Throughout the history of Western civilization, people have asked themselves questions about how to lead their lives and achieve happiness. Major philosophers have debated this idea, arguing for different ways of orienting their lives, commenting and criticizing their precursors in the process. Two of the most important of these thinkers were Aristotle and Immanuel Kant, who both drafted different ethical theories, while staying within the boundaries of what is considered standard in the Western philosophical tradition. Specific differences in their contexts lead to major dissimilarities in their theories. However, both theories have aspects which may be considered correct, and others that are incoherent. While both on the pursuit of happiness, Aristotle and Immanuel Kant hold different ethical theories, where the former looks to a domestication of man in order to achieve the soul’s optimization in accordance to a cosmic order, while the latter seeks to establish the rational, intentional and autonomous adherence and enforcement of a universal moral law.
Aristotle’s Ethics is the first known ethical treatise, which is still studied to this day. This Greek thinker lived in the fourth century BCE and many credit him, along with Socrates and Plato, with inaugurating the Western philosophical tradition. He took a more empirical approach than Plato did, looking to study philosophy in relation to the natural world. The topics of his texts vary, and include physics, biology and zoology in this respect; on the other hand, he also disserted on logic, aesthetics and politics. As he took a more particular approach than Plato did, he looked for the correct way for men to lead their practical lives, being the first to write a text about ethics, a discipline that he believed was not theoretical in nature. Happiness was achieved by practical execution, which would optimally, but not necessarily, be optimized by a proper philosophical inquiry.
This Greek thinker believed that one had to search for happiness, or flourishing, through the achievement of a good character, characterized by moral virtue. For Aristotle, everything has a specific function, including humans. This presupposes a natural order in the world, where different species are called to act in different manners to attain cosmic harmony. What characterizes humans is that they have both a soul and reason; these agencies, when set on the correct path, lead to happiness or well-being, where the soul acts at its maximum capacity. While treating the subject of the function of man, he writes, “human good turns out to be activity of soul in accordance with virtue, and if there are more than one virtue, in accordance with the best and most complete” (Aristotle). According to Aristotle, the ethical way is the result of a sort of domestication by teachers and experience that result in moral virtues; one is not born being neither virtuous nor happy. These teachings form habits in the person until he or she finally starts seeking out good by him or herself. Virtues were found in the just mean of two vices; a good character had to be instructed how to act according to this temperance in order to reach the optimal functioning of his or her soul.
On the other hand, Immanuel Kant was a German philosopher who proposed a moral theory that reacted to the ethical tradition inaugurated by the Greek philosophers, and developed by other thinkers. He lived in the eighteenth century CE, more than two millennia after Aristotle, during the enlightenment, where there was a resurgence of these antique philosophers and a prioritization of reason within human experience. His major works are three Critiques and the second in this series, Critique of Practical Reason, rationally argues for his moral theory. Causing a true paradigm shift in Western thought, the repercussions of his works are still felt to this day in many different disciplines. In accordance with the Enlightenment, he proposed a human subject who could not think him or herself as independent from the inquiry of knowledge, being at its center. Putting the emphasis back on reason allowed thinkers to discover and explore the limits that they themselves had, and impulse philosophy, the natural sciences and modern science as a whole into a new era.
Immanuel Kant’s ethical philosophy is moral and rational in nature, introducing the concept of the categorical imperative. With thisnotion,he means the demands of moral law, that which a person must do regardless of other circumstance: it is good in and of itself, regardless of the circumstances. Kant believes that the categorical imperative “declares an action to be objectively necessary in itself without reference to any purpose, i.e., without any other end” (Kant). However, what is most important in the execution of the action is the intent of the agent, as it must have a pure intention. For Kant, what characterizes human beings is that they are rational agents and constructs his ethical theory around this conceptualization of man’s essence. He believes that the rational will should be considered autonomous and free, not subject to any laws, but vociferating them and subjecting himself to moral ordinances. However, he accepts that men constantly look to act in a way in discordance to the morality that the philosopher professes. He believes this is due to defects in reason, defining vice and immorality as irrationality. On the other hand, the rational will allows a person to be the author of the law that binds it, thus reaching morality, which is a duty for men. As he accepts that desire can go against morals, he defines virtue as the disposition to overcome obstacles to moral behavior, in other words, the strength of one’s will.
As one can see, even though these two theories share many similarities, they are also very different. Both are ethical theories that seek happiness through virtue, seeing this as man’s natural intention. Nevertheless, even though they employ the same terms, many times the meanings that they intend differ. As Johnson states, “in viewing virtue as a trait grounded in moral principles, and vice as principled transgression of moral law, Kant thought of himself as thoroughly rejecting what he took to be the Aristotelian view that virtue is a mean between two vices” (Johnson). While both authors utilize virtue and vice, the German thinker proposes that they hold a binary relation, while Aristotle believes that virtue goes between two different vices. Furthermore, as was hinted before, there is a fundamental difference in the fundamental focus of ethics. “Consequentialist theories are outcome-based and Kantian theories are agent-based. Virtue ethics is character-based” (Athanassoulis). Therefore, the rudiments of both theories are at odds; while Kant emphasizes the agent, the autonomous rational will, Aristotle looks for the ideal, morally good character that the subject should try to achieve.
