Aristotle and Ethics

Ethics and metaphysics

Aristotle’s conception of ethics is consistent with Plato, his teacher’s notion that moral virtue is essential to human happiness and offers some useful and practical contributions on the matter.  However, there are some noticeable differences, some of which relate to their differing conceptions of God and the divine.

Metaphysics concerns notions of ultimate reality and human happiness has to take reality into account. How best to live is relative to the kind of world and universe we live in. Socrates, Plato’s teacher, wanted to dispense with metaphysics and focus on ethics. Plato saw that metaphysics and ethics are bound up together and Plato’s ethics seem to be influenced by his experience of The Form of the Good – the supreme level of reality symbolized by the sun in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, and his awareness of the heaven beyond the heavens.


The Form of the Good generates all the lower levels of reality and Plato describes his religious/mystical experience of this Form in Book VII of The Republic, Plato’s most famous dialog. Plato describes it as the most beautiful and awe-inspiring thing he had ever experienced and said that part of him wanted to just contemplate this Form for the rest of his life. However, out of a sense of obligation to his former fellow prisoners in the Cave, the philosopher should return to the Cave and try to educate people concerning the nature of reality. This creates a circuit – developing your way out of the Cave, the upward journey, and then returning to the Cave – the downward journey. Plato’s Cave, famously along with the Symposium, and the Phaedrus, represent Plato’s discovery of the noumenal – a realm apart from physical reality that is accessed through an interior journey. Experiences of beauty and the ability to perceive justice are signs and symbols of the noumenal; the other, divine, world with which our souls are familiar. The forms of truth, beauty, and justice, in particular represent hope and transcendence in an otherwise purely physical world where none of these things have any sure reality. The good and just can be persecuted, and the unscrupulous succeed. Out of compassion, the philosopher tries to share the good news with those who often are actively hostile to his teachings.

To get reality wrong is likely to mean that life is lived wrongly. If it is thought that physical reality is all there is or is the most real aspect of things, then someone will think that he is primarily or only his body. “Happiness” for the body is merely physical pleasure which would suggest that a heroin addict should be considered the happiest person; or perhaps the sex maniac and food obsessive. If someone believes he is his body then he will be obsessed with pleasure and money and Plato thought this is the case for the majority of us, being as we are, prisoners in the Cave. But because we also have minds (psyche) and souls (nous), human happiness must take this into account too.


Aristotle is often thought of as more down to earth than Plato. The famous Renaissance painting of the two of them, by Raphael, The School of Athens, has Plato pointing up and Aristotle down. Aristotle invented the study of biology, including the notions of genus and species, and argued that these lower life forms were worthy of study. Prior to Aristotle the tendency was to think that insects and animals were not really deserving of serious attention.

Aristotle’s metaphysics contains a hierarchy, like Plato, but Aristotle’s version of God, the prime mover or unmoved mover is not the creator. There is no downward journey back into the cave. All creation strives to be perfect like God, but what Aristotle calls “the unmoved mover” does not even know the physical universe exists. His back is turned to us and he simply contemplates his own perfection. One might think of him as the Autistic God; spurning interaction and in fact incapable of it.

Practice not theory

Aristotle makes the interesting assertion that ethics is not primarily a theoretical matter. He is arguably correct. Ethics is not about theorizing but about being good. Aristotle writes that the Olympic Games are not won by the swiftest and the strongest, but by the swiftest and strongest participants. It is no good saying “I could have won if I had entered the race.” A mere capacity is useless if not put into practice. The key to ethical behavior is thus to develop the right habits. The right habits must be instilled in the young if they are to be happy. The Greek word for happiness is “eudaimonia.” This word literally means to have a good indwelling spirit – daimon is where we get our word “demon” from, but “daimon” is angelic, not diabolical. Eudaimonia is best translated as “flourishing.” So when happiness is discussed in Greek philosophy the topic is not fleeting mental states, but whether someone is flourishing as a person or not.

