Kierkegaard formed a system of ethics based upon the notion that we ought to hold a teleological suspension of the ethical in order to enter a higher realm of morality, referred to as the religious life. The purpose of this essay to determine whether we can consider this to be a synthesis of Kant’s and Aristotle’s moral philosophy, to which I shall argue we can but only as a partial synthesis since Kierkegaard omits elements of both Kant and Aristotle.
In Fear and Trembling Kierkegaard draws out a system of ethics where we ought to move towards what he considers to be the highest virtue, faith, by means of a teleological suspension of the ethical. Before I go on further it would be best if I point out that by virtue Kierkegaard does not mean an excellence of character in the sense Aristotle does, instead the term virtue is implemented to mean something more along the lines of what we ought to have in order to be considered noble. So To avoid confusion between these two terms I shall use the term arête when referring to virtue in the Aristotelian sense.
One of the fundamentals to Kierkegaard’s ethics is that man has three modes of living; the aesthetic, the ethical and the religious. The aesthetic life is one in which we pursue a hedonistic lifestyle constantly chasing pleasure, consequently never staying with any one thing for too long. The ethical life is sometimes referred to as living in accordance with the Universal (this is done within Fear and Trembling), by which it is meant living in accordance with some form of universal moral law, such as Kant’s Categorical Imperative. Finally the religious life is one in which we have removed any sense of duty to the ethical life and become a self-legislating body which obeys only the law it gives itself in such a way that allows us to become “a relation that relates itself to itself” [Kierkegaard, SD, XI:127], by which it is meant that we become capable of reflecting upon ourselves in order to receive autonomy making us free from universal maxims as we become able to decide our own path. It is by deciding what path to take and sticking to it ‘religiously’ that Kierkegaard argues that we acquire faith, thus faith does not necessarily mean belief in a deity (although it can), but instead sticking to a decision without doubt, as Rudd states “for Kierkegaard, morality is a product of commitment” [Rudd, pg:71].
The idea of faith being the highest virtue is demonstrated through what is known as the four sub-Abrahams within Fear and Trembling [Kierkegaard, FT, pp:8-13], and later on where he states “but he who strove with God is greater than all [Kierkegaard, FT, pg:16], but it is within the third sub-Abraham that Kierkegaard reveals to us a second theme vital to the overall system…the virtue of love…we briefly see this virtue within the following passage: “when the child is to be weaned the mother is not without sorrow, that she and the child grow more…apart” [Kierkegaard, FT, pg:12], it is possible to read this passage in a way which means that love is bittersweet for even though the mother loves her baby and draws the warmth from that bond, there will be times when the same love will cause pain. Yet we ought not to abandon love because of this possibility of pain, but embrace it as it is through sacrifice that we are able to move from the ethical to the religious, via a teleological suspension of the ethical, which Rudd explains as “refusing simply to take his standards of good and evil from his society” [Rudd, pg:121].
This notion of love now needs to be explained in more detail for Kierkegaard uses love in a very specific way, one in which could be synonymous with the Confucianist virtue ren or the Greek term agape, both of which mean a universal, unconditional form of love. The notion of love is described in Works of Love where the importance of love is made explicit in the passage: “to cheat oneself out of love is the most terrible deception, it is an eternal loss for which there is no reparation, either in time or in eternity…one who is self-deceived has locked himself out and continues to lock himself out of love” [Kierkegaard, WL, pp:23-24]. Later on a description of what love is comes to us as Kierkegaard says “by its fruits one recognises the tree …in the same way love also is known by its own fruit” [Kierkegaard, WL, pg:25] meaning that we do not know love in any other way than through the acts of love made by others, but more specifically it is the acts of Christian love which Kierkegaard is referring to for he states “the love of which Christianity speaks is known by its own fruit- revealing that it has within itself the truth of the eternal” [Kierkegaard, WL, pg:25].
This is why it could be argued that Kierkegaard’s view of love is synonymous with ren and agape for Christian love, according to Kierkegaard, is universal “the Christian teaching is to love one’s neighbour , to love all mankind, all men, even enemies, and not to make exceptions, neither in favouritism nor in aversion” [Kierkegaard, WL, pg:36] and unconditional “God you are to love in unconditional obedience, even if what he demands of you may seem to you to be your own harm” [Kierkegaard, WL, pg:36]. Hence the leap from ethical to religious is made by abandoning any universal moral laws, and/or conformities to social norms, in order to serve our own moral maxims (God, the eternal) with unconditional obedience whilst also treating all others equally for if we “love a human being more than God…this is a mockery to God – the same holds true of friendship and erotic love” [Kierkegaard, WL, Pg.36]. Therefore once we have entered the religious life we ought to show respect to every element of mankind equal to the unwavering respect we show to our self-made moral maxims otherwise we risk slipping back into the ethical or aesthetic life.
