How people lead their lives depends on their ideologies. Ethical theorists and philosophers present numerous theories that offer several approaches to morality and leading a moral life. Theorists such as Aristotle and Plato and utilitarianists such as Bentham and Mill, among others, have all presented theories that approach numerous societal topics from diverse perspectives.
Eudaimonia and Utilitarianism
People’s definitions of happiness vary from one to the next. In some cases, one’s source of happiness may not be a source of happiness for another individual in the same circumstance. Consistently, theorists, including Aristotle and utilitarianists, postulate theories that position their definitions of happiness; these postulations tie happiness to people’s morality and moral life.
On the one hand, Aristotle’s definition of happiness involves the term eudaimonia. Eudaimonia is a term from Greek philosophers that describes happiness. According to Bartlett & Collins (2012), Aristotle defines eudaimonia as a state of happiness that is more than a feeling by stating, “For happiness (eudaimonia: literally “having a good daimon”) signifies more than mere sentiment or feeling, more than the pleasure of the moment.” Further, this view of eudaimonia presents a state of living a remarkable human life about virtue. In this case, virtue refers to how people live their lives based on their actions and behaviours. Accordingly, according to Aristotle, eudaimonia is determined by how best people live their lives by leading virtuous lives in their communities, illustrated in their actions.
On the other hand, utilitarianism presents an alternative approach to happiness. In this case, happiness is considered the consequence of an action. According to utilitarianism, an action is considered moral based on its ability to yield the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people and be the most appropriate (Newton, 2013). Subsequently, the ability of an action to cause the greatest level of happiness determines its appropriateness and is then considered ethical. For instance, finding a job instead of turning to criminal activities is practical because in avoiding criminal activities, an individual protects themselves from dangers they would have to face and keep their family happily together while keeping them out of jail in case they are arrested. Subsequently, this action would cause maximum happiness for all individuals involved while being the most appropriate action.
Accordingly, the two approaches to happiness are very different, as illustrated in Aristotle’s eudaimonia and utilitarianism. Aristotle’s postulations about eudaimonia consider happiness an action itself and not an action’s consequence of happiness. Subsequently, happiness involves living the best life an individual can lead while conducting virtuous actions to illustrate the best life. In contrast, based on utilitarianism, happiness is a consequence of an action, and the more happiness affecting the greatest number of people, the more moral an action is in an instance. Consequently, one cannot approach the definition of happiness from the same perspective in this case because two perspectives are presented; thus, one can mark the distinctions.
Determining which conception of the happy life makes better sense of our moral life solely depends on an individual. People with differing ideologies and leading different lives might have different opinions on moral lives. Of the two conceptions of the happy life, utilitarianism makes better sense of our moral life. An action yielding a happy consequence will make all involved happy, while leading the best life in terms of virtuous actions might feel obligatory, causing people to opt to behave otherwise. However, both conceptions influence our moral lives.
Aristotle’s Idea of Virtue and Kant’s Idea Of The Rational Moral Agent
People’s morality and moral lives can be scrutinized from numerous approaches. What might be considered moral to an Ethical Egoist might not be considered moral to a utilitarianist. For instance, to an ethical egoist, moral obligation is to oneself, while to a utilitarianism, moral obligation is to a happy consequence for many people. For instance, one might behave as pleasing to oneself but displeasing to others. Therefore, people’s moral lives can be analyzed from different perspectives, as illustrated in Aristotle’s idea of virtue and Kant’s idea of the rational moral agent.
On the one hand, Aristotle’s idea of virtue is associated with eudaimonia (Bartlett & Collins, 2012). According to Aristotle, Eudaimonia is considered to be happiness, which, according to Aristotle, is the act of leading the best human life in terms of virtue, whereby acting in a virtuous manner will contribute to living the best human life, yielding happiness. Accordingly, since virtue involves a habitual activity, it is acquired over time, not inborn, influencing an individual’s character. Numerous virtues influence people’s characters, influencing their actions and behaviours and illustrating morality. Further, virtues exist in excesses and deficiencies, or their relative average, and according to Aristotle, virtues exist at the midpoint (Ruggiero, 2014). Aristotle’s Golden Mean elaborates on this midpoint; for instance, courage is a virtue that can exist in excess as rashness or in deficiency as cowardice. A virtuous person will also lead a better life, resulting in happiness or eudaimonia.