The moral virtues for the Greeks were courage, moderation/temperance (sophrosyne), generosity and justice. The Greek word for virtue is “aretē.” It means “excellence.” The moral virtues are social excellences. Without them, someone will not be able to function well in relation to other people, an important aspect of human flourishing. A miserly attitude will get in the way of reciprocal gift exchange. Lack of courage will compromise personal integrity. Being intemperate could mean dissipation and trying to grab too much for yourself. And obviously acting unjustly will win you no favors socially. Because of this it is necessary to inculcate the habit of generosity, the habit of justice, the habit of moderation and the habit of courage in a child – rewarding generosity, etc. with pleasure and the reverse with pain. If these habits are not sufficiently developed in adulthood, then one can gain them through practice. One can become brave by doing brave things. Eventually, your emotions will follow your behavior. The modern American expression of this is “fake it ‘til you make it.” If someone is scared of public speaking, he should speak in public until he is no longer afraid of it. This idea of practicing a behavior and waiting for the emotions to follow along is supported by modern science.

This focus on the practical led Aristotle to criticize Plato’s notion of the Form of the Good as a matter of abstract knowledge and theory. Aristotle thinks that theory, which involves universals, abstractions, and typically, rules, is not helpful for ethics. Plato and Aristotle agree that knowledge is knowledge of universals, not particulars. One learns the science of frogs, not the science of Freddy the Frog. But, Aristotle points out, one acts always in some particular situation with its own unique characteristics. Theory glosses over differences and is thus likely to be unhelpful in ethics.

If a romantic partner cheats on the other, should he or she be forgiven? There is no theory to determine the answer. It will depend on the specific people involved, what exactly has happened and for how long, and their history together.


One defect with Plato’s philosophy is though he makes the crucial discovery of the noumenal and transcendent and centers his philosophy around it, he contrasts the world of becoming i.e. physical reality, with an entirely static divine reality. Real being just is, he thinks. It does not seem to develop, but that compromises any notion of Creativity and Freedom – though the possibility of something like that appears in the Phaedrus where Plato describes a heaven beyond the heavens and seemingly beyond the Form of the Good. “Heaven beyond the heavens” creates an imaginative metaphysical opening for the revelation of the Ungrund; causeless Freedom that comes before God the Creator.

Moral legalism can be seen in the Jewish law and the Ten Commandments. Follow these rules and all will be well. The New Testament rejects this partly by emphasizing motives, and partly through Jesus’ use of parables, not commandments. The parables are questions that each of us must try to answer for ourselves. “Murder is wrong” is a rule, and though not incorrect, is crude and simplistic. No one can claim to be virtuous simply because he murdered no one. The aim of morality must be much higher; to try to resemble Jesus’ love and forgiveness.

Aristotle is right that virtuous behavior exists in the context of a concrete circumstances, with particular individuals involved, and thus, beyond generic legalistic prohibitions. No theory or set of rules will be sufficient. With no moral algorithm to use, really virtuous behavior has a strongly creative aspect. Creativity and the ability to improvise are necessary when rules fail us.  Knowledge of the static Form of Justice as imagined in Plato does not seem helpful or applicable to creative responses to unexpected, unique, and sui generis circumstances.  Consciousness, with its roots in meonic Freedom, makes intelligent improvisatory problem-solving possible.

However, Aristotle badly misconstrues Plato, despite knowing Plato personally and being very much a Platonist prior to Plato’s death when Aristotle was forty and left Plato’s Academy to set up the Lyceum. Aristotle imagines that Plato’s Form of the Good was a matter of theory for Plato. If one reads Plato sympathetically and with an open mind it is very clear that Plato was describing a personal religious/mystical experience. The Form of the Good was a not a theory. It was an element of direct experience.