To summarise Kierkegaard’s ethics is not one of universal maxims, or a system devised to tell us how to act (unlike Kant’s), but one which tells us to choose our own path and stick by it just like we would stick to our religious faith in a deity. This does sound similar to Nietzsche’s concept of divorcing ourselves from the herd morality in order to determine our own path through life, a concept which I argue is fundamentally Aristotelian (I shall return to this later). But in order to make this movement from ethical to religious we ought to learn to love ourselves and others in equal measure for if we did not we would see no reason to unconditionally obey our moral maxims, or care for the society around us which brings us the things necessary for a life of contentment (food, water, shelter, companionship and so on). Now I shall move on to demonstrate how this model of ethics is similar to, and different from Aristotle’s in order to show how close the two systems are.
Aristotle argues that the moral hero is one who pursues happiness as happiness is the end goal in itself, “happiness on the other hand, no one chooses for the sake of these, nor…for anything other than itself” [Aristotle, 1097b], which bears some semblance with Kierkegaard who in part two of Either-Or writes “the beautiful was that which has its teleology within itself” [Kierkegaard, E-II, II:245], so the ‘beautiful’ or noble agent is one who has the end goal within themselves. Kierkegaard later adds that happiness can be found within his work, his calling, for “our hero works for a living; this work is also his delight; he carries out his calling” [Kierkegaard, E-II, II:266], hence Kierkegaard, like Aristotle, believes that each agent has a function and it is by working within your function that we become heroic for “all things have a function…the good and the well is thought to reside in the function” [Aristotle, 1097b]. This claim is strengthened further when we consider Rudd’s claim that “one can only avoid the necessity of judging one’s life in moral terms by evading long-term commitments. But to live such a life is to be in despair, for a life without commitments is one without purpose” [Rudd, pg.69] . Therefore the moral agent is one who follows his commitment to his function.
However where Kierkegaard and Aristotle deviate is at the point where Aristotle holds that man has no choice over his function within society, whereas (as demonstrated above) Kierkegaard argues that we are able to decide for ourselves what function it is we are to commit to. I speak of functions, in regard to Kierkegaard, here not just as jobs but also roles and relationships following on from Rudd who states “for Kierkegaard, morality is a product of commitment to roles and relationships”. So when I talk about functions in relation to Kierkegaard I use the term is a broader sense than when in relation to Aristotle who specifically means a role within society. As a result of this we can consider the agent’s function, for Kierkegaard, is to commit to his role within the workplace (following E-II, II:266) and to commit to his relationships with his neighbours (following WL, pg.36),
Although Rudd argues that there is a more important end goal and it is this which separates the religious from the ethical, “an absolute telos…is the primary overriding task for each individual to bring him-or herself into the right relationship with God” [Rudd, pg.134]. But if we take Kierkegaard from a non-Christian perspective and equate God with the absolute good then we Rudd’s statement becomes one which means the primary end goal to bring himself into the right relationship with their own moral maxims and not a set of universal laws or socially constructed ethical code.
To summarise Kierkegaard’s system follows Aristotle in the sense that both accept that the good can be found in pursue your social roles, as this is part of the love for one’s neighbour as by fulfilling your social role you help society as a whole progress. Also by living in accordance with a self-devised system of morality we can find similarities between Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, who as I stated earlier is arguably Aristotelian in essence within his moral system. Although Kierkegaard is not completely Aristotelian as there is no mention of habituating virtues, and Kierkegaard believes that social roles are not pre-ordained but freely chosen and this is where the two thinkers differ within their systems. I shall now go on to discuss Kierkegaard in relation to Kant.
Pattison argues that Kierkegaard’s system contains some links with Kant’s since “figures who remove themselves from the moral accountability of their contemporaries and act as if they are beyond good and evil…would seem to be anti-Kantian, they also, in another way give expression to another Kantian theme, the pursuit of maximum autonomy” [Pattison, pg.106], and for Kant autonomy is “the property of the will by which it is a law to itself” [Kant, 4:440]. Pattison also adds “If one sees the argument of The Critique of Practical Reason as a genuine attempt to establish the requirement of belief in God via the concept of the supreme good…the Kantian analogy is strengthened still further” [Pattison, pg. 101]. Thus Kierkegaard’s concept of moving from the ethical to the religious if seen as a notion which brings us closer to God, and since the religious life is the ultimate good for Kierkegaard, then it does show Kierkegaard to be Kantian.
