Aristotle’s Theory of Morality

Aristotle (384 BC – March 7, 322 BC) was an ancient Greek philosopher, who studied with Plato and taught Alexander the Great. Aristotle believed the task of ethics was to find the highest and best good in human life. All human activities aim at some higher end that

we consider good. For example, we study to get good grades, then to be posted to a university, and so on. Most activities are a means to a higher end. The highest human good, then, is that activity that is an end in itself, which Aristotle believes is happiness. Not simply pleasure or any kinds of subjective state, for these are all temporary. When we aim at happiness, we do so for its own sake, not because happiness helps us realize some other end. The happiness Aristotle envisions is a human being “living well” and “flourishing”, which carries connotations of success and fulfillment.

Happiness depends on living in accordance with appropriate virtues. Virtue is a disposition rather than an activity. That is, a virtuous person is naturally disposed to behave in the right ways for the right reasons, and to feel pleasure in behaving rightly. Once someone has a virtuous moral character, he will naturally be disposed to do the right things, thus making virtuous and morally correct actions. To Aristotle, ethics is not a list of dos and don’ts, nor is it merely a matter of fulfilling your duty (Kantian), not is it merely achieving the best consequences possible with your actions (the utilitarians).

Aristotle believed virtue was a mean state between the vices of excess and deficiency, in the case of any particular passion or emotion. For example, the virtuous mean of courage stands between the vices of rashness and cowardice, which represent excess and deficiency respectively. Aristotle lists the following as moral virtues: courage, temperance (moderation), liberality (moderation in giving and taking money), magnificence (correctly dealing with great wealth or power), pride (claiming what is due to you), gentleness (moderation with respect to anger), agreeableness, truthfulness, wittiness and justice.1 However not every action or passion has a mean, as some are wrong no matter what the situation, such as theft, murder, arson. It is not possible to be right with regard to these actions, one must always be wrong.

The Aristotelian ethics is advantageous in the sense that they are generally easy to apply, and are more accurate in reality. For example, being virtuous is the most important goal of a human being’s life. Also, it is easy to follow the theory of ‘vices of excess and deficiency’ and apply it in real life. Aristotle assumes the ability of the virtuous person to recognize the best course of action, and a person’s pursuit of eudaimonia (happiness), rightly conceived, will result in virtuous conduct.

However, there are some weaknesses in the theory. Aristotle states that living according to virtues is often not enough to guarantee a happy life. Another prerequisite (in addition to virtuous behaviour) is good fortune which brings one the goods necessary, but not sufficient, for a happy life. Another prerequisite for a happy life is health, which is also desired for its own sake. For Aristotle even the most virtuous of men can be denied happiness through the whims of fortune. As a consequence, one cannot be sure of achieving happiness until one’s life is fully played out. It can also be inferred that living a good life does not only require behaving virtuously, but also requires some strokes of good fortune or even luck. This can be perceived to be a weakness, or inconsistency in the theory, as Aristotle firmly advocates that virtue alone brings happiness. However he also acknowledges the weakness in the theory.

I feel that his theory on ethics is one of the best ones we can follow as it is thorough in almost all aspects, and also strives for the best good for the human being (achieving eudaimonia). The ‘Golden Mean’ Theory is also highly accurate in real life, albeit the few exceptions which are always wrong (e.g. theft). It is a highly efficient guide to pursuing the best moral character possible.

Sources:

1 “Aristotle lists the following as moral virtues: courage, temperance (moderation), liberality (moderation in giving and taking money), magnificence (correctly dealing with great wealth or power), pride (claiming what is due to you), gentleness (moderation with respect to anger), agreeableness, truthfulness, wittiness and justice.” –
Adapted from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicomachean_Ethics

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