Course: PL 180 – Morality and the Law Online
Author: Daniel G. Jenkins, MA
Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Montgomery College Takoma Park/Silver Spring
Updated: 1/4/2010
Contact: Cell: 443-690-2557


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This module is meant to accompany a reading from Chapter 3 in Arthur and Scalet’s  Morality and Moral Controversies, eighth edition:

  “Nichomachean Ethics,” by Aristotle, pp. 50-56.

You may complete the reading and the PowerPoint in any order.

Once you have completed the PowerPoint and the assigned text reading, proceed to answer the Module Review Questions.



After completing this module, which includes readings in one course text and an online discussion in addition to this PowerPoint presentation, students should be able to:

       Identify and explain core aspects of Platonic Ethics

       Apply Platonic Ethics in moral decision-making

       Analyze the usefulness and critique features of Platonic Ethics

       Synthesize Platonic Ethics with other theories in the academic study of Ethics

       Identify and explain core aspects of Aristotelian Ethics

       Apply Aristotelian Ethics in moral decision-making

       Analyze the usefulness and critique features of Aristotelian Ethics

       Synthesize Aristotelian Ethics with other theories in the academic study of Ethics



Now that we have addressed logical reasoning and critical thinking in ethics, and dealt with meta-ethical threats to the possibility of morality, you are ready to move on to classical ethical theory and apply what you have learned.  In the modules that follow, you will encounter some of the great philosophers throughout history, and closely examine their thoughts on the good life and ethical decision-making.

 Remember, all ethical theories attempt to answer two questions: 1) what is the good life? 2) what ought we do? No philosopher will attempt to answer the second question without answering the first, because no philosopher will claim that we ought do something that will lead to a bad life.  Ethics is important precisely because it helps us understand and lead a good life. 

Note that each philosopher’s claim about the good life is a meta-ethical claim; it is a statement about what values are good values to have.  Their claims about what we ought do are their ethics; their models of decision-making designed to get us to outcomes that mesh with their understanding of morality. As you study each philosopher, pay attention to their reasoning. Does the evidence support the claim? Do premises relate logically to one another and to their conclusions? Do they meet the burden of proof? Each philosopher you will study will bring novel insight and original thinking to complex issues, and study of them will enrich your experience of the world and enliven your own ethical decision-making.


Plato (424-328 BCE*) was a philosopher in Athens, Greece.  One of the first thinkers to be called philosophers, Plato was a student of Socrates and a teacher of Aristotle.  Together, this triad of thinkers helped lay the foundations of western culture.  Plato was also a mathematician, writer of philosophical dialogues, and founder of the Academy in Athens, the first institution of higher learning in the western world.

*Note that BCE and CE will be standard notation in all modules in this course.  BCE stands for “before the common era” and CE for “common era.”  The number and sequence of years in the BCE/CE system is exactly the same as the number and sequence of years in the BC/AD system.  The only real difference is that the BC/AD system carries religious connotations (“before Christ” and “Anno Domini,” translating to “year of our Lord).  The BCE/CE system is becoming the academic standard, as it is a religiously-neutral notation suited for cross-cultural communication due to its compatibility with religious toleration and religious pluralism.

Plato wrote his philosophy in the form of “dialogues” between two people, one of whom was frequently Socrates.  The dialogues read like plays, and this reflects the Socratic Method, or Dialectic; a teaching method thus named because it was practiced and perfected by Socrates, and that involved active conversation between two parties (the root of “Dialectic” being “dialogue”).  Socrates did not believe that lecturing at someone was an effective method of instruction; rather, he believed that through skillful questioning and intelligent repartee a pupil could be brought to greater and greater levels of understanding.  This belief has largely permeated the history of Western pedagogy for the last 2500 years. Note how I often introduce a concept, ask you to think about, and continue based on your (probable) answers? This is the Socratic Method.

Socrates himself never wrote anything down, so all we know of him comes from Plato’s writings.  In some of the Platonic Dialogues, it is thought that Socrates is represented more or less faithfully and is espousing his own philosophy and beliefs. In other Platonic Dialogues, Socrates is used as a mouthpiece for Plato’s ideas.  Here we will be dealing primarily with what scholars believe to be the ethical theory of Plato, although parts of it are expressed by the character of Socrates in the Dialogues.

Plato’s ethics is founded on his metaphysics.  Remember from Module 1 that metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that investigates what exists, what is real, what the world is made of, and what human beings are like.  Plato’s metaphysics puts forth the idea of the “tripartite soul.”  In this view, every human being has three capacities (tripartite meaning, quite literally “three parts): appetite, spirit, and reason.  Our appetitive capacities are fickle, involve attraction, and drive us to be preoccupied by frivolous things that cross our path.  Our spirit prompts us to be passionate and energetic, and our reason allows us to control the other two aspects of ourselves. 