However Pattison does recognise that there are also differences between the two systems as he acknowledges the faults within Kant’s categorical imperative. The example he gives us is based upon the idea that to do only what is universalisable can result in situations which undermine the maxim which has been universalised, such as “in feeding the cat I am neglecting all the cats who may be dying even now of malnutrition” [Pattison. Pg.113], therefore ‘I ought to feed the cat’ as an universalisable maxim would be ‘I ought to feed every cat’ or ‘Everyone ought to feed the cat’. The former results in an impossible maxim since no single person could feed every cat on the planet (especially if we count every species of cat such as lions and tigers). The latter on the other hand results in everyone feeding the single cat you own which would result in the cat becoming ill through overfeeding. Thus this is why Kant’s system fails and why Kierkegaard argues that the ultimate good lies beyond the ethical and in the religious, based upon just the one imperative “helping the neighbour to love God, rather than ameliorate any concrete worldly problems” [Pattison, pg.118].
Another difference between the two systems is that Kierkegaard does not tell how to act or which rules to follow, but instead tells us that we ought to break away from the ethical systems of the herd, move beyond good and evil, and become a law onto ourselves in a movement that brings us closer to maximum autonomy. Whereas Kant explicitly tells us how to act for he says “act that use humanity always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means” [Kant, 4:429] and “I ought never to act except in such a way that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law” [Kant, 4:402].
To conclude Kierkegaard’s system of ethics can be seen as a partial synthesis of kant’s and Aristotle’s as it contains Kant’s notion of pursuing maximum autonomy, and Aristotle’s concept of fulfilling your social roles as a way of loving your neighbour whilst being a law only unto ourselves. However Kierkegaard has not made a complete synthesis of the two as he omits the categorical imperative from Kant and the notion of habituating arête in order to pursue happiness. Arguably this would a deliberate omission since the two concepts are incompatible as Kant classes any pursuit of happiness as a hypothetical imperative as he says “the imperative that refers to the choice of means to one’s own happiness…is still always hypothetical” [Kant, 4:416].
• E-II – Either-Or Part II
• FT – Fear and Trembling
• SD – Sickness Unto Death
• WL – Works of Love
• Aristotle, (1995), ‘The Nicomachean Ethics’, in Barnes. J, The Complete Works of Aristotle (Sixth Reprint), Chichester: Princeton University Press
• Kant. I, (1998), Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (translate by Gregor.M), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
• Kierkegaard. S, (1983), Sickness unto Death (translated by Hong. E and Hong. H), Princeton: Princeton University Press
• Kierkegaard. S, (1987), Either-Or Part II (translated by Hong. E and Hong. H), New Jersey: Princeton University Press
• Kierkegaard. S, (2005), Fear and Trembling (translated by Hannay. A), London: Penguin Books
• Kierkegaard. S, (2009), Works of Love (translated by Hong. E and Hong. H), New York: Harper-Collins
• Pattison. G, (2005), The Philosophy of Kierkegaard, Chesham: Acumen
• Rudd. A, (1993), Kierkegaard and the Limits of the Ethical, New York: Oxford University Press
• The Holy Bible (King James Version), (2000), Michigan: Zondervan
Whilst sitting on the bus home today after a tiring day at work trying to avoid looking out at the wet and dreary scences t’other side of the window by diving into the musings of Milton a strange thought crossed my mind…It wasn’t until Adam and Eve consumed from the forbidden tree that they came to understand and know good, evil, guilt and repentence meaning before that point they had no concept of morallity thus being creatures of amorality.
Therefore God created good and evil but created man beyond good and evil, hence amoral, yet with free will and it was by our own free will (with a little nudge from a third party) that man choose to become immoral by going against God’s will and eating from the forbidden tree. A act Adam and Eve then felt ashamed of. Question. Why then if man was born amoral do we choose to be immoral? Why step inside the complexities of right and wrong when we had a simple life free from that?
This lead to a second, but not altogether distant, train of thought. New borns are brought into the world with no understanding of right or wrong, thus are born amoral. It is only as they get older that they develop a sense of good and evil through the mind-set imposed upon them by experience, society and parental guidance. So not only do we freely choose to make oursleves slaves to morality but we ensure that others of our kind follow suit. Another question arises. Why then are we not content we living are own lives within morallity? Why must we feel a need to drag others in with us? One possible answer I can come up with which throws some sense to this dilemma is that living within morallity makes us somehow superior, but then how does making our lives complicated in this fashion make us superior to beings of amorality?
So many questions and so few answers…any ideas guys?
Kant argues that “it is impossible to imagine anything at all in the world…that can be called good without qualification- except a good will” as “a good will seems to constitute the indispensible condition even of our worthiness to be happy”. This is Kant’s opening to his view on morality in which he explains that all post-Kantian morality has been based on a posteriori foundations where we take happiness to be the good. What Kant proposes is a theory opposing this in the sense that the moral good is a priori and comes from out will to do what is right via a sense of duty to do what is morally good. This a priori moral good Kant calls the categorical imperative which is a highly desirable concept of morality to have although it requires some amending before it can be seen as a feasible model for morality.
