For Aristotle ethics and politics are fundamentally intertwined. He understands both domains functionally. The human function or purpose, he argues, is to be understood in relationship to our nature. To know that purpose we must grasp first that we are rational and social animals. The purpose of the polity — and, we can see by extension, other human institutions — is then to facilitate us in achieving our natural purposes, which fulfill our rational, physical, emotional needs.
The ethics of Aristotle does not focus on establishing a strict code for behavior or set of basic principles to appeal to in deciding what to do. Rather, its focus is on explicating what is necessary for a flourishing life for human beings. Aristotle’s question is not so much what should we do but how should we be. His focus is on explicating what a virtuous (or excellent) human life consists in.
An appeal to the ideas of act and potency, as well as the analogy of the acorn and the oak tree should prove helpful in describing this. Just as a acorn can achieve its potential, become a more or less excellent example of an oak tree, depending on the soil conditions, the amount of water and sun it receives and so on, so can humans achieve their own potential to varying degrees. While an acorn of course has no responsibility for itself and its formation but is dependent entirely on external actors, human are different. We have some freedom allowing us to cultivate ourselves. Further, we even have the possibility to shape the social environments in which our characters are formed. Our fundamental ethical responsibility is to form ourselves in such a way as to achieve our potential. This requires the work of self-formation. But since we are also formed in reference to the social institutions that we shape, it also requires the work of politics — of shaping our polity in a way that facilitates our development. The failure to form a polity that addresses our needs and facilitates our development will make it more likely that we fail in our fundamental personal responsibility of forming ourselves into virtuous excellent human beings.
To address the concerns of Aristotelian ethics, we thus want to ask ourselves what an excellent life consists in. Which individuals have lived excellent or exemplary lives? What made their lives excellent or exemplary? What needs of theirs were fulfilled? How did they relate to individuals in their societies? Our answers to such questions may or may not align with what we can imagine Aristotle’s to have been. But asking these questions can facilitate us in thinking through the issues in a way that is Aristotelian.
Aristotle argues that in order to have an excellent, well-lived human life, the life of eudiamonia, we need both external and internal goods. That is, as social animals, like other animals, we need food, shelter, health, companionship, or friends. Without these external good, Aristotle argues, we will not have an excellent life, a life of eudiamonia. Yet these are not sufficient. Indeed, the other goods needed, the internal goods — or virtues — are even more important for an flourishing life. Aristotle distinguishes between intellectual virtues, such as wisdom and practical wisdom, and character virtues, especially courage, moderation and justice. There are further minor virtues, beyond the cardinal virtues of wisdom, courage, moderation and justice. The main point though is that these virtues, once achieved can not really be taken away from us, unlike our wealth, which we could lose, or friends or health. As long as we have such virtues, Aristotle argues, we will not be reduced to misery. Yet, because humans are rational animals, with rational as well as animal needs, for a full life, we need both types of goods. A flourishing life is also one that we only know once the entire course of a life is lived. A life lived in integrity could be compromised at the end. We cannot really judge the life until it has been lived.
If there is a guiding question for Aristotle’s ethics it cannot be codified like Kant’s categorical imperative of the Utilitarian principle of utility. An individual not yet fully virtuous but cultivating virtue might ask him or herself: What would a virtuous person do? It is partially through the imitation of the virtuous that one might oneself become virtuous. But what does a virtuous person do? Aristotle emphasizes that the answer to this question is fundamentally contextual. Virtue ethics is thus a situational ethics. The same action that in one situation is brave might in anther context be foolhardy or in another still cowardly. The virtuous person thus needs not to develop a skill at weighing what action is appropriate in a given context. This judgment about what courage, moderation, justice, or generosity or other minor virtues requires is part of what practical wisdom or phroenesis allows us.
Aristotle emphasizes that the virtue is always on a continuum between an excess of some characteristic and the deficiency of it. And the person with practical wisdom knows not only generally what that mean is but what that mean calls for in a particular situation. A courageous person will avoid the deficiency of cowardice and the excess of rashness. But what does that mean in a situation where one’s dignity or the dignity of someone who one loves has been insulted? There is no simple answer to the question. In one context, practical wisdom might require turning away from a conflict, where it is pointless. In another, it will require addressing the matter at hand. Might this differ for someone depending on their relative size, the number of people involved in the insult, etc.? Probably. Aristotle does speak about what is moderate in ways tailored to individual differences. While it is perhaps easy enough to see that a deficiency of food can be due to self-denial and an excess to gluttony, how much food is the right amount of food to eat? Aristotle notes that the famous Olympic wrestler, Milo, will require more than others as he is larger, stronger and so on. The right amount, the moderate amount, is thus contextual.
