A Short and Brief Discussion of Plato's and Aristotle's Conceptions of Fundamental Ethics

It is quite difficult, if almost impossible, to discuss both the ethical “systems” of Plato and Aristotle without taking into account their entire philosophical worldviews, respectively.  I would like to first, very briefly and superficially, discuss both of their philosophical outlooks, or how they generally conceived of what they were each doing when “doing” philosophy.  For both, obviously, philosophy was not a differentiated, separated discipline that was entered into, discussed, and used according to situations.  Their entire projects could be said to be “philosophy”, in its etymological meaning—“love of wisdom”—because each were attempting to place answers down for specific sets of questions that seem to fall under the rubric of “philosophy:” what is the self? How do we know what we know? What is real? What is good? Etc.  Plato never really “had” a philosophy of his own, especially in his youth. His main viewpoints and positions come from his main character in many of his dialogues, Socrates.  Whether Plato interpreted Socrates’ words and ideas, or if Socrates was just a literary character that pronounced Plato’s own philosophical ideas is subject to much debate and cannot be taken up here.  I will then discuss Aristotle’s viewpoint on ethics and try to show some comparisons and contrasts with Plato’s, who was Aristotle’s teacher for roughly twenty years.  Aristotle had a much more specific, systematic discussion of ethics in his work entitled the Nicomachean Ethics.   This text, though meant to be lecture notes for his students (as all of Aristotle’s surviving texts are), is considered to the first extended discussion of ethics.  Plato, on the other hand, wrote all of his texts as dialogues between people.  One character was usually always Socrates (at least in his early dialogues), his main protagonist in his dialogues, and the others were always people who were used as specific demonstrative examples of the idea or concept that Socrates was trying to get across.  Plato, as far as we know, basically just wrote down the words of Socrates (until Socrates’ death) so that there was a record of this philosopher, since Socrates did not write anything down himself.

To begin discussing ethics, I think it is wise to at least have a working definition of what ethics is.  The word ethics derives from the Greek word ethos which can be translated as “character.”  We could say that ethics is basically the study of the concepts involved in practical reasoning: good, right, duty, obligation, virtue, freedom, rationality, choice.  The problem that arises here is that all of these words and many more also extend themselves to further discussion and themselves become problematic.  Thus we see that ethics can actually involve discussions about basically how one should be, or how one should act.  This brings in a whole environment of problems concerning political freedom, self-determination, how we know what we know, etc., which then, again, leads us back to the main definition of ethics: study of how we practically reason.  Ethics is usually connected with the idea of morality which comes up as a specific system of doctrines in the work of Kant, who viewed ethics and morality to be essentially the same.  The differentiations begin to arise when one sees Aristotle as say “doing ethics,” while Kant is proposing a system of morality that is universal to all humans.  Aristotle was merely trying to catalogue the various ways in which ethics play into human life, how we practically reason on a daily basis.  This differentiation is important for a serious scholar of ethical theories and their connection with morality, but I think for the limited scope of this paper, we should just consider ethics and morality as two sides of the same coin, namely: how should one act and be?

Plato, in his early, youthful writings about the interactions of Socrates, the recurrent theme is the search for the good life.  And from Socrates’ discussions with his fellow Greeks, it is evident that this was not at all a new question, but one about which virtually everyone had very strong opinions.  Socrates tried, most of the time in vain, to get people to act towards and within the scope of ideas that would foster and cultivate a truly good life.  But already there is a problem with trying to live a fully and totalizing good life: hedonism.  This word basically means that the good life involves getting as much pleasure out of life as you possibly can.  Hedonism is an attractive candidate for the good life, but as Socrates and people ever since have seen that it has certain limitations.  You might notice that people talk a lot more about hedonism than they actually practice it.  Compared with the average dog, for example, we are masters of self-denial.  We put off meals (most of us) when we are hungry because we have work to do, or because we are on diets.  We suppress our sexual impulses (most of us) because it would be awkward or embarrassing to act on them, say, in the middle of Alan’s philosophy class.  Many people argue that the reason they deny themselves pleasures now is in order to get more pleasure later.  But, if that is so, then most people are surely fooling themselves, for we all know that work and responsibility breed more work and more responsibility.  Social respect and manners constantly require more respectable behavior and more manners, and the idea that we are simply denying pleasure is usually disproved by our own actions.  People have argued and do argue that the work itself, or the respect, or the success, is what gives them pleasure, what leads to the good life, but philosophers (especially Aristotle and Kant) have pointed out a crucial distinction—between acting for the sake of pleasure and acting for some other goal whose achievement gives pleasure.  Hedonism is the first, not the second.