To understand the categorical imperative we must first explain the whole moral system Kant is in favour for beginning with the first point. It is argued “the moral worth of an action done out of duty has its moral worth…in the maxim…with which the action is decided upon…not in actualizing the object of the action”, meaning moral satisfaction does not come from the actualization of some abstract goal such as eudaimonia, pleasure or virtue, but from the moral act in itself. This is because the moral worth of an action can “be found…in the principle of the will…the crossroads between its a priori principle…and it’s a posteriori motivation”, or in other words our duty to act morally and our desire to be seen as being moral, thus the will acts as a synthesiser combing the a priori duty with the a posteriori desire into one simple product which drives us towards moral action.
What is meant here by the term duty is “the necessity of an act done out of respect for the law”, only by the law Kant is not referring to man-made law but an overarching a priori universal law. This universal law can be understood as an ‘I ought’ statement as “I ought never…act in such a way that I could not also will that my maxim should become a universal law” so not only ‘must’ we act in accordance to our maxim but it must be a maxim compatible with the universe so that everyone can adhere to it at all times without exception, or as Kant puts it “moral laws must hold for every rational being”. Therefore any maxim devised by our will must first go through the test for universalisability to ensure it is an universalisable maxim, if it passes it becomes an objective principle, if it fails it becomes a subjective principle.
Now “an objective principle…is called a commandment…the formulation of this commandment is called an Imperative”. So any objective principle which passes the test for universalisability is an imperative of which, Kant argues, there are two kinds; hypothetical imperatives which “declare a possible action…to the attainment of something that one wants”, and categorical imperatives which “would be one that represented an action as itself objectively necessary, without regard to any further end.”. An example of a hypothetical imperative would be ‘to succeed in passing this module I ought to study Kant well’ the reason this is hypothetical is because it relies on the ‘I’ in question to want the success of passing the module but not every one wants this, a majority of people care nothing for the success in passing a Kant module, thus it cannot be willed upon everybody. However an example of a categorical imperative might be ‘I ought not to lie as I have a duty to adhere to the principle of honesty’ this can be universalised as we can will everyone to tell the truth consistently otherwise there would be little or no room for honesty.
Kant claims that there is one golden categorical imperative which rests above all others and it is “act only on that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law”, as was stated earlier only Kant goes on to explain that one maxim of such a kind ought to be taken more importantly than others “a human being…does exist as an end in himself, not merely as a means to be used…a human being must always be viewed…as an end”. If we all adhere to this moral maxim then we shall move towards a moral utopia in which we all follow the universal law that is the categorical imperative, Kant calls this utopia the ‘kingdom of ends’ about which he says “a being who must regard itself as making universal law by all the maxims of its will…leads to a…very fruitful concept- namely, that of a kingdom of ends…the systematic union of different rational beings under common laws”. Hence the categorical imperative is to treat others in such a way that we can will everyone to treat each other in the same way in order to bring about this moral utopia.
A supporter of Kant’s theory is the developmental psychologist Kohlberg who drew up a model which maps the moral development of individuals. Kohlberg came to realise that a majority of individuals today are grounded upon stage four moralities with some elements of stage five moralities. Thus modern society is grounded upon what Kohlberg calls ‘conventional morality’. However Kohlberg argues that Kant’s deontological ethics is beyond the morality of the majority of modern individuals as it is grounded upon stage six moralities. From this it could be argued that since politics and social thinking is moving towards an age of post-modernism then we too should me moving into ‘post-conventional morality’ based upon stage five-six morality (or possibly stage seven). Therefore in Kohlberg’s view Kant’s moral theory is highly desirable, thus we ought to strive towards a kingdom of ends and live by the categorical imperative.
Kant’s theory of the categorical imperative has also been applied, to some extent, to the political sphere by Rawls in his theory of social justice. His idea of selecting principle of justice from behind a veil of ignorance where “no one knows his place in society, his class…or social status, nor…his fortune in the distribution of natural assets”, this ensures that we do not select principle which benefit us at the expense of others which can be interpreted as Kant’s categorical imperative of not using people as a means to an end since by exploiting others to gain their fair share of resources we have used them as a way (a means) to acquire our desire (an end). Rawls even argues that for this categorical imperative, although never actually mentioning it in such a way, to work there must first be a principle in place which ensures “no one should be advantaged or disadvantaged by natural fortune”, this principle is the principle of political equality, this principle ensures that all individuals are covered by an equal distribution of political freedoms so that those of higher social status are able to manipulate and exploit those lowering down the ladder. Furthermore we can see the direct link between Rawlsian justice and Kantian ethics by a point brought up by Scruton, “if we are to find an imperative that recommends itself on the basis of reason alone, then we must abstract from all distinctions between rational agents”. Or to explain this in another way to build a categorical imperative we must place ourselves behind a veil of ignorance. Therefore not only is the categorical imperative desirable but it also has some practical application.