In our action we should strive for the golden mean; and through the cultivation of habit and a certain regular self-evaluation, we should improve in our ability to understand what that golden mean requires in specific circumstances. Our goal should be to develop virtuous habits — so strong in fact that we have a quasi-second nature to act in ways that are appropriate, to sum up situations well, to act then virtuously without great strain and without the need for dogmatic rules. Doing this is required for our development. This indeed is one of the most important parts of it. It is easy to miss the mark, however, as virtue requires that we do the right thing at the right time for the right reason toward the right person to the right extent.
In his writings Aristotle shows sensitivity to questions of human psychology. He recognizes that individuals might be conflicted, not always even wanting to do what is virtuous. The cultivation of virtue however requires that we cultivate our desires. This too occurs through the cultivation of habit. Imagine, for example, someone who has a tendency to fight as a young person. At a slight insult they are up in arms, ready to stand up for their dignity or that of others. Perhaps as they gain experience they see that they are failing by being rash. They slowly begin to reform themselves, first fighting their desire to get up in arms about small slights. But over years they temper themselves. At some point they will likely look back at their earlier hot-headedness and wonder why they had the over-reaction. They would no longer want to be the young angry, easily riled person, quick to escalate a conflict rather than to calm it. Through doing the right thing often enough they might learn to train their emotions — to mature emotionally — so that they are of a single will when faced with conflicts in the future that easily riled them in the past. It would be easy for them to de-escalate a conflict that they would have earlier escalated. It would be a second nature for them not to be rash but to act virtuously and truly courageously by acting with sovereignty and self-command, knowing when and how to stand up to indignities.
Aristotle’s politics builds on his understanding of what human purposes are. The purpose of the polity is to facilitate individuals in reaching their natural purposes, in achieving well-lived, flourishing lives. Both Plato and Aristotle share what we might characterize as a proto-institutionalism. They both argue that there are certain ways of setting up institutions that facilitate human purposes and human life. For both of them, then, politics is related to ethics. In this general institutionalist impulse, many contemporaries would agree with both Plato and Aristotle. However, contemporaries would clearly disagree with details of both thinkers regarding what the ideal institutions are.
Plato and Aristotle already had grave differences from one another. Aristotle offered some of the earliest critiques of Plato’s Republic. These differences started with methodology. Plato speculated about an ideal society without examining particular constitutions of varying ancient states. Aristotle’s students, by contrast, examined the constitutions of over 150 different polities in the ancient world, considering what worked well and what worked badly in each of them. On the basis of this, Aristotle then proposed a view of an ideal polity. Yet the methodological differences were just the starting point.
Besides this, Aristotle ended up with a position much more positive to democracy than Plato. In contrast to Plato, who suggested that the family be dissolved in his Republic and children be raised collectively and promoted on the basis of their raw ability, Aristotle thought it was necessary to use the natural affiliation of the family as a cornerstone to creating a strong society. While this would of course run the risk that Plato saw of nepotism, it also played on a great strength of natural affinity and natural community. There are many more differences between these two thinkers. Plato did have a stronger place for women in his ideal community than did Aristotle. Downplaying the differences between men and women that are highlighted in Aristotle’s system, Plato noted women differ from men similarly to how men with hair differ from the bald. There is nothing essential to these differences that should require fundamentally different places within the polity according to Plato. I will not further highlight such difference here, but will simply drive home the importance of the institutionalism, especially of Aristotle.
For Aristotle, even more clearly than Plato, society is natural. In contrast to later Hobbsian theory, or the early ideas proposed by Glaucon in the Republic of a social contractarian view of society, Aristotle views us as one of many types of social animals. This means that we are not fundamentally oriented toward our own selfish interests and only come into groups reluctantly, against our will, taking the losses that it requires for some gains that we partially regret for the losses they extract. Aristotle, in stark contrast to Hobbes later, does not see us as fundamentally egoistic and vainglorious. Rather, the family is natural. Building on that, the polity is a natural development. We come to fulfillment not alone, but with others, who influence us in our own development. A part of our ethical responsibility then is not only to cultivate good habits among ourselves. It is also to cultivate a social political life in which we can best fulfill our human purposes, achieving health, friendship, and the cultivation of our minds and characters.
Though the details of Aristotle’s view — especially ideas like that of the natural slave — will be vehemently rejected by later thinkers, the general trajectory of his social view of human beings and of this view of ethics will again and again find resonance, as it is reinterpreted historically against the backdrop of different understandings of human anthropology and human goods.
For more on Aristotle, see Aristotle’s aesthetics