There are many aspects to consider when one is engaging in a definition of something as amorphous and subjective as ethics. What might be an ethical move in one case may prove to be disastrously unethical in another. Not only does the outcome depend on the specific situation involved – for instance returning stolen property to its rightful owner may not be ethical if that owner intends to use the stolen weaponry to wage all out war on innocent, peace-loving people – but, according to some philosophers will depend upon the intent with which the action was undertaken. For example, Kant claims that a person who helps others, with pleasure, from motives of natural sympathy displays no moral worth, while a person who lacks any natural inclination to help others, but nevertheless does so, from the motive of duty, does display moral worth. Thus, the same action performed for the same people may be considered moral if it is done in a spirit of duty while it might be considered immoral if it is performed from a spirit of pleasure in helping others. This stance seems perhaps too stringent in its application of the concept of morality as it may be that the person who derives pleasure from helping is also helping from a sense of moral duty to his/her fellow man. To help enlighten this concept further, it is helpful to take a look at one of the world’s first moralists, Aristotle, to determine what his stand might have been on the subject.
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Of the ancient Greek philosophers, it is rarely disputed that Aristotle has been particularly influential in the development of civilization. Much of his work is dedicated to determining those elements that characterize a virtuous man and, by extension, a virtuous and just society. Within his book Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle outlines many of his ideas regarding virtue, but they are often presented in very abstract terms that make reading by a modern audience difficult to understand as well as to implement in daily life. This difficulty of implementation is not just the result of vast differences in time and social development, but was probably equally difficult to apply in Aristotle’s time as these ideas were most likely also difficult for ancient readers to fully grasp. That this might have been the case is evidenced in the volume of text Aristotle produced in trying to make his ideas clear for his audience. Rather than attempting to conceive his entire book or explain his concepts in full detail, it is therefore helpful to restrict the conversation to a single element of Aristotle’s thought. As it is explained in Nicomachean Ethics, one of the primary elements of a virtuous man in Aristotle’s view is that he also be a courageous man, which can be related back to Kant in the form of intent upon acting. By examining the more specific elements of what Aristotle felt would constitute a courageous man, one can begin to gain insight into his conceptions of what it took to be a virtuous man and thus understand how he might have responded to Kant’s claim regarding the importance of intent in forming the basis of determining whether a specific action is virtuous or not. As an example of the level of detail Aristotle provided regarding his ideas, this single concept of courage as an element of virtue comprises three full chapters to the subject, giving sufficient definition to make this application.
Aristotle bases his ideas of courage upon the same sort of inner intent upon which Kant bases his ideas of virtue. In defining the term, Aristotle indicates courage is something that exists somewhere between the state of fear and the state of recklessness. To be sure everyone understands him correctly, Aristotle then finds it necessary to provide a more complete idea of what he means when he uses these two additional terms. Fear, he says, is the individual’s natural physical, mental and emotional reaction to those things that are ‘evil to all men.’ However, it is possible to mistake those things that are ‘evil to all men’ as individuals have a great tendency to ascribe fear to the wrong object at the wrong place in the wrong context or at the wrong time. There is no need to feel fear of a bus, for instance, unless it is speeding toward you as you stand in the center of a crosswalk with your shoe caught in a pothole – these are very specific qualifications which qualify one’s fear of a bus as reasonable and natural when it would otherwise be ridiculous. According to Aristotle, a courageous man is one who “will face them [these fears] as he ought and as the rule directs, for honor’s sake; for this is the end of virtue” (Book 3, Chapter 7). In making this statement, Aristotle makes a distinction between the courageous man who faces true danger and the one who simply faces imagined concerns and thus introduces the idea that the difference between a courageous man and a coward is the difference in his perception or his intent. “For the brave man feels and acts according to the merits of the case and in whatever way the rule directs” (Book 3, Chapter 7). It would seem from this argument that Aristotle would agree with Kant’s assessment that intent makes all the difference between a state of virtue and one of non-virtue as the similar state of courage depends entirely upon the same underlying intent rather than final outcome or actual behavior.
While it may be argued that courage and virtue are two entirely different concepts, Aristotle bring the two ideas together through his emphasis on the noble cause as an element of both. “Courage is noble. Therefore the end also is noble; for each thing is defined by its end. Therefore it is for a noble end that the brave man endures and acts as courage directs” (Book 3, Chapter 7). By focusing on the end as he does, Aristotle may be seen to be contradicting earlier conclusions that the end has little bearing on the truth of virtue or courage as all rests in the intent of the individual. However, he continues to focus on the intent of the individual as the defining characteristic even when discussing this end state as he illustrates that a man with courage “holds the middle, which is the right, position” (Book 3, Chapter 7) at all times. The end event may be the same, we will all die for instance, but the reckless individual who has no natural fear and thus no virtue has a tendency to boast, quickly getting himself into unnecessary trouble and perhaps bringing his end on prematurely. At the other end of the spectrum, the cowardly man is not capable of truly determining whether something actually represents trouble or not because he is always hiding away from it and is therefore also not virtuous. By adopting the middle road between these two reactions, the courageous man is in a position to frankly assess the situation to determine whether it holds any danger for him or not and then will act appropriately with or without fear as a matter of honor and nobility, characteristics that Aristotle indicates are key elements of the virtuous character.
As a result, even when he seems to be arguing against Kant’s conception that the intent of the action makes the difference between whether it is considered virtuous or not, Aristotle’s ideas of the virtuous man strongly support Kant’s claims that intent is an essential element in determining the virtuous character. Aristotle does differ slightly from Kant’s position in holding that the external elements of the situation also factor in strongly in determining whether a man is courageous or virtuous as he must be able to walk the middle road between the various extremes and position himself accordingly. In asserting this, he indicates that virtue is not defined by absolute restrictions such as that made by Kant. After all, who can fully engage in humanitarian activity without feeling some pleasure and satisfaction, even if it is merely the pleasure and satisfaction of knowing that personal feeling was sacrificed for the greater good? Aristotle seemed to understand that feeling cannot be fully divorced from action and allowed for it in his theory while Kant seems to indicate that any sense of personal pleasure in the virtuous act renders virtue null and void in that instance, in which case it might be argued that there can be no virtuous act committed by man.