Both Aristotle and Kant have written teachings dealing with reasoning in ethics. This is as far as the similarity between the two goes. They disagree on what sort of reasoning moral agents should employ when coming to a decision about moral obligations in any particular circumstance. This leads to discussion about Kant’s idea of intention in terms of duty, while Aristotle concentrates on the functions of a moral agent and its virtues. Aristotelian practical reasoning from virtues as means to the final end of human happiness is what sums up moral reason.
Although some Kant ideologies are sound, such as his ‘good will as the greatest motivation’ theory, there are variations in the context that appear to weaken his argument. Aristotle’s teachings prove that with the right virtues, there is the chance of practicing the related function of a moral agent. The practice of this function allows the moral individual to achieve happiness, an aspiration of the majority. However, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, also, contains unstable concepts that do not back his theory. Both thinkers possess some validity but also have flaws. Backing one thinker proves to be a difficult decision. However, Kant’s idea of universal law does not give flexibility to other cultures and societies. Kant imprints a western philosophy which does not correspond with cultures that have not come into contact with the western society he was raised in. Therefore, Aristotle’s basic theory of happiness stretches across many cultures and civilizations, meaning that it is more applicable in general.
Kant’s Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals revolutionized the way people thought in the late 18th century; many of his ideas have true meaning and need to be acknowledged. He begins with saying “A good will is good not because of what it effects or accomplishes, nor because of its fitness to attain some proposed end; it is good only though its willing, i.e., it is good in itself” (pg. 35, Kant); which tells us that in order for your actions to be moral, it has to be good in itself. Simply put, your intentions are for the sole purpose of making a positive affect.
Moving further on, Kant begins to discuss “universal law” which states that one should act in such a way ‘maxim’ can be achieved. Using Kant’s words, “Everyone makes a deceitful promise when he finds himself in difficulty from which he cannot otherwise extract himself” (pg. 13, Kant), implies that universal law cannot contradict itself. Taking Kant’s example, if you lie, you cannot expect someone to believe you; this is not acting in ‘maxim’. Essentially, any intention that a moral agent makes has to be universal to everyone otherwise it does not count as a moral good. Like Kant’s example about lying; if one lies and that is classed as universally valid, then “with such a law there would be no promises at all” (pg. 13, Kant). Further complimenting Kant’s ideas, his belief that good will is intrinsically good, even if there is not a positive result, is one that is right and stabilizes his ideas. Using a simple example; buying a gift for an individual, where the individual does not like the gift. Although, the outcome was not the desired one, ‘it was the thought that counts’ making it a gesture of good will, rather than bad will.
Having agreed with the above thoughts, Kant classes good will as a ‘duty’. Duty can be defined as “the necessity of an action done out of respect for the law” (pg. 13, Kant). This is saying that good will is good if there is no greater motivation. Saying this implies that people do not act with good will for the sake of happiness, which is untrue. Happiness may attend upon acts of good will, but it cannot be a motivating factor. Everyone has a duty to help suffering people; Kant will also agree with this, however, Kant does not agree that it is possible that such duties are possible without selfishly achieving some happiness themselves. Take for example, an aid worker: if they are asked whether they love their job, they will answer with “Yes”, because they love making suffering people happy. It is true that people help others for a sense of duty, but there is definitely some personal satisfaction involved with doing good deeds. This is where Kant’s ideas are flawed; in this common society where the majority of the population live in, people find it hard to understand the idea of helping inferior persons as a duty. In this westernized text, it implies that human beings do not understand the idea of ‘working because it is what they love to do’. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics will allow us to distinguish the different thought processes of the two thinkers and show how Aristotle’s theory can be spread across other cultures.
