More than Plato, arguably, Aristotle’s views on ethics have exerted greater influence than those of his mentor. For while they share much common ground – reason must guide action, a moral individual must cultivate certain cardinal virtues – Aristotle seemed to recognise that intellectual knowledge was insufficient. It isn’t enough to know right from wrong; we must also embed good moral habits. This explains something that Plato struggled plausibly to account for: why we do what we know to be wrong. For Plato, this was simply a failure to grasp the true “idea” of goodness, the ideal “Form”. You think (for instance) that it can be “right” to steal, but that’s just because you haven’t properly understood what “right” means, or its consequences for your moral character and mental health. The result is that Plato must argue that no one does wrong intentionally, only by mistake or ignorance.
While not denying this possibility, Aristotle saw that many people who commit moral wrongdoing do not do so out of ignorance, but rather through lack of willpower. Anyone who has ever failed to keep some promise to a friend, or lapsed from commitment to a new dietary regime, will know that it’s often the case that we know what we should do, but we just aren’t strong enough. This failure – what Aristotle called akrasia – provides a more sympathetic and plausible account of moral failing. But it also shows what is lacking – which, for Aristotle, is good moral habits, or virtues of character (for this reason, his approach is generally described as virtue ethics).
Aristotle argues that moral action is largely a matter of training. We learn to be good before we really know what good is. This places a lot of emphasis on education, especially in early life, and it would also seem a basis for cutting people slack: “It wasn’t his fault; he just had a bad upbringing.” Well, Aristotle isn’t a bleeding heart liberal in this regard – he still thinks that people are mostly responsible for their actions, despite the mitigating circumstances of their background and personal history – but he at least sees the relevance of environmental factors when considering why people go wrong.
Another characteristic of virtue ethics (though also, perhaps, its weakness), is its flexibility. What ultimately makes actions moral is that they are performed by moral people. The right thing to do in any situation is therefore dependent in part upon the assessment of a virtuous person. This is in danger of becoming circular: What should a virtuous person do? They should behave virtuously. What is virtue? It is what a virtuous person does. Someone holds up a bank as you wait in line: should you intervene, or try to ensure no one does anything rash so that people don’t get hurt? A friend who is wasteful with money is in severe need: do you help him out, or allow him to learn his own lesson? The two other main ethical theories – utilitarianism, and the deontological approach of Immanuel Kant – might be able to supply clear guidelines to these situations, whereas virtue ethics remains frustratingly vague. But this vagueness can also be a virtue, for choosing the right action or attitude in any particular situation is a delicate thing, dependent upon numerous and varying factors. Here, the more prescriptive nature of Kantianism and utilitarianism can be a flaw, for the rigid application of rules may lead to outcomes that no one foresees or desires. Aristotle therefore puts his trust in the individual, and that, guided by their embedded moral habits and virtuous character, they will make the right choice.
But moral habits themselves are not enough. To make the right choice, an individual must also possess phronesis, or practical wisdom. Because situations are complex, a brave individual must still know what bravery looks like in a particular setting, and this requires experience. This still seems terribly vague, but Aristotle does give a general guideline: the right action often exists in a “mean” between two extremes. A brave person is neither cowardly nor rash; a financially responsible person is neither extravagant nor miserly; and so on. These aren’t strict rules, but rather general rules of thumb to help phronesis along, and it it ultimately experience that helps us develop the sort of practical moral wisdom that can help us apply moral virtues correctly.
There is much more to Aristotle’s ethical theory than I have outlined above, but if you’re deciding whether to explore Aristotle’s ethics, then perhaps this gives you a few reasons why you should. If you do so, then the obvious place to begin is his Nicomachean Ethics, to which Gerard J. Hughes’ book is guide. This title is one in a series produced by Routledge that seems aimed primarily at students. A serious layperson might work their way through it, but while accessibly written, it contains the sort of close reading and awareness of scholarly debate that will most benefit someone studying Aristotle as part of an A Level or undergraduate course. As such, while it is an introductory text, the depth and detail is much greater than most newcomers would require, and therefore I would most recommend it to those who have already read a more general introduction to Aristotle, or have read the Nicomachean Ethics itself (it’s very readable), and want to delve deeper.
Hughes begins with a few short introductory chapters (covering Aristotle’s life and works, the cultural and historical background, the structure of the text), and then jumps right in. Rather than follow the sequence of the text, each chapter deals with particular themes, sometimes grouping Aristotle’s “books” and sections together out of order. Since Aristotle himself jumps around in his discussion of topics, this perhaps helps make greater sense of his views as a whole, something that is very helpful to the student. However, the books that each chapter deals with are clearly noted at the beginning, together with the problems of interpretation and critical issues to be covered, so the reader will have no problem identifying what passages are being referred to.
Hughes writes clearly and engagingly, with good use of examples and analogies, and certainly knows his stuff. There is sound knowledge of the academic debate, and a balanced treatment of certain controversies – some of which may seem a little obscure to the beginner, but will be welcome to the higher-level student. Key terms and concepts are clearly explained and analysed, and there is a relatively brief but handy glossary at the back, together with footnotes, bibliography and index. Each chapter also contains useful further reading relating to the the topics discussed. A final chapter broadens out nicely into a discussion of the continued relevance of Aristotle’s work, and some of the problems and issues that we face in applying his views to the modern day (e.g. his views on slavery, the status of women), though these are also discussed at various points throughout the book.
Overall, then, an excellent, well-written, and valuable guide. As I say, it’s not really something you’d pick up if you’d never read Aristotle or anything about him, but will greatly benefit the serious student who is looking for more in-depth critical analysis, and to be sign-posted to the various contributions to the scholarly terrain.
[Disclaimer: The above review was based on a complimentary review copy from Routledge]
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