In Christianity, God creates the world and declares that it is good. Similarly, the Form of the Good is very much the Creator and the Creator is good. As Plotinus says, what is true of the Father is true of the children. As we love and admire the Creator, we can love and respect his creation and have faith that it is good and meaningful. Christians, who adopted a lot of Platonic philosophy, claim that the Person is made in the image of God so that each one us is divine, has an eternal soul, and has some ultimate worth. For Berdyaev, being made in the image of God is the crucial ingredient for intrinsic value, and the way in which we resemble God is in his connection to Freedom and creativity. We can create symbols of the divine, but we cannot imbue anything with a soul; with infinite depths connected to the Ungrund. Nonetheless, we have those depths and this should put the individual concrete Person as the highest value – along with God. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.

Plato agreed that we are visitors from another world; that we have seen the Forms (Justice, Truth, Beauty, etc.), the Form of the Good, and, in the Phaedrus, the heaven beyond the heavens. What makes the gods the gods is their ability to contemplate the heaven beyond the heavens steadfastly, while humans get only a glimpse, if at all. So, Plato has Eros, man’s love for God, for the higher, for the noumenal, and Agape, God’s love for us; the lower, the all-embracing, unconditional love. What is deemphasized in Plato is love for the concrete Person – we are supposed to love Justice itself, and Beauty itself, and to use instances of those things as a vehicle to contemplation of the Forms – but morality must be centered on the concrete Person, not abstractions or archetypes. Each one of us being made in the image of God is the idea that would put the concrete Person in his rightful place at the top of the moral hierarchy. Otherwise, Justice, or Beauty, or Truth, will be considered the highest value and the concrete Person will, in principle, be sacrificed to that highest value; a mere expendable nothing.

Nonetheless, Plato’s mystical experiences and discovery of the noumenal contributed to a huge leap in the human understanding of morality. Before Plato, the Greek conception of morality was “help your friends and harm your enemies.” Plato changed this to “harm no one.” It would be hard to exaggerate what an advance this represents. Helping your friends and harming your enemies is corrupt and evil, though representing something better than a total egocentric war of all against all. Any politician, for instance, caught acting in this way is a scoundrel.

Every human being, whether he knows it or not, has a yearning for the divine; for unconditional love, and for a realm where the contradictions and tragedies of life are overcome. Creativity, love, and beauty represent an intrusion of the noumenal into merely objective (object-centered) reality.  As the philosopher returning to the chained prisoners viewing the shadows representing physical reality and thus objects at the back of the Cave, Plato gave himself the task of trying to remind people of their divine origins and connection, to encourage the innate erotic yearning for the divine, and to relinquish self-seeking striving at any cost, and the worship of social “success,” using argument, images, humor, myth; everything at his disposal. When Socrates was asked to suggest an appropriate punishment for himself at his trial for corrupting the youth, he nominated free meals for life – the traditional reward for an Olympic victor – for, he said, all he had ever done was to encourage the young to worry more about their own souls than to win fame and glory in the social hierarchy; a point of view echoed in the Biblical rhetorical question “For what shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his soul?”[1]


If Plato’s moral insight is convincing, then perhaps he should be taken seriously when he indicates the noumenal origins of this insight.

The situation is comparable to Jesus’ teachings. Jesus also introduced new moral insights into Western civilization, calling upon us to love our enemy. He too claimed to have had direct experience of the Father and the Divine and said that this was the basis of his views. We could count on Jesus and Plato to act morally. The idea that either one of them would have decided to cynically treat someone very badly to make a ton of money is ridiculous. But again, Jesus is in the position of having to try to translate these experiences into practical advice for his followers who lack these crucial experiences. Interestingly, he does this by speaking in parables – stories; the meaning of which has to be discovered by the reader.

