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Aristotle’s Ethics and Its Impact on Women

Aristotle deviates from the metaphysical views of previous philosophers, including his beloved teacher Plato, that state that the purpose of human life lays beyond this world. Instead of this doctrine, Aristotle argues that the purpose of human life lies only within this world. Because Aristotle held this belief, he argues that one must make the most out of his life. To do so one must live the best possible life. Aristotle believed that knowing and pursuing the purpose of life is the most worthy end humans can aim at.

Asking what the purpose of life is important because if you are right you win everything but if you are wrong ou lose everything. Suppose you play chess without knowing the rules of the game: instead of moving the pieces you eat them, thus you lose the game. Losing a chess game is really not a big problem, you can play again or not play ever again it really doesn’t matter. However, if you do not know the rules of life then you not only lose a game, but you lose everything. Aristotle held the view that it is of great importance to know the rules of life and follow them to win.

Because of this view Aristotle saw ethics and achieving the purpose of life as the same thing. A erson’s ethics should be achieving the best purpose of life, eudaimonia. Aristotle’s ethics consists of two objectives. The first objective consists in knowing what you are supposed to aim for in life. Like the archer who must know where the target is so he knows where to aim, so humans must know where their target is so they can know where to aim. In Nicomachan Ethics Aristotle states that the target for humans is to achieve eudaimonia. Biffle, p. 291)

Eudaimonia is a Greek word that is usually -and inadequately- translated as “happiness” but better translated as “human flourishing. ” (Biffle, p. 89) Eudaimonia is supposed to mean living a fulfilling life involving moderation and the correct use of reason. By living this type of life one will be satisfied because he will constantly be happy and satisfied. Aristotle considers this the most worthy goal one can have in life. Aristotle’s second objective is actually reaching eudaimonia.

He gives an outline of rules one should live by to do this: among them are use of reason, applying moderation, having good fortune, being successful an entire life, and being a philosopher. (Biffle, p. 189- 290) Aristotle claimed that “philosophical ethics is practical. ‘The end is ot knowledge but action. ‘ (Broadie, p. 3)Thus if one is able to apply these rules and achieve eudaimonia he will fulfill Aristotle’s wishes. To achieve a greater understanding of Aristotle’s philosophy we need to understand how Aristotle views the world.

In the Aristotelian perspective all of the disciplines -ethics, politics, economics, metaphysics, psychology, etc… – work together. For example, Aristotle argues that you need politics to have eudaimonia because only by interacting with others will one be fulfilled as a person. Thus, we need to take into account that there is an active interaction by the disciplines nd that none are isolated completely.

They all depend on each other in terms of defining their nature. Therefore, we should not expect to know ethics without knowing psychology, politics, metaphysics, etc… ecause they all influence the goals one should aim for in life. A big problem with Aristotle’s ethics regarding eudaimonia is that it is not intended for women. “Aristotle’s great ethical works, the Nichomachean and Eudemian Ethics, are directed to the free male… they therefore have little to say about the virtues of women. ” (On, p. 131) Aristotle viewed women -like he did slaves and children- as inferior human beings. He argued that women lack proper reasoning capacities. Furthermore, he did not believe that they could aim to achieve eudaimonia.

Rather, he argued that the most they can hope for is to be virtuous by being “industrial” in their job in the household and “submissive” to their husband’s or father’s will. (On, p. 131) Today we know that women are equal in cognitive capacities to men. Furthermore, women are equal to men in everything today they are involved in: politics, sports, war, etc… Regardless, we cannot apply Aristotle’s to women by simply ignoring the fact that Aristotle didn’t direct his ethics toward women. It would be an rror to apply his moral philosophy as it stands to women because it was not intended for this end.

I mentioned above that Aristotle saw everything as dependent on each other. Thus changing the fact that women are inferior to men would alter the whole system. However, the fact that women are inferior to men seems incompatible with our world today. Therefore we need to either find a way to reconcile the two perspectives or simply reject Aristotle’s views because clearly an ethics that is only meant for half of the population is not a correct set of ethics. As a starting point to studying Aristotle’s ethics, we need to know hat his metaphysical perspective is because this influences his ethical perspective.

Aristotle believed that body and soul are one that the body is the matter and the soul is the “life force. ” (Biffle, p. 286) By life force Aristotle means the animating principle or that thing that makes things alive. Aristotle believed that the body and the soul are united; when you die your soul stops living and that is the end of you. Furthermore, he did not believe in an afterlife (Biffle, p. 312). Hence he believed that the purpose of human life lies within this world. Another important part of Aristotle’s metaphysics is that he wants to define the ature of everything.

To achieve this means he pursues aitia (the reason for something happening) and he hopes to do this through the application of his four causes. When applying Aristotle’s four causes to humans we can learn what their nature is: The material cause of humans is the human body. The efficient cause of humans is the biological parents. The formal cause of humans is the soul, specifically the “life force” and “the power of reasoning in your soul. ” Finally, the final cause, or purpose, of humans is to achieve eudaimonia. This begs the question: what is eudaimonia?

