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ETHICS

Unquestionably the most thorough book on ethics ever presented was Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. It is not a book on ethical theory. It is a handbook for ethical actions. Therefore the existence of an ethical structure in society is simply assumed. The nature or the origination of that structure is not plumbed. It is the role of a man to increase his own virtue and it is the role of the polis to provide an atmosphere conducive to moral development among the citizens. A study of theoretical ethics would necessarily require an explanation of the source or ground for an ethical system and would be forced to choose between rival systems, or at the very least acknowledge their differences. For Aristotle every man is a member of an essentially just system and it is his duty to improve his own virtue through virtuous action while improving the system through political action.

Aristotle asked a question that was to be repeated throughout the history of western thought. Does there exist in the realm of action an end which men desire for its own sake. One which determines all of our desires. If there is, he said, then the knowledge of this end would be in the province of politics, the queen of the sciences. It is politics which determines what kinds of sciences should exist in a state and which of its citizens should learn which sciences. Of course he said that politics is not a science in which we could expect precision.

It might be to our advantage in understanding Aristotle's view of politics and ethical actions to consider the problems and advantages of what is called his teleological approach. The greatest advantage of this approach is that it is the only mode of explanation that realizes that any entity that obtains its structure through the activities of relatively free individuals will have the property that to some extent that structure will be an emergent property of the actions themselves. But in doing so it short-cuts the process of inquiry by assuming beforehand that the function of the emerging structure must exist prior to the emergence of the structure. In a sense every dynamic system has these apparent teleological characteristics as one of its fundamental traits. One factor in the theory of teleological emergence is that it is something that occurs later in time to the actions out of which it emerges. Thus according to this approach the reason for a structure must either exist prior to the emergence of the structure, or mysteriously appear at its emergence. Both, of course, are illogical. But, those who have rejected the concept of teleological reasoning, have been left without a logical substitute. However, if we set this problem aside unresolved, perhaps to be solved in other ways at another time, then teleological reasoning begins to make a kind of logical sense. Of course I am not insinuating that Aristotle solved that problem, only that most teleological reasoning leaves it unsolved.

The structure of the polis in Aristotle's view was the repository of both the limits of valid action and the conditions under which actions would be performed. A structure that responds to the actions of the individuals who made up the polis. This made politics the reigning monarch over the ethical actions of citizens. The aim of politics, he said, is the highest good attainable by action.

For Plato the good was what illuminates things and actions that are good in much the same way that the sun illuminates all things that are visible. Aristotle rejected this idea on the grounds that it was too abstract, that it did not provide any meaningful guide for actions in the sensual world. What is good, he said, is what is sought for by man. That would make the good which is always sought for its own sake and never as a means to something else the highest good. Aristotle said that this good was happiness. For example we seek honor, pleasure and intelligence for their own sake but we also seek them to make us happy. On the other hand we never use happiness to bring about honor pleasure or intelligence. Happiness is self-sufficient, it is never counted as one among many other goods but always considered on its own. But Aristotle meant happiness in a very special way. If man has a purpose in life, then he obtains his greatest happiness when he accomplishing that purpose. We must not forget that Aristotle believed that the most important cause of anything coming to be was the fourth cause, the reason for its existence. Is this a quirk of the teleological approach? Perhaps, but we know from our own experience that people who feel that they have a purpose in their life are happiest when they are fulfilling that purpose. Aristotle said that an accomplished musician was happiest when he was playing well, a cracker jack carpenter is happiest when his creation is coming out well. Thus, included in the soul of a man, the form or essence of what he is as a man, must be the purpose of his existence. This purpose might begin as a child as a potentiality, but Aristotle's ethics are applied only to mature individuals who have essentially become, to some extent at least, what it is that they are destined to be.