Aristotle’s contribution is his rejection of moral theory as the basis for moral decision-making, his recognition that creativity and practical insight are necessary to respond to the individual nature of concrete circumstances affected as they are by the exact qualities of the people involved, and his excellent sense of the concrete with the individual being seen as more real than the archetype (Form). However, his inadequate sense of the noumenal and God, his “unmoved mover,” meant that his moral philosophy ends up being centered around earthly success, and his sense of eudaimonia, of human flourishing, embodies a vision of the person as a mere biological organism; what the Greeks called a zoon. (zoo-on) The unmoved mover, as many philosophers have complained, such as F. M. Cornford, is not really lovable. Erotic longing for the noumenal and a longed-for return to our spiritual home does not believably figure in Aristotelian philosophy, meaning the yearning for “the good” is diminished. Just how merely pragmatic Aristotle’s ethics are will be seen on the topic of “moral luck.” His unloving God finds its counterpart in a relatively heartless vision of the human soul.

The Metaphysical Underpinnings of Aristotle’s Ethics


The notion of substance is one of the trickiest and most complicated in Aristotle’s philosophy. The essential thing to know about it is that substance is a combination of matter and form. Hylē and eidos. Aristotle thought that the forms could not exist without matter and invented the Greek word for matter, hylē, although hyle does not actually mean “matter” as we think of it. Hyle essentially means the thing out of which a substance is composed. The hyle of a brick wall is the bricks. The wall is the form and the bricks are the matter. The hyle of bricks is mud and straw, with bricks being the form relative to the matter. Even more remote from modern usage, words are the hyle of sentences. Sentences are the hyle of paragraphs. Clearly we are quite some distance from matter as atoms and molecules.

A substance is a grammatical category. It is the subject of a predicate. The horse is…, the caterpillar is… .

Substance is what remains when things change. You are the same person when you are young and when you are old, when your friends, tastes, beliefs and emotions change.

Substance is what is essential. Essence/form/soul turn out to be synonyms in many regards. It is essential to the form of a frog that it be an amphibian. If a frog became allergic to water it is no longer a frog because it has lost an essential characteristic. If the frog puts on weight it is still a frog because froginess requires no particular weight. If a human being gets major brain damage in a car accident and is no longer capable of rational thought, then, from this point of view, he ceases to be human – rationality being an essential human characteristic.


5Aristotle describes four different causes of substance. The material, formal, efficient and final cause. If this seems needlessly complicated do not forget that our concept of a cause is an artificial abstraction. The match lights because of the chemicals in the tip in combination with the friction and chemicals in the striking surface. But also required are matches, which require modern industrial production which requires a certain kind of economy and expertise. Oxygen must exist. Human evolution must have occurred and the Big Bang. In other words, something like the entire history of our planet and the universe must exist before that match can catch alight.

To build a house there must be the material cause – wood, bricks, cement, etc. The formal cause is the law or definition of that substance – for a house, a blueprint must exist, at least in someone’s head. The efficient cause is the builders; the most proximate cause. But most important is the final cause. The final cause is the purpose of the substance. The final cause is to provide shelter for human beings. Without the final cause no materials would be assembled, no blueprints drawn up and no builders contracted.

All substances have a purpose. The purpose is relative to function and function is 6relative to soul/essence.

Modern science has tried to eliminate the notion of telos, literally “end” in Greek; “purpose” or “goal” from the description of reality, preferring mechanical explanations. There are reasons for thinking this may have been a mistake. It is particularly unworkable in biology. Teleologically, a heart exists to pump blood around your body; eyes to see. A heliotropic flower follows the movement of the sun to maximize its exposure to sunlight. The mechanical explanation concerns cells growing larger and smaller to make the flower move via natural selection. But the mechanical explanation just presupposes the teleological. The mechanical is meaningless unless one knows the purpose.

Teleology is currently unfashionable, but may be making a comeback. It certainly seems essential for ethics.


Aristotle identifies three different kinds of soul. The nutritive, sensitive and rational soul. All living things have a nutritive soul which gives the capacity to take in food and to reproduce. Plants only have this kind of soul. Animals have in addition, a sensitive soul. This gives the animal the capacity to feel pleasure and pain, anger and desire. With the feeling of pleasure comes a desire for it. Generally the ability to move around, locomotion, is an aspect of the sensitive soul. Humans have both a nutritive and a sensitive soul and are the only creature with a rational soul which provides the capacity to reason.

