The Ethics of Plato and Aristotle

Dr William Large

So far we have only talked about the metaphysics of Aristotle and Plato, and although they were close contemporaries (in fact, as we know, Aristotle was a student of Plato) they had radically different philosophies.  For Plato to know reality was to know that which transcended individual particular things.  Thus, to know what a beautiful painting was one would have to know the general form of beauty itself that could not be found in any individual thing, but existed only as a form.  For Aristotle, on the contrary, what was primary was the individual thing, what he called a primary substance, and our knowledge of universals came from our recognition of what was common between individual things.  This commonality, however, unlike the forms of Plato, did not have an independent reality.  Rather, the only thing that was real were the individual substances themselves.  Thus, when we say that Socrates is a man it is only Socrates himself that exists and not man in general. The latter belongs only to human discourse.

It should not surprise us, therefore, that they also had different conception of ethics.  We can see this difference by comparing their different conceptions of the idea of the Good.  We might typify Plato’s view that there is a Good in itself that is independent of own interests.  We can distinguish between two kinds of actions.  Those actions that we do because they serve some purpose for ourselves (eating healthily so that we do not becomes ill) and those that have intrinsic value. An action can only have intrinsic value because we will it out of respect for the Good, rather than from any motive that might benefit ourselves. The Good is universal and necessary for every moral action and is independent of the person who wills it. It does not matter who you are; the Good will be the same.

What differentiates Plato’s position on ethics from, for example the relativism of the Sophists is the belief that this intrinsic Good is not just a Good for us, but is an ideal that transcends human nature.  This is why for Plato the idea of Justice, which is a form like any other abstract idea, is the source of a critique of ethos and politics of the Athenian city.  The first important break with the common sense attitude about ethics in Plato is the idea that morality is neither due to the natural world nor to divine intervention.  Justice does not come about by chance or necessity, but from the very willingness to break radically from nature, and from a culture that believes that the source of justice to be found in nature (one of the forms of natural morality that Plato criticises is the idea that Thrasymachus puts forward in the Republic that ‘might is right’).

If it is up to us to create a just world, rather than expect nature to do so or wait for divine intervention, then the first thing that we must do is look at the models that we already have in our culture and society and see if they measure up to the ideal conception of justice, that is to say, the idea of an intrinsic Good.  For Plato the just city rest upon just souls, and a just soul is one in which the rational part orders the irrational part.  In most of the laws which men live by it is usually the irrational part that has the ruling hand.  It is for this reason that Plato also believes that it only the truly rational being that can be just.  For he or she chooses the good because it is right in itself, rather than for their own benefit.  They can choose the good because they are ruled by the idea of justice.  If I know what justice is then no-one will be able to persuade me that justice is anything else.  Plato is convinced that the idea of justice, no matter how people’s opinions might change, does not change in itself.  I would thus be ruled by reason rather than desire or emotion to what is right.

It is the intrinsic notion of the Good in Plato, plus the idea of a purely rational will, that Aristotle finds indefensible in Plato’s ethics.  Like Plato, he believes that ethics belongs to the human will, and not to nature or divine intervention, but unlike Plato, he believes that our ethics should not deny the fact of our humanity.  That we, for example, are vulnerable and suffering creatures in which the tragedy of our lives far outstrips our ethical principles and laws.  We can therefore see a similar difference in their ethical theories as in their metaphysical ones.  Just as Plato is a rationalist in terms of the world of knowledge, so too is he in the world of ethics.  In fact, the world of ethics and knowledge are inseparable for him.  We need the same certainty in our ethical lives as we find in mathematics.  In the same way, we might say that just as much as Aristotle is a pragmatist in the area knowledge so too is he in ethics.  The great difference between them, however, and one that breaks this simple doubling up of their comparative ethical and metaphysical theories, is that for Aristotle we cannot in anyway think about our ethical lives in the same way that we think about our science and metaphysics.  It is not, therefore, a matter for Aristotle of applying metaphysical concepts, even his metaphysical concepts, to ethics in the manner in which for Plato the idea of justice is inseparable from his own metaphysics.  We must not forget that the subtitle of the Republic, which many believe to be the place in which we can find, always being careful also to remember that there is a controversy about whether Plato has a theory at all, Plato’s theory of forms, has the subtitle ‘On Justice.’  As Aristotle writes at the beginning of his most important work on ethics, the Nicomachean Ethics, we should not expect the same level of certainty that we find in mathematics or the other sciences, in our deliberation about the good. Ethics is not the same as physics or mathematics; rather it is a completely different discourse.

