Ethics and Morality as Philosophical Concepts: Definitions According to Aristotle, Dante, and Kant

Enlightenment According to Kant


According to Immanuel Kant, enlightenment is a “man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage” (Kant What is Enlightenment? 1). Kant can be deemed as the pioneer of the described mode of thinking, with his notion of Enlightenment being the result of the ultimate freedom trumping the rest of the theories that had emerged in philosophy by then. Kant’s method based on inquiry and a skeptic stance allowed to make discoveries about oneself, society, and the nature of reality, in general.

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Kant also shed a substantial amount of light on the question about the nature of Enlightenment as the process of personal growth and the need to abandon any semblance of immaturity. Kant states that the key idea of the Enlightenment is for the man to shake the shackles of their perceived nonexistence off and emerge as a critical and even skeptical individual who questions the nature of reality and is ready to embrace the notion of skepticism.


Kant’s concept of the Enlightenment consists of the ideas of the good principle and inquiry. The notion of the human nature is intrinsically connected to the phenomenon of the Enlightenment according to Kant. The idea of the good principle being embodied and represented as the model that one needs to follow in order to meet the perceived notion of justice and morality is one of the concepts that Kant describes in his work to further argue the significance of religious concepts in the development of ethics.

Kant insists that the idea of personal curiosity and inquisitiveness should become the basis for the progress of the humanity and the vehicle for supporting the Enlightenment. Thus, the “fundamental condition of the inquiry” to which people are disposed according to Kant is the crucial element of the Enlightenment (Kant Religion 107). ”Dare to know!,” or “Sapere aude!” is Kant’s motto of the Enlightenment (Kant What is Enlightenment? 1).

The question regarding the notion of moral religion as the centerpiece of Kant’s argument against the connection between ethics and religion is another important issue that warrants further consideration. Herein lies the significance of “the call to ”Dare to know!,” or “Sapere aude!” as Kant’s motto of the Enlightenment (Kant What is Enlightenment? 1). By introducing the concepts mentioned above, Kant develops the narrative that discloses the problematic aspects of different factors affecting the development of ethical standards in an individual and within society. Consequently, the questionable influence of religion may hinder the development of ethical standards.


According to Kant, we must rethink religion in an Age of Enlightenment by abandoning the traditional perceptions of religious dogmas as the ultimate source of moral lessons and the development of key virtues, one will be able to embrace the notion of ethics and eventually reach the state of Enlightenment. Kant’s motto makes one rethink religion in the Age of Enlightenment because he questions the boundaries of intellectual curiosity and the process of acquiring knowledge, thus conflicting with the “Sapere aude!” motto (Kant What is Enlightenment? 1). Specifically, Kant emphasizes that the contract between Christians and a church rooted in doctrines immediately leads to the cessation of any progress toward Enlightenment.

Moreover, Kant suggests that the idea of the Enlightenment as the community of people undertaking “in the disposition of the Son of God” is incompatible with the notion of Christianity as people guided by a set of Christian dogmas (Kant “Religion” 106). Specifically, the idea of virtue as the force that exists within an individual and not defined by external power in a literal sense is at the core of Kant’s perception of Enlightenment. The lack of argument, according to Kant, is what makes religion and particularly Christianity incompatible with the notion of the Enlightenment as the process of inquiry and the liberty to question any phenomenon, idea, or belief.

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Christianity and Morality

Kant re-interprets the story of the Christianity and morality by insisting that the role of religion had to be rethought in the Age of Enlightenment to allow intellectual inquisitiveness and fulfil the “fundamental condition of the inquiry” (Kant Religion 107). Viewing Christianity as a set of restrictions of and obstacles to critical thinking and free skepticism, Kant insisted that Christianity could not be compatible with the principles of the Enlightenment.

