The Notion Of The Good In Thr

Ethical Views Of Plato And Aristotle Essay, Research Paper

1. Discuss the notion of “the good” in the ethical views of Plato and Aristotle. State which of potentiality would lead to normal life.

Plato explored such subjects as beauty, justice, and good government. Plato’s ethics were ethics of happiness. He based his ethical theory on the proposition that all people desire happiness although, of course, people sometimes act in ways that do not produce happiness. Plato believes that they do this only because they do not know what actions will produce happiness. Therefore the reason why people act in ways that do not produce happiness is that they lack knowledge of those actions that would provide happiness. For example, a person who commits a serious crime and faces punishment by death or even imprisonment commits this crime because he or she does not know of any action that provides happiness.

Plato believed also that “we cannot gain knowledge of things through our senses because the objects of sense perception are fleeting and constantly changing.” Plato stated that we can have genuine knowledge only of changeless things, such as truth, beauty, and goodness, which are known by the mind.

Plato further claimed that happiness is the natural consequence of the soul’s healthy state. Because moral virtue makes up the health of the soul, all people should desire to be virtuous. Plato said that people sometimes do not seek to be virtuous, but only because they do not realize that virtue produces happiness.

He taught that only ideas are real and that all other things only reflect ideas. This view became known as idealism. According to Plato, the most important idea is the idea of good. Knowledge of good is the object of all inquiry, a goal to which all other things are subordinate. Plato stated that the best life is one of contemplation of eternal truths. However, he believed people who have attained this state must return to the world of everyday life and use their skills and knowledge to serve humanity.

Plato argued that it is worse to commit an injustice than to suffer one since immoral behaviour is the symptom of an unhealthy soul. It is also worse for a person who commits an injustice to go unpunished than to be punished, because punishment helps cure this most serious of all diseases. This may be viewed as the basis of our law system where those committing crimes are punished for their actions as opposed to being set free.

Plato believed there are four virtues: wisdom, courage, temperance (or self-control) and justice. The most important of these is wisdom, which is knowledge of what is truly good. People who have wisdom and, as a result, know what is truly good will tend to do what is right. These people will act in their own true interest and be in harmony with themselves. This harmony is the basis of all justice. In Plato’s view, people who have justice will tend to have other virtues as well. However, Plato did not try to tell us, in a neat and easy formula, what is truly good.

Plato argued that the soul is divided into three parts: the rational part (intellect) the spirited part (will) and appetite (desire). Plato argued that the soul has these parts because they occasionally conflict with each other. For example, a person desires something but this desire is fought with the power of the will. He believed that “in a properly functioning soul, the intellect–the highest part–should control the appetite–the lowest part–with the aid of the will.”

Thus, for Plato, the basic problem of ethics is a problem of knowledge. If a person knows that moral virtue leads to happiness, he or she naturally acts virtuously. He argues that often people know what is morally right, but face their greatest problem in willing to do it. According to Plato, good is an essential element of reality. Evil does not exist in itself but is, rather, an imperfect reflection of the real, which is good.

He also believed that the moral person is the truly happy person, and because individuals always desire their own happiness, they always desire to do that which is moral.

For Aristotle, ethics studies practical knowledge, that is, knowledge that enables people to act properly and live happily. Aristotle argued that the goal of human beings is happiness, and that we achieve happiness when we fulfill our function. Therefore, it is necessary to determine what our function is. The function of a thing is what it alone can do, or what it can do best. Thus, according to Aristotle, a happy life for human beings is a life governed by reason.

Aristotle believed that a person who has difficulty behaving ethically is morally imperfect. His ideal person practices behaving reasonably and properly until he or she can do so naturally and without effort. Aristotle believed that moral virtue is a matter of avoiding extremes in behaviour and finding instead the middle ground between the extremes of excess and insufficiency. For example, courage is the middle ground between being a coward and being foolish. Similarly, generosity is the middle ground between selfishness and wastefulness.

Aristotle taught that everyone aims at some good. He said that happiness does not lie in pleasure but in virtuous activity. The highest happiness of all, Aristotle believed, was the contemplative use of the mind.

For example: Alice knows that her brother Max has been using a harmful drug. She has tried to persuade him to stop, but he does not listen. She has begun to wonder if she should tell someone what he is doing, someone with authority who might make him stop. To some people facing such a choice, it might seem obvious that one should tell someone about Max. To others, it would seem equally obvious that they should say nothing.

Aristotle had views that were similar to Plato’s views but more complicated. Aristotle disliked oversimplification. Although he agreed with Plato’s four virtues, he considered other traits to be important also. These traits included friendliness, generosity, gentleness, truthfulness, and wit.

Like Plato, Aristotle thought there is one trait that is the source of all the other virtues. He called it phronesis, meaning prudence or good judgment. Prudence is the ability to know what we should do by figuring out which course of action would lead to a good life.

Aristotle tells us much about what the good life is like. He says that it involves such things as having friends, acting justly and participating in community affairs. However, like Plato, Aristotle did not specify which courses of action are right and which ones are wrong. People who are properly brought up and who make full use of their own minds will, he thought, usually see the right course and take it. This view is realised in the way in which we teach our children the difference between what is right and what is wrong.

Neither Plato nor Aristotle seems to offer help to people who, like Alice, face a tough decision and do not find the solution to be obvious. Perhaps in ancient Greece people faced fewer critical decisions in which clashing ideas pulled in opposite directions. Perhaps when the ancient thinkers developed their systems of ethics, such dilemmas seemed unusual and not important for discussion. Even in a complex society like ours, with all of its conflicting traditions and theories, most ethical decisions do not present us with such dilemmas.

When people face a critical choice like Alice’s and hesitate between different courses of action, they think of reasons for the different things they might do. There are considerations of benefits and considerations of obligations.

On one hand, Alice may think she has an obligation to Max to keep quiet about what he does. On the other hand, she may think he might benefit if she violates this obligation by speaking up. In this case, as in others, considering one’s obligations may lead to different conclusions than considering what is beneficial to people. A person who always takes obligations seriously will make different decisions than a person who is committed to doing what is most beneficial to people. This conclusion is that it is difficult to give equal importance to both obligations and benefits.

Aristotle held that virtues are essentially good habits, and that to attain happiness a person must develop two kinds of habits: those of mental activity, such as knowledge, which lead to the highest human activity, contemplation; and those of practical action and emotion, such as courage.

In conclusion I think that some of Aristotle’s views of the good life lead to normal life. In essence, Aristotle’s views were an update of Plato’s views and would appeal more to life as it is today. He mentions the good life involves things such as having friends, acting justly, and participating in community affairs. These things are too important in our daily lives.

Although neither Aristotle nor Plato did not specify those actions which are right and those actions which are wrong, we must accept the fact that in their time moral decisions were probably not difficult to make and therefore they did not consider such complex moral dilemmas as those we face today. We, however, should appreciate that many of their theories and resultant teachings have had some influence in the moral decisions we make.


Encarta Encyclopedia 2000. CD-ROM. World Book Inc. 1999

World Book Encyclopedia 2000 CD-ROM. Microsoft Corporation. 1999



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