Aristotle wants to show that ethics has a specific meaning and a specific rationality that cannot be thought in terms of other kinds of knowledge.  He does so by returning to the everyday experience of ethical life, which to some extent Plato’s philosophy is a refusal of.  Aristotle uses a particular Greek expression to describe our ethical rationality as opposed to our scientific rationality and that is phronesis.  This Greek expression is usually translated as ‘practical wisdom’, but because it has such a specific meaning in Aristotle’s lexicon it is better to leave it untranslated.  It is about this word that I mostly want to speak about today, because I think it gives us the deepest insight into Aristotle’s ethics and why it differs from Plato’s so much.

Before we can enter any discussion of phronesis, we must first of all grasp Aristotle’s conception of activity itself.  The only actions, Aristotle says, that can have an ethical meaning are those that are voluntary - ekousios.  Involuntary acts, on the contrary, are those whose origin are external to the agent of that action.  They are acts that are performed because of external compulsion, either because of the power of another, or because of external circumstances that are beyond the agents control.  Voluntary acts, therefore, are those acts whose origin in within the agent himself or herself.  In other words, they have been chosen.

The reality of human action, however, is that no action is either purely involuntary or voluntary.  Aristotle uses the example of the captain of a ship in a storm who has to throw his cargo overboard in order to save the lives of his men.  In this action voluntary or involuntary?  The captain is not to blame for the storm that in a sense forces him to act.  Nonetheless, even in these circumstances, it is up to him to make a decision.  This means that the origin of the act, throwing the cargo overboard, is also within him.  We can see then that for most, except in the most extreme circumstances, the origin of the act is both internal, in the agent, and external, due to outside forces, whether this forces belong to nature or to other people (might we, in our modern age, also speak of inner compulsions that are not under the control of the agent?).

For Aristotle the question is not so much whether I am wholly free or wholly determined, but the practical question of how much I am in control of what I do, and thus how much I am to blame for the consequence of my actions.  Aristotle response to this practical question is that I am far less in control of these consequences, and also the origin of my actions as I might like to think.  This again is one of the major differences between Plato’s and Aristotle’s vision of our ethical lives.  The Platonic ideal is autarkia, that is to say, self-control and self-sufficiency, which would only be possible if my life were under the sway of the idea of the Good that would be universal and therefore unchanged by any external circumstance. Thus I would always will the Good whatever situation I was in, beneficial to me or not.

Aristotle, on the other hand, stresses that my ethical deliberations and choices are always determined by the particular situation that I am in, where the right course of action can never be determined in advance.  Thus, the ship’s captain can never be certain that the next time that there is a storm that the right course of action would again be to throw the cargo overboard.  If human action were governed by rules, then we would never have to deliberate about our actions, for it would always be clear and transparent what the correct action would mean.  We would simply have to learn these rules in advance to be sure that we would not make the incorrect and unethical decision. 

For Aristotle the tragedy of human life, an essential tragedy that can never be avoided, is that I can never know before hand, or even in moment of my decision, what the outcome of my actions might be.  I might have the best intentions, but still my action lead to dreadful consequences.  Ethics is always a ‘perhaps’ and ‘maybe’, and never a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’.  Aristotle’s ethics is therefore a finite ethics that stresses the limits of human practical knowledge, whereas for Plato ethics is governed by the same rule as the universality of the sciences.  What is involuntary therefore is not something that can avoided.  It is rather that which necessarily accompanies every one of my actions.  It is that which is unforeseeable in every act.  What Aristotle calls chance or fortune – tuche. Misfortune is so all encompassing in my life, Aristotle argues, it can also strike me after my death. For would we say of someone that they had had a good life, if there children turned out to wicked or dishonest?

If circumstance and the unforeseeable are the context of human choice, how does Aristotle understand choice?  He does not understand it in terms of the conflict of the will, where I wake up in the morning and I cannot decide whether I should get up or stay in bed.  It is as if there were almost two voices arguing in my head, and I am deciding which one I might follow. This is how we might understand choice, but Aristotle uses the word proairesis, which is not to be confused with these voices.  For Aristotle to choose is to act.  It is not first to think and then act.  Choice is not prior to action, rather it is the very action itself that is performed, and it is the outcome of something else that he calls deliberation.

