Aristotle and ethics

From The New Encyclopedia Britannica, 15th edition, Volume 14, by Anselm
H. Amadio, p.66

Aristotle’s approach to ethics is teleological; that is, he discusses
ethics not in terms of moral absolutes but in terms of what is conducive
to man’s good. This approach leads him to examine various kinds of good
and to arrive at the identification of the highest good with the
attainment of happiness. Aristotle arrives at a definition of happiness
as activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.

Aristotle distinguishes moral virtues and intellectual virtues, which
are determined, respectively, by the irrational and the rational powers
of the soul. Man, however, does not possess these virtues at birth but
comes endowed with the capacity, or disposition, for developing them in
the course of time. For example, a child begins by following his
parents’ injunction to tell the truth without initially realizing the
moral excellence of his action; yet eventually the habit of veracity
becomes an ingrained part of his moral character. Aristotle then
differentiates virtue from vice, arriving at the definition of virtue as
a “mean,” or middle ground between excess and deficiency; courage, a
virtue, for example, is the mean between cowardice and rashness.

Aristotle concludes his discussion by defining the highest happiness
open to man. Because happiness is an activity in accordance with
virtue, it follows that the highest happiness should be in accordance
with man’s highest virtue. And that, according to Aristotle, is the
activity which distinguishes man from other animals, namely the activity
of reason or activity in accordance with reason. Thus in its ideal form
happiness turns out to consist in a life of intellectual contemplation.
Aristotle, on the other hand, also concedes that the political life
(activity in accordance with moral virtue) can bring happiness, albeit
“in a secondary degree.”

Some comments meant to stimulate discussion.

• The teleological vs. moral absolutes distinction is significant for
how we reason about ethical matters. There are different standards for
what counts as good reasoning, and there seems to be no way to translate
from the one to the other. See my book “Prescriptive Reasoning”,
which is the first attempt to clarify that.

• Aristotle’s definition of “happiness” seems to rule out animals other
than humans being happy. Indeed, none of his ethics seems to be applicable
to animals other than humans.

• Virtue is a mean. What is the extreme and what the deficiency that
makes telling the truth a virtue as being in the middle? What is the
extreme and what the deficiency that makes reasoning a virtue as being
in the middle? Note that he does not say “reasoning well”.

• “In its ideal form happiness turns out to consist in a life of
intellectual contemplation.”
This is one more philosopher saying that the highest happiness is
to be like

• Compare Aristotle’s conception of virtue to the way of loving kindness
in the book “The BARK of DOG”. “Be kind, be generous, count not the giving
and taking but give unconditionally. Harm no human, harm no dog. Put from
thee all thought of power save the power of a loving heart.”