In the philosopher’s perception of the subject matter, society should be entirely free to use the principles of reasoning and skepticism instead of believing blindly without a chance to question the legitimacy of these beliefs. As a result, individual skepticism was discouraged due to the possibility of personal biases, whereas what appeared to be the semblance of a contemporary interpretation of scientific inquiry was highly encouraged. Since the promotion of Christian dogmas in a religious society prevented the use of academic reasoning, Kant claimed that the role of Christianity should be reexamined and reduced to allow intellectual curiosity.

Similarly, when Kant reinterprets the story of Christianity through delineating the differences between the Christian perception of ethics and morality as a social construct. Perpetuating the idea of the moral absolute, Kant claims that the notion of morality is tied intrinsically to the phenomenon of reason. Thus, he reinterprets the role of Christianity as a tool for promoting high morals and introduction of ethics to society by turning the Christian church into the “useful church” (Wells 5).

Therefore, when failing to support people’s need for cognition and knowledge, the church needs to restrict its influence and allow people to fulfil the “fundamental condition of the inquiry” (Kant Religion 107). Herein lies the necessity to rethink the role of Christianity and the notion of the “useful Church” in shaping morality in the age of Enlightenment (Wells 5).

Aristotle’s Theory of Ethics

Goals of Ethics

In Aristotle’s philosophy, the goal of ethics is to attain happiness. While representing a rather complex system of philosophical constructs, the theory of ethics created by Aristotle conveys a rather simple and basic end goal of being happy as the ultimate objective. According to the philosopher, the described goal can be achieved by attaining multiple objectives, some of which include the concepts such as virtue and justice.

While the former is self-explanatory, the latter is believed to be the very foundation for ethics as a system to exist (Aristotle 80). According to the philosopher, “Justice, in this sense, is, then, complete virtue, not without qualification, but in relation to another person” (Aristotle 81). Therefore, the notion of justice is viewed as a social construct and as the vehicle for managing relationships within a society to ensure that one should not succumb to “wickedness in relation to himself and in relation to his friends” (Aristotle 81). Delineating virtue and vice clearly, Aristotle also connects it directly to people’s actions, thus placing ethics in the context of social relationships and making it easily applicable to conflicts within a society.

Characteristic Activity of Human Beings

Voluntary exchange is the characteristic activity of human beings according to Aristotle. Communication is an essential process in which any human being has to engage in order to evolve. The attempt at reciprocating the actions taken by an individual and, thus, establishing a voluntary exchange can be deemed as the main characteristic activity of people in Aristotle’s philosophy. Being deemed as the characteristic activity of people, it implies the presence of gain and loss in Aristotle’s perspective (86).

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Thus, the philosopher introduces the figure of a judge as the mediator of communication as an essential figure that has to maintain control to ensure fairness: “In voluntary transactions, the just is a mean between some kind of gain and loss; it consists in having an equal amount both before and after the transaction” (Aristotle 86). Therefore, the author sets clear boundaries in the perception of justice as the cornerstone of ethically justified relationships within society.

Methods for Achieving Virtue

Aristotle sees maintaining justice as the method for human beings to achieve virtue. Therefore, remaining just is regarded as the foundational guide to becoming virtuous in Aristotle’s philosophy. The focus on remaining fair and maintaining justice is believed to be the endeavor at exercising virtue “in the fullest sense” (Aristotle 81). Consequently, meeting the principles of justice, particularly, social one, is deemed as the cornerstone of virtuousness in Aristotle’s philosophy. Specifically, the philosopher posits that “The worst person is the one who exercises his wickedness in relation to himself and in relation to his friends” (Aristotle 81).

Moreover, viewing the notion of justice as a compound, Aristotle explicitly states that a line has to be drawn between injustice and wickedness. Aristotle emphasizes the fact that the two phenomena are not directly related and that justice should be explored separate from the problem of wickedness in social relationships.

Cardinal Virtues

According to Aristotle, the cardinal virtues include justice, temperance, prudence, and fortitude, which are related as the components of Aristotle’s notion of happiness. In the philosopher’s interpretation, justice takes a special place in the four virtues that Aristotle outlines as the crucial components of one’s morals. The general argument supported by Socrates and the Stoics asserted that the four virtues in question allow one to reach the state of happiness to develop a sense of ethics. The four components are related to each other by being the constituents of wisdom. Thus, the four virtues are interrelated, justice being encouraged by prudence, temperance, and fortitude.