Plato invites us to imagine the self as a chariot led by two horses.  One horse, the appetite, wants to turn every which way chasing things that interest it.  The other horse, passion, is so focused and driven it will barrel straight ahead regardless of the dangers in its path.  Reason is the charioteer, or driver of the chariot.  Reason steers the appetitive horse on a straighter line that it is inclined to travel, and forces the spirituous horse to veer of its course as necessary.  To make a modern analogy, imagine that you’re riding in a car with reason, appetite, and spirit. Who do you want to be driving?  

You probably want reason to drive; if appetite or spirit drives the car you may never make it home! Appetite will stop at every fast food drive-through, and pause at every attractive person on the street to make conversation.  Spirit will be so focused that it will speed, disobey traffic signals, and exhibit road rage.  Reason will balance the two.  The car is you; it is your life.  What is driving your life? Plato’s notion of the tripartite soul, like so much we have discussed, emphasizes the role of reason in being master of your own life. Now, hold onto Plato’s notion of the soul for a moment while we introduce aspects of his ethics.

Plato says that evil is due to lack of knowledge. If people can discover what is right, or “the good” then they will never act wickedly. But how is this possible when people differ so greatly in their opinions about the good life? Remember our discussions about meta-ethical threats to the possibility of morality. Plato rejects them, as do we.  Plato says that although anyone can have an opinion about the “good” life just as anyone can have an opinion about mathematics, it is only the people who are trained that are really qualified to answer the question.  In order to discover what the good life is people must first acquire certain kinds of knowledge. Finding the nature of the good life is an intellectual task very similar to the discovery of mathematical truths.  When we are carefully schooled in various disciplines like mathematics, philosophy, etc., we will be able to answer what the good life is.

Simply put, Plato thinks that knowledge of the good life is a matter of expertise.  You are not qualified to diagnose yourself, do brain surgery on yourself, and most people are not qualified to fix their own car.  When you are sick, you go to the doctor, and when your car breaks down you go to the mechanic.  Why is it, then, Plato asks, that every person thinks they are qualified to answer questions about morality? It is a matter of specialization, like many other disciplines, and requires devoted study to understand completely.  You can have an opinion about morality, just as you may have an opinion about advanced calculus, but just as it is only the mathematician or physicist that are qualified to answer those questions, so, too, is the philosopher the only person qualified to answer questions about morality.

Now, Plato acknowledges that not everyone has strengths in something like mathematics.  Some people simply do not have the cognitive ability, or the patience to learn, or the time, or the inclination.  Some people simply cannot learn advanced mathematics.  It is the same with ethics, Plato says.  Some people simply do not have the requisite intellectual ability to learn about the nature of the good life.

Fortunately, Plato does not say that each person needs to have knowledge to lead the good life, just that at least one person needs to have knowledge of the good in order to define what it is.  He does say that if we have knowledge we will lead the good life, but does not say only if – having knowledge of the good is a sufficient, not necessary, condition for leading the good life. What might other sufficient conditions be for leading the good life be?  Without knowledge we can still lead the good life just by chance, accidentally. Knowledge has the benefit of assuring us that we are leading a good existence.  But we cannot depend on living the good life by chance; Plato rejects this method (as should we) as a viable method of ethical decision-making.  As it happens, Plato thinks we do not have to depend on chance.  For those people incapable of acquiring knowledge of the good, leading a good life is still possible if they develop virtuous habits of behavior by emulating those who do have knowledge.

So, Plato thinks there are two paths to leading the good life:

  1. the development of mental powers/knowledge through study
  2. developing virtuous habits of behavior


Plato argues that the development of virtuous habits of behavior is especially important for people who may not have the intellectual capacity to acquire knowledge of the good; some people will not be able to understand the good just as some cannot understand advanced calculus.   But if these people imitate and are guided by people who both have knowledge of the good and who act virtuously, then they too will be able to act virtuously even though they do not understand the nature of the good life.

You might understand Plato’s idea of ethics if you consider the computer you are using right now.  While you understand how to use some programs, you probably do not understand the programming language that underlies their operation.  Through utilizing the Graphic User Interface (GUI – the “point and click” style of computer usage), you can manipulate program functions to achieve the results you desire, but you do not actually understand how the program does what it does.  You have developed successful habits. Plato says it is the same with ethics – the experts know how it works; if you are not an expert, do what the experts tell you to do to achieve the results you want.

Plato argues that there is one and only one good life for all people to lead. There is a truth about the good in the same way that there is a truth about “2+2.”  Morality is objective; it is not a matter of opinion or preference.  A course of action or inaction is morally right or wrong absolutely and independently of anyone’s opinion or preference regarding it, just like the sum of 2 and 2 is 4, regardless of how you feel about it. So, the people who have gained knowledge of the good life have not merely come up with workable or useful ideas, according to Plato, but have discovered the truth about morality.  It is their expertise in the discoverable phenomena of morality that gives them their authority and which warrants deference by more ordinary minds, says Plato.