The nice thing about this view is that it shows continuity between all living things which is consistent with modern views – namely that all forms of life descended from the same single-celled organism – while also identifying differences.

Aristotle also has a fascinating discussion where he distinguishes active and passive nous (soul). Put anachronistically, sensory information is constantly bombarding us. The feel of the shirt on someone’s back, the socks on his feet, items from vision, auditory stimuli, are permanently hitting him. While having a telephone conversation his eyes will be open but he will simply be ignoring what he is seeing. While driving uneventfully down the highway the driver can be absorbed in a podcast, or thoughts unrelated to driving, though continuing to make little adjustments with the steering wheel, checking the speed, and keeping a safe distance from other cars. These sensations are automatic, robotic, and occupy a strange hinterland of consciousness. We are neither properly conscious of them as a matter of subjective awareness, nor absolutely completely oblivious to them. Appropriately enough, Aristotle called these things “passive nous.” But, when we choose to, we can bring any of these items into full consciousness by focusing on them. Someone might ask, “Can you hear that sound?” and you can decide to attend to auditory sensations you had previously been ignoring. Or, if strange or complicated things start happening on the highway as you are driving, or a giant spider comes into view on the wall as you are talking on the phone, then it is possible to fully attend to them. This, Aristotle called “active nous.”

This distinction is real and interesting. Passive nous is connected to what Colin Wilson called “the robot” which are processes of the human mind that are automatic, like driving. In most people the robot is associated with the left hemisphere of the brain. Learning to drive requires active nous – full attention – and problem-solving, associated in most people with the right hemisphere. Once mastered, in non-threatening conditions, driving can become an automatic affair as with passive nous, freeing the mind for more interesting matters.

This division into active and passive nous is useful in many contexts. In playing a musical instrument like the piano, or violin, the mechanics of where someone is placing his fingers is a matter of passive nous to the expert, allowing the musician to focus on the musicality of the sounds he is making via active nous. Memorizing music can facilitate this process allowing someone’s full attention to be on the music, or becoming very good at reading written notation.

Actual and Potential Form

One of Aristotle’s complaints about Plato’s notion of forms was that it did not account for change. Aristotle introduced the concept of potential forms which is related to the concept of potential energy which borrows from Aristotle.

Actual forms are a kind of final cause. They are attractors pulling an organism towards its final destination. An oak tree is the actual form; an acorn the potential form. An acorn is potentially an oak tree because it possesses the potential form of an oak tree.

Actual forms are related to telos/purpose and represent perfection for that particular organism. On this view children do not have the actual form of a human being; only the potential form. Children are valuable because they are potentially people.

Potential forms are supposed to explain why an acorn becomes an oak tree instead of a squirrel; acorns possess the potential form of an oak tree and not something else.

In this way Aristotle builds change and development into the nature of the universe. Aristotle like the other Ancients knew nothing about evolution or the Big Bang but these things imply an organismic view of the universe with final causes and purposes pulling reality towards an attractor.

For Aristotle, all living creatures have a telos/end/goal/purpose and this end, the actual form, represents perfection. So moral aspiration is built into the structure of life; not just for human beings. Even inanimate objects like stones fall because their proper place is the ground.

What counts as perfection thus depends on the actual form of the creature, so the actual form represents a natural limit too.

God – the unmoved mover/prime mover

For Aristotle the thing driving change from potential form to actual form was his autistic God. God is perfect and the most perfect thing. All living things admire and strive to be perfect like God. The heavens rotate because a circular motion has no beginning or end and is the heavens’ attempt to resemble God’s eternity.

Reproduction in all things with a nutritive soul exists in imitation of God’s immortality. Having children/offspring is the closest to immortality that mortal beings can aspire to.