Kant’s categorical imperative of treating agents as an end in themselves and not as a means to an end does, to a greater or lesser extent, the Christian ethic described in Matthew’s Gospel, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” as we would not want to be used by another as a way of helping them fulfil their desire so we ought not to do this to others. Even the utopia of a kingdom of ends has the distinct echo of the biblical utopia of a kingdom of God. Given Kant’s Christian upbringing it is of no surprise that his moral theory has Christian undertones even “Kant regarded…the categorical imperative as the philosophical basis of the famous golden rule, that we should do as we would be done by” so it was by no accident that Kant’s theory was based upon Christian teaching.
However this is where the categorical imperative breaks down as Kant argues it is an objective principle done out of duty, but if being a Christian ethic then it is done out of a duty to God and therefore only those who follow the Christian religion making the whole concept a subjective, and hypothetical, system as it relies on the condition ‘if you are Christian then you ought to follow this rule’. It would therefore bear no force upon those of other faiths unless we do employ Rawls’ veil of ignorance to abstract ourselves from our religious beliefs and then agree on following Kant’s categorical imperative out of not a duty to God but a duty to each other as free, rational agents.
Another argument which can be made against the categorical imperative is that it can permit actions which are deemed immoral or even illegal under current ways of thinking. If we were to ask the question, if an axe murderer who comes knocking on our door asking if X (fill in the name of someone who cherish) is in are we then obliged to tell the truth? The utilitarian viewpoint is to argue we ‘must’ lie on this occasion as the misery inflicted upon the murderer by not killing X is outweighed by the happiness of X and yourself for having X still alive at the end of the day. However Kant argues that we ‘ought’ to tell the truth here as we have agreed to follow the categorical imperative and because of such we would not want to be lied to so we must not lie to others regardless. What is then even stranger is the categorical imperative also then demands us to kill the murderer since he is acting on the maxim ‘I expect to be able to kill others so I expect others to kill me’ so we have to first follow our maxim and then adhere to the murderer’s. This sounds controversial but if we refer back to Kohlberg’s then the utilitarian view on this is based upon stage four morality whereas Kant’s view is stage six and therefore we should try to adhere to Kant’s view rather than the utilitarian view. However since the law and social conventions are still stuck in stage four morality to move into Kantian thinking requires a complete overhaul of the legal system, social conventions and the way we see morality, not as a pursuit of happiness but as doing what is our duty to ourselves and others. Such an overhaul is unfeasible as it requires a slow and steady series of amendments to what we now have to want we want at the end, thus for the time being the categorical imperative is not a feasible moral theory.
In the video game Final Fantasy IX we come across an interplanetary moral dilemma where the planet Terra is dying so Garland, the overlord of Terra, constructs a new planet called Gaia and creates a new race of conscious humanoid beings who are free, rational agents. The problem here is “all the people of Gaia were created…to house the souls of the people of Terra” once Terra had perished, neither side had been informed about this and both sides are being used as a means to an end, in this case the end being to save the people of Terra from extinction. As the game progresses you find out “all parties are angry with this” however it is not because they have been used as a means that they are angry but because they have not be informed about being used in such a way. A group of post-Kantian thinkers known as ‘moral autonomy Kantians’ uphold that “it’s morally acceptable for a person- by virtue of being a rational, autonomous agent- to give permission to be used by others” so long as all parties are fully informed about is involved, for example in the world of Final Fantasy “players…can summon Guardian Forces (GFs) …for the purpose of defeating the enemy…these GFs must…agree to assist the player” and the players are informed that their character loses its free-will during this period as the GF takes complete control of the character’s body, just as the GF is informed that when summoned it is open to harm from whatever beast it has been summoned to deal with. This means the categorical imperative to one that can be twisted so long as a form of social contract has been established between all parties, which Kohlberg states is a stage five morality and therefore is more desirable than utilitarian models we have in place currently. It also offers a more feasible model than the original, stage six moralities, categorical imperative as it does not require a large reconstruction of society.
To conclude Kant’s notion of an a priori morality based upon the categorical imperative where we treat each other as an end and not as a means to an end is one that is desirable, according to Kohlberg’s scale of moral development, but not feasible in the original format Kant provides, instead we should follow the slightly amended version proposed by moral autonomy Kantians which allows us to be treated as a means to and end so long as we have consented to be used in such a way if a feasible moral system based upon Kantian deontology. Personally I believe a more relative system of ethics is required and particularly favour Aristotle’s virtue theory (with a few amendments made), but what do you guys think?
