency of a stone to fall: you cannot train a stone to fly up or fire to fall. There is no natural tendency to virtuous behavior, but this does not mean that virtue is contrary to nature. What is natural is the capacity to acquire virtue by habituation. Aristotle contrasts the virtues with capacities that are innate in human beings, e.g. the kinds of sense-perception: people had the senses before they used them, while the virtues and the arts are acquired by exercising them. The powers of nonrational beings, and the natural or innate powers of rational beings, are alike non-rational. Non-rational powers can be exercised, or actualized, only in one way. Rational powers, or at least arts and sciences, can be exercised in opposite ways (Hamburger 1971, p. 51).

For Aristotle, the ethical virtues do not fit in any simple way into the classification of powers, in Metaphysics, as rational or irrational. Aristotle classes the moral virtues, along with the arts or productive forms of knowledge, as rational powers. They are not innate but are acquired by exercise, and they involve conformity to rational principles. On the other hand, in the way in which the art of medicine is a power to do either of two contrary things, moral virtue is not an ambivalent power. For, whereas it requires the external intervention of ‘something else, desire or choice, to determine whether the art of medicine is used to cure or to kill, moral virtue is itself a disposition to desire or choose and not merely a capacity to know; it is not neutral but, by definition, on the side of the angels (Sherman 1999, p. 12).

Its cognitive side, indeed, it might be held, although Aristotle does not say so, to be a “power of opposites” for the same reason as Aristotle gives for the ambivalence of an art: “the same rational formula explains a thing and its privation” (Aristotle 7 cited Hamburger 1971, p. 54). Unless a man knows which road is right he cannot point infallibly to the wrong road. A vicious man might do the right thing by mistake. Perhaps only a polite man has the delicacy of perception required for really exquisite rudeness, and only a just man can make no mistake about what it would be most unjust to do. If individuals omit to note the sense in which moral virtue is not a power of opposites, people are failing to credit Aristotle with the discovery of an important dissimilarity between virtue and any art. Joachim, in his commentary, also attempts to connect Aristotle’s doctrine of rational and irrational powers with his account of ethical virtue (Sherman 1999, p. 12).

Virtue for Aristotle is a state of character which manifests itself in choice or preference. Preference is thus a desire, following on deliberation, to initiate a change judged to be in power. There is much in what Aristotle says about preference which suggests that he has in mind, not a desire which precedes action, but rather the action itself considered, in abstraction from its aspect as an event in the physical world, as the experienced activity of the agent. Preference “is thought to be most closely Aristotle’s ‘preference” (Aristotle 1, cited Urmson 2003, p. 54). so understood, is an act of choosing or willing, an initiation which, when it issues in change or the prevention of change, is what people call an action. Here again, people are confronted by a difficult question of interpretation. The understanding of the process may be helped by reflection on the variety of possible motives, or motive factors. There are motives and sentiments which would generally be regarded as higher than the mere desire to avoid material penalties but still as falling short of the truly moral motive: patriotism, for example, and the desire to be well thought of by others, especially one’s immediate circle of relatives, friends, and professional colleagues, and perhaps by oneself (Hamburger 1971, p. 55).

Critics (Sherman 1999p. 76) have seen that, according to Aristotle, virtues and vices are acquired personal qualities. A personal quality can be defined only in terms of its actual manifestations, and such a definition is expressed in hypothetical statements mentioning the conditions of these manifestations. For example, to say that glass is brittle is to say that, if it is struck with a hammer, it breaks. To say that something is elastic is to say that, if pushed and pulled, it will change in shape but will revert to its original shape if the pushing and pulling are discontinued (Kraut 2006, p. 49). Brittleness and elasticity are physical dispositions in the sense that the changes which have to be mentioned in defining these qualities are all physical changes. Nervousness, on the other hand, would not be classed as a physical quality or disposition. A shy man will indeed dodge to avoid a meeting or blush when addressed. But the manifestations of shyness include thoughts and feelings as well as bodily changes and movements. Let us speak of dispositions as psychical when their manifestations are not exclusively physical. Virtues and vices are psychical dispositions, states of the soul (Oakley 2001, p. 87).

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One reason why Aristotle’s account of the good man cannot be expected to satisfy us is that moral ideas have a historical context in the societies of their time. But there is a further reason for the fact that Aristotle’s descriptions of virtues and vices may strike us as deficient in profundity and insight (Kraut 2006, p. 66). Ethics starts with a consideration of outcomes. Aristotle thus recognizes that the most important difference between one man and another is a difference between the objects which they value and seek to achieve. This defense of Aristotle is valid so far as it goes. But it does not go very far. For it must be admitted that the portrait gallery of virtuous and vicious characters stands alongside his account of human nature in terms of ends without the two accounts being integrated; their mutual relations are not made clear. In this sense, Aristotle’s view of conduct and character is a patchwork rather than a unified whole. As people have seen, his theory of moral education and development is sketchy. It consists of the observation that repeated performances make tasks easier together with some casual indications of the motives which may play a part in the acquisition of virtue. But, if there is a gap here in Aristotle’s theory, it is a gap which the philosophers and educationists who have succeeded him have not satisfactorily filled (Oakley 2001, p. 87).

