A Critical Study of Virtue Ethics in Aristotle and Kant Essay

A CRITICAL STUDY OF VIRTUE ETHICS IN ARISTOTLE AND KANT Aristotle was the first western thinker to divide philosophy into branches which are still recognizable today: logic, metaphysics, and natural philosophy, philosophy of mind, ethics and politics, rhetoric; he made major contributions in all these fields. He was born in Stagira, a city of northern Greece in 384 BC. His father Nicomachus was a doctor at the court of Amyntas of Macedon, who preceded Philip, the conqueror of much of Greece. Aristotle later served as tutor to Philip’s remarkable son, Alexander the Great.

As a young man Aristotle went to Athens in 367 to study as a disciple of Plato at his Academy, remaining there until Plato’s death in 347. Aristotle returned to Athens and founded his own philosophical school, the Lyceum. He died in 322 BC, a year after he had to leave Athens in the wake of the death of his former pupil, the emperor Alexander. Three works on ethics have come down under his name: Nicomachean ethics in ten ‘books’, Eudemian ethics in eight ‘books’, and the so-called Magna Moralia or ‘great Ethics’. In these Nicomachean ethics is considered as Aristotle’s major and definitive work in ethics at least than others.

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According to Aristotle the highest good for human beings is Eudaimonia/happiness and that a rational choice of life will be one directed to one’s own happiness. Only a life in which one cultivates the traditional virtues will be a happy life. Eudaimonia, or ‘happiness’, is the supreme goal of human life. Aristotle believed that everything has a purpose – the good for a knife is to cut, and a good knife is one that cuts well. In the same way, Eudaimonia is the ‘good’ for a person. Aristotle draws a distinction between superior and subordinate aims. Why do I study ethics? Maybe to get a qualification.

I get the qualification to get a good job, and I want a good job because… These are subordinate aims. At some point you stop and say ‘because that would make me happy’ – and this becomes the superior aim. ‘Eudaimonia’ is the end goal or purpose behind everything we do as people, and is desired for its own sake. Virtue Ethics “Virtues are those qualities that can enable someone to live well and fulfill themselves as a human being. There are various lists of virtues but the ‘cardinal virtues listed by the ancient Greek were justice, temperance, courage, and practical wisdom. [1] Virtue ethics is currently one of three major approaches in normative ethics. It may, initially, be identified as the one that emphasizes the virtues, or moral character, in contrast to the approach which emphasizes duties or rules (deontology) or that which emphasizes the consequences of actions (consequentialism). Although modern virtue ethics does not have to take the form known as “neo-Aristotelian”, almost any modern version still shows that its roots are in ancient Greek philosophy by the employment of three concepts derived from it.

These are arete (excellence or virtue) prognosis/ phronesis (practical or moral wisdom) and Eudaimonia (usually translated as happiness or flourishing. ) As modern virtue ethics has grown and more people have become familiar with its literature, the understanding of these terms has increased, but it is still the case that readers familiar only with modern philosophy tend to misinterpret them. Immanuel Kant V/s. Aristotle on Virtue Ethics “Kant’s moral theory is adumbrated in The Ground Work of the Metaphysics of Morals.

Its key tenets include the idea that ‘good will’ is the only unconditionally good thing and that to have moral worth actions must be done from the motive of duty, emotions, feelings, and inclinations, even benevolent ones, contribute nothing to the moral worth of an action any moral worth, but only its being done for the sake of duty. Famously he writes; ‘I ought never to act except on such a way that I can also will that my maxim should become a universal law. ’ In a different formulation, he insists that one must always treat humanity never solely as means but always also an end in itself. [2] Even from this very brief sketch some seemingly sharp contrasts with Aristotle’s theory are evident. For Kant ‘good will’ is the unconditionally good thing, for Aristotle’s happiness. While Aristotle assumes that one’s own happiness is the end it is rational to aim at, and is what the phronimos is concerned with, Kant goes so far as to deny that one’s own happiness should be any proper concern of what he calls ‘ pure practical reason’. This is no doubt in part because Kant differed from Aristotle in his understanding of happiness.

For Aristotle calls merely ‘continent’, since what matters is whether the agent is motivated by duty, not what their feelings are. Kant cannot allow that moral worth could depend in any way in non-rational appetites or inclinations. And though both thinkers lay important stress on the role of reason in the ethical life, it takes a rather different form in each. Universality is the hallmark of the hallmark of the morality of a maxim for Kant. Aristotle, however, in his account of practical wisdom, lays more emphasis on the particularity of the circumstances and the need for the phronimos to ‘see’ the ethically salient features in each case.

Consequentiality theories, of which utilitarianism is the most famous version, take a very different form. Jermy Bentham and J. S. Mill – a close reader of Aristotle – are the most famous advocates of utilitarianism. As we saw, Kant’s theory emphasized the motive if duty and denied any role to consequences, as its name suggests, regards the consequences of actions as the only feature relevant to their rightness. For utilitarianism, what makes an action right is that it is the one that maximizes the general happiness.

In so far as it holds that happiness is the sole intrinsically valuable thing, it seems closer to Aristotle’s theory. CONCLUSION Despite their enormous differences, Kantian and Aristotelian ethical theories share some features. Both are primarily concerned with what makes actions right (or, in Kant’s terms, what gives actions moral worth). Both seem to require impartiality, certain disinterestedness, and a detachment from one’s own concerns. That is not to say that for these theories morality is simply a matter if one’s relation to others: Kant holds that one has duties to oneself.

But “the Kantian ethical theory laid emphasis on disinterestedness and impartiality that contrasts sharply with what we might call the agent–centered approach of Aristotle”[3]. While “Kantian theory is by no means narrowly egoistic, it is certainly ego- centered. ”[4] BIBLIOGRAPHY 1. Aristotle. The Nicomachean Ethics. Trans. David Ross. Oxford University Press: London, 1980. 2. Thompson, Mel. Teach Yourself : Ethics. Transet Limited: London, 1994 [1] Thompson, Teach Yourself, 95. [2] Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, xviii. [3] Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, xix. [4] Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, xix

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