Eudaimonia literally eans “life success” or “human flourishing. ” (Biffle, p. 289) To achieve eudaimonia Aristotle argues that we need to try to achieve gratification in the long run. Thus eating a cake will not give eudaimonia but pursuing a life long good diet will. “The central good of a life is the one which, if that life were rightly regarded as happy, would be the source of its being a happy life. ” (Broadie, p. 26)Thus eudaimonia are goals that are ends in themselves. This contrasts to subordinate ends. For example one lifts weights to get strong, to look good, to get a girlfriend, and so on.

However, goods that are ends in themselves, such as reasoning, are intrinsically superior and these are the goals that should be sought. Since Aristotle claimed that “philosophical ethics is practical. ‘The end is not knowledge but action. ‘ (Broadie, p. 3) Thus we must know how to apply his doctrines. Christopher Biffle in Landscape of Wisdom summarizes Aristotle’s doctrines from the Nichomachean Ethics into five main lessons. The first lesson states that eudaimonia is achieved only by the use of our reason. Reasoning is the unique human excellence and it is a worthy end in itself.

It enhances your life in training you to make proper choices. Aristotle’s second lesson is that eudaimonia is “concerned with choosing the mean between excess and deficiency. ” Thus one must seek the middle ground in everything. It is not good to have too much of one thing but likewise it is not good to have too little of one thing. Thus being able to practice moderation requires that we make wise choices every day. Taking the middle path will lead to a life full of success. If there is a constant fluctuation in our life you will not be able to live a consistent life and thus you will not live a fulfilling life.

Aristotle points out that the right amount one should have of something cannot be determined mathematically, thus thinking that if too much money is one million dollars and too little money is zero dollars then the mean should be half a million dollars is wrong. Furthermore, he states that the right amount is different for everyone. Thus a professional soccer player should not eat the same amount of meat as a bodybuilder. How then can we know what the middle path is that will lead to human excellence? The right amount is that which will satisfy you and maximize your gratification and satisfaction for the longest time.

The third lesson Aristotle preaches is that a certain amount of external good fortune is necessary to achieve eudaimonia. Physical and familial blessings are a vital part of achieving welfare. Aristotle states: “A man is not likely to be happy if he is very ugly, or of low birth, or alone in the world, or childless, and perhaps still less if he has worthless children or friends. ” (Biffle, p. 290) Thus a man with a good wife, good children, good friends, and such will live a better life than he who has the opposite: a bad or no wife, bad or no children, enemies instead of friends, etc.

The fourth lesson is that to achieve eudaimonia ne must be successful throughout your whole life. Having fleeing instances of happiness or success will not yield eudaimonia. One must have a constant supply of happiness and as such one must seek those things that provide satisfaction for a long time. Thus having a wife will give you more satisfaction than sleeping with a prostitute one night. Finally, the fifth lesson for achieving “human flourishing is that the philosopher leads the best of all possible lives. ” (Biffle, p. 290) Aristotle gives three possible goals for life: physical pleasure, fame, and wisdom.

He rejects the life of physical pleasure as a good life to live ecause this is like the life of a cow constantly chewing on grass. Thus this life is akin to those of animals, and this is not worthy. The life of fame is not desirable because it depends on what others think. To have fame you must constantly cater to the needs of others and this is not what is best for you, but what is best for others. Finally, Aristotle praises wisdom as the best goal because by seeking wisdom we “are contemplating the largest questions that the human mind can pose. ” (Biffle, p. 90) Furthermore, Aristotle argues that the life of the philosopher is pleasurable and self-sufficient because “the wise man… s able to contemplate truth even by himself, and the wiser he is the more he is able to do this… he is more self-sufficient than anyone else. ” (Biffle, p. 290) An important fact to keep in mind is that Aristotle considers politics to be a key component of human nature. “To Aristotle, human beings are political and social beings. Moral action is possible only within society and community. ” (Biffle, p. 294) Thus Aristotle considers that everything must be done within the scope of interaction with other humans.

Furthermore, “[p]olitics prescribes which of the sciences a state needs, nd which each man shall study, and up to what point; and to politics we see subordinated even the highest arts, such as economy, oratory, and the art of war. ” (Biffle, p. 295) Thus seeing the importance of politics Aristotle argues that to achieve eudaimonia one must take an active position in politics. If one does the things prescribed by Aristotle, and is also fortunate to have those things that are out of your control such as good looks, then you will achieve eudaimonia.

By achieving this you will live the best possible life. Now we will go into the discussion of how the ethics of Aristotle fits to women. Aristotle, like Plato, accepted the doctrine that a difference in role or pursuit be tied to a relevant difference in nature and at the same time to reassert the claim of Gorgias that the virtues of women are different from those of free men because their activities are different. (Barnes, p. 135)

Thus Aristotle creates a political and psychological reason for explaining the differences between men and women. In comparison with man’s bodily condition the bodily condition of women is one of weakness, and his comparative weakness points toward a retiring domestic role within the home. ” (Barnes, p. 39) Furthermore, Aristotle argues that women’s deliberative capacity is akuron, that is that it lacks authority and is overruled easily. The woman’s “decisions and actions are too often guided by pleasures and pains, so that she is unfitted for leadership and very much in need of temperance. ” (Barnes, p. 139) Having established this we see tat Aristotle holds women to a much different standard that he does men.

