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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Morality, Virtue and Us.

Albert Einstein states that "The most important human endeavor is the striving for morality in our action. Our inner balances and even our very existence depend on it. Only morality in our actions can give beauty and dignity to life."In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle’s practical philosophy is based on moral action, which is opposed to the intellectualism of Plato. For Plato virtue appears to be a high level of knowledge. While Aristotle has a practical and social approach for whom virtue is a mean between two vices, deficiency and excess. Plato ethics defines the essence of virtue while Aristotle ethics shows how to become virtuous. Aristotle offers a real concept applicable in society because individual are rational and social animals. Through the analysis of pleasure as virtue in Aristotle’s ethics and his divergence from Plato, I will demonstrate that his ethics is not relative to an individual and his subjective experience of pleasure.

In his first book Aristotle justifies that for most people; pleasure is the best measure of whether we achieve the end of our action. He says that most men seem to “identify the good, or happiness, with pleasure” (BookI,).And the good is the final goal to “which all things aim” (BookI,).For him the proper end of human beings is the pursuit of good and happiness. In his first book, he defines “happiness as something final and self-sufficient, and is the end of action”. Which concurs whit his argument stating that the end for all that we do, will be the good achievable by action.(BookI) What  he indicates as the proper end of human being is the “activity of soul in accordance with virtue”.(BookI). This activity of the soul is linked to pleasure because he claims that pleasure is a state of soul. Adding that pleasure and pain are measures acquired by all in childhood. “And we measure even our actions, some of us more and others less, by the rule of pleasure and pain” (Book II). By analogical examples, such as “a good shoemaker makes the best shoes” he explains that pleasure must be the result of the achieved appropriate action.

            Then, Aristotle clarifies his argument, with the example of the doctor: who does not study health on itself but the health of man, in order to prove that moral action is directed at proper ends.   And it should be in accordance with appropriate excellence. (Book I). And his term of “appropriate excellence” also refers to the mean between two extremes.  An important justification was made in (Book II) about virtue. He says that “virtue is a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean…relative to us, this being determined by a rational principle and by that principle by which man of practical wisdom would determine”.(BookII) The principle of moral action is also based on the deliberated choice. A deliberated choice required critical thinking, morale disposition, and good habit. According to Aristotle, virtue is a disposition to act voluntary. And the chosen action must be guided by the “right rule”. (Book III). This statement shows that pleasure is not sufficient to indicate a virtuous action. By “pleasure appropriate to an action completes it”, he means that a completed voluntary action guided by the “right rule” will creates pleasure (happiness). Aristotle makes clear that we do not deliberate about ends but about means. (Book III) So by acting in accordance to the “right rule”, one will choose the best mean. Aristotle clarifies that the virtuous act can only be done in a unique way, which must conform to the “right rule”, which I believe is related to the intermediate temperance. “men are good in one way, but bad in many.” (Book II) Therefore the pleasure will result from the activity of the soul in accordance to the appropriate excellence.

A crucial distinction is made by his argument that “ we should not consider a wise man as model but a temperate man”, who is virtuous because he repetitively acts virtuously. He claims that actions are just and temperate when they are such as the just or the temperate man would do”.(Book II).  This distinction supports the fact that the pleasure is not subjective to each individual. But rather conforms to acting virtuously as the temperate man would. Because only the temperate man chose the appropriate actions therefore act virtuously. Happiness does not come from simple satisfaction of life but from the accumulation of experiences in a lifetime.  Aristotle claims the happy man will be happy all his life regardless of “Turns of fortune’s wheel”. He states “he will be happy throughout his life; for always, or by preference to everything else, he will be engaged in virtuous action and contemplation,..” Pleasure (happiness) is not subjective because it set in the time. Virtuous actions must be done in accordance to the right rule followed by the “truly good” and “foursquare beyond reproach”.(Book I).  Even if virtue is relative to us, it is a rationally determined by the right rule in accordance to the mean. So virtue is not subjective even if relative to us because it rationally determined by the “temperate man”. He his the measure that we ought all to follow, is not “ a chameleon or insecurely based”(BookI)

In conclusion, Aristotle provides a very detailed and concrete study of pleasure as measure of virtuosity. Aristotle focuses on moral action rather than moral theory, by taking in consideration the social context. It is where he diverges from Plato. In Crito, Plato says that individuals should be lead by the educated elite, because the opinion of a group is not valuable. The elite would be highly educated and would know what is “just and unjust”.  Plato promotes a moral obligation to obey to the laws of the state. Whereas Aristotle believes that the right rule is the mean of human passions and desires, and the proper of human being is to be happy in accordance to the virtue. For him, we are masters of our actions from beginning to the ends (Book III). And he adds that “the good man differs from others most by seeing the truth in each class of things, being as it were the measure of them”(BookIII)  Plato believes that there is not finality in virtue because it comes from continual self inquiry. While Aristotle presents happiness “as something final and self-sufficient, and is the end of action”.  He makes clear that pleasure is not subjective to individual experience but it is determined by a rational principle, which is relative to us. “Us” stands form all rational members of society. His justifications show that his practical philosophy is not a relative because happiness requires a lifetime commitment to act in accordance to the norm. The consistency appeals to the moral duty of all members of the moral community to act as “the temperate man”.

By Aline Diop-Nkunzumwami

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