Critics *Sherman 1999, p. 16) underline that enough to doubt the wisdom of ancestors, but not enough to feel confident in new prescriptions. Perhaps the main advance in educational theory made in this century has been that people have come to understand more clearly the difficulty of discovering how best to prepare the young for the successful pursuit of happiness. In different kinds of society, men have different stations and duties; but all men are alike in having responsibilities, duties to which they are attentive or which they neglect. Critics underline that it is difficult to see how the differences between social life in ancient Athens and modern England are relevant to the question, elaborately treated by Aristotle, whether, or within what limits, a man is a free agent in a sense which makes it reasonable to hold him responsible, to praise or blame him, for what he does or omits to do (Sherman 1999, p. 88).

Aristotle is formulating the criteria of ethics and virtue. He discusses two reasons which may be adduced for denying responsibility, whether what is disclaimed is the merit of a good action or the demerit of a bad one. A man may say that there was a compulsion. This disclaimer or excuse covers both cases in which he would say that he did not act at all and cases in which he would say that he acted but was ‘compelled to act as he did (Oakley 2001, p. 33). Secondly, a man may deny responsibility on the ground that the result which he is praised or blamed for producing was not intended, in the sense that it was not before his mind when he acted. What Aristotle says is that there is no responsibility when the result is due to innocent ignorance of some particular fact or facts. He implies that, because the fact, e.g. that some water had been poisoned, was not something which the agent knew, or could be expected to envisage, there could not have been any intention on his part to cause a certain result, e.g. someone’s death (Oakley 2001, p. 36).

Aristotle at the outset gives two reasons for thinking it ‘necessary’ (1109 b33) to discuss the voluntary and the involuntary: first, praise and blame are awarded to voluntary transactions, while involuntary transactions earn pardon or pity; secondly, the inquiry is “’useful also for legislators with a view to the assigning both of honors and punishments” (Aristotle 1109, cited Urmson 2003, p. 66 ). Aristotle does not say whether, or how, the criteria relevant to praise or blame in general differ from those relevant to rewards and punishments authorized by law. There are differences. For example, information that is relevant to moral appraisal, e.g. about a man’s upbringing or his emotional tendencies, may be treated as irrelevant by a judge. Conversely, in a case of an attempted crime, e.g. murder, the question of whether the attempt was successful may be important for the judge in court but irrelevant at the last judgment. Although for Aristotle the juristic interest is secondary, his discussion here starts from a juristic standpoint. The student of moral ideas must be interested in discovering what considerations are treated in the courts as relevant to guilt or innocence, or degrees of guilt or innocence. But Aristotle’s main interest is in the appropriateness and significance of the praise and blame awarded to human actions, and particulars that actions that manifest ethical dispositions (Oakley 2001, p. 54).

The compulsion, in the sense of extreme psychological pressure, even if not conclusive, is certainly strong enough to justify pity and shame. At the other end of the range of Aristotle’s so-called ‘mixed actions,’ there is no pressure of this kind. The agent, as in the case of the prudent captain, is in full command of his faculties and acts freely although after what is often a difficult assessment of pros and cons. The plea of compulsion is not that it would require a miracle of heroism for a man to hold out but that, in the special circumstances, any sensible man would have done the same (Sherman 1999, p. 72). The only question for debate is not whether the action was voluntary but whether it was justified. Aristotle admits in effect that such actions are voluntary, and indeed that they are chosen freely. Aristotle argues that the activity which brings the greatest happiness to men must be the activity which most closely resembles that of the gods. What kind of activity can people attribute to gods? Not any activity which manifests an ethical virtue; justice courage, liberality, temperance. While the generality of ethics cannot ‘reflect the complexity of particular cases’, Aristotle is ‘convinced’ that there is always ‘a right answer’ accessible, in the particular case (Oakley 2001, p. 65).

Aristotle believes that his account of the good for man can be corroborated by showing what are the partial truths conveyed by other accounts, whether popular or held by eminent thinkers.

“It is not probable that either of them should be entirely mistaken, but rather that they should be right in at least someone respect or even in most respects’ (Aristotle 62, 8).

