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Ethics and Politics

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Aristotle's Ethics and Politics remain two of his most relevant works. It has been said that the Ethics is still the best springboard for the consideration of ethical problems and dilemmas. While Aristotle's answers are objectionable to many, the questions he presents are as pertinent to modern times as they ever were.

The purpose of ethics for Aristotle is simply to find the ultimate purpose of human life, once again demonstrating his emphasis on teleology. Ethics falls under the category of practical sciences, since its concern is not knowledge for its own sake but rather for the purpose of application. Aristotle first recognizes that happiness is the ultimate good, since all other goods are intermediate while happiness is final. We pursue other goods to achieve happiness, but happiness is valuable in itself.

The problem then becomes the question of how to achieve happiness. Pleasure is undeniably the motivation behind many actions, but it puts humans on the level of animals. Honor is another possibility, but it places too much emphasis on the praise of others. Aristotle concludes that the means of happiness–and hence the purpose of human existence–is virtue. Virtue involves habit and choice. By making the proper decisions, we eventually develop a virtuous habit or disposition, so that we need not run through the catalogue of options every time a moral dilemma presents itself. Rather, we act according to our disposition, which has been cultivated by past choices. The question then arises: how do we make the right choices? For Aristotle, the virtuous choice was the mean between two extremes: excess and defect. For example, between profligacy and insensibility there lies self-discipline; between obsequiousness and coldness there lies friendliness.

Aristotle goes on to discuss the concept of justice, of which he recognized two forms: first, the general sense of moral virtue and second, a particular instance of a virtue being exercised. Particular justice is further divided into distributive and remedial: the former is concerned with the distribution of resources in proportion to merit, while the latter is concerned with the rectification of wrongs.

Another central tension in the book is the issue of continence and incontinence–that is, the strength or weakness of the will. While Socrates believed that all wrongdoing arose from ignorance, Aristotle took the more intuitive view: that we recognize the right but nevertheless fail to do it. To show how an incontinent person does know the good, Aristotle allows that the person possesses the knowledge potentially but not actually. In an incontinent person, desire prevents the potential knowledge from becoming actualized during the critical moment.

Aristotle concludes the Ethics with a discussion of the highest form of happiness: a life of intellectual contemplation. Since reason is what separates humanity from animals, its exercise leads man to the highest virtue. As he closes the argument, he notes that such a contemplative life is impossible without the appropriate social environment, and such an environment is impossible without the appropriate government. Thus the end of Ethics provides the perfect segue into the Politics.

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