Dissecting the four concepts listed above, one needs to focus specifically on justice as one of the central notions in Aristotle’s philosophy. Justice as one of the central elements of the Aristotelian debate is naturally one of the critical cardinal virtues, whereas the concept of temperance is expected to support it. Temperance is another quality that needs to be fostered in people in order to promote the development of ethical principles, along with fortitude, which is expected to assist in fighting the temptation to deviate from the virtuous path. Nowadays, the ideas supported by the Stoics might seem slightly naïve, yet, at the time when they were voiced, the innovativeness of thinking and its scale were immense.

Virtue and Character Transformation

According to Aristotle, exercise of the virtues lead to the transformation of one’s character by encouraging the continuous development. In Aristotle’s perspective, virtues are defined not only as separate entities and the constituents of a greater notion of morals, but also as the stages of character building. Thus, with the development of a new virtue, one molds one’s character and transforms it to embrace the notion of virtue and abandon the desires that lead to sin.

In addition, when approaching Aristotle’s philosophy, one should keep in mind that virtues are viewed as an essential part of the human nature and, in essence, of one’s soul. Consequently, using the reasoning of the philosopher himself, it would be logical to infer that virtues are an inseparable part of one’s character (Aristotle 85). Thus, acquiring new virtues is inherently tied to the notion of character development and associated with approaching the ultimate goal of moral development.

Moral Philosophy and the Arrangement of Dante’s Hell

Basic Arrangement

Dante arranges his hell in nine circles to represent his moral philosophy. With each circle, sins become more gruesome and despicable. The Limbo is the first circle inhabited by the people that were never baptized into Christianity and infants who have never sinned. The second circle is represented by the sin of lust, whereas the third one embodies the sin of gluttony (Alighieri 88). In the fourth circle, the sinners punished for their gluttony and hoarding habits suffer, while the fifth circle is filled with the people that are prone to wrath. The city of Dis, on which circles six to nine are located, shows the atrocities of heretics, violent people (embodied by Cacus), and traitors.

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While the concept of Dante’s hell has been firmly incorporated into the modern culture, with most people having become quite familiar with its basic premise, a closer look at its structure will help to reveal important insights about Dante’s understanding of morality and ethics. It is remarkable that, in contrast to Aristotle, who shifted the role of shaping ethics from an individual to society, Dante embraces the idea of personal responsibility fully, with treachery as the epitome of an ethically wrong choice.

Territories of Hell and Types of Sin

The arrangement of the areas into which Dante’s hell is divided follows a clearly delineated logic. There are three key territories, which are the Upper Hell (the first five circles), the Lower hell (the city of Dis and the sixth and the seventh circle), and the remaining two circles, the last one representing a pit with a literal Satan frozen into it. Thee limbo represents people that were not personally responsible for not being familiar with Christianity and its ideas.

Dante’s Hell is arranged in nine circles to create a hierarchy of sins. The Limbo is where the souls of people that were not baptized are, whereas the middle offers a ranking of the severity of sins. The final part of hell is the actual bottom and representing the ultimate evil, with Satan being frozen into it: “And I saw then what I had not before/The spiral path to our descent to torment” (Alighieri 227). The relationships between them are represented by the hierarchy of sins progressing from the lightest to the worst in terms of the possibility of forgiveness and redemption.

Purpose of the Journey

The purpose of the pilgrim’s journey through hell is to understand the importance of virtue, justice, and, ultimately, forgiveness. Dante creates a surreal setting where his version of Hell becomes all the more distinctive and realistic. However, even the descriptions of the beasts that the narrator encounters leaves a disturbing sense of realism, with the weight of moral reprehensibility for the described sins weighing not only on the permanent residents of Hell but also on the reader that may relate to their emotions, particularly, their fear. For instance, the way in which Dante depicts Geryon leaves a particularly morose impression: “And now, behold the beast with pointed tail/that passes mountains, annulling walls and weapons!” (Alighieri 223).

