Aristotle’s Teleological Understanding of Ethics as Virtue in Modern Society

The idea of interpreting the nature of ethics as teleological dates back to the era of Ancient Greece, yet the understanding of ethics as a teleological notion still echoes in contemporary society. At its core, teleological ethics on which Aristotle’s philosophy based can be traced in the contemporary interpretation of morality. The very concept of teleological ethics as purported in Aristotle’s readings is rooted in the notion of the end goals justifying the choices made to address an ethical concern.

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The described reasoning can be seen as a sensible platform for decision-making in the modern context. Although, in its raw form, Aristotelian teleological virtue ethics may imply certain lack of flexibility in outlining future progress of the humankind due to presumed inherent restrictions of the human nature, the opportunity to shape one’s moral perspective to build a set of ethical principles can be useful in modern society.

When evaluating the utility of Aristotle’s teleological ethics for contemporary society, one will have to consider the biological aspect of the argument. Translating the notions of teleology into bioethics, one will have to concede that it may cause quite unpredictable effects on the way in which people perceive human nature and any attempts at changing it. For instance, D’Ambrosio et al. posit that “Aristotle’s teleology assumes that everything in nature has specific purposes – therefore, there is nothing vain in nature” (193). Seemingly innocent at first sight, the described statement may lead to vast alterations to the perception of human biology as an intrinsic part of anthropology.

To be more specific, the idea that every aspect of the human nature has a purpose and, thus, should be seen as an inseparable part of a single entity may turn out to be harmful in some scenarios. The described stance, which can also be deemed as the “science of final causes,” may imply that any change to the human being and, by extent, human nature, is unreasonable (D’Ambrosio et al. 195). The identified position may devalue and disprove any chance for the future development and cancel the chance to forward the development of the human race.

In modern society, Aristotle’s statement concerning the nature of a human being may be seen as quite acceptable given the focus on equal opportunities for everyone, including people that can be described as underprivileged.

On a larger scale, the assumption that justice should lie at the foundation of human nature is perceived can be viewed as an integral part of contemporary social relationships. In this regard, Aristotle’s perception of anthropology as the platform for interpreting the phenomenon of human nature requires closer consideration. Aristotle makes it abundantly clear that people are not predisposed to either sin or virtue inherently to any extent’ quite the contrary, people need to grow personally and spiritually to develop the moral compass that will point them to the right decisions. Specifically, Aristotle states:

If then, as we suggested, virtues are voluntary (because we are in some way particularly responsible for our states of character, and it is by our being the kind of people that we are that we assume such and such is our end), vices also will be voluntary; they are on the same footing. (47)

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Therefore, in some respect, the application of Aristotle’s perspective on human nature and the role of anthropology in shaping ethics could be seen as somewhat beneficial. It gives people the agency to choose between moral and immoral. Moreover, adopting the approach of virtue ethics based on Aristotle’s teachings, one will have to assume the stance that can be described as highly objective, which is important in the modern context of social interactions.

For example, when considering different constituents of ethics, such as the virtue of being a generous person, Aristotle never encourages his reader to fall into either of the extremes, conveying the importance of moderation. According to the philosopher, “Things that have a use can be used for both well and badly” (Aristotle 39).

Nonetheless, the limitations to Aristotle’s perspective on anthropology as the foundation for ethical standards could use some criticism. For instance, the stance that the philosopher takes when defining human nature makes the perspective of further development slightly questionable. According to Aristotle, “No one deliberates about certain things, such as the universe, or the fact that the diagonal is incommensurable with the side” (p. 42).

Thus, the author clearly delineates the boundary for the development of the humankind by claiming that there are matters that are inconceivable for the human mind. Consequently, by setting boundaries to the extent of the human understanding of different phenomena and notions, one will inevitably succumb to logical fallacies in decision-making due to the limited experience or lack of understanding of a problem.

At the same time, a thorough exploration of the extent of people’s powers and how they can be applied to address an ethical dilemma fits the modern context of managing ethical dimensions during decision-making quite well. According to Aristotle, the development of inquiry and analysis is the key steps toward building an ethical system: “Sometimes the question is the mans, sometimes how they are to be used or the means to that use” (Aristotle 43).

Therefore, the principles of Aristotelian ethics would be quite suitable for modern society, as a whole, and specific areas of people’s interactions, in particular. It is quite remarkable that Aristotle himself refers to the issue of bioethics in his contemplations concerning the role of anthropology. In his work, the philosopher states the following: “[…] a doctor does not deliberate whether to cure, nor an orator whether to persuade” (Aristotle 43). Thus, the idea of using the utilitarian perspective as the main reasoning behind ethical decision-making can be seen as a critical aspect of modern society.