- Arp. R and Fisk. S, 2009, ‘Objectification of Conscious Life Forms in Final Fantasy’, in Beaulieu. M and Blahuta. J, ‘Final Fantasy and Philosophy the Ultimate Walkthrough’, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons Inc, pp 72-87
- Kant. I, 2002, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals (Translated by Zweig), Oxford: Oxford University Press
- Rawls. J, 1999, A Theory of Justice (Revised Edition), Oxford: Oxford University Press
- Scruton. R, 2001, Kant a Very Short Introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press
- The Holy Bible accessed at http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+7%3A12&version=NIV [accessed at 14:59 6th March 2010]
- http://faculty.plts.edu/gpence/html/kohlberg.htm [accessed at 13:19 6th March 2010]
- http://psychology.about.com/od/developmentalpsychology/a/kohlberg.htm [accessed at 14:09 6th March 2010]
 Kant. I, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, 2002, 4:393
 Ibid, 4:393
 Ibid, 4:399-4:400
 Ibid, 4:400
 Ibid, 4:400
 Ibid, 4:402
 Ibid. 4:412
 Ibid. 4:413
 Ibid, 4:414
 Ibid, 4:414
 Ibid. 4:421
 Ibid. 4:428
 Ibid. 4:433
 See appendix one
Rawls. J, A Theory of Justice, 1999, pg.11
 Ibid, pg.16
 Scruton. R, Kant a Very Short Introduction, 2001, pg.85
 Matthew 7:12
 Scruton. R, Kant a Very Short Introduction, 2001, pg.86
 See appendix one
 Arp. R and Fisk. S, 2009, ‘Objectification of Conscious Life Forms in Final Fantasy’, pg.74
 Ibid, pg.74
 Ibid, pg.74
 Ibid, pg.77
“All men by nature require to know”
This quote by Aristotle was taken from ‘Aristotle: a Very Short Introduction’ and there is no-one of whom this is more true than Aristotle as he was dedicated to every possible discipline he could sink his teeth into making him one of the utmost key figures within philosophy, not only in classical philosophy but he is still regarded as influential in modern philosophy.
As well as being a devoted biologist, botanist, moral philosopher, psychologist, zoologist and many more things besides Aristotle held a view about human nature that he interwove into his concept of virtue theory, this is described at some length in the text Nicomachean Ethics. It is this view on human nature that I intend to explain and discuss throughout this essay with reference to some more recent philosophers to show that Aristotle’s view was not only linked directly to Athenian society but has managed to stand the test of time. A point I will return to later in a yet to posted article ‘Can we Consider Modern Ethics to be Aristotelian or Nietzschean?’, this article is much better written and argues the points in greater detail. I must admit this was in fact a very early work of mine and although some editing has been made it still lacks the strength some of my later pieces possess.
From quite early on in the text Aristotle starts to interweave his views on human nature. He makes the claim that by nature man is blind to morality suggesting that man is naturally an amoral creature, this is backed up by a earlier on where he says that man is born without knowledge hence morality cannot be part of human nature as man has yet to acquire knowledge of morality. Here Aristotle is not just making the suggestion that man is amoral but also that morality itself is a posteriori as opposed to being a priori knowledge. This suggestion is backed up again later by the phrase “None would be evil…wickedness is voluntary”; Aristotle was claiming that no one is born immoral it is our choices that we make after birth that make us either moral or immoral. Again this points towards the idea that Aristotle believed that man is an amoral creature and that morality is a posteriori.
French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau expressed disagreement on these points since Rousseau strongly believed that “man is by nature good” and not amoral as Aristotle would have us think, but both agree that external factors will later corrupt man. Also since Rousseau believes if we are moral by nature then it must follow that morality is a priori and not a posteriori as Aristotle would have us believe.
The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes who was writing during the English Civil War is also in complete disagreement with Aristotle’s claim that human nature is amoral yet at the same time disagrees with Rousseau. Instead Hobbes claimed that “man acts according to a natural law” and it was this natural law that compels man to act with aggression, envy and a number of other vices that induce war, yet a firm sovereign could control this natural law. What Hobbes was hinting at is the idea that human nature is immoral and needs controlling; not as Aristotle would have us believe, amoral at birth and then corrupted as we age. Like Rousseau, Hobbes’ view also supports the theory that morality is a priori.
The next point about human nature put across in Aristotle’s writing is the idea that man is hedonistic; a term meaning to pursue pleasure and shun pain by nature. A feature which later shaped the works of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill when drawing up their moral theories of utilitarianism. There is a slight hint towards this where he comments on human nature being highly impulsive making man a creature of impulse “the lives that men lead, most men, of the vulgar type…identify the good, or happiness, with pleasure”.
