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JRoberts

Aristotle's Organic Ethics

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Thanks in large part to Tara Smith and her book Viable Values, I have gained a new understanding of Aristotle's ethics (and subsequently, of Ayn Rand's ethics). I continue to be amazed at how both Ayn Rand and Aristotle can present an objective ethics that, at the same time, is individualistic-ie., it is not an ethics of "Thou Shall, Thou Shall Not", it is not an ethics of "10 Commandments", but rather is a fluid and "living" ethics