He said that man attains his happiness through a life of virtue. But this is said in the sense of the Greek concept of virtue, which is the measure of how well a person is likely to perform the actions that are constituted by what it is he is destined to be. Thus a happy man will never be miserable through adversity since his virtue will always shine through. But, he also said that a man can never be supremely happy if he is denied the freedom and the material possessions required for him to perform those actions that are in line with his virtue. So, the science of politics must include what it takes to insure that the citizens have that freedom and those necessary possessions. With this in mind consider his idea that the proper function of the totality of a man's life man is a life determined by rational action. In his words;

If we take the proper function of man to be a certain kind of life, and if this kind of life is an activity of the soul and consists in actions performed in conjunction with a rational element, and if a man of high standards is he who performs these actions well and properly, and if a function is well performed when it is performed in accordance with the excellence appropriate to it; we reach the conclusion that the good of man is an activity of the soul in conformity with excellence or virtue, and if there are several virtues, in conformity with the best and most complete

But this makes sense only when we understand Aristotle's concept of soul a little more deeply. If, as I explained before, soul is what it means to be a particular living thing, it necessarily includes both the essence of a man and his virtue, or the measurement of the extent that the individual is likely to perform that function, which, of course, is part of his essence. When someone does well he increases the likelihood that he will do well again. Thus, doing well, or in a moral sense acting virtuously, will improve a person's virtue. But, a person's virtue is an aspect of himself, it is a part of his soul. Thus, when Aristotle said, "Happiness is activity of the soul in accordance with virtue" he meant that a man is happiest when he is doing actions which are in line with what he is in such a way that they act to increase how well he does them, or more exactly, how well he has accomplished becoming all that he is capable of being. Note that this makes the soul a living and growing entity. If a person becomes a better person by doing virtuous acts well, he becomes a worse person by doing them badly. Keep in mind that the Greek concept of virtue includes both the kinds of activities that we generally apply to virtue like justice and honor, and those activities that pertain to what it is that a man does like carpentry or artistry.

There are two kinds of virtues, he said, intellectual virtue, and moral virtue. But these kinds of virtue are separated by how they are obtained and how they act on the soul. Intellectual virtue originates with teaching and requires experience and time. Moral virtue, on the other hand, is derived from habit. In addition moral virtue is not something we obtain from nature. Men become harpists only by playing the harp, builders only by building. Moreover they become good harpists or good builders by playing well, or by building well while at the same time they become bad harpists or bad builders by playing or building badly. By the same token a man becomes a good man by performing good actions and a bad man by performing bad actions. Note that being just and being a good musician are both moral virtues because they are developed in the same way, through virtuous activity.

Moral excellence is the measure of the moral virtue of a man. It is concerned primarily with attitudes toward pleasure and pain in these ways. A man who enjoys abstaining from bodily pleasures is self-controlled, one who does not is self-indulgent. Should he endure danger without pain then he is courageous, with pain he is a coward. Since it is pleasure that leads to base actions and pain that prevents us from doing noble actions, men must be brought up from childhood to feel pleasure and pain with the proper things. Virtue has to do with actions and emotions, and either pleasure or pain will be the consequence of every emotion and every action. Thus pain inflicted as punishment is a form of medical treatment for the soul. If we consider these statements from the point of view of happiness as the greatest good you can see that he has overcome the problems in Plato's theory of virtue as knowledge. Virtue, instead of consisting of knowledge concerning the final outcomes of any action, consists of a set of attitudes toward actions such that the virtuous person does the proper action out of habit. This makes sense when you consider that virtue can only, in an Aristotelian sense, be developed by practice. Happiness as the kind of feeling that comes with doing what you know is right or best and knowing that you are doing it well, is a special kind of happiness reserved only for the morally virtuous.

The most important mechanism in Aristotle's ethical scheme is that of choice. Choice, he said, occurs only after deliberation. When we deliberate, we are choosing among possible actions Deliberation is never concerned with the end of action, the end has already been determined before deliberation begins. Deliberation is always concerned with the means. In other words, when we deliberate about an action what we are attempting to determine is what is the best action to take at this moment and this best action is determined by what we see as the best means to the already determined end. Remember that his definition of happiness is activity so the result of our deliberation concerning moral choices is of supreme importance. Our ultimate happiness will depend on our ability to make the right choices concerning moral actions. Thus he called choice deliberate appetition because we first deliberate the we take action. The importance of choice and deliberation is demonstrated best in the case of the person who through moral deficiency or poor upbringing aims toward the wrong ends. In such a case, because his deliberation is about means and not about ends making the proper choices after due deliberation will tend to improve his virtue even though his aim is in the wrong direction. Remember it is moral action that determines happiness and that has the greatest effect on moral virtue.