The fact that the creatures in the lower circles of hell in Dante’s poem deviate further from the humane form with every new circle, Geryon being the ultimate travesty of the human nature, makes the author’s argument about the nature of morality, ethics, and virtue as ultimately humane qualities all the clearer. Thus, Dante approaches Aristotle’s perspective on the development of characteristics that allow one to approach the desired state of virtue.

However, one might also argue that the ultimate goal of the narrator’s journey was to come to the conclusion that forgiveness and the possibility of redemption should be the center of ethics as the only possible way of building interpersonal relationships. Being supported by Kant later on, the introduction of the interpersonal aspect into the analysis of ethics and morality creates a teachable moment for the protagonist and the reader (Kant Religion 96).

Therefore, the ultimate purpose of the journey can be seen as the change in the reader’s perception of morality and their acceptance of virtue as the ultimate goal in their personal development: “The anguish of the souls/that are down here paints my face with pity/” (Alighieri 98). The journey helps the protagonist to accept forgiveness through the understanding of the human nature, while he learns that he is just as flawed and that sin is an inherent part of a human being.

Sin and Human Nature

While being evidently discouraging about the idea of committing a crime against the Christian ethics and succumbing to sinful behavior, Dante’s “Inferno” implicitly suggests that sin will doubtlessly remain pervasive since it is an indisputable part of the human nature. Sin affects every person disregarding of their gender, social status, or any other characteristic. For instance, Dante notices that one of the sinners “was of noble station, more than you may think” (Alighieri 215). The described stance is reminiscent of the one of Kant, who questioned the possibility of obtaining Christian values by following the example that literally cannot be attained. Thus, Dante borrows a substantial part of his philosophy from Kant’s ethics, structuring his personal journey and transforming it into his interpretation of sin and human nature.

Overall, the poem hints at the inherent dichotomy of the human nature, which incorporates the elements of both the good and evil and, thus, is predisposed in equal parts to moral and immoral deeds. The descent into hell, which Dante portrays in truly frightening detail, amplifies the importance of selecting the path of virtue as a necessary step toward salvation. In this regard, Dante both approaches the traditional Kantian perspective of Utilitarianism and distances from it since an individual is deemed as morally responsible for the failure to follow the basic principles of virtuous life, yet endeavors at fitting it into the Biblical narrative.

Definition of Justice: Aristotle, Dante, and Kant

Aristotle’s Definition

Aristotle defines justice based on lawfulness and fairness. Being rooted deeply in the idea of fairness, Aristotle’s notion of justice embodies the earliest concept of equity and lawfulness. The philosopher delineates the distinction between the lawful and the unlawful, thus stating the principles of justice within society. Remarkably, the idea of social exchange brings Aristotle to the notion of exchange, in general, and translates into economic relationships as the basic form of trading assets. Therefore, Aristotelian justice as a notion transcends the boundaries of social interactions and permeates every facet of communication, leading to the discussion of how money factor into the equation.

The philosopher posits that the introduction of the monetary aspect into the social relationships introduces commensurability as one of the possible characteristics for evaluating objects and relations between them. As Aristotle posits, “So money makes things commensurable as a measure does, and equates them; for without exchange there would be no association between people, without equality no exchange, and without communicability no equality” (89). Therefore, Aristotle emphasizes that the notion of commensurability should not be seen as a negative factor and a sign of the devaluation of ethics in society. In Aristotle’s philosophy, justice consists of equality and law.

Dante’s Definition

In contrast to Kant and Aristotle, which address the problem of justice directly and elaborate on the concept thereof in their work as a philosophical and social construct, Dante defies justice through the use of as equality in terms of crime and punishment. Although certain artistic choices may obscure the analysis of Dante’s definition of justice, one will eventually realize that the author sees the subject matter in a rather basic and rational way. Specifically, the structure of hell in Dante’s work indicates that the author insists on the degree of punishment being equal to the extent of one’s sin.

