Ancient to Modern Ethics: Aristotle and Kant on Virtue and Happiness

October 21, 2021 by Essay Writer

The following essay aims to compare Ancient versus Modern theories of ethics, particularly those of Aristotle and Immanuel Kant. The central concepts of virtue, happiness, and the human good are relevant to modern ethics, but do not play the same role as they did in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Thus, several significant concepts separate Kant from Aristotle. While Aristotle provides an empirical account of morality, Kant’s theory is based ‘pure’ philosophy and deontology. Kant argues against many Ancient theories that do not agree with his concept of rationality and human nature. Evaluation of the concepts in the Practical Philosophy by Kant, and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, reveal significant differences between the ancient and modern theories of ethics. Kant’s theory of moral duty and the categorical imperative suggest concepts of the goodness and virtue, which diverge from Aristotle’s account of morality.A central distinction between Ancient and Modern ethics is evident through the approach each takes to develop their theories. Aristotle’s account of morality relies on empiricism. This is based on the view that morals are acquired through experience. It also follows that morality is not an innate quality, but rather exists as a learned trait. Modern theory diverges from this approach as Kant argues empirical principles cannot be the basis for morality. This account is based on the belief that morals center on how the world should be, rather than how it is. According to Kant, principles of morality are independent from the outside world. As a result, this account of ethics involves ‘a priori’ ideas of reason, meaning they exist outside of experience. This follows from Kant’s idea that there are moral duties, which apply to all rational humans, regardless of the circumstance. Kant suggests a ‘pure’ morality, rather than empirical . Kant uses the term “metaphysics of morals” to denote a pure ethical theory. Moreover, following this view, morality is not based on what is specific to human nature.Kant provides an account of goodness, which differs greatly from that given by Aristotle, particularly in the function of happiness. According to Aristotle, the good in an action is characterized in the reason for pursuing the action. Here, it is possible to make a connection to Modern theory of morality in that Kant also believes that the value of an action relies on the underlying motivation. However, both philosophers provide a different account of which motivations qualify for moral acts. Aristotle argues happiness is the highest good, for which all other actions are pursued. Following Aristotle’s theory, human actions are good when efforts of the soul are consistent with virtue. In this view, virtue is consistent with the natural end of happiness. In contrast, Kant objects to the notion that goodness or value can be measured through its influence on happiness. Consequently, Kant’s idea of morality does not center on the good life. Rather the focus is placed on moral maxims, or the motivations behind actions. Specifically, Kant clarifies that acts are only moral when there is a moral motivation to act according to the moral law. Therefore, unlike Aristotle, Kant separates the issue of morality from the issue of Happiness.The concept of happiness changes significantly between the ancient and modern positions. Aristotle’s conception of happiness is reflected in the Ancient conception of eudemonia. Here, Aristotle defines happiness as acts of the soul that agree with virtue. It also follows that happiness is the highest human good. Perhaps most significant, Aristotle claims it is the end for all human actions and the basis for morality. Kant’s theory does not reflect this same position on happiness. Namely he challenges the Ancient conception of happiness as a basis for morality. According to Kant, the understanding of happiness is only possible through experience. Moreover, this account of happiness centers on empirical notions of physical or ethical sensations. Kant explains that empiricism cannot provide the basis for morality because the moral principle cannot be based on experience. Rather, morality is universal and obligatory. Thus, happiness is not the foundation for Kant’s ethics.In addition to the previous argument, Kant finds Aristotle’s account of happiness to be problematic for other reasons as well. Kant believes that happiness cannot be the basis for morality because the fulfilling one’s own desires may involve compromising the wellbeing of others. It follows that not everyone could be happy because not everyone would be moral. Kant also explains that many people are not aware of what would allow them to be happy, and consequently are unsure which actions would lead to happiness. Here, Kant thinks that the time allotted to determine how to be happy ultimately impedes on the ability to feel fulfilled in life. As a result, it could be argued that looking for happiness does not end in its discovery. Thus, Kant argues this further justifies why happiness cannot serve as the end of morality for rational humans. Overall, Kant’s theory does not discuss happiness to the same extent that Aristotle does, because it is not the foundation to his account of morality. While Ancient ethics understood happiness as the end of all actions, it logically served as the most prominent concept. However, for Kant, happiness takes on a different meaning. To begin, happiness is a state, rather than an activity. More specifically, happiness is the human state that occurs through complete fulfillment of will and desire. Given Kant’s definition of happiness, it is possible to recognize that the term does not signify the same idea as in