Deliberation is not to be thought as something merely subjective, rather it is the laying bear of certain possibilities that are perceived in a particular situation.  It is what the situation lets be seen in relation to practical activity.  This is why Aristotle distinguishes it from wishing, for one can wish the impossible, but one cannot deliberate about it.  The captain of the ship can wish for Poseidon to stop the storm, but he himself must deliberate about the practical action to achieve what he thinks might be the best outcome in these terrible circumstances.  This deliberation concerns not only the mind of the agent, but also, if one might speak this way, the contour of the situation itself.  Choice and deliberation are not outside activity for Aristotle, rather they are internal to it.  Choice means performing a certain act, and deliberation is linked to the possibilities that the situation offers to me, rather than what I might think would be the best.  Again this is the recognition of the limits of human action.  Sometimes the situation is so difficult that I might need to perform an act that in other circumstances I would never think of doing because it is the situation itself that demands it.

It is for this reason, Aristotle argues, that we need to distinguish between practical and scientific reason.  Scientific reason is suitable only to what is governed by laws that are universal.  2+2 will always equal four.  Objects will always fall to the ground because of the force of gravity (though of course Aristotle himself did not know of the force of gravity), but no situation is ever absolutely identical with another situation, and therefore practical knowledge needs to be subtle and flexible.  Again this is the great difference between Plato and Aristotle.  Plato only saw one kind of knowledge, universal science, which was applicable in the same way both the mathematical objects, as it was to human conduct. Aristotle, on the contrary, would say that to concern oneself with generalities would be to think one could have moral laws in the same way one has mathematical and scientific laws. Such a conception does violence to the demands of a particular situation, and such inflexibility could lead to even worse consequences, when a situation demands insight. Of course the tragedy is that we can never know if we have done the right thing or not. In this world 2 + 2 can equal 5.

But then if a universal approach is not possible, how can I know what the right course of action might be.  To be able to make the right decision, Aristotle argues, requires phronesis.  He compares it to a perception, though here we are talking about an ethical perception, rather than a sensible one.  Like sensible perception, ethical perception is concerned with particulars rather than universals. When I perceive something, I see the thing in front of me, this tree, this person or thing. Universals only belong to words about things. Thus I can see Socrates, but I can never see man in general. This is an abstraction of thought. Phronesis is a kind of ‘seeing’.  Thus perhaps the best translation of this word is not the usual practical wisdom, but insight.  I am in a situation and I see the right thing to do, and it is this ‘right seeing’ that guides my deliberation and choice.  Without it I am blind.  To see right is to see what the situation offers to me as the right course.  This is why we can compare phronesis to perception. 

And yet how can I gain this phronesis?  To gain scientific and mathematical knowledge is relatively simple in comparison.  I simply have to learn it, and this is why education is so important for Plato.  But I cannot know the correct deliberation and choices for a particular situation in advance, because as we have already said, no situation is identical to another situation.  It is for this reason that Aristotle says that phronesis can only be gained through experience.  This is why the young cannot have phronesis even though they might have mathematical or scientific knowledge.  It is through activity itself that you gain ethical insight.

This seems to place us in an unavoidable paradox.  I can only choose and deliberate wisely if I have phronesis, and yet I can obtain phronesis only if I have already chosen and deliberated.  This, however, would only be a paradox if I look at human action abstractly, rather than in its proper context, which is always within a given community.  This is the final difference between Plato and Aristotle.  For Plato ethical values, governed by the idea of the Good, are immutable and eternal, whereas for Aristotle our values arise from our concrete community.  I do not act in a vacuum, rather my actions are already guided by the values of my society and past models of ethical action.  We must, however, stress again that these values and models can never be a substitute for our choices and deliberations, but can only act as guide.  It is the situation itself that must be our true master.  These guidelines that are given to us by our society in its moral values are therefore not to be thought of in the same way as universal laws.  I would not be ethical for Aristotle if I simply chose what my fellow citizens did, no matter how venerable and cherished this tradition might.  The true source of my ethical activity is always myself no matter how much I buffeted by the storms of chance and misfortune. Life is tragic; that is why we need ethics and in the end I must choose. If everything goes wrong, then I am still to blame. I cannot blame, God, nature or my parents. I must respond to the storm of life in the best way that I can.

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