Now, let’s examine how the basic tenets of Plato’s ethical theory relate to his metaphysics.  In Plato’s Republic, the dialogue in which he outlines the ideal state, he argues for censorship in the ideal society.  Young people, and people with limited capacity to acquire knowledge, should not be exposed to certain sorts of experiences, says Plato, if they are to develop virtuous habits and lead a good life. 

Plato also argues that especially gifted intellects must go beyond merely developing virtuous habits; they must learn to be rulers of the ideal society – the Philosopher-Kings. Plato envisaged a ruling class comprised of both men and women.  Having intellectual ability, they would acquire knowledge; having acquired knowledge they would understand the nature of the good life; understanding the nature of the good life, they would always act morally and never act evilly.  They would be the ideal rulers, and would be role-models for ordinary minds to emulate.  The Philosopher-Kings would exhibit the behavior that people without knowledge would mimic in order to develop virtuous habits. Society, for Plato, should be divided as the self is divided – with the working and artistic classes ruled over by reason.

The absolutism of Plato’s ethics influenced religious philosophy, especially Christianity.  Remember that Plato was born 424 BCE.  When the Romans conquered the Greeks it was Greek culture that remained the prevailing social force. Later, when Paul, an early Christian missionary, spread Christianity to the Roman Empire, Christianity came to be understood in terms of the Platonic worldview.  Some theologians have postulated that the absolute character of edicts like “thou shalt not steal” and “thou shalt not commit murder” are absolute and objective in the Platonic sense.  Also, Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, with it’s distinction between perfect and imperfect worlds, influenced the Christian conceptualization of “the kingdom of heaven.”

Although Platonism and Christianity agree that there are absolute moral standards, Plato himself believed that moral standards are superior even to God (well, Gods and Goddesses – Plato lived in the polytheistic culture of the Greeks); goodness exists outside of God and God is good if and only if he acts in accordance with that standard.


Criticism of Plato

There are three main components of Platonic ethics:

1.       If a person has knowledge of the good life, he/she will never act immorally

2.       Some people will be unable to gain knowledge of the good, and must develop virtuous habits of behavior by emulating people who do have knowledge

3.       Morality is absolute. There is one and only one good life for everyone to lead.


Let’s look at the first component.  Does this make sense to you? Is it possible that someone can know something is wrong and do it anyway?

On the surface it appears that Plato is simply incorrect.  We can think of many examples of people behaving badly who, quite simply, seem to know better.  For example, lets say I am a bank loan officer and intend to embezzle money from the bank at which I am employed.  Now lets say that it is pointed out by a friend that stealing is wrong. It is possible that I may not agree with the assertion of my friend. I could argue that stealing is right. If I did, you would probably consider me deficient in moral knowledge.  For Plato, arguing that stealing is right may be like arguing that 2+2=5.  Stealing may fly in the face of a fundamental truth that is absolute. If I proceed to steal money from the bank based on my belief that stealing is right, you could argue, in the spirit of Plato’s theory, that I have done so due to a lack of knowledge about the good and due to a lack of virtuous habits.

But we typically understand that, if I proceed to embezzle the money anyway, it isn’t so much that I disagree – I still know stealing is wrong – as much as it is that I simply desire to do wrong more than I desire to do right.  The idea that someone really does know better seems to be demonstrated by the fact that people engaging in wrong behaviors try to cover their tracks.  If I really didn’t know better, you might say, I would simply walk out of the bank with the money until someone stopped me, and I would say “Oh, really? Are you serious? I can’t just take money from the bank? I didn’t know that.”  The fact that embezzlers develop complicated book-keeping techniques to steal money, and to hide the fact that they are doing so, suggests that they know full well that stealing is wrong. 

So, on the surface, it doesn’t seem like we can attribute the actions of the embezzler to lack of knowledge.  But we have to be fair to Plato.  We have to be charitable with what he might mean by “knowledge” and in our assessment of who has knowledge. We have to determine whether Plato has hit upon a matter of logical necessity (if you “know” what is right, you will, by matter of necessity, not do wrong), or if he has merely made a psychological judgment about how people will act under certain conditions. If he has made a psychological judgment, it seems that he’s failed. But maybe he has hit upon a matter of logical necessity.

In other words, perhaps there is a difference between knowing an act is prohibited and understanding an act is morally wrong.  The embezzler, because he clearly understands the act of stealing is prohibited, tries to hide his activities. But is this evidence that he understands the moral character of his actions?  Perhaps if the embezzler understood how those most adversely affected by his actions would be harmed, he would not steal the money.  If it is understood that embezzling is stealing the life savings of elderly couples, causing interest rates to rise, causing home foreclosures and preventing new families from buying homes,  maybe only a sociopath would proceed with embezzlement.  So, if Plato means that we will not do wrong if we understand what harms we inflict when we do wrong, his theory becomes more compelling and justifiable.

