By: Arjun Verma
Widely regarded as one of the most influential ethical philosophers of all time, Aristotle’s contributions to philosophy are still relevant today.
Aristotle advanced an ethical theory known as virtue ethics. He believed that the achievement of happiness should be the primary goal of people; however, his version of happiness was not hedonist, or dependent on biological pleasure, but rather attempted to be fulfilled and become a better human. He referred to this as eudaimonia. People should seek to achieve a state of eudaimonia by practicing the virtues.
But how does one be virtuous? Aristotle was famous for his doctrine of the mean in determining these virtues. Excessively practicing one side of virtue would lead to practicing vices, and people should strive for the mean. For example, being too courageous would result in recklessness while being not courageous enough would result in timidity. Aristotle devised a list of the fundamental virtues; some of which included courage, honor, and pride.
A key difference between Aristotle and most modern-day philosophers is that Aristotle believed in an ethical theory based on the evaluation of people whereas today’s philosophers primarily focus on the evaluation of actions.
Why is it relevant today?
Due to its unique focus on the essence of humanity, virtue ethics has profound implications on society today.
Oftentimes, people choose to act in a way that will get them some reward for others, whether to be famous, wealthy, or just liked by others. Think of a wealthy businessman and helping those in need. While philosophies based on rules may result in good actions, like donating to a large sum of money to a charity as an act of philanthropy, it has no meaningful impact on our inner character. Instead of donating to look good to the rest of society, one should donate for the sake of donating itself. This helps one cultivate the virtue of generosity and make progress towards eudaimonia.
Yet today, people often act simply for the social recognition and not because they believe helping those in poverty to be an intrinsically good action. That's exactly why the same people who are giving thousands, or even millions, of dollars to charity are often the very same ones participating in tax evasion, exploitation of workers, and manipulation of politics. Those things happen behind the scenes, so, for them, the ethicality of those actions is irrelevant.
It's aptly summarized by the cliche, "It's what you do when no one's watching." A society with people only acting for others but undermining those very goals when no one is there to critique them is built only a superficial ethical foundation.
In a world with growing collective action problems like climate change, nuclear weapons, and worker exploitation, it's going to require a structural change not just in how we act, but who we are. We can't just focus on whether anyone else will see us when contemplating whether to secretly throw our plastic wrapper out the window or to buy a laptop from a company that's been known to provide dangerous conditions for its workers.
Virtue ethics might seem like an ancient philosophy that's out of touch with modern society, but in reality, it offers essential advice for what we should strive towards in our constantly changing world today.
Arjun is a current high school junior. He is a captain of his high school's Lincoln Douglas debate team.
I am an undergraduate student who's fascinated by anything related to philosophy. I hope to show you how philosophy can apply to everyday life! Check out my Youtube Channel, Philosophy in Context.