Just as he holds women to be different from men in their nature, so he holds women to be different in their virtues. Aristotle demands of women a virtue that reflects their domestic role. (Barnes, p. 37) Aristotle describes women’s virtues as being two-fold: “in body, beauty and stature; in soul, self-command and an industry that is not sordid. ” A virtuous female must do the utmost to present a presentable physical figure; she must also delight in hard work and work hard. The most troubling fact is wondering whether women can live a fulfilling life, or whether they are incapacitated of doing so because of they cannot achieve eudaimonia.

Clearly Aristotle argues that women cannot achieve eudaimonia because they cannot reason like men, and reasoning properly is an integral part of achieving eudaimonia. If women act upon the virtues enumerated by Aristotle, toiling long and hard hours, being submissive to their husbands, keeping an orderly household, etc… will they live a good life? Aristotle thinks so. However, this life will be inferior to eudaimonia. Thus in Aristotle’s view women are doomed, by nature, to live an inferior life than men. Of course such the concepts Aristotle held of women regarding seem nothing short of ludicrous to us today.

Thus, we are left with the task of understanding what to do with Aristotle’s ethics, should we try to reconcile it with today’s views or should we outright reject it? In regard o this question there are two opposing schools of feminist scholarship. The first argues that all one must do to reconcile the present views of women with Aristotle’s ethics is to simply reject the doctrines that Aristotle mentioned regarding women being inferior and such and apply his ethics of “free men” and eudaimonia equally to everyone. This is a tempting option as we may feel that Aristotle was simply mistaken in his regards to women.

After all, don’t women really have equal reasoning and cognitive as males? Since this is true, then it follows that everything Aristotle said regarding “free men” must also be true for women. An advocate of this includes Charrlote Witt who argues “that you can take away some of the doctrines that argue that women are inferior to men without affecting Aristotle’s ethics. ” (Witt)

The opposing school of scholarship argues that gender doctrines cannot be removed from Aristotle’s theories without altering other theories. For example, in “Woman Is Not a Rational Animal”, Lynda Lange argues that Aristotle’s theory of sex difference is implicated in every piece of Aristotle’s metaphysical jargon, and she concludes that “it is not at all clear that it [Aristotle’s theory of sex ifference] can simply be cut away without any reflection on the status of the rest of the philosophy. ” (Witt) These scholars thus argue that the only values that feminists can get from studying Aristotle are learning about the ways in which the philosophical tradition has devalued women.

I do not believe that you can just ignore some parts of Aristotle’s works and keep the rest intact. Aristotle interconnected every discipline: ethics, politics, metaphysics, biology, psychology, etc… In Aristotle’s understanding nothing was completely isolated. Thus you cannot take his ethic principles and apply them wherever you want. He intended these rules to apply to “free men” in the Athenian polis. Thus I cannot see how you can simply ignore one section, especially one as influential as his views on gender, and believe that the other sections will remain untouched.

As a matter of fact, I go as far as to argue that Aristotle’s ethics, as they stand, is not very valuable in itself in term of applicability. But Aristotle argued that the main strength of his philosophy was that it was actually applicable. Aristotle claimed that “philosophical ethics is practical. ‘The end is not knowledge but action. ‘ (Broadie, p. 3) The reason hy I think this is so is that Aristotle viewed his ethics in regard to everything that he thought was true. However as science has progressed we see that his views on such basic things as psychology no longer hold true.

Thus we see that his views are becoming outdated. I believe that the true influence of Aristotle rests on how he can influence future philosophers who will try to create an ethical system that will be befitting to our times. I heard just a couple of weeks ago something that surprised (and angered) me a little. A fellow philosophy student told me, “I don’t know why you study ancient philosophy so much. If Aristotle and Plato would have had discovered everything there was to know about philosophy then we wouldn’t still be struggling to find even the most basic philosophical questions.

At the time I felt mad because I have given a heavy emphasis on my studies of philosophy in ancient philosophy. However, I had to admit that he had a point and I could see this more clearly applying to Aristotle than Plato. Aristotle’s philosophy heavily relied on scientific assumptions that simply do not hold today. Furthermore, we see that Aristotle’s views of politics and ethics are so specific that many concepts such as those of having slaves do all our work for us- are simply inapplicable today.

The reason why Plato is superior to Aristotle in regard to having a useful philosophy is that Plato sought unchanging truths; the virtues. Meanwhile Aristotle wanted an applicable philosophy. However, the fact that their philosophies are not applicable today does not subtract from the influence of either philosopher has had in modern thought. However, I feel that the applicability of Aristotle’s theories are no longer valid and that we should rely on more modern philosophies that account for our current, more updated, views.

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