Psychologist Sigmund Freud in his psychodynamic theory of the psyche makes good use of this point about men being impulsive creatures and argues that the our unconscious drive is completely selfish, irrational and blind to the world beyond it but at the same time entirely hedonistic. The former points support Plato’s account of human nature as described in ‘The Republic’. Plato held onto the idea that man by nature was corrupted by power, irrational and blind to true knowledge but the final point about being hedonistic supports Aristotle’s account, this possibly suggests that Freud built his psychology upon the wisdom of the ancient Greeks but this is a matter for a later article. More importantly (at least presently) it hints at the idea that Aristotle didn’t always disagree with his mentor Plato, something contrary to popular belief.
After laying down the point about man being impulsive Aristotle moves into an argument suggesting that if man is to become moral we must learn to go against our nature and control our impulses so that reason and rational judgement can guide us accurately towards being moral agents. Later on though there is a more explicit argument suggesting human nature is hedonistic; again the notion that man is amoral by nature is repeated but then this notion is extended to provide a reason as to why man is immoral. The reason is thus, we follow our natural impulses to seek pleasure, hence we are hedonistic, but we are ill-educated in where we seek pleasure and so fall into the trap of seeking it within the vices making us immoral. This leads us back into Plato’s idea of human nature since the vices corrupt us as does power so both agree that it is in our nature to become corrupt, although Aristotle thinks that it is by habituation of the virtues that we can fight against this part of our nature. To summarise man is born amoral with hedonistic impulses, which if left unchecked or uncontrolled will lead us directly into immorality unless we are properly educated as to where we ought to seek pleasure.
In the opening section of book three Aristotle mentions that it is possible for man to go against his nature; this can be done by force or via choice, however to go against our nature would cause us to suffer some pain. So following what has been said so far being hedonistic we would choose to follow our ill-educated nature and become immoral as opposed to suffer pain and become moral.
Throughout the second book Aristotle makes a detailed account of how to acquire the virtues in order to become moral, since we have already established that he argues morality was a posteriori then it holds that the virtues (not to be confused with the Christian concept of virtue. Aristotelian virtues refer to human excellences) are not part of our nature and need to be learnt. According to Aristotle the virtues need to be habituated into our nature if we are to become moral agents. Again this requires suffering, practise and time. Sadly our hedonistic impulses would much rather have us sit around dining on the elegances of fine cuisine with a glass of vintage wine deep in the art of philosophic conversation with our acquaintances. Thus it can be argued that one of the impulses that we seek pleasure from is idleness. Although what I have just described to a utilitarian would be a great achievement and ought to be applauded as it maximises pleasure, therefore a moral action, but I digress. For Aristotle, however, idleness is a vice as it is the lack of motivation. Idleness also happens to be a Christian vice as it relates to the deadly sin of acedia and as Christianity holds a strong grip on public opinion of morality in modern western culture is would seem that at least one part of Aristotle’s idea has lasted, although this could be thanks to St. Aquinas who, being a neo-platonic philosopher and therefore aimed to synthesise the teachings of Plato and Aristotle, set up the Christian virtues based on Aristotle’s moral philosophy in the latter half of the thirteenth century.
Aristotle also acknowledges that there may be a component of human nature which drives us to idleness. He accepts the fact that we are all enticed by the vice of idleness, but being enticed by something would surely meant we find pleasure in it would it not? If so then if follows our hedonistic component as we find pleasure in idleness. Aristotle then goes on to talk about each person’s individual nature being compelled towards particular vices more than others although we are all naturally open to corruption again hinting at the suggestion that Aristotle agrees with Plato. There are other links to be made to idleness being part of human nature where some time is spent discussing this issue along with the notion that man is ignorant and not just idle. Aristotle himself does not attempt to hide the fact that he is guilty of falling under the vice of idleness as at several points in his work he fails to elaborate on his ideas or doesn’t provide a full description; in chapter nine of the first book there is this passage “Now if there is any gift of the gods to men, it is happiness…but this question would perhaps be more appropriate to another inquiry” this points at the idea that Aristotle is passing on the workload to someone else instead of doing it himself making Aristotle look guilty of idleness. However what Aristotle is doing is accepting that his knowledge has reached its limits and is allowing those with a greater understanding to fill in the details of his theory, hence he was not being idle but prudent; prudence being one of the four most worshipped virtues in Ancient Greece (the four being prudence, justice, temperance and courage); about how much he knows. Perhaps Aristotle was trying to pay homage to Socrates who stated “wisest is he who knows he does not know”?