Aristotle is one of the key ancient Greek philosophers that allowed other thinkers, such as Kant, to establish his own ideas. Aristotle emphasized happiness and the function of a moral agent. He begins by saying that the end good of moral agents is happiness. Happiness is the main aspiration of the majority of the world, so this certainly makes sense. Personally, the idea that there are two types of virtues, intellectual and moral, is also an interesting thought. Intellectual virtue is only learned by instruction. However, more importantly, moral virtue is enhanced by practice, and it is these virtues that determine to what extent humans are moral. An example that Aristotle used is one of a flutist; if the flutist practices then that individual will improve, but it is not possible to become a better flutist just by thinking about playing. This is what happens in one’s life, morally speaking; the more practice put into improving one’s moral virtue, the more successful this individual will be and therefore enhancing one’s overall happiness. These examples support how Aristotle’s global thought process is applicable to everyone.
Interestingly, Aristotle argues about morality as the mean of two extremes. His first example, about rashness and courage states that, “The brave man appears relatively rash to the coward and cowardly relative to the rash man” (pg. 21, Aristotle), reiterating the idea that the two extremes have opposing affects. This makes sense when thought of practically. If one individual had found out that a friend had betrayed one’s loyalty then there are two extreme reactions that could occur. Equal retaliation or the morally right one, which would only cause further violence and lead to another bad situation. In contrast, if the individual was too forgiving, then that friend that betrayed him would most probably betray him again.
The friend would not understand the wrong they were doing. Ultimately, the individual should show their distress and anger but in a civilized manner; letting the friend know about the wrong doing and the implications of his or her actions. Acting in such a way is morally correct and, in theory, will allow both people to achieve happiness. Taking this idea further, it can be used in a more applicable manner. The extremes of pleasure and pain; knowing the right amount of pleasure and the right amount of pain allows someone to make moral decision while at the same time remaining humble and knowing that too much pleasure makes one become greedy. This concept is something many people need to work on as the variation between too much pain and pleasure can be extremely drastic in some individuals.
Aristotle focuses on the term ‘eudaimonia’ which is a Greek text used to describe happiness. It is difficult to concisely sum up ‘eudaimonia’ as it means so much more than that. In the Greek sense it means ‘to have a good spirit’. This includes an individual who is successful and has a good reputation amongst other people. I feel this is hard to understand in Aristotle’s writing. In addition, I feel that the term ‘happiness’ is understood differently by different people. If two different individuals were to win the lottery, it is likely that one of those individuals may not feel happy after such an event. What if they had suffered a family loss or tragedy? I doubt that the money they won would bring back any happiness after losing a close relative. Although this may contradict previous arguments stressing Aristotle’s universal theory, the last situation explained is not one that changes across cultures of societies. If two people disagreed about the importance of something material like money, this is simply due to differences in personality, not a difference in social or cultural attitude.
Determining which philosopher has the strongest argument was a difficult decision. The particular flaw in Kant’s thesis, that tipped the scale toward Aristotle, was the idea of ‘good as a duty’. A ‘good will’ has to be generated in a moral agent’s mind before being classed as a ‘good will’. A human has choices; to do ‘good’, and to do ‘bad’. If good was a duty then there is no choice in that. Ultimately, a good will has to be a choice by moral man. As previously mentioned, the two extremely contrasting ideas are most certainly due to the huge gap in time of when both texts were written. Kant was educated in 18th century Europe, where ‘duty’ was at the forefront of the social attitudes. In a developing civilization, people worked because they had to work, not because they enjoyed it. This is where Kant’s sense of ‘duty’ was born. In comparison, the ancient Greek social structure did not have such extensive industrial developments. This allowed great thinkers, such as Aristotle, to focus on pure ethics in the sense that the social surroundings had less of an effect on people’s thoughts. Essentially, Kant’s idea of ‘duty’ is specific to a certain way of life, where Aristotle’s theory on happiness and function can be applied globally, regardless of race, culture, age or gender.
Kant, Immanuel. The Groundings of the Metaphysics of Morals J.W. Wellington (translator), 1785.
Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics, W.D. Ross (translator), 350 BC.