Socrates was forever preoccupied with the idea that the good life could be found, that the good life could be attained in practice, through temperance, and that the good life could be a feasible goal for all people.  But two very important points should be addressed with this issue: first, that all people are rational, reasonable creatures that work through and towards a wholly rationed existence through the life of the mind. Second, that to live the good life, one must live in a good community (or society, culture, nation, etc).  Plato believed utmost in rationality, in the ability of man to argue logically and thoroughly through specific problems and questions and come to the correct, right, and rational answer through man’s distinct faculty (as Kant would later call it) of reason.  Plato thought, as did Aristotle after him, that reason and rationality was the highest good that one could achieve in living the good life.  Reason/rationality were equal to truth, correctness, and the good.  All of these are wrapped up in the second consideration that to live the good life, the true life, the rational life, one must be within a good community.  As Aristotle said two thousand years ago, “man is a rational animal,” and as such, must act toward being rational as the highest goal of thought.  Thus a good community—one in which people respected one another and obeyed rules, one that flourished and was not overwhelmed with problems of crime and poverty, one in which the happiness of one person was not to be gained at the expense of others.  There seems to be no doubt about it: for almost all of us the good life presupposes living in a good place to live with other people, and out ability to be a good person (ethical and moral) depends at least in part upon those with whom we share our world and the society in which we live.  Plato’s Republic, the classic example of a harmonious community, was a figment of his imagination—a utopia.  Though loosely based on the Greek polis of his time, it was still quite a dream to many, and as we see today, is still far away from attainment by the majority of people in the world.  Obviously, twenty-five hundred years ago, Plato was describing a city.  Today, we associate with the planet—much larger in scale and scope and much more complex than anything Plato had dreamed of.  Thus the fact that Socrates’ aim was to live the good life meant that he had to search for it before he could live it.  I would assume that many of us are still trying to answer Socrates’ question of the good life, but as we all know, this search is usually life consuming and leads to further questions rather than definite answers and conclusions.

   “In view of the fact that all knowledge and every pursuit aims at some good, what is the
    highest of all good achievable by action? Verbally there is very general agreement; for
    both the general run of men and people of superior refinement it is happiness; they
    identify living well [the good life] and doing well with being happy.”
                            Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

Aristotle examined the different one-sided conceptions of the good life and rejected them in favor of a single conception with which most of us are probably in agreement—happiness.  Happiness is the good life, although, for Aristotle, happiness is not a single activity but the result of a great many activities.  Aristotle took personal development or self-realization as his goal (i.e. acorn to oak, potentiality to actuality).  In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle examined two one-sided conceptions of the good life—pleasure and success (which meant political success)—and rejected them; yet he also insisted that one cannot possibly lead a good life without them.  But they themselves are not the good life, only necessary conditions for it.  The good life is happiness, which he defined as that which is wanted “for its own sake” and “not for the sake of anything else.”  Happiness included a large number of advantages and virtues, including wealth, power, community status as well as military courage, the ability to drink wine without getting too obnoxious (something I do not do well), a sense of justice, good friends, and a good sense of humor.  “Happiness,” in other words, was not a sense of well-being, as it is for us today; “happiness” for Aristotle meant the good life as a whole, an integrated life with all the virtues and good fortune and the philosophical wisdom to appreciate it.  Happiness is nothing less than an entirely good life, with all of its parts in balance (indeed, for Aristotle, as the whole of reality was).  A person can be called happy only on the basis of his or her entire lifetime.  For Aristotle, “happiness” requires a lifetime of good living.  Aristotle used the word eudaimonia as his exemplar of happiness, which means basically “well-being” or “doing well.”   Aristotle conceives of it as the active exercise of the powers of the virtuous soul in conformity, in balance with reason.  Aristotle further stated that this idea if perfect, complete and self-sufficient, to be attained, as stated earlier, “for no other end than itself.”  So it includes all other ends that are pursued for themselves.  It therefore includes pleasure, but goes beyond it.

For Aristotle, and for Greek society as a whole, the good life was a public, social, objective life of achievement and good fortune; it had little to do with, as we think it today, inner feelings of the self.  We on the other hand, tend to think of happiness if he or she is satisfied with what life has provided, whatever others may think—even if other may think one to be unfortunate.  I don’t think Aristotle nor his Greek friends would have understood our modern conception of happiness as an inward turning feeling or emotion.  More than likely, they would have seen it as a rather corrupted idea of being, which for the Greeks, was always being-with-others: the good community.  For Aristotle, the happy life meant always for the well-being of the entire community.  Aristotle thought that the individual was not as important as the community in which one lived.  He simply assumed that the ultimate advantage of the individual would be identical to the well-being of the community.  All of Aristotle’s virtues—courage, temperance, liberality, magnificence, pride, good temper, friendliness, truthfulness, wittiness, shame, and justice—were aimed at strengthening and protecting the community as well as adding tot he status and happiness of the individual.  And, above all, Aristotle said that the life of the philosopher was essentially the good life.  This corresponds with Plato’s leaders in his Republic , which he deemed would be philosopher kings—those men with the power, authority of kings, and yet possess the wisdom and rationality of philosophers.  We might see a problem with this today considering that many philosophers, looking back over history, might not have been the best leaders (Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Heidegger,  Foucault).  
We can see that both Plato and Aristotle had similar views to what the good life should be and towards what end the individual should act in accordance with their ideas of the good life.  But many problems do arise in that the world, and the human experience is much more complex and various than both set it our to be.  The problems arise when humans face complex decisions that fall outside of the categories presented by Aristotle or the narratives presented by Plato.  As we have seen in the Twentieth Century alone, human rationality might not be all that it is cracked up to be, and that possibly, human evil might have a stronger hold on individual actions and collective decisions much more so than any worldview geared towards happiness.

4 April 1997

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