Let’s use another example to investigate Plato’s claim that if you know what is right, you’ll never do wrong.  Imagine that you are in a long-term, exclusive, romantic relationship.  Now imagine that you begin cheating on your partner, and proceed to do so for months, even years.  You sneak around, spend a lot of time and money hiding your activities, and, perhaps inadvertently, lessen your emotional commitment to your relationship.  You, as with the embezzler, understand that your behavior is prohibited, but perhaps you don’t understand why and how it is morally wrong.  But in this case we could also say that you simply do not understand what is meant by the “good life.”  You are acting on a mistaken concept of the good life – a concept that involves constant guilt and fear of being caught, a concept that values promiscuity, and a concept that is ultimately damaging to yourself and those around you. If you understood what was right, we could argue, you would not want or need to engage in these activities.

There are compelling arguments to be made in supporting and opposing the intellectual legitimacy of this core tenet of Plato’s ethics – that if we know what is right we will never do wrong.  If Plato means that knowing an act is wrong and knowing and act is prohibited are one and the same knowledge, then he is simply incorrect.  If Plato means something more nuanced, such as knowing how we harm others when we do wrong, or knowing how our own lives could be better if we did not do wrong, then his position is more defensible – but not beyond criticism.  I could still understand how I would harm others in doing wrong and do wrong anyway.  More knowledge does not always make it easier to decide on a course of action – perhaps it could make a decision more difficult.  And I could disagree with whatever notion of the good life would contradict the behavior in question, even if Plato would tell me matter-of-factly that my opinion doesn’t count. But we will return to Plato’s notion of the absolute good life later.

Now let’s more closely examine the second major component of Plato’s ethical theory – the idea that some people are simply incapable of acquiring knowledge of the good and must model their behavior after those that do have knowledge.  Does this notion strike you as being at all problematic?  Think about this a moment before advancing.

We tend to think that labels like “moral” and “immoral” only apply when acts are voluntary, made from will. It makes no sense to praise or blame someone for a course of action over which they have no choice.  So for Plato, if most people are simply emulating the virtuous behavior of the few people with the intellectual prowess necessary to comprehend morality, the good life really is only available to a few people.  Most people must merely follow, with no understanding of why they behave as they do.  Such a situation is rife for abuse of authority, as with Divine Command Theory.  And, as with Divine Command Theory, we have no basis for distinguishing between claims made by different people posturing as authority figures.  If you take your car to one mechanic, and he wants to charge you $1,000, and tells you why, you can certainly take your car to another mechanic who might charge you a different amount and also tell you why, but unless you know something about cars you wont be able to tell who is correct.

Plato’s ethical theory makes genuine moral decision-making impossible for most people.  He denies us our moral agency.  We tend to think that almost everyone is capable of distinguishing right from wrong and that almost everyone ought to be rewarded and punished for their actions.  Our idea of moral agency is reflected in the law.  Children are held responsible for their actions, but to a lesser degree than adults – children have different courts, different punishments, and their records do not carry over to adulthood.  This is because we understand children to have a limited understanding of, or control over, impulsive behaviors.  We also provide Not Criminally Responsible legal defenses to adults and children who, due to substantial mental disease or defect, either do not know what they are doing or do not know what they are doing is wrong. With the exception of these two groups, we believe everyone has moral agency, that moral knowledge is accessible to everyone, and in this way we can criticize Plato’s ethical theory as being an intellectual elitist theory.

As an interesting aside, it’s worth noting that, whether you realize it or not, English-speaking cultures do not look fondly upon intellectual elitism, and at times our culture vilifies intellectuals.  Consider that most comic book villains are doctors – Dr. Doom, Dr. Octopus, the Green Goblin, Lex Luthor, and so on. Comic book heroes, on the other hand, are typically people with average education who happen to have super powers.  In literature we see trends, evident at least since  Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, in which doctors and scientists are represented as evil, crazy, megalomaniacal,  and too audacious to respect the supposed limits of human power.  Before that, even in Arthurian legend, we have Merlin, the most educated person in the land – who is not fit, even in the story, to rule.  He is at best an advisor to the King.  And when first Al Gore, and later John Kerry, ran for president of the United States, they were accused of being “egg heads” as if being smart was a bad thing. In democratic nations in particular there is a negative sentiment against intellectualism, precisely because of the intellectual idea that the educated know what is best for everyone; even better than the people they would govern. 

Whether or not these trends in our culture are justified, or if they are the product of fear on behalf of the uneducated, what is clear is that Plato’s ethical theory, when applied to politics, did not meet with satisfactory results in real life.  Mark Lilla, Professor at the University of Chicago, has done great work recounting Plato’s political failings in an essay entitled “The Lure of Syracuse,” available in Lilla’s book The Reckless Mind. In about 368 BCE, Plato set sail for Syracuse, not exactly in an attempt to make the new Sicilian ruler into a Philosopher-King, but to educate the then-recently ascended Dionysius the Younger in philosophy. The hope was that if Dionysius could learn what was right, he would never do wrong.

