Aristotle certainly agrees with Plato that the highest a human being can achieve is the life of reason. But Aristotle’s enquiry into ethics is very different from Plato’s. Plato’s enquiry into ethics is primarily directed at getting people to behave in a different way, getting them to abandon this vale of illusion into which we’re all born. Aristotle thinks that ethics is only appropriate for those who have already formed their moral characters, because moral character is not formed by philosophy. That has to be done by training and education, by non-philosophical means, and it is not the job of a philosopher to be an educator. So ethics is for training legislators and rulers, the people who are going to structure society. But their primary job is to make people ethical in their turn. It is worth emphasising that the central feature of ethics for Aristotle is character. If character is right, everything else will fall into place.
Aristotle does one thing which seems to me to be a great improvement on what Plato does. Plato sets himself against everyone in sight, against ordinary language, against ordinary people and all the other philosophers who were working at the time – I mean the people he called ‘sophists’. Plato always seems to be in opposition. Aristotle isn’t. Aristotle starts with common sense and with what other people, often philosophers, have said. But instead of demolishing these beliefs and ideas and kicking them out, Aristotle dissects them carefully and arrives at a balanced judgement. He says, ‘Well, this view seems to be correct in the following respects, but it has this difficulty and it needs this correction in other respects.’ He always evaluates. He never comes to a simple overall judgement. You’re not going to get any easy answers from him, but that makes him a good deal more realistic and more reasonable than Plato. He is less dramatic that Plato, but in the long term, I think, more interesting.
So when Aristotle comes to do ethics, like Plato he asks ‘What is life all about?’. That seems to me to be a question worth asking. The neglect of that question over the last 200 years or so has probably been inspired by a praiseworthy recognition of the variety of human life and a valuable faith in tolerance. But it has not been to the advantage of philosophy.
Unlike Plato, Aristotle starts from common sense. Everybody agrees, begins Aristotle, that life is about happiness. Aristotle uses a word that Plato doesn’t use – ‘eudaimoneia’. There is a complex translation issue here. The conventional translation is ‘happiness’, but you’ll find that some texts translate Aristotle’s word not as ‘happiness’ but as ‘good fortune’ or sometimes as ‘flourishing’ and some don’t translate it at all, but transliterate it, as I have just done. I shall continue to talk about happiness, but think of it more as human flourishing – another word that is sometimes used, even though it has a rather archaic ring to it – rather than feeling happy.
Everybody agrees about that. But then, points out Aristotle, people disagree about what the content of happiness is. There are various things that people think will make them happy. Aristotle works his way through and the list, which, unsurprisingly, is pretty much the same as Plato’s – pleasure, fame, wealth, power. Except for this: Aristotle is much less ascetic than Plato. Aristotle thinks there is a place for all the pleasures, all the good things in life. Whereas Plato praised an ascetic life with very few pleasures and simple trappings, Aristotle was prepared to live as comfortably as he could. He just didn’t like to get things out of balance. And this takes us to a central notion of Aristotle’s ethics: the doctrine of balance. It is usually called the doctrine of the mean, but I prefer to talk of it in terms of balance.
The classic example and the one that best fits is courage. It doesn’t take very much to see that you can have too little courage – when you’re a coward and run away from danger. But you can also have too much courage, when you rush into a situation that you should stay out of. We call it rashness or being foolhardy. There’s no point rushing into the burning building to save a child if there’s no chance of you getting out again. Courage is a matter of striking a balance between being too brave and not brave enough.
Some people call this a doctrine of mediocrity, with no room for saints or heroes. I think that Aristotle can reply to this; he is really articulating a concept of appropriate action, and both saintliness and heroism are appropriate sometimes. On the other hand, he doesn’t seem to have room for the Christian value of doing more than is required – supererogation.
So for every virtue there are two vices, and this is where the structure suddenly deviates from what we think of. First, we think of every virtue having a vice that is paired with it by being its opposite – and the other way round. Whether or not that’s a limitation of our language or a limitation of our brains, we like to think of things in pairs. But Aristotle thinks of these things in threes – one virtue: two vices. There is a vice of excess and a vice of deficiency for every virtue. He works his way quite systematically through various character traits demonstrating how this structure can be revealed over and over again. He has a lot of trouble with justice, but on the whole I think the demonstration is pretty convincing. Second, he is quite specific that the right thing to do depends, on time, place, person, etc. In that sense, he is a relativist. But he is also sure that there is a correct answer to every moral issue. In that sense he is an objectivist. This is an unusual and interesting combination.
Many of the standard criticisms of this idea are noticed and replied to by Aristotle himself. He doesn’t explicitly reply to the criticism that this is an egocentric idea of ethics. But it is noteworthy that he devotes a good deal of space to the question of friendship and is quite clear that friends are necessary for humans to lead a happy life.
The doctrine of the mean is something that can explained in ten seconds flat, but can be understood in a lifetime, if you’re lucky. I think that’s not because anything is dramatically wrong with it, but because it’s a very complex thought. It’s a way of thinking about these things that has enormous attractions.