On the other hand, Kant’s idea of morals is linked to freedom. This freedom is given based on the perspective of reason and logic, which guides people to conduct themselves morally. Consistently, based on people’s ability to reason, they can make moral laws that they can abide by in a given situation, thus leading to the moral agent. Consequently, Kant’s idea of the rational moral agent positions that people can behave morally because of their ability to reason and make moral laws that they can then abide by, creating the freedom they possess. Subsequently, moral actions are guided by the moral duty people create due to their reasoning. The categorical imperative determines which actions are considered a moral duty. Categorical Imperatives include maxim, universalizability of action, and humanity. Moral agents thereby tie morality to freedom by allowing people to make moral laws or duties that they can live by based on logic and reason.
Consistently, the differences between Aristotle’s idea of virtue and Kant’s idea of the rational moral agent are apparent. Aristotle’s idea of virtue positions people’s morals based on their ability to lead the best human life possible, thereby obtaining happiness. These virtues vary and depend on people’s actions, which depend on their actions. Kant’s idea of the rational moral agent positions or suggests that people can make moral laws to live by based on their reason and logic. The theory that makes better sense of people’s moral life, and in this case, entails Kant’s idea of the rational moral agent. With reason peo, people can easily determine whether an action is morally right or wrong.
The Meno: The Source and Possibility of Moral Knowledge
People’s characters depend on their virtue. The question of what virtue is and how it is obtained is then raised. Different theorists postulate varying definitions and approaches to virtues. For instance, Aristotle positioned that virtues are obtained from habitual activities. Plato’s theories concern knowledge and the human soul. Plato also presented an approach to moral life elaborated in Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, and Phaedo (Plato et al., 2002). In these books, Plato used Socrates, his teacher, as the main speaker of the dialogues to position moral ideologies. Each of the dialogues addressed a different moral aspect; for instance, in Euthyphro, the term “right” is analyzed with an association to the commands of gods, while in Meno, virtues and the human soul are analyzed.
Plato’s arguments from the Meno concerning the source and possibility of moral knowledge involve human virtue, goodness, and soul. Moral knowledge involves human virtues, whose source is to be examined. What are virtues and how they are acquired are the questions Plato sought to answer in Meno. The question of acquiring virtues is asked whether virtues can be taught, acquired through practice, or are inborn (Plato et al., 2002); with this in mind, it is essential to point out that virtues influence morality. Further, it is detailed that with the human soul, individuals are born with theoretical moral knowledge that they recollect to gain moral knowledge and guide their morals. Accordingly, virtues are considered a form of knowledge and can, therefore, be taught, while at the same time, they can be an opinion granted by gods and, therefore, cannot be taught (Plato et al., 2002). Accordingly, the source and possibility of moral knowledge, as stipulated by Plato, is apparent.
As detailed, some of Plato’s arguments concerning the source and possibility of moral knowledge from the Meno are correct. The possibility of already possessing knowledge at birth can be true since everything, including knowledge, exists as a chance factor in the universe’s consciousness (Zhang, 2011), and recollecting it through teachings and habitual activities is a probability. Based on the argument of Zhang (2011) that chance factors were created during evolution, it is possible that human consciousness, which is linked to the consciousness of the universe, creates a chance for knowledge and events to exist already, even before human beings acquire them. Additionally, teaching people how to conduct themselves instils virtues that mould their identity as human beings; thus, in this case, Plato’s arguments are correct.
Bartlett, R. C., & Collins, S. D. (2012). Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. University of Chicago Press.
Newton, L. (2013). Ethical Decision Making: Introduction to Cases and Concepts in Ethics. Springer.
Plato. (2002). Plato: Five Dialogues Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo. (J. M. Cooper & G. M. A. Grube, Trans.) (2nd ed.). Hackett Publishing Company.
Ruggiero, V. (2014). Thinking Critically About Ethical Issues. 11th ed., McGraw-Hill Education.
Zhang, X. (2011). The Emergence of Consciousness in the Quantum Universe. https://arxiv.org/abs/1103.1651.
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1) Consider what Aristotle says about eudaimonia and compare it with utilitarianism. Both theories are about happiness, but there seem to be differences. How can we mark the distinctions, and which conception of the happy life makes better sense of our moral life?
2) Compare Aristotle’s idea of virtue with Kant’s idea of the rational moral agent. Which theory makes better sense of our moral life?
3) Consider Plato’s arguments from the Meno concerning the source and possibility of moral knowledge. Are his arguments correct?