Dionysius proved to be a poor student. He lacked discipline and real desire to learn, and became what Socrates might have called a “Sophist” – Sophists were like lawyers of the time inasmuch as they would argue in exchange for money, or simply for the sake of being right. Sophists did not care about truth, they cared about winning debates.  Socrates and Plato decried Sophists as disingenuous, as not being philosophers, and indeed, this negative connotation carries over to all other words that share the root – sophomore, sophomoric, sophistry, etc. If you do don’t know the actual meaning of these words, please take a moment to look them up. 

Despite Plato’s attempts at instruction, Dionysius became a tyrant, and not the benevolent, wise sort of tyrant Plato envisioned in his ideal Philosopher-King. Dionysius was stubborn, haughty, and self-important.  It was thought that through instruction Plato could teach Dionysius to be a good ruler, to pursue justice and to make just laws to rule over the cities he conquered, but to no avail.  Dionysius quickly came to think of himself as a philosopher already, and beyond the need for instruction.  Dionysius was finally deposed in a bloody coup.

As Lilla writes: “Dionysius is our contemporary. Over the last century he has assumed many names: Lenin and Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini, Mao and Ho, Castro and Trujillo, Amin and Bokassa, Saddam and Khomeini, Ceausescu and Milosevic – one’s pen runs dry.”  What Lilla is saying here is that history is littered with the dirty deeds of those who believed they had found the right answer, and the “absolute” good.   While Plato could argue that Dionysius and his contemporary brethren were simply mistaken about the nature of the good, the fact remains that they were as certain as Plato that they had knowledge of the good. Moreover, it is not as if Plato ever bothered to write down what the good life actually consisted in; again, he thought it was complex, and that it could not be boiled down to a simple list.  Knowing and understanding the good required years of study – a wonderful idea, but limiting in our ability to determine if someone, especially a ruler, is morally right, or if they merely posturing as a wise figure and using their authority to commit atrocities.

If nothing else, this criticism of Plato has broader significance inasmuch as it tells us we must not believe ourselves to be right with absolute confidence.  We might be wrong, and when our paradigm of the world involves killing and dying, we must temper our zeal with skepticism. In this way we might avoid or allay the horrible deeds that have characterized the rule of dictators who believed themselves to be absolutely right. For most of us, we are not rulers of nations, but such confidence in our power can nevertheless wreak havoc in our personal lives.  When I teach ethics in a face-to-face setting, every  semester there is at least one student in each class who thinks that Plato has hit upon a wonderful truth and a captivating idea; of course, the students who say so also say that they would be part of Plato’s in-group, that they are among the wise ones that either know or have the capacity to know the nature of the good in the way Plato advocates.

Perhaps. But more likely, and I’ll put this as gently as I can – for those of you who think Plato would include you in the inner circle of the wise, you are almost certainly wrong.  Plato envisioned that potential Philosopher-Kings would be recruited from a very young age. They would taught for decades by the state, schooled for 10 years in mathematics, 10 years in history, 10 years in philosophy, and would return to live amongst the population for a few years, after which time the most promising of the potential philosopher kings would be selected to rule.  Unless you have 30 solid years of education under your belt, you’re not even in the running.

Moving on to closer examination of the last aspect of Platonic ethics, the idea that morality is absolute, we again run into problems.  What might the absolute character of morality look like? If it means that morality consists in a list of some things we ought never do, and some things we ought always do, what actions belong to which list? Should you never kill? What about killing in defense of your property, or your country, or yourself? What about taking actions that would, essentially, kill Baby Teresa?  What of lying g? Surely that is something we ought never do, right? Take a moment to think about these issues before advancing to the next slide.

As you ponder what absolutism might mean in the context of Platonic ethics, consider the life of Oskar Schindler. Oskar Schindler (28 April 1908 – 9 October 1974) was an industrialist credited with saving almost 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust, by having them work in his enamelware and ammunitions factories located in what is now Poland and the Czech Republic respectively.  He was the subject of the book Schindler's Ark, and the Spielberg-directed film based on it, Schindler's List.  Essentially, Schindler began as an opportunistic war profiteer, seeking to benefit from the German invasion of Poland in 1939. The Germans forbade Jews to own or operate businesses, and were eager to sell factories to non-Jews under their policy of Aryanization.  Eventually, the same Jews that owned businesses were imprisoned in concentration camps, and Schindler acquired workers from concentration camps in a manner similar to slave labor. Initially Schindler may have been motivated by money — hiding wealthy Jewish investors, for instance — but later he began shielding his workers without regard for cost. He would, for instance, claim that unskilled workers were essential to the factory. Harming his workers would result in complaints and demands for compensation from the government.  By the end of the war, Schindler was routinely and knowingly recruiting unskilled Jews to work in his munitions factory – and was purposefully generating and selling non-functional munitions to the German war effort.   Today there are more than 7,000 descendants of the Schindler Jews living in the U.S., Europe, and Israel.