Ancient understanding of eudemonia. Accordingly, it may be important to acknowledge that the degree to which these theories may be compared is limited as both terms signify separate concepts. While it is not the foundation of ethics, Kant recognizes that happiness is a natural end for humans. However, this natural pursuit of happiness does not take precedent over other ends, namely compliance with moral law. Also central to this view, morality does not focus on how one becomes happy, but rather the means to deserve happiness. Therefore, moral acts determine if someone deserves to be happy. Through this is becomes evident that Kant conceives the connection between virtue and happiness in a way than is reflected in the Ancient account. Namely, virtue relates to happiness as virtuous action to obey the moral law, contributes to the condition of worthiness to be happy. This presents a clear divergence from Ancient thought. For Aristotle, the connection exists, as virtue is a necessary component for happiness.Both Ancient and Modern theories of ethics acknowledge the existence of a Highest Good. Several similarities connect Aristotle’s notion of the Highest Good with that of Kant’s conception. To start, both philosophers view the Highest Good as an agreeable act of the souls, corresponding with virtue. Additionally, both Kant and Aristotle separate goodness into two categories. First, there is the part that involves the practice of virtue. This quality of goodness relies on human actions. The remaining portion of goodness relies on other causes. For Kant, this takes the form of happiness. Alternatively, Aristotle refers to these causes with the role of fate and external goods as related to happiness. More specifically, he believes the majority of goods that influence happiness are virtues, however, goods ascertained by fortune may also constitute a smaller contribution.From here, it is possible to acknowledge the significant divergence from Ancient theory to the modern idea of the highest good. Kant also recognizes the existence of a superior good, yet ultimately develops a different conception. Aristotle suggests there is a common agreement in the Ancient period where happiness is accepted as the highest good. Here, it is possible to acknowledge this as a reflection of the Greek culture during the Ancient period. Therefore, the change of ideas that took place between this time and the Modern period may account for the different significance of happiness that is reflected in Kant’s work. Following Aristotle’s theory, happiness is the highest good because it serves an independent end. The activity of happiness is based on rationality in agreement with virtue. Aristotle further characterizes the highest form of happiness as the activity of study, or contemplation. This is based on the idea that it is an activity with the strongest correlation to the qualities of happiness. Specifically, contemplation is a self-sufficient activity, in that study is pursued and valued for itself. Kant does not agree that contemplation should be deemed the most superior good. According to Kant, the pleasures of knowledge are at the same level as pleasures of the body. Here, the activity of study may be equated to those of physical desires and thus does not qualify as a greatest good. Kant presents an alternative understanding of the highest good. Kant suggests that although virtue is embodied in the highest good, it does not compose its entirety. Instead, the highest good is the combination of virtue and happiness. More specifically, this involves the Kant suggests that morality, referred to as the ‘supreme good’, is the primary condition of the highest good. In turn, happiness may be recognized as the secondary condition of the highest good. In this, happiness is only possible with, but also a necessary implication of morality. In addition, Kant notes that humans do not have the capacity to reach a level or complete morality. As a result, the highest good necessitates the potential for immortality of the soul. It follows that only God is capable of the highest good as a final end, as God does not experience the same limitations that arise for humans. Thus, only God would be able to manifest the totality of the highest good. Both Aristotle and Kant believe the rationality is a distinct quality of human nature. Additionally, each suggests an account of morality that relies on the human propensity for rational thought. However, reason does not play the same role in Modern theory, as it does in Ancient. For Aristotle the capacity for rational thought is what makes happiness an activity that only possible for humans. A person is only virtuous when the act is performed deliberately, and is valued in itself for the sake of its goodness. Thus, the capacity for reason is necessary to deliberate and determine which action to pursue. Kant develops a different view on how reason is related to morality. Specifically, he diverges from the Ancient position that reason is for a specific good, as is the reflected in Aristotle’s conception of happiness. Kant maintains it is human autonomy that provides the capacity for rational thought. It then follows that this rational freedom is the only justification for our actions. Consequently, Kant believes goodness is a rational concept. In this view, ends that are good are established through reason, as opposed to inclination or gratification. For Kant, the purpose of reason is to generate a will that is valued in itself. Kant argues that the Good Will is the only possible thing that may be valued in itself. According to Kant, possession of the Good Will makes a person deserving of happiness. The Good Will is the only thing in the world that is “good without limitation”. It has a fundamental goodness that exists regardless of positive or negative outcomes. Kant