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Aristotle tries to show how these other views confirm his own, and deals with some questions arising out of the definition of happiness. He maintains that his view is a satisfactory synthesis of the data which have impressed plain men and philosophers. Aristotle’s comments on this aspect of the human situation come uncomfortably close to the suggestion that a good man can indeed be happy on the rack if he is a very good man on a very bad rack. Moderate misfortunes will not make too much difference; real disasters can destroy happiness. He starts from what he knows as a result of having been “brought up in good habits” (Aristotle 1095 cited Urmson 2003, p. 44): he must understand and accept the moral rules of his political society if he belongs to the right sort of political society (Sherman 1999, p. 71). The arguments have, in Aristotle’s view, an important and useful part to play in ethical discussions. There is no suggestion in the text of the Ethics that dialectic is the only kind of treatment that is available to him or the only kind which he proposes to use. For the most part, Aristotle argues from premises that state his views or views which he has made his own (Urmson 2005, p. 27).

Critics do not find fault with Aristotle for being ready to abandon the attempt to understand all actions as the taking of means to ends; he was right to abandon it (Kraut 2006, p. 18). What is unsatisfactory is that having given an account of deliberation as they search for means to ends, Aristotle does not revise or expand this account to cover types of practical thinking which it does not fit (Urmson 2005, p. 87). Critics have seen in an earlier discussion that there are types which the account does not fit; the reflection which grades end within an inclusive end and the process of deciding whether some desirable end can properly be pursued by some undesirable means Politics do not contain any attempt to work out an adequate account of practical thinking; it does not formally amend the account earlier given of deliberation (Kraut 2006, p. 87). A second point to note about Aristotle’s division of virtues is that he is here silent, where silence might mislead, on the intellectual aspects of ethical virtue. It is true and important that he does not say that a man could have ethical virtue without having any intellectual virtue. To say this would not be consistent with the doctrine that the characteristic excellence of man belongs to his nature as rational. The statesman, or the writer of a treatise on statesmanship, seeks to know what are the conditions of the attainment by men of the happiness they seek. Aristotle asserts that the motive of such inquiries is not intellectual curiosity but a desire to be or to do good (Urmson 2005, p. 81).

Aristotle’s ethics and understanding of morally have a profound impact on modern ethical theory and business ethics. The law is a guarantor of social stability. If driving were not regulated people could choose which side of the street to drive on or mount the sidewalk when convenient. The law provides for collective safety and security. It has more than a stabilizing function for society–it also embodies values. Telling the truth is the root of all contracts. It is also fundamental to criminal law; that is why people swear (sometimes on the Bible) to be honest in a criminal trial. The law reflects social mores: school desegregation is an illustration. And often the law demonstrates imperfections and uncertainties (Urmson 2005, p. 66).

That is why affirmative action is such a controversial topic. Modern society and law is not yet settled on this difficult problem. The law, above all, embodies social principles, ideals that must not be violated easily or at all. People could not live in a community in which taking what one wants had no consequences. So the law is both a set of structures for social stability and a set of moral guideposts. When the law is broken in the cases that reach a court, the moral drama of a society trying to right a wrong. Individuals rarely cross the border from legal to illegal behavior. But crime is a fact of everyday life. Murder, rape, kidnapping, robbery, assault–these are widely publicized, and often the growth of such crime creates anxiety. The crime that is at once less violent, and less publicized, has (until quite recently) not been a source of much social concern. During the past decade, however, this so-called white-collar crime has moved toward the center of the social agenda (Urmson 2005, p. 22).

In sum, Aristotle’s understanding of ethics influences modern ethical values and helps to distinguish between moral virtues and wrong actions. Above all, the internal “master” of ambition exercises its power. Thought and reflection on matters of law and ethics sometimes come in at last place when ambition is excessive. A complete ethical relativism is almost unworkable. Ethics show that people must calculate the consequences of actions with a mind toward maximizing the good for the many, and not just for ourselves. This sense of moral community, of course, is the basis of most organized religions, though one needs to have no special proclivity toward orthodoxy to develop a sense of social responsibility. Philosophers refer to the idea of unanticipated consequences of singular acts as the slippery slope concept. Simply put, ethical professionals must worry about precedents. Aristotle does not make clear his reason for the remark that the action chosen is chosen in preference to other alternatives. Perhaps he means merely that, since choice involves thought, it is appropriate that the word for it should suggest the thoughtful discrimination of alternatives. Aristotle has said that what is chosen is the means to an end, but different people try to find goodness in different things, and some ends, those of bad men, appear good when they are not.

Works Cited

  1. Aristotle, “Politics”, in The Politics of Aristotle, ed. and trans., Ernest Barker Ernest Barker. New York: Oxford University Press, 1962.
  2. Hamburger, M. Morals and Law: The Growth of Aristotle’s Legal Theory. Biblo and Tannen, 1971.
  3. Kraut, R. The Blackwell Guide to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Wiley-Blackwell, 2006.
  4. Oakley, J., Cocking, D. Virtue Ethics and Professional Roles. Cambridge University Press, 2001.
  5. Sherman, N. Aristotle’s Ethics: Critical Essays. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1999.
  6. Urmson, J. Aristotle’s Ethics. Wiley-Blackwell, 2001.

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