The unmoved mover inspires all things to develop from potential to actual without actually doing anything. All He need do is exist. Norman Melchert compares God with a boy in love with his neighbor. The boy mows lawns and gets a paper route in order to buy flowers and chocolates for the little girl next door, maybe writing her love poems, but her mother intercepts these things. The girl never even knows the boy exists. Nonetheless she drives the boy’s behavior, while God only contemplates his own perfection.

God also exists as a logical necessity. He is the First Cause. Without a first cause there are infinite regressions. If explanations are possible, then they must come to an end. If a chain link is suspended in the air it could be explained by its being suspended by another chain link – but nothing has really been explained for the question is then what is holding up the other chain link.

7The First Cause cannot itself be caused for then we must ask what caused that and until the regression ends we are none the wiser.

The movie Prometheus explains how life arose on this planet. It came from another planet. But of course this explains nothing for we still need to know how life arose on that planet. The conditions for life to spontaneously occur on Earth seem so inhospitable and unfruitful that in desperation some rather famous people have had recourse to just this “explanation;” the explanation that explains nothing.

There is a famous joke that says that the Earth rests on a giant tortoise. The question then arises about what the tortoise is standing on. The answer; another tortoise. The original speaker then says – before you ask – it’s tortoises all the way down. It is a joke because until we find out what the final tortoise is standing on we are still completely in the dark. Without a final cause/first cause nothing is explained.


Eudaimonia and the Doctrine of the Mean

Human beings, like all living things, have a goal/purpose/telos. Aristotle points out that telos is relative to the kind of creature and its soul/essence/form. A rational soul is unique to human beings, so our function must include rationality. Aristotle does think that perhaps the life of a philosopher is happiest because it requires so little extra help; contemplation is cheap! Philosophers are relatively self-sufficient. But he does not think that we all need to philosophize.

Pleasure cannot be the goal of human existence because it ignores our rational soul. Pleasure is the height of attainment for an animal. A good feed may be all that an ox can expect in terms of happiness. It is also too trivial. Life is just too difficult for that to be the reward.

Honor and fame are more human seeming but they are too reliant on other people and can be lost too easily.

The rational soul enters the picture as phronesis – practical wisdom. In keeping with his insistence that ethics is not just the capacity to be good, but being good, phronesis is an applied wisdom. Phronesis works in concert with the habit of abiding by the virtues, the excellences, of moderation, generosity, courage, and justice. Aristotle described man as a political animal – meaning one suited to living in a polis – a fairly small city/state. We need to live in community with others. As such, the moral virtues are the social excellences.

Phronesis is gained through experience in combination with careful, intelligent, 9attention. Aristotle compares the phronesis of ethics to being an athletic trainer. There is no manual for training athletes. If the trainer does not push hard enough a particular athlete does not reach his potential; pushed too hard and the athlete gets injured via overtraining. The sweet spot will be different for every athlete according to his capacity and talent. Thus, there can be no rule that a trainer can follow for all athletes. Being a good trainer cannot be a matter of reading textbooks on the subject.

He also compares ethics to being a navigator on a boat. Navigation is a skill, not theoretical knowledge, that can only be gained through experience and intelligence. There are no ethical prodigies.

Phronesis is necessary to determine how brave, generous, moderate and just one should be in a given circumstance. It will be objectively relative to the situation and the people involved. Each virtue has an excess and a deficiency. Too generous and one is profligate. Not generous enough and a person is stingy. Either way the individual is not being generous. What counts as generosity will depend on how rich someone is; although Aristotle does think that without enough money one cannot be considered generous. There is no equivalent of the biblical story of the person who gives his last coins to charity being more virtuous than the person giving several bags of gold who is actually giving a much smaller proportion of his wealth.

Too courageous and one is rash. Not courageous enough and someone is a coward. What is brave for someone trained in hand to hand combat may be rash for someone lacking that training.

