Sunday, October 13, 2013

Idle Thoughts -- Aristotle on Virtue

Explain Aristotle's  theory of virtue in detail using at least three examples. Two have to be men! 

Aristotle believed that virtue wasn't simply a set of rules like physics or mathematics.  It was much more complex. He felt it was a social skill. In other words, what was virtuous depended upon the social situation, at least to some extent.

For example, mathematics  is usually based on what's called an algorithm. That is to say, a set of instructions. If you follow the instructions carefully you will always get the right answer. It will always be the same answer.  

This is not true of ethics. What is right with a certain group of people or in a certain set of circumstances, may not be ethical with a different set of people in a different set of circumstances. The rules aren't rigid and unchanging, they are flexible, and a person must be thoughtful and sensitive in order to do the right thing.

So, while Aristotle thought we should study what we would call science with strict rules and careful testing, he thought of ethics in a very different way.  The purpose of these scientific type studies was to find out facts by testing reality.  The purpose of ethics, however, was human welfare.

Facts aren't changed by human emotion. Human emotion may change what we feel about a fact, but it doesn't change the fact. But what is right or good in an emotional, social situation changes very much depending on how you and the people around you are feeling.

So the first thing Aristotle thought we had to do was to decide exactly what it meant to say a thing was good.  This was made harder by the fact that he felt that different kinds of goodness where of greater or lesser importance. He felt we had to find out what was the greatest good for ourselves and our fellow human beings and then make that our goal.

He believed that once we found this greatest good, living to attain it would be so good in and of itself that we would just naturally always strive to accomplish that end.

He believed that every freeborn man had the ability to learn these things. First, as a child, he must be trained and brought up correctly. Then, when he is old enough to use his own reason, he will begin his search to determine what is virtuous.

A great deal of what he calls virtue is doing the right thing at the right time. So, there may be a time when you shouldn't be angry even if you are. But there may also be times when your anger is just and right,  It may even be right to be extremely angry, if the circumstances are right.

Just like in the Golden Mean, Aristotle believes that there's a place for just about everything, but it should always be held in the correct balance.  His ethics, just like his Golden Mean, isn't about any one particular behavior, it's about striking the right balance at any moment in time.

He goes on to say that the three very best types of life that most people believe should be lived can be seen in three different types of men.  One is dedicated to pleasure. Another is dedicated to politics. While the third is dedicated to knowledge.

He looks at the first type of man and says there's nothing wrong with enjoying pleasure.  In fact, he says it wouldn't be a balanced life if we didn't have a good deal of pleasure in it.  Still, he points out that if pleasure is the purpose of our life than we are being very vulgar.  Pleasure is a good part of your life, but it is very wrong to make it the purpose and point of your life.  That would be out of balance.

He concludes that the man who lives for pleasure is not a virtuous man.

The second type of man is the political man. Aristotle says that this is indeed a good life to live.  A political man who is successful will need to show justice, courage, and what Aristotle refers to as a greatness of soul.  These are very virtuous indeed.  Nevertheless, he says that this is only the second best type of life.

This is because the politician must do things which he finds unpleasant. For example, because he loves justice he must punish the guilty.  But administering justice should make him unhappy because it requires him to inflict injury upon his fellow citizens.  This means that no matter how well the politician does his job, there will always be elements of his life which leave him not completely happy.

Finally, Aristotle looks at what he regards as the best possible life, that of a philosopher.  Aristotle believes that the only perfect happiness is the happiness of contemplation and thought. The fact that the politician will not have time to devote himself to these ends is one of the main reasons that his life is only second best.

Only the pure philosopher has time to devote himself to the complete happiness of contemplation and thinking. Therefore the very best man, the most virtuous and ethical man, is the philosopher.

 My only problem with this is that Aristotle is describing the perfect life for Aristotle.  He seems unable to realize that not everyone finds the same pleasure in contemplation as he does.  His attitude is that there is only one type of life which is perfect for all men. And, unsurprising to us, the perfect life to live is the life that he has chosen to live.

I suspect the politician would say the same thing about living a life of politics, and that the man seeking only pleasure would say that all men should be like him!


No comments:

Post a Comment