If Plato’s ethical absolutism can be interpreted as a list of do’s and don’ts that should be followed absolutely, again the question arises as to what actions should be on what list.  Is it always, for example, wrong to lie? Oskar Schindler lied routinely and effectively to rescue Jews from certain death in the concentration camps. Was this a morally wrong action?  On numerous occasions, Schindler was approached by SS officers inquiring into his activities. Was Schindler morally obligated to tell the truth, an action that would have resulted in the death of thousands, including himself, or was he obligated to lie in order to combat the atrocity of the holocaust? It becomes clear that if morality exists in the absolute way suggested by Plato that it cannot simply be a list.  Again, if we are to be charitable with Plato, perhaps we can say that there is an absolute method of addressing and determining how we ought behave in any given circumstance, and not an absolute list of what we should and should not do, always and without exception, in any circumstance.  If indeed the absolute character of morality is construed as an absolute method of decision-making, a way of determining what to do that is always right to undertake, we still have the problem of the unavailability of that method. Plato does not tell us what it is, only that those with superior intellectual ability can determine what it is. 

What makes Platonic ethics attractive is that it attempts to supply a general solution to a common type of difficulty that arises in daily life. People often find themselves in situations where they don’t know how to behave because they don’t know what the right course of action would be in the circumstances. Is it right to kill someone in defense of my country, my family or myself, or is it right never to kill anyone?  Plato suggests that if we had more information, if we had been more carefully trained, we could find the answer. We would know what the right course of action would be in the circumstances. Just as the questions faced by a soldier, or a Physician – operate or not? administer a drug or not? – cannot be answered without knowledge, moral difficulties cannot be solvable without knowledge.  But again, it is unclear exactly what Plato meant by knowledge of the good life, or if more knowledge renders the right  decision more evident, or if his insistence that most people lack the intellectual prowess necessary to understand the good life subjects his theory to irremediable intellectual elitism.

The last contentious assertion in Plato’s ethics, the assumption that there is one and only one good life for everyone, is refuted by Aristotle.




Now that we have discussed Plato’s ethics, we can move on to Aristotle.  As mentioned previously, Aristotle was part of a highly influential philosophical lineage beginning with Socrates – Socrates taught Plato, and Plato taught Aristotle. Together, this triad of thinkers helped lay the foundations of Western culture.  One of Aristotle’s more notable students, Alexander the Great, was one of the most successful military commanders in history, and conquered most of the world known to the ancient Greeks. Aristotle’s ethics can be seen in part as an answer to the general absolutism in Plato’s ethics, and in particular to Plato’s assertion that there is one and only one good life for everyone to lead.

Aristotle lived from about 384-322 BCE, in Athens, Greece.  He was the first to create a comprehensive system of philosophy, encompassing morality and aesthetics, logic and science, politics and metaphysics. Aristotle's views on the physical sciences profoundly shaped medieval scholarship, and their influence extended well into the Renaissance, although they were ultimately replaced by modern physics. In the biological sciences, some of his observations were only confirmed to be accurate in the nineteenth century. His works contain the earliest known formal study of logic, which were incorporated in the late nineteenth century into modern formal logic, which you studied earlier in this course. In metaphysics, Aristotelianism had a profound influence on philosophical and theological thinking in the Islamic and Jewish traditions in the Middle Ages, and it continues to influence Christian theology, especially Eastern Orthodox theology, and the scholastic tradition of the Roman Catholic church.

Greek philosophy in general is highly speculative in nature, owing in part to the prevalence of metaphysics; an attempt to discover the true nature of the universe by the use of reason alone. Again, this is speculation of a non-scientific sort; in metaphysics we do not try to collect facts and then derive conclusions from them, but we try to deduce facts about nature and the world and the nature of man by the use of reason alone.  Metaphysics often tainted the ethics of the Greeks; e.g. Plato’s notion of the forms and realm of ideas being a necessary antecedent to the absolute nature of the good, for example.

Aristotle did not base his ethics on reason alone, or on purely metaphysical assumptions about the nature of the world.  Aristotle was what we call an epistemological empiricist – he thought we gained knowledge of the world through experience. If you asked Plato what the nature of justice was, he would sit around and think about it for a long time until he reached his conclusions, but Aristotle would sit in on 50 trials, or read 50 constitutions. 

When it came to ethics, Aristotle examined the behavior and talk of various people in everyday life.  He noticed that plain men regarded some people as leading what they called “good lives” and others as leading what they called “bad lives.” Aristotle noticed that the various lives that people of common sense considered to be “good” all contain one common characteristic.  What do you suppose that common characteristic was? Take a moment and make a short list of three things you think are most important to leading a good life.