The focus on justice as a critical constituent of ethics, in general, and an ethical decision-making process, in particular, is inherent to modern society. Shaping the approach to ethics that was promoted by the church and emphasizing the importance of the Christian tradition, the application of teleological ethics has affected the perception of a human being by acknowledging one’s potential to become better and improve one’s ethical stance, thus developing the virtues needed to make good choices that benefit others. Thus, virtue transcends cultural boundaries in Aristotelian tradition: “Virtue is cultivated but it is a quality more general than specific and it is open to circumstances, including the circumstance of meeting people from other traditions” (Lambek 230).

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The attempt to appeal to the potential for redemption and ultimate personal and moral growth in people that Aristotelean teleological ethics contains has also been recognized by Wells: “It restores baptism, rather than birth, as the entry point to the body in question. Because of this it attends to Aristotle’s notion of virtue” (10). Put differently, the application of Aristotelian principles of ethics evokes the continuous discussion about nature and nurture, emphasizing the doubtless superiority of the latter.

However, some aspects of Aristotle’s notion of teleological ethics seem alien to the modern perception of ethics as a virtue. For example, according to Coyne, “we must not conflate – as so many philosophers do – the specific rejection of species essentialism with one of natural teleology in all its forms” (2). The presence of constitutive egotism in organisms and, therefore, in people, does not allow focusing on the utilitarian aspects of possible outcomes of specific decisions dully. Thus, the presence of what Coyne defined as the “needful freedom” restricts the application of teleology to the problems of ethics and especially bioethics in contemporary society (Coyne 2).

Nevertheless, the overall idea of introducing the Utilitarianism perspective into the framework of societal interactions seems to be retrofitted into the new social context quite well. For example, Aristotle states that, due to people’s limited perspective, they can only do so much as to “deliberate about what is in our power, that is, what we can do; this is what remains” (Aristotle 42). Thus, Aristotelian ethics as the reinforcement of personal responsibility and the opportunity to evaluate the extent of one’s power in decision-making would be an important component of modern society and the promotion of well-being on local and global levels.

Despite containing several ideas that might be contradictory to the modern perception of ethics, Aristotelian philosophy based on the idea of teleology may prompt a positive development in the modern social discourse. By incorporating the Aristotelean interpretation of anthropology into contemporary society, one will have to focus on the assets that one has and the usefulness that one can bring to the community. While there are certain restrictions to the Teleological principles that Aristotle set, such as the possibility of stifling progress due to the inability to embrace the notions that currently seem incomprehensible, teleology as an introduction to virtue ethics has the right to exist in the modern world (Baumane-Vitolina et al. 112).

By presuming that no person is born inherently evil, one will be able to start a journey of personal development and become a decent member of society. In addition, the principles of teleology rooted in his interpretation of anthropology make Aristotle’s ethical philosophy as the continuous focus on maintaining respective values and focusing on the end result of one’s endeavors may help to forward progress and encourage a shift in conflict management on the global scale.

As the biological perspective on the anthropological issues and the nature of the human being has shown, contemporary society can gain significant benefits from the essentials of teleological virtue ethics being integrated into its system. Viewing every person as a fallible human being, who can yet learn how to act in a civilized society and become responsible for one’s own actions will help to address problems of ethical nature. Moreover, it will prompt the approach toward decision-making that will help to locate rational solutions that are beneficial to all those involved.

Similarly to other ethical ideas that originate from the era of Ancient Greek philosophers, Aristotle’s teleological perspective has affected the development of modern ethical standpoints and, in certain cases, can be applied to resolve contemporary ethical issues. Moreover, promoting the idea of Aristotle’s teleology as the extension of virtue ethics and the focus on the utilitarian perspective of decision-making may improve conflict management.

However, it is worth keeping in mind that some of the aspects of Aristotelean ethics may fail to withstand the scrutiny of contemporary ideas. For example, the internal contradiction between the present-day notion of unceasing development and the limitations that Aristotle’s ethics imposes on a human being may become far too great an obstacle. Nevertheless, the traces of the teleological perspective created by Aristotle will remain inherently present in a range of modern approaches toward managing ethical dilemmas, especially when considering the anthropological perspective. The philosopher created the system of ethical standards that have lasted for centuries and will continue to guide future generations.

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Works Cited

Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Edited and translated by Roger Crisp, Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Baumane-Vitolina, Ilona, et al. “Is Ethics Rational? Teleological, Deontological and Virtue Ethics Theories Reconciled in the Context of Traditional Economic Decision Making.” Procedia Economics and Finance, vol. 39, 2016, pp. 108–114. Web.

Coyne, Lewis. “The Ethics and Ontology of Synthetic Biology: a Neo-Aristotelian Perspective.” NanoEthics, 2019, pp. 1-13. Web.

D’Ambrosio, Marcela, Nelio Bizzo, and Fernando Santiago dos Santos. “Difficulties in Teaching Evolution Due to the Influence of Teleology.” Philosophy & History of Biology/Filosofia e História da Biologia, vol. 13, no. 2, 2018, pp. 191-206.

Lambek, Michael. “The Hermeneutics of Ethical Encounters.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, vol. 5, no. 2, 2015, pp. 227–250. Web.

Wells, Samuel. Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics. Brazos Press, 2004.

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