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AS/POLS 2900.6A
  Perspectives on Politics

Aristotle’s Ethics: Comparison with  Plato and the Sophists

Aristotle’s ethics are most strikingly different from Plato’s in the degree to which it retreats from pursuing the goal of an exact knowledge available to only a very few who have received a long and intense philosophical training. For Aristotle, virtue is still knowledge; but the knowledge involved is not the exact, mathematics-like knowledge of the pure forms. An exact science, according to Aristotle, is one whose first principles can be recognized as true in an intuitive act of the intellect. Geometry would be a model of such exact science in as far as it is a set of theorems deducible from self-evident axioms. Remember that reality for Aristotle is a hierarchical order among individual things (formed matters). The ultimate task of thought is to trace out the true relations among these, beginning from sense-experience, then rising to higher generalizations until finally – in some fields at least – we reach first principles that are universally and necessarily true. Using these first principles as a basis, we can then move back down, deducing the actual structure and logical relations among the lower order universals embedded in the particulars belonging to a given realm of sense–experience.

So, for Aristotle much more than for Plato, science must “save the phenomena”. That is it must, to the degree that it is an exact science, be both founded on universal and necessary truths and demonstrate a coherent logical relation between what appears to be and what is real and between what ought to be and what is. For Plato, on the other hand, there is always an unbridgeable gap between what ought to be (found in the world of forms) and what is the case in the sensible world. For Plato there is a gap between the form and the sensible (the problem of how the sensible participates in the form)  and there is a gap between the first principle, the ultimate truth, the Form of the Good, and its communicability. (Thus in Plato we have a mystical tendency which is at least considerably weakened in Aristotle.) “Saving the phenomena” is still an important, even crucial goal of post-17th century science, even though that science is in other ways considerably un- or anti-Aristotelian.

Ethics, according to Aristotle, never reaches this intuitive certainty about first principles that Plato looked for and thought of as essential. Nevertheless Aristotle sets out, like Plato,  to find out what the good really is and thereby refute the Sophists, like Plato. Yet against Plato, and to some extent like the Sophists, Aristotle believes that ethics, the theory and practice of the good life, must be based on opinion.

The Sophists had held that because ethical action was based upon opinion, and opinions varied depending upon interests and perspective, ethical judgements were inevitably doomed to being subjective and relative.

Plato’s response had been to try to find a single, universal and necessary truth that could provide an unshakable foundation for the answers to all ethical and political questions. Only this truth turns out to lead to as many problems as it can solve. For Aristotle, the Sophists were not completely incorrect in respecting opinion, because for him there is no absolute gap between experience (or everyday thought and opinion) in me (the subject of this experience) and the objects out there independent of me.  For Aristotle, both the skepticism of the Sophists and the absolutism of Plato are based on the presupposition, on the unexamined idea, that there is a radical cleavage between mind (or the subject of knowledge) and its objects. In the Sophists, this assumption led to the strongly held assumption that knowledge is only of our own internal states. Knowledge is subjective and relative. In Plato, it is opinion that is subjective and relative, and knowledge is only of an intelligible “other world” whose ultimate content and structure is incommunicable.

Mediating between the two is Aristotle, for whom this initial presupposition of a radical gap between the subject and object of knowledge is itself untenable.

For Aristotle, we always have or begin with some real knowledge which is embedded in opinion based upon real experience, i.e. experience of the real.  The problem then is to find the intelligible form uniting the various opinions and experiences. This will give us a reasonable hope of finding an objective truth. Thus we can find some kind of objective truth in questions of ethics, even without arriving at indubitable first principles.  Aristotle is consequently happy to base his science of ethics on opinion, and to construct a science here that, just as much as in physics, saves the appearances – that is, the common, traditional opinions about what is good. Now since Aristotle’s general position and metaphysical framework is such that it places a strong, if qualified trust in experience, it does not seem at all strange to him to begin his ethics by relating  this subject to his general position.  
Everything, says Aristotle,
1. Aims at some end;
2. has a form, which is that things purpose and fulfillment (a place or a state       where it  can rest because it has now achieved what it had in it to become);
3. this end is its good;
4. the higher and more inclusive is the end, the better it is (and with human beings, of course, the end will be complex and achieved through deliberation and conscious action);
5. the highest and most inclusive end will be an end in itself (it will not be chosen for the sake of something else);
6. “happiness” or “flourishing” (the Greek word used by Aristotle was “eudaimonia”) is something that is universally regarded as being an end in itself – never chosen for the sake of something else.
“Happiness, then,” he says, “is something final and self-sufficient and is the end of action”

Now, many people today would question Aristotle’s assumption that there is one ultimate end, a “summum bonum” or highest good; but Aristotle thought this highest end was “happiness”. The only problem is to determine what happiness is. As you might by now suspect, happiness should be ascertained by first determining what the function or purpose of a human being is. The question, then, is what is it that is peculiar to humans as a species ? What is it that distinguishes humans from other beings? This Aristotle found to be “an activity of the soul which follows or implies a rational principle”.

Here pay close attention. Aristotle identifies a peculiarity or distinguishing characteristic of the human animal with its essence and with its value. But does this follow? Why should we identify something that simply differentiates x from y with what x above all should be? In the end, this boils down to the question of whether we may assume that if things are functionally related, their function is their purpose. Plato, in the myth of the metals was being more honest than this. Take sexual difference as an example. Because in the process of human biological reproduction the female is endowed with the role of bearing and nursing children, does this mean that the purpose of women is to bear children? Second, doesn’t this way of thinking tend to exclude or subordinate those functions that are generic rather than specific? Thus Aristotle wants to exclude from discussion of the human function “the life of nutrition and growth”.  (1094A1 ff.) The life of sensation and emotion become merely a condition of rational virtue and are not a part of happiness. This problem will reappear in a different way in his political theory. In any case Aristotle is not wrong to include the functioning of the rational in his account of happiness. My questions concern the way Aristotle must relate things: things can only be related if they can find their place in a hierarchy in which the higher is the purpose of the lower. Perhaps the purpose of the clay is just to be clay.

To define the happiness of anything we must then, according to Aristotle, know its function. And to know its function means to know the form that is moving in it from potentiality to actuality. Possession of (or by) reason does make the happiness of human beings a different matter than that of other living beings inasmuch, at least, as it allows humans to make a plan, formulate and decide on alternatives and to act with purposes (sometimes extremely distant purposes). We have this ability to rationally organize our environment in order to promote certain ends. These ends make a science of ethics and politics worthwhile. The ability to shape our actions makes such a science possible.

Non-rational animals, then, can experience happiness as simply immediate pleasure or pain, but the happiness of  human being depends on their own knowledge and will. Non-rational animals flourish or they don’t. Humans succeed or fail in their conscious designs. So, for Aristotle, the end of human beings is the life of reason, but the life of reason has two parts: practical reason and theoretical reason. Here is another not unimportant difference from Plato, for whom reason was reason, and could not be divided into theoretical and practical. More on this distinction and what it implied next time.

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