Too much moderation makes an individual a boor incapable of appreciating nice things. Too little and one is out of control and immoderate. One should be able to appreciate fine dining, but insisting on haute cuisine for every meal would be immoderate.

The virtue/excellence of justice does not fit the mold quite so well. Perhaps one could say that too little and one would be unjust. Too much might make one overly scrupulous – too concerned with minor discrepancies.

10But there are other excellences/virtues needed to live well. Using Ken Wilber’s “four quadrant” model can help to explain this. People have a mind (subjective), a body (objective), a social existence (interobjective), and a cultural (intersubjective) one too. Physical excellence requires exercise and training. Wisdom can be called mental excellence and is part of the individual subjective. Money-procuring skills are also necessary to flourish as part of the interobjective social reality, so some kind of vocational training is necessary too. Aristotle mentions tent-making, and poetry in this regard. The moral virtues of courage, justice, generosity, and moderation are necessary to interact well with other people, which might be called intersubjective excellence.

Moral Luck

For Aristotle, external goods or what many modern philosophers call “moral luck” are also necessary to be happy. To really flourish, he claims, someone must live a long life, have wealth, children and those children must not die young and must be virtuous, not vicious (vice-ridden). Someone must be noble and have sufficient physical beauty. A person’s friends must likewise be beautiful, noble, and rich. Without friends not much can be accomplished.

These external goods mark a major difference between Aristotle and Plato, and also with Christianity. For Plato, Socrates was the paradigm of a good man. However, Socrates was famously ugly; short, pug-nosed with a giant head, badly dressed, poorly bathed, bare foot and bulging eyes. Socrates had many more wealthy, noble enemies than he had friends. Likewise, Jesus was neither noble nor rich, he was childless, short-lived and clearly had powerful enemies.


The necessity for external goods and moral luck sounds more like the Hollywood version of happiness. Interestingly, Plato had all those characteristics, being tall, broad shouldered, noble, handsome, from a wealthy family, politically connected, with an excellent chance of making a political career for himself, all which he abandoned, other than his looks of course, when he became a follower of Socrates, but Plato held up not himself but his teacher as the model for people to emulate.

The one area where a kind of moral luck may be crucial involves one’s upbringing. It does seem possible that a childhood deprived of love could make someone incapable of loving – such as in attachment disorder. This is the result of the kind of chronic neglect that normally only exists in badly run, short-staffed orphanages. Attachment disorder renders a child incapable of being emotionally comforted and means sufferers have no interest at all in other people. They do not want to talk to other people or to interact in any way. They will just sit alone and isolated and will sometimes try to kill their siblings or pets. Aristotle does not have this in mind but it seems theoretically possible that if someone’s childhood was sufficiently blighted, his chances for living a good life might be irredeemably harmed.


Aristotle’s skepticism concerning moral theories seems well-advised. Moral theories that purport to replace, supplant, or sometimes even just to augment someone’s normal moral judgments are highly suspect.

By avoiding theory and emphasizing practice Aristotle puts the focus on someone’s actual behavior rather than his theoretical knowledge. He offers sound advice about how to acquire the modes of behavior, the dispositions and habits, necessary for living a good life and then the role of rationality in fully attaining the moral virtues. Aristotle is right to point out that flourishing requires more than just moral excellence – mental, physical and economic excellence are also necessary, though his scheme of things is notably naturalistic. Aristotle has in mind the human being as zoon; a biological organism, and we are to flourish somewhat like any other natural creature. Absent is any special connection with the noumenal or otherworldly. Thus Aristotle’s criteria of success is worldly success, which accounts for his inclusion of happenstance things gathered under the title “moral luck.” Socrates, Buddha, and Jesus are not famous for being worldly successes. Two were executed and Buddha as Siddhartha was a prince who abandoned the monetary and palatial accoutrements of his noble heritage.