also argues the Good Will is valued in itself. The basis of deontology in Kant’s morality is reflected in this account of the Good Will. According to Kant, There are particular responsibilities of the Good Will, which are known as duties. Kant explains qualities that characterize the significance of duty. First, good actions are pursued for the purpose of duty alone. The moral worth of acts is measured by the underlying motivation for the action. Furthermore, duty follows as a required action that is consistent with a law. Kant argues there is a Moral Law that is absolute and applies to all situations. It is not possible to determine absolute moral laws on the basis of experience because experience involves specific contexts. Thus, the moral Law exists a priori. It also follows that acts are only moral when they are morally motivated and consistent with Moral Law. Kant characterizes the Moral Law as a Categorical Imperative. The Categorical Imperative necessitates actions for the sake of the act itself. This may be distinguished from Aristotle’s concept of happiness, which reflects the hypothetical Imperative. This obliges actions in given situations, relative to a particular context. The action is necessary in order to serve another end. The hypothetical imperative is evident in Aristotle’s Ethics, as all actions are believed to serve the end of happiness. Kant does not share this position and alternatively argues for the Categorical Imperative instead. According to Kant, there is only one categorical imperative. Specifically, Kant refers to the imperative to act in a way that you would want the motivating standard to be a universal law. Kant explains that the principle of morality represented by the categorical imperative corresponds with three particular qualities. First, as previously stated, the principle takes on a universal form. In this it does not vary between context, but remains a fixed law outside of experience. Second, maxims within the moral law have an end that is an end in itself. This means that the motivation for a moral act is the valued for itself. Third, under the principle of morality, the maxims of all actions are consistent with what Kant refers to as ‘the Kingdom of Ends’. Kant suggests that there is a Kingdom of Ends that consists of the totality of goodness. In this Kingdom, all rational beings reach a level of completeness. The Kingdom of Ends represents the totality of virtue and happiness, which is equally experienced by all. According to Kant, this becomes the end goal for all people as well as for the world. Here, it is also possible to understand how Aristotle’s use of teleology is undermined in Kant’s theory of morality. Teleology denotes the belief that final causes exist in human nature. Here it is possible to note how Kant’s view of a Kingdom of Ends stands in opposition to a teleological approach. While individual freedom and rationality remain significant determinants of morality, both Ancient and Modern theories also account for the influence of others. In this, Kant and Aristotle maintain different positions regarding the role of others interests when determining correct actions. Kant’s theory of the Categorical Imperative reflects an important consideration for others interests. Specifically, the basis of morality becomes the mutual and equivalent reason among all people. According to the Categorical Imperative maxims are to reflect what could be a universal law. Here, the interests of others are considered insofar as the Moral Law commands actions, which could be accepted with all people at a universal level. Aristotle takes a separate approach to incorporate the interests of others. Aristotle’s ethics accept that virtue requires the non-instrumental consideration for others. Moreover, this is also understood as a necessary factor within human goodness. Also related to the significance of others, Aristotle and Kant each discuss the importance of friendship. Aristotle connects the capacity for friendship with the theory of virtue. After separating different forms of friendships, he argues those based on goodness are lasting and most valuable. In what he recognizes as a complete friendship, both friends want goodness for each other. In this type of friendship, both people have similar virtues, and value the other person in themselves rather than as a means to some other pleasure. Aristotle maintains it is part of human nature to coexist and live with others. In this, friendship is a natural good, and can be recognized as a prerequisite for happiness.Kant also recognizes friendship as a component of morality. However, in contrast to Aristotle’s understanding, Kant’s conception of friendship reflects the significant of deontology. For Kant, friendship is characterized by mutual adoration and admiration between people. In this view, friendship is based on the will of oneself, but also that of the other person. As a result, the shared bond contributes to duty through means of learning to understand another’s perspective. Here, Kant makes a distinction between personal duty and the duty of others. On one side, personal duty advances the morality for the individual. Alternatively, Kant believes our duty to others involves the intention to aid their quest for happiness. In Kant’s theory, the categorical imperative and moral duty are perhaps most fundamental to the account of virtue. Consequently, Kant’s account of the moral law suggests a concept of virtue that greatly differs from the position held by Aristotle. Here, there are several qualities, which separate these two accounts. According to Aristotle, virtue is a state, which supplies goodness to something. One significant difference is evident as Ancient theory incorporates emotions into the concept of virtue. In this, Human emotions are trained to become consistent with