Therefore, since moral virtue is a characteristic involving choice, and since choice is deliberate desire, it follows that, if the choice is to be good, the reasoning must be true and the desire correct; that is, reasoning must confirm what desire pursues.

Choice may be the starting point of action, the source of motion, the starting point for choice, however, is desire combined with reasoning directed toward a specific end. Thus there cannot be choice without intelligence. Neither good nor bad actions are possible without thought. But only thought that is directed toward some end and concerned with action can initiate motion and production. While whoever produces something produces it for an end, the ultimate end is the good life and desire should be directed toward that.

There are two kinds of quality in that part of us which is moral, natural virtue and virtue in the full sense. Virtue in the full sense cannot be attained without practical wisdom. Virtue is not just a characteristic guided by right reason, it is virtue united with right reason. "Virtue determines the end and practical wisdom makes us do what is conducive to that end."

Choice, he said, is determined by Three factors, the noble, the beneficial, and the pleasurable. There are also three factors that determine avoidance, the base, the harmful, and the painful. Pleasure always accompanies choice and pain always accompanies avoidance. Therefore only the good man will feel pleasure and pain in the right way. At the same time, one property of virtue is that continued virtuous acts result in an increase in the virtue of the person acting. Because virtue is a median between excess and deficiency, a virtuous person is a person who knows the right action for any particular situation and has the fortitude to carry it out.

This brings us to an important part of Aristotle's ethics, his concept of the mean. For every action there is the possibility of an excess, and a deficiency. Consider for example an action that could endanger a man's life. Should a man disregard rational behavior and rush in he might be called foolhardy. On the other hand, if he should neglect to act when action is needed then he would be acting cowardly. For any given possible action there is a right way of proceeding. In this case a man who acted rationally and accomplished the required task while placing himself under the right level of danger considering the circumstances would be considered courageous. The point is that for every action there is a point somewhere between two extremes where the action is rationally justified and that is what he called the mean. It is easy to think as students of statistics do that the mean is the mid-point between two extremes. But that would missing the whole point of Aristotle's argument. The mean is some point between two extremes of course, but the exact point between these extremes is determined by the event itself. For example, Consider two men on a ship in the middle of a dangerous storm, one is an experienced sailor and the other has never been to sea before. Actions that are courageous for the sailor would be foolhardy for the other. Thus the actual point of the mean depends of the action, the circumstances surrounding it, and the people involved. that is what makes the best action at any particular point so difficult to know, and so valuable in developing ones virtue. It is important to remember that Aristotle, as always, deals with individual actions and not generalizations. It is prudence, or natural wisdom. that is the intellectual virtue which enables a man to choose the right action to be taken at any particular moment. He said that while wisdom is involved in understanding generalizations, prudence is involved in the "ultimate particular".

Justice in the full sense, Aristotle said, is synonymous with virtue, all virtuous acts being just and all just acts being virtuous. But justice in a partial sense is the state of a virtuous individual. This applies only to acts which are considered to be just or unjust. For justice and injustice, he said, are not opposites, they are characteristics. Justice is the characteristic that makes an act just and injustice the characteristic that makes an act unjust.

Aristotle's conception of justice in this partial sense implies a sense of fairness. An unjust man, he said, is one who takes more than his share. As a result he is concerned with those things that are involved with good and bad fortune. These are also the kinds of things that men pray for. He suggested that instead they should choose what is good and pray that they are good for them.

The art of legislation lies in knowing when a law leads toward securing the common good for all and for the good of those who hold their place in power due to their excellence. This is what makes a lawbreaker unjust and a law-abiding man just. This kind of justice is complete virtue or excellence in relation to your fellow men. Aristotle said that the worst man is he who practices wickedness toward himself as well as his friends. The best man, however, is not one who practices virtue toward himself but one who practices virtue toward others. This being a hard thing to achieve makes justice the highest virtue and the opposite to the whole of vice.

