Aristotle was one of the most influential philosophical writers of all time.  He was the student to Plato, who was in turn the student of Socrates.  Writings only exist from Plato and Aristotle because Socrates never wrote any works, however Plato’s dialogs thoroughly document conversations and arguments made by Socrates during his lifetime.  When Aristotle was 17 he went to learn at the Plato’s Academy.  Aristotle went on to write on a multitude of topics both in the realm of philosophy and the natural sciences (which in his time were closely related).  The ethical theory he developed is the basis for many contemporary ethical theories and it consists of what he described as the cultivation of moral character through virtues.  The virtues, put simply, are character traits which a morally good agent has cultivated and exercises often.  Importantly, virtues are characteristics which lie between two vices, for instance Bravery is the virtuous characteristic that lies between cowardice and rashness. Aristotle held that by cultivating the means on this spectrum of character traits, a person necessarily becomes a virtuous or morally sound agent.

One interesting fact about Aristotle and Plato comes from Rafael’s painting “The School of Athens” which depicts Aristotle and Plato.  In the painting they face each other, one with his hand to the sky and one with his hand out to the world.  These gestures are symbolic of the diametrically opposed philosophical viewpoints to which they subscribed.  Plato subscribed to a theory of the forms, in which the highest reality was found through the divine forms. This was a reality unknowable to us seen in examples such as the form of justice or beauty.  Aristotle on the other hand, believed that philosophy was practical, world-based, and that its reality was all around us.

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4 responses »

  1. Jim says:

    I became interested in Aristotle after a course I took called contemporary ethical theory through the philosophy department. After taking the course I have to say that there are some aspects of Aristotle’s virtue ethics which I admire and find to be valuable. I think that both consequentialist and deontological theories fail and I think it can be seen that each is strong where the other theory is week. Consequentialist always keep the ends in mind, in their attempt to maximize societal good, however, they run into road blocks when there is not enough information to make an informed decision. Deontological theories on the other hand, do not fall victim to a lack of information, but instead can provide answers to almost any moral question by following explicit moral rules. Deontology fails because there are situations in which we would seem to be obligated to behave in a way which violates our most innate sense of good (Jews and Nazis situation).
    I think that Aristotle’s virtue ethics has both its strength and weakness in its reliance on human judgment. A proponent of virtue ethics does not follow certain laws, but instead tries to act a brave, or just, or humble agent would in any given situation. They do not submit their situation to a series of tests, but only ask, what would the brave person do in this situation and then they attempt to cultivate the characteristic of bravery by emulating that hypothetical person. I think that this system of ethics is the most practical, however I believe that from a societal viewpoint it is still insufficient. I trust my own moral judgment, and most of my friends’, on what a brave agent would do in a situation, however there are instances in which bravery can be used to do horrible things. One might argue that acts of terrorism require bravery, but acts of terrorism are moral abhorrent and thus acts of bravery do not always constitute morally good acts. My objection to virtue ethics is this: the virtues do not necessitate moral goodness, but there are situations in which in order to behave morally one must have properly cultivated Aristotle’s virtues. We must have already cultivated modesty, honesty, and bravery so that we can apply them when morality demands them of us.

  2. Jordi says:

    I like both sections. No need for the comment not to be folded into the above. If you still have the syllabus from that class, shoot it to me sometime.

    The reliance of Aristotle on finding the midpoint between extremes is an excellent point; however, I wonder if it is the same as what Hegel and then Marx, called dialectics. Does bravery emerge as the synthesis of rashness and cowardice?

    Aristotle’s approach is grounded in particular contexts; it is about judgement. Those two features make it a good fit for many management situations. The social scientist in me wants to ask: where do the values come from? Do they change?

    • Jim says:

      I’ve been thinking more about the origins of our values and it brings to mind an issue that has interested me for a while which is the origins of our moral understanding. When I was taking my ethics class I began to think about the way we as adults reason morally and the way we teach our children to reason and I think they are very different. I also think that this difference becomes problematic later in life.
      My theses is that we teach children rule-based ethics. We tell stories like the boy who cried wolf and children are supposed to walk away knowing that lying is wrong. But then later on in life we show them examples of where lying would actually be good, such as in the situation with the Jews in the attic during Nazi Germany. In most cases I think the disconnect does not create a problem, however I do believe that in our early years while we are forming these first beliefs about morality, we are at the same time educating our emotions to align good moral actions to good emotions and vice versa. Therefore I believe that we start to feel emotional effects later in life when morality obligates us to break these rules we used to believe in.
      Take a justified war for instance (if you believe that exists). In this war you truly believe in your cause and that it is just. You understand that you will be asked to kill the enemy in the name of this cause and you rationalize this to yourself and go ahead and do so. It is no secret however that killing causes serious emotional implications to veterans of war and I think this is connected back to the fact that very early in our childhood we are told that causing other people to suffer is wrong and we learn to feel deeply sorry for doing so. Therefore even though we have found complex “adult ways” of justifying breaking our original moral rules, we cannot escape the emotional attachment we have connected to certain actions and end up emotionally damaged as a result.
      I just thought I’d see if you had any thoughts on this. I’m just very interested in the development of moral conviction over a lifetime.

  3. Jim says:

    The books we read for the class were:
    The Sources of Normativity – Korsgaard
    On Virtue Ethics – Hursthouse
    After Virtue – MacIntyre

    I had never heard of dialectics, but I looked them up. What you proposed isn’t really my understanding of virtue ethics. I want to reject it on the grounds that Aristotle wouldn’t describe a virtue as the correct recipe of the two vices which it straddles, but perhaps I am creating a distinction that doesn’t truly exist.

    In response to your question about the sources of our values, I think that MacIntyre’s view of virtue ethics is extremely compelling. In particular he talks about viewing a person’s morality in the context of their life. He claimed that moral acts were not to viewed in a vacuum, but were events taking place within a person’s moral narrative. I think that the source of our values is also a part our moral narrative and I think that much like each person has a narrative, the morality of the communities we are member to also has an every evolving narrative. And I hope that it is one which continually improves, but one could certainly find evidence to the contrary.

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