awareness of what is necessary for virtue. This relates to the Ancient view that virtues are developed through habit of repeated acts of virtue. Specifically, the virtue exists when these habitual actions are chosen for their goodness. Kant disagrees with the notion of virtue as an acquired habit. Following Kant’s theory, people have freedom to embrace maxims that are consistent with the moral law. This it follows that the development of virtue as a habit would take away this element of freedom.Another central aspect to Aristotle’s position on virtue is the Doctrine of the Means. This states that character virtues exist as a balance between the extremes of too much of too little of a given trait. Kant also objects to this position. Following Aristotle’s account of the doctrine of means, virtues exist as a balance between extremes, which are understood to be vices. Kant disagrees with this conception and argues that virtues do not exist on a continuum whereby lack or excess that same virtue becomes a vice. In this, he maintains it is not possible to differentiate based on the degree of compliance with moral law. Consequently, Kant develops a different understanding of vice. For Kant, vice is not reduced to a lack of virtue. The lack of virtues occurs through weak or inadequate pursuit of duty, but still maintaining a commitment to morality. Alternatively, vice involves the motivation to act against moral law. More specifically, vice exists as a deliberate divergence from duty and morality.It is evident through Kant’s account of virtue that the meaning of this idea is different in the modern context. Kant differentiates virtue as the ‘disposition’ to follow duty due to reverence for the moral law. This disposition refers to a character that conforms to moral law. Kant also characterizes virtue as a form of strength. In this, virtue involves strength of self-control to act in accordance with duty. Within this same account, virtue also implies a struggle to obey duty rather than follow the desires of human nature. Kant also highlights a conflict, which is involved in the disposition of virtue. In this, the character is in conflict to obey duty as opposed to follow the inclinations of human nature. According to Kant, virtue is challenged by the innate presence of ‘radical evil’ in humans. This evil is a susceptibility to prioritize personal desires over the moral law. For Kant it follows that virtue implies a struggle to overcome the temptations brought on through the radical evil, and thus necessitates strength to follow duty. Here, it may be significant to note that Aristotle’s theory does not reflect this same account of confliction and struggle involved in virtue. This may illustrate a central divergence from the Ancient account of virtue. Human autonomy is also significant to Kant’s account of virtue. For Kant, virtue is based on the internal freedom to choose ones actions. More specifically, virtues convey and support internal freedom. This quality may be evident in Kant’s notions that struggle and conflict that are manifested in virtues. Here, the presence of confliction presupposes that humans have the free will to choose actions that resist temptation to follow the moral law. For Kant, virtue is not equivalent to the good will. However, the good will is a necessary quality to establish virtue. Thus Kant establishes the connection between these concepts in that to be virtuous, one must possess a good will. At the same time, the good will is manifested or expressed, through virtue.Despite several similarities that connect Modern theory to Aristotle’s ethics, it may be argued that Kant’s account does not present a continuation of Ancient thought. Kant’s Practical Philosophy may reflect discussion of the same topics discussed in Nicomachean Ethics, such as the highest good, happiness, or friendship, yet ultimately he takes a significantly different position in all these areas. Here, It seems difficult to understand a primary point of divergence whereby Kant’s account separated so greatly from the Ancient theory. The Modern rejection of empiricism immediately entails a divergence from Aristotle’s approach to Ethics. Perhaps the most fundamental distinction centers on Kant’s approach of deontology. Kant asserts the validity of the Categorical Imperative as a sole, universal law of morality, which thus stands in opposition to the principles of virtue and happiness set forth by Aristotle. While Aristotle supports the notion of a moral life that is consistent to virtue, Kant argues the happiness we all desire is in conflict with the pursuit of morality. Ultimately, many of the Ancient positions do not conform to Kant’s rational approach and previous Ancient ideas are traded for those consistent with deontology and the moral law. SourcesAristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Ed. by Terence Irwin. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Pub., 1999.Denis, Lara. “Kant’s Conception of Virtue.” The Cambridge Companion to Kant and Modern Philosophy. By Paul Guyer. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2006.Engstrom, Stephen P. “Happiness and the Highest Good in Aristotle and Kant.” Aristotle, Kant, and the Stoics: Rethinking Happiness and Duty. By Stephen Engstrom and Jennifer Whiting. New York: Cambridge UP, 1996.Hughes, Julie L. “The Role of Happiness in Kant’s Ethics.” Aporia 14.1 (2004): 61-72.Korsgaard, Christine M. “Aristotle and Kant on the Source of Value.” Ethics 96.3 (1986): 486.Kant, Immanuel. The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant. Ed. Mary J. Gregor. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ., 1996.Sherman, Nancy. Making a Necessity of Virtue: Aristotle and Kant on Virtue. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997.

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