These differences may be thought of as criticisms from one philosopher to the other. While Kant sometimes manifests his discontents with Aristotle’s theory, obviously the latter did not have means to do the same. However, the variations in their two theories, which respond to disparities in their philosophies as a whole, may be thought of as Aristotle’s criticism towards the thinking that Kant would develop. Kant later takes many of the premises that the former dismisses up, even though he had already argued against them. As with all philosophical theories, neither of them is completely coherent nor universally accepted. As such, it is interesting to study in each theory that which one believes is correct and what is not.
Aristotle’s ethical theory has different points to acclaim and to condemn. An aspect that may be thought of as both strength and weakness is the fact that it was the first ethical treatise: as such, it was innovative and broke new ground, while it only laid down the first, preliminary, thoughts. His theory may seem dated, as postmodernism has conceptualized many concepts such as truth, reason and happiness as subjective and a matter of individual opinion. Furthermore, the establishment of virtues that would lead to flourishing through reason is very influenced by civilization: different cultures vary in their concepts of what is good and the means of achieving it; nevertheless, Aristotle’s theory is universal. “Aristotle looks for the function of human beings, but why assume there is a function, and why assume there is a unique one?” (Hauptli) [Italics in original]. The universal assumptions that hold the base of the philosopher’s ethical thoughts are easily questioned. However, it is of great value because it serves as a basic blueprint for ethical action, with precise virtues, ends and ways of achieving happiness.
Immanuel Kant’s theory also holds many strengths and weaknesses, mainly due to its proposal of the autonomy of the rational will. One of the strengths of this is its concordance with the individual and independent subject that is at the heart of the Western tradition. People believe that they should ideally be themselves, free, as if each person were a different autonomous agent, which is at a very fundamental level in this philosopher’s theory. Nevertheless, this is also one of its main weaknesses, for one cannot deny the influence that society has on the individual and vice versa: they relate to one another in an intrinsically dialectical way. “The theory of the categorical imperative is, moreover, inconsistent. According to it the human will is the highest lawgiving authority, and yet subject to precepts enjoined on it” (Ming). Kant’s theory rests on the premise that there may be something outside of the law, that one agent may be its author, which many critics have singled out as incoherent. In fact, the premise that there could be something excluded from law, as he would then have to dictate the law, is questionable, as everybody is born into human civilization and experiences this inscription and relationship to the law from the beginning. Therefore, as one can see in its logical consequence, explored in Sade’s literature, people would find it natural to appropriate themselves of others’ bodies and do with them as they please, violating human laws and contradicting its individualistic principles.
Therefore, I believe Aristotle’s theory to be more correct, as it does not entail the possibility to do harm to others. As it leads ethics in a more individual direction, the superiority of the rational will in Kant allows for many evil deviations. I believe habits and virtues are the everyday building blocks that lead to a happy life, which is in accordance with Aristotle. Furthermore, I think it is better because it serves as an actual blueprint for doing good and achieving happiness, while Kant’s theory develops guidelines that are more abstract. Finally, Aristotle’s arguments are better grounded than Kant’s, allowing for a richer dialogue with the texts that they have passed on.
In conclusion, while set forth by two brilliant philosophers, the ethical theories of Aristotle and Immanuel Kant are very interesting within the study of Western civilization. Apart from this tradition, they developed their theories in different contexts: while the former lived in ancient Greece at the dawn of philosophy, the latter lived two millennia later in Germany during the Enlightenment. Aristotle believed that a person would have to be taught in order to develop moral virtue that, through the conjoined action of soul and reason, would lead humans into well-being. On the other hand, Kant believed that a rational, autonomous agent had to reasonably comply with the categorical imperative, vociferating a universal moral law that he himself was also subject to. Aristotle’s theory lays out a simple blueprint that one must follow to lead a correct life; however, its pretend universality clashes with the differences between cultures. Meanwhile, Kant’s theory meshes very well with society, while also coming onto conflict with it, for the theory promotes ravishing individualism. The search for happiness and a well-lead life has propelled developments from many of the world’s greatest thinkers, and will predictably continue to do so due to the richness of the human experience.
Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Trans. W. D. Ross. VirtueScience. Web. 08 March 2014.
Hauptli, Bruce W. “Selected Criticisms of Aristotle’s Ethics”. Florida International University. Web. 08 March 2014.
Johnson, Robert. “Kant’s Moral Philosophy”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web. 08 March 2014.
Kant, Immanuel. Fundamental Principals of the Metaphysic of Morals. Trans. Thomas Kingsmill Abbot. Project Gutenberg. Web. 08 March 2014.
Ming, John. “Categorical Imperative”. The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol 3. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. Web. 08 March 2014.
Nafsika Athanassoulis. Virtue Ethics. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: A Peer-Reviewed Academic Resource. Web. 08 March 2014.