Renowned commentator on Aristotle, Jonathan Barnes comments on his zoological researches as being “by any scientific standards, slapdash”. Although this is not a fair comment due to the lack of scientific tools and principles available to Aristotle at the time, it unfairly helps to strengthen the point about Aristotle being idle and should be dismissed. There is however one piece from Aristotle himself to counter this argument. Aristotle claims that man chooses to be idle and ignorant they are not part of human nature. However the weight of evidence put forward by Aristotle is heavily weighed towards the view that some part of human nature compels man to be idle and ignorant.
Rousseau accepted the idea that man was by nature ignorant but at the same time held the view that man had a driving force compelling them to acquire knowledge; a view also held Aristotle.
To return to a point made earlier about Aristotle arguing that there was no such thing as an underlying human nature shared by all men. Instead he believed that each man has a unique nature belonging to that individual alone. It is this individuality within nature that compels us towards certain vices over others, so some are likely to be more idle, some more ignorant, others tempted by avaritia.
Throughout ‘The Communist Manifesto’ Marx & Engels highlight just how man is naturally compelled towards avaritia because of the course politics takes. This point is taken up by the writer George Orwell who writes about the dangers of communism in his socio-political novel ‘Animal Farm’. Within this novel there is a quote to be found at the very end of the book that supports both Aristotle and Marx that man is susceptible to avaritia via politics “The creatures outside looked from pig to man…it was impossible to say which was which”. Aristotle also believes that politics carries the temptations of avaritia, which appeals to those susceptible to the vices of superbia and avaritia, so Orwell, Marx and Aristotle appear to be in agreement on this point despite talking in different times and cultures. On the other hand there is a more positive side to the notion of individual nature. That is the potential for virtues to exist within our nature if we habituate them; this is one of the foundations for Aristotle’s concept of eudemonia.
Human nature plays a part in the eudemonia theory since it is based on man having an end goal; this end goal is to seek happiness. This happiness is a specific type of happiness rooted within our function in society (be it doctor, teacher, scholar, bard or soldier), not pleasure. By performing well, sometimes called flourishing in some translations, within our function we are able to receive happiness from it and in order to perform well we must act in accordance with our virtues. However Aristotle claims that man does not naturally have a function it is determined by society, yet the potential to harbour the virtues is part of human nature along with the hedonistic component linking eudemonia to human nature. Therefore eudemonia is something based within human nature but needs a social input in order to reach actualization. One final point to make on this is that if Aristotle did not include function within human nature it might be argued that he was hinting at the suggestion that man by nature is useless unless entered into a functioning society ready to make use of him, a concept used by Plato when talking about why philosophers were useless.
To conclude Aristotle seems to be pretty condemning in his account of human nature since he sees man as a vice-filled hedonistic creature, totally dependant on others else he is to be useless. It would seem that elements of Aristotle’s account on human nature have been able to stand the test of time, making him an influential figure in modern moral philosophy.
- Aristotle, (1998), ‘The Nicomachean Ethics’, New York: Oxford World’s Classics
- Barnes J.(2000), ‘Aristotle A Very Short Introduction’, Oxford: Oxford University Press
- Freud. S, (1995), ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’, in Gay. P, The Freud Reader, London: Vintage
- Gaardner J.(1995), ‘Sophie’s World’, London: Orion Books
- Marx K. & Engels F.(1992), ‘The Communist Manifesto’, Oxford: Oxford University Press
- Orwell G.(1972), ‘Animal Farm’, London: Heinemann Educational Books
- Plato(2003), ‘The Republic’ (2nd edition with additional revisions and further reading), London: Penguin Books
- Stokes P.(2003), ‘Philosophy 100 Essential Thinkers’, London: Arcturus Publishing Limited
 Barnes. J, Aristotle a Very Short Introduction, 2000, Pg.3
 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1998, 1094b
 Ibid, 1094a
 Ibid, 1113b
 Gaardner. J (quoting Rousseau), Sophie’s World, 1995, Pg. 243
 Stokes. P (quoting Hobbes), Philosophy: 100 Essential Thinkers, 2003, Pg. 69
 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1998, 1095b
 Freud. S, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, 1995, Pg. 595
 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1998, 1104b-1105a
 Ibid, 1110a-1111b
 Ibid, 1103a-1109b
 Ibid, 1109a-1109b
 Ibid, 1108b-1109a
 Ibid, 1095b-1096a and 1105a-1105b
 Ibid, 1099b
 Gaardner. J (quoting Socrates), Sophie’s World, 1995, Pg. 45
 Barnes. J, Aristotle a Very Short Introduction, 2000, Pg. 20
 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1998, 1105a-1105b
 Orwell. G, Animal Farm, 1972, Pg. 89
 Plato, The Republic