Dante approaches justice from the position of equality in its purest form and focusing on the connection between the extent to which one deviates from the path of morality and ethics and the amount of punishment that one receives as a result of the said deviant behavior. While seemingly being a simplified reiteration of the traditional Christian beliefs, the approach that Dante uses to reexamine the notion of justice suggests a profound look at one’s personal choices. For Dante, justice consists of punishment and redemption.

Kant’s Definition

Kant defines justice as the opportunity for an individual to make choices on their own volition. It is noteworthy that Kant’s interpretation of the role that the persona of Christ should play in the eyes of an individual and a community as a whole when following the principles of justice is quite skeptical in Aristotle’s traditions. For instance, Kant questions the legitimacy of introducing an ethical role model whose example is seen as so impeccable that it cannot possibly be attained.

As the philosopher posits, “The elevation of such a Holy One above every frailty of the human nature would rather, from all we can see, stand in the way of the practical adoption of the idea of such a being for our imitation” (Kant Religion 97). Therefore, adopting Kant’s more speculative and critical perspective on the role that Christian morals plays in shaping ethical principles and standards, one will have to agree that the role of religion in the subject matter is questionable.

Specifically, from Kant’s perspective, focus on religion as the primary source of ethical principles and essential guidelines would not be a legitimate step to take, at least due to the fact that it questions the possibility of ethical evolution. The latter, in turn, is deemed as the foundational principle of developing ethical standards and encouraging a conscious effort at building a system of ethical standards and a specific moral knowledge. Thus, in Kant’s perspective, justice consists of law and legal standards.

Comparing the perspective of Kant to those of Aristotle and Dante, one will realize that it represents a logical transition to questioning the role of an individual in representing a particular ethical knowledge and the process of shaping it, in general. Thus, it is questionable whether Kant’s philosophy could have the concept of hell, in general. Kant’s position on the concept of moral religion as a problematic one is also different from the one of Dante in the latter’s description of hell. Specifically, by questioning the Christian concept of morality in light of the presumable absence of free will, Kant argues that the very notion of accepting moral reprehensibility contradicts the Christian dogma concerning free will.

According to Kant, “We betray a culpable degree of moral unbelief if we do not grant sufficient authority to duty’s precepts, as originally inscribed in the heart by reason, unless they are in addition authenticated through miracles” (114-115). Therefore, Kant’s definition of justice is rooted in the principle of external freedom, which locks the subject matter in a perpetual conflict with the existing Christian dogmas and ethical standards.

Relation to Politics

Justice is related to politics through the range of power that a political figure can exert and the moral principles by which a politician is guided when exerting it. As seen in Aristotle’s analysis of ethics and morality, the subject matter is tied closely to every facet of interpersonal communication, which involve not only social interactions but also the ones observe on the political arena. Justice consists of the personal and social interpretation of accepted norms, Therefore, there is a direct relation between the principles of Aristotelian and Kantian ethics, as well as Dante’s interpretation of the subject matter, and the realm of politics.

The connection between the notions of virtue and ethics as explained by Kant, Dante, and Aristotle, and political exchange, might not seem as tangible at first, yet the further study thereof will point to the links between the studied phenomena. For instance, the Kantian perspective implies that the amount of political power that one beholds defines the extent of moral responsibility that one holds.

Works Cited

Alighieri, Dante. Dante’s Inferno. The Divine Comedy, Volume 1: Hell. Translated by Charles Eliot Norton,, 2005.

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

Kant, Immanuel. Religion within the Bounds of Reason Alone and Other Writings. 2nd ed., translated by Allen Wood and George di Giovanni, Cambridge University Press, 1998.

—. What is Enlightenment? Translated by Mary C. Smith, CUP, 1784.

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

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StudyCorgi. "Ethics and Morality as Philosophical Concepts: Definitions According to Aristotle, Dante, and Kant." August 10, 2021.


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