Aristotle was an ancient Greek philosopher who lived from 384 to 322 BCE. He is widely considered to be one of the greatest figures in the history of philosophy, with treatises spanning all the way from aesthetics to metaphysics. However, he is perhaps best known for his ethical system, which he expounds in the Nicomachean Ethics. This system of virtue ethics focuses on the character of the moral agent, rather than the types of acts said agent ought to perform. This is because Aristotle believed it impossible to establish a completely objective and universal set of ethical rules. Accordingly, most of the doctrines found in his virtue ethics are flexible and, in a sense, relativistic.
The ultimate aim of ethics, says Aristotle, is “eudaimonia”, which can be roughly translated to mean “happiness” or “flourishing”. In order to demonstrate this, he employs a teleological argument. Teleological arguments assume that there is some function or purpose inherent in the world (or at least a particular part of it). Accordingly, Aristotle claims that just as a shoe has the function of shielding and insulating the feet, and a shoemaker has the function of manufacturing such shoes, man (sic) must have a function too. He determines that this function or end is eudaimonia or flourishing. However, it is a misconception to view eudaimonia as a point to be reached, rather it is something that characterizes one’s total life. As such, one can never pass in and out of eudaimonia, but one can pass in and out of the path that yields it.
The Doctrine of the Mean
Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean (aka the golden mean) is often misunderstood to signify a life of moderation. However, while this may be true in certain cases, the doctrine in general does not prescribe anything so concrete. Rather, the golden mean urges us to always engage in every activity to the right amount. That is, such that we do not engage in said activity with excess or deficiency. What constitutes the mean will differ between agents and between situations. Aristotle prescribes various procedures to aid in this determination, but describing them here would be excessive and thereby violate the doctrine of the mean :P.
Aristotle claims that the virtuous agent should not merely perform virtuous acts, but should enjoy performing them. Likewise, one should feel aversion when performing base acts. Anyone who does not experience these reactions is defective and must have had a distorted upbringing. Accordingly, he contends that these proper responses to virtuous and base acts can be cultivated through habituation; proper education, says Aristotle, should facilitate this habituation process.
The Good Life
Several common conceptions of the good life are enumerated and critiqued in the Nichomachean Ethics, the good life being that which most effectively leads to eudaimonia. One is the life of pleasure, which Aristotle discards as fleeting and contingent, since there are many situations and constitutions that don’t allow for pleasure and even when a pleasurable act is successfully performed it does not yield a lasting benefit. Additionally, a life of pleasure seems compatible with sleep, and according to Aristotle things active are superior to things passive, so this also counts against it. Another is the life of honor, which Aristotle also denies, saying that it is dependent upon the perception of the public, since one can only have honor if one is honored. He claims that the best way of life must not be contingent, so the life of honor cannot be the good life. Furthermore, a life of honor seems compatible with a life of treachery, since one can acquire honor undeserved. He concludes that the good life is the contemplative life, or the life of reason, for it can be pursued and maintained independent of any peripheral circumstances; also, it is reason that characterizes humanity and separates us from the “lower animals”. However, Aristotle believed that all of these ways of life should be pursued to some degree, so he was against the ascetic lifestyle of complete renunciation. He believed that eudaimonia required a mixture of pleasure, honor, and reason, among other things, prioritized properly.
Aristotle devised an ethical system that still holds immense influence today, though it is typically superseded by those of Mill and Kant. I believe Joey has already submitted a post on Kantian ethics, so I recommend that anyone who wants a more comprehensive understanding of major trends in ethical thought refer to that in addition to this article. I expect to be composing an article on Mill’s Utilitarianism in the near future, so together these should provide a helpful glimpse into ethics through history. I hope this was informative 😛