Why are these things important to leading a good life?  Aristotle noted that the characteristic all good lives have in common is happiness.  Similarly, the lives considered to be bad had in common that the people leading them were unhappy.  So, when Aristotle asks “what is the good life for man?” He answers: “it is a life of happiness.” Now, your list of what constitutes a good life might be different from the list compiled by your classmates.  Maybe for you a life of happiness involves financial success, and for someone else it involves marriage and family, and for someone else it involves admiration or artistic excellence. How can we say all these seemingly disparate goals point towards a similar kind of good life?

Aristotle draws a distinction between instrumental goods and intrinsic goods. An intrinsic good is something that is good in its own right.  It doesn’t have to lead to anything else to be worthwhile. An instrumental good, on the other hand, is good only insofar as it leads to some other good.  For example, money is an instrumental good.  It is only useful in bringing about other things that are worthwhile, like buying a house, or a car, or health insurance, or other things that may in themselves be only instrumental goods – money in itself, and for its own sake, means nothing.  Happiness, Aristotle thought, was the only ultimate intrinsic good. We know this is true, because it is ridiculous to ask why it is good to be happy, or why we want to be happy.

But what, exactly, is happiness?  Is it merely feeling good? It becomes clear very quickly that happiness must be about more than mere good feeling.  If Aristotle was merely promoting happiness as good feeling, he could quickly descend the ladder to Hedonism.  If happiness was all that mattered, we could justify drug addiction, or even living the life of a dog.  Would anyone like to be my dog? I’ll let you live in my yard, I’ll feed you, I’ll pet you sometimes, and when people walk by the house, yell at them. You wont have to worry about anything ever again. Would anyone consent to this kind of life? No. There is something uniquely human within us that demands satisfaction.

Again, what is the happiness Aristotle is talking about? Is a happy life a life of pleasure, or fame, or sex, or fabulous prizes, or what? Aristotle found that common people are unable to articulate what happiness is, or that they give contradictory answers.  In the Nichomachean Ethics, perhaps one of the first works in what we call “Analytical Philosophy,” Aristotle tried to analyze and explain the use of certain moral terms that occur in everyday speech in a clearer way than the average person could do, even though the ordinary person could use these words quite properly in everyday speech.  As a consequence of this endeavor, he coined the term “eudaimonia” in which happiness is defined thusly:

                “Happiness is an activity of the soul in accordance with perfect virtue.”

If this seems unclear to you, its OK, because it has puzzled philosophers for centuries. One plausible explanation is that Aristotle is stressing the fact that happiness is not something static,  but is an activity. People tend to think of happiness as something we arrive at – a certain fixed goal that awaits us if we behave in certain ways.  When we think this way we tend to think that happiness is an object we can arrive at or possess, and our advertising-laden culture encourages just this sort of mentality.  Think about your own life. Was there something you wanted very badly when you were a child? Something for a birthday or holiday, and you got it? How long were you happy as a consequence of this gift?

Often, people think they will be happy if or once. When you are a teenager, you think you will be happy once you get your license and a car, but when you get the license and a car you are confronted with the financial reality of the situation, the aggravation of traffic, and so on.  Then you think you will be happy when you graduate high school, but you graduate high school and you are still not happy. Then it becomes about college, or marriage, or home-ownership, or children, or divorce – lots of cultural milestones, or objects like new cars, and still no happiness.  It is this very thinking that Aristotle wishes to disentangle from happiness. 

Happiness is not a goal or an object for Aristotle. It is instead something that accompanies certain activities, instead of being the goal of activities. A person who persists in doing something, like going to the gym, does not arrive at a goal or possess an object called persistence. Instead, persistence is a way of doing things, like refusing to be defeated by circumstances. Happiness, like persistence, is a way of engaging in the various activities of life, such as eating, making love, working and so on.  If a person does these things in a certain way then we declare that person to be happy.  It may be helpful to cite Lao Tzu, the Chinese author of the Tao Te Ching, to further clarify this point. Lao Tzu was not a contemporary of Aristotle, but he puts the matter very eloquently – “there is no way to happiness; happiness is the way.”

So, Aristotle answered the question “what is the good life for man” by saying that the good life is a life of happiness, and that happiness is an activity. But how does he answer the question: “How ought men to behave?” In light of Aristotle’s emphasis on happiness in his ethics, we can then ask how it is we can do things happily. We find the answer in Aristotle’s doctrine of the golden mean.