He used the following analogy to illustrate another example of justice in the partial sense. Consider one man who committed adultery for a profit and thereby made money, and another who committed adultery at the prompting of appetite and thereby spent money. The first he would call unjust, the second self-indulgent. The former man has made an unjust profit, he has received more than his fair share. The latter does not involve himself in unfairness, he has not offended society, his act is immoral, not unjust.

In all associations that are based on mutual respect the just is the bond that holds them together. The same problem of the equality of proportions applies to the economics of the state. The money value of every transaction must be consistent and must bring about a fair distribution of goods. The just in political matters requires the following;

1. The just can only be found among men who share a common life in order to assure self-sufficiency.

2. The just can only occur among men who are free and equal, even though that equality might be proportionate or arithmetical.

3. The just exists only where the mutual relationships among men are regulated by law.

Since it is legal judgement that decides what is just and what is unjust, It is the rule of reason and not the rule of man that brings about a just society. Rational men using reason as their guide will pass laws that will be accepted by just citizens. What is just for the master of a slave or for a father is similar to what is politically just. However, he showed his aristocratic background as well as his position in time when he said that a piece of property like a slave or a child, are part of the person, at least until the child reaches legal age. Since a person cannot act unjustly toward himself there can be no injustice between a master and a slave or between a father and a child.

What is just by nature, Aristotle said, has the same force everywhere. What is just by convention, although it makes no difference whether it is fixed one way or another, once it is fixed then it has the same force as what is just by nature.

We can understand what Aristotle's view of friendship meant better if we understand his idea of what it means to be an object of affection. Aristotle gave as the three reasons for something being lovable, when it is good, when it is pleasant, and when it is useful. When the reason for friendship is usefulness the partners do not feel affection for one another, only for what is useful to them. By the same token one may enjoy another's company because he is pleasant. However, when the external conditions for the affection dissipate there is no friendship left. The perfect form of friendship, Aristotle said, is between two people alike in excellence and virtue whose affection for one another is unqualified for though affection may resemble emotion, this kind of friendship becomes a lasting characteristic.

Aristotle's arguments against Eudoxus' view of pleasure as the good foreshadowed many of the ethical arguments that pervaded western thought for the next two millennia. Eudoxus' first statement was that all things, rational or irrational, strive for pleasure, that in all cases what is good is desirable. Since everything strives for the same goal, it follows that pleasure, being that goal, is the best for all. His second argument was that pain is the opposite of pleasure and it is avoided by all. This, he claimed, supported his argument that pleasure is the good. Eudoxus' third argument was that all agree that pleasure is in itself desirable, and that the addition of pleasure to any good thing at all makes it more desirable. Since what is good can be increased only by another good thing, it must be that pleasure is the good.

Aristotle argued that while Eudoxus showed that pleasure is a good, since any good added to another good results in an increase in good, it doesn't prove that it is the ultimate good. Not only that but if it is only a good when it is added to another good then it cannot be the good itself. The argument that pleasure is the opposite of pain fails also because just being the opposite of pain doesn't make it good, it could be another evil, or it could be something that is neither evil nor good.

The character of pleasure is like the act of vision, it is complete at any given moment. There is never a case where a pleasure is more complete if it lasts longer. Therefore it is not a motion like building or walking. All sense perception is likewise a complete activity. In any sense perception that activity is best whose organ is in the best condition and whose object is the best within its range. When this occurs the activity is most pleasant.

In his conclusion Aristotle returned to the concept of happiness as the good. Happiness, he said is not a characteristic. If it were then a person who passed his entire life asleep or vegetating could possess it. Happiness is therefore an activity, an activity that is desirable in itself and not for the sake of something else. Activities which are desirable in themselves are those from which we seek nothing but the exercise of that activity. Actions in conformity with virtue constitute such actions and the performance of noble and good deeds is something desirable for their own sake.

Aristotle lived in a very different world from Plato. Plato's world of the Athenian city-state was one that was steeped in tradition. The truth was something that was, the real was the unchanging. Aristotle's world was one of activity and change. Under the power of his famous pupil Greek learning was spreading across the known world. What he found to be real was the teeming freshness of life around him. If he seems more like us, as Guthrie said, it has more than a little to do with the importance of change in our lives. But the very nature of change was about to change. Following the death of Aristotle the world turned another page.