His unmoved mover is narcissistic and unattractive. Concerned only with himself, he is not really admirable.  We seek god, but he is not seeking us. We love, he does not. His supposed perfection is a kind of horror where there is no room for further development, existing as he does as the only fully actual form. So, he is neither dynamic, nor creative – but instead, repulsively self-sufficient, autonomous, and monolithic, needing nothing, including the love of man, much as the Christian God has often been mistakenly conceived. In Christianity, by becoming man, God participates in the suffering of humanity and the tragic aspects of the human condition, and by imbuing us with creativity and freedom, God awaits our creative response.

Aristotle captures the upward movement of moral aspiration but has no downward journey. Thus one gets the love of the Many for the One, but not the love of the One for the Many. How could one give one’s love to a God who does not love one back? Plato’s Form of the Good is a much more attractive description of the divine, akin to God the Father, that would actually be worthy of worship and admiration, and Plato’s heaven beyond the heavens, points to the possibility of the Ungrund and meonic Freedom that preexists being.

We miss the novelistic insight into the human character, good and bad, visible in Plato along with the humor and irony. Socrates’ sarcasm and smart-aleck replies in the face of self-serving and revolting narcissists is truly delightful. Plato’s discovery of the numinous and his feeling for human speech, behavior, and foibles makes him tremendously congenial to read.

It is important to remember that Plato did not write abstract, theoretical treatises, but dialogs. Plato’s imaginary conversations are between very real, concrete seeming individuals with all sorts of quirks, many of them based on real people. Plato recognized that in a hierarchy of beauty, a beautiful soul is more profound and important than a beautiful body. The former is invisible but real and not an abstraction. The metaphor of looking up is also one of looking inward and Plato’s Cave is an inward journey.

If moral virtue does not seem beautiful (attractive) then there is no motive to strive for it. Plato’s dialogs are often funny, the interlocutors witty; some of them are cynical and egotistical; others young and well-meaning. The character of Socrates holds his own against the ruthless, with added jokes, and tries to answer the questions of the sincere as best he can. He is a grown-up, aware of his limitations and concerned to help people learn by revealing that they know less than they think they do and thus have more to learn they think they do.

Aristotle offers no such attractive model as Socrates or delicate feel for the nuance of human motivations and conversation. His God pulling the universe towards actual form is just not worthy of admiration or heartfelt devotion.

Aristotle’s most important contribution was his overt rejection of moral theory as unable to cope with the concrete, specific, and unique circumstances in which complex moral decisions must be made – a contribution sadly ignored by Kant and Mill. By avoiding moral legalism he provided, along with Plato, a forerunner to the ethics of Jesus and the New Testament. It might be noted that Christian fundamentalism, being rule-driven, attempts to return to elements of the Jewish law and the Decalogue, and is thus quite opposed in spirit to the parables of Jesus.

René Girard’s examination and revelation of the scapegoat mechanism, one of the biggest contributions to philosophy ever, owes a debt to Aristotle too. In his Poetics, Aristotle describes man as the most mimetic creature in nature. The important role of mimesis is the same insight that Cervantes had in his character of Don Quixote, imitating as he does romantic stories of the knight errant, Flaubert’s Madam Bovary with her fantasies of romance gleaned from cheap romance novels, Julian Sorel in The Red and the Black, and Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment both take their cues from Napoleon, and so on. The greatest novelists brought to human awareness the often hidden or at least forgotten role that mimesis plays in human existence. Since mimesis offends our sense of imaginary autonomy and originality it tends to remain hidden from view. In emphasizing our mimetic nature Aristotle highlights one of the most important features necessary to understand ourselves on a deeper level.

Finally, moral luck suggests human flourishing is reserved for a rich, beautiful and noble elite with plenty of good fortune concerning living to an old age and having children. It introduces factors outside our control that seem irrelevant. Contending that literal nobility and physical beauty is necessary for the good life seems neither morally beautiful nor noble.

[1] Mark, 8:36

One thought on “Aristotle and Ethics

  1. Pingback: Aristotle and Ethics | Reaction Times


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