Being happy is like being well fed. How much food do we need to eat to be well fed? There is no specific amount for everyone, like 5 oz of meat per day. It depends on what kind of work you do, how big you are, whether you are sick or well, etc.  The proper amount for anyone to eat is determined by trial and error. If you eat x and still feel hungry then you should eat more, and if you eat y and feel uncomfortable then you should eat less.  The correct amount is a mean between the two amounts, but not an average; it is just somewhere between the two amounts, a mean between inadequacy and excess. For Aristotle, there are various correct ways of living for different people. What is good for one person may not be good for another. One cannot tell prior to experimentation, by the use of reason alone, which way is the correct way of living for someone.  So, in order to do things happily, you engage in actions out in the world and see what comes of it.

Aristotle was a virtue ethicist. He thinks that regardless of what specific amounts of things we need to be happy, the ingredients are the same for all of us, and the ingredients are the virtues: courage, pride, wit, modesty, etc. It is precisely these ingredients that help us fulfill our particularly human happiness, and our need for the virtues are what makes the life of the dog untenable for us. Aristotle maintains that the proper way for us to behave in the moral sphere is in accordance with the mean. People must act so as to be striving for a mean between two extremes.  For example, we all need courage, but how much any person needs may vary. A green beret needs more courage than a little old lady. As long as the amount of courage had by someone is neither in excess nor deficient, in this case as long as we are between cowardice and rashness, we are in a prime position to do things happily.

It is easy to see how Aristotle stands in sharp contrast to Plato, who believed that there is one and only one good life for everyone to lead.  For Aristotle, there are as many good lives as there are differences between people; as long as people are living in accordance with the mean, they are living a good life. Aristotle also thought that people can behave morally without understanding “moral truths,” provided they acted in accordance with the principle of the Golden Mean.  Aristotle also disagreed that we always do the right thing provided that we know what it is – he says that the evil we would not do, we do, and the good we would do, we don’t, sometimes.  Knowledge of what we ought to do is not sufficient without the self-discipline necessary to direct our behavior.  So, Aristotle believes firmly in raising children with self control so that when they are old enough to understand the golden mean they will be able to act in accordance with it.

Aristotle was considered a philosopher of common sense. He said that pleasure is not bad, but is necessary, in accordance with the golden mean: “No man can be happy on the rack.” But we can’t be happy as pure hedonists, either. Aristotle’s ethical theory is attractive because it addresses the uniformity and absolutism that many find problematic in Platonic ethics.  Aristotle also appeals to our understanding that we can’t have a good life unless we are happy, and the Golden Mean helps us understand how to be good people by stressing the development of virtuous character traits without consulting some esoteric expert on morality.

But are there problems with Aristotelian ethics? Think for a moment about what you believe to be good acts, or virtues conducive to leading a good life. Can they or should they all fall along a spectrum as Aristotle suggests?

It seems there are some behaviors that we ought not moderate, like promise-keeping and respect for life.  Can we possibly lead  a good life if we only keep a moderate number of the promises we make? Not all of them, and not none of them, but some of them? Or, in the case of respect for life, can we say that we don’t murder all people, and don’t murder none, but murder some people and still lead a good life? Other examples, come to mind as well, like fidelity. If you only cheat on your partner sometimes, is this conducive to doing this happily, as Aristotle suggests?

Additionally, there are some goods that seem to result from excess or deficiency, and they are goods that we would not consent to be without in any definition of the good life. Take love, for example.  Love is very extreme, it is rooted in excess. It is difficult to imagine a good life without love. Yet, the moderation advocated by the Golden Mean seems to fail to account for such a good.

Lastly, Aristotelian ethics fails to provide an adequate model of decision-making. Sure, in developing the virtues in accordance with the Golden Mean we are able to do things happily and thereby lead a good life, but how are we to apply our virtues to complicated situations like that arising with the case of Baby Teresa?  It becomes clear that Aristotle’s ethics fails to help us with complex ethical dilemmas. In this is resembles Plato’s ethics, and the need for a more concrete system of decision-making is explored in greater detail in Module 4: Utilitarianism.



Summary of Aristotle

Aristotle was an epistemological empiricist who based his philosophy on experience.  He draws a distinction between instrumental and intrinsic goods, and thinks the ultimate intrinsic good is happiness. He defines happiness as an activity of the soul in accordance with perfect virtue.  This means that happiness is not an object or goal, but a way of doing things in accordance with our uniquely human capacities.  Perfect virtue means balanced virtue, and while different people may lead different kinds of lives and emphasize some virtues more than others, we all need to develop the same set of virtues in order to do things happily. We can employ the doctrine of the Golden Mean to see that we are balancing our virtues at some point between excess and deficiency. Aristotle fails to acknowledge that some goods cannot fall on the spectrum that the Golden Mean dictates because they are either “on” or “off” so to speak, and that some goods do result from excess or deficiency. Also, while virtue ethics is nice inasmuch as it emphasizes leading a happy life and perfecting our character, it gives us no model of decision-making or resolving ethical dilemmas.


If the subject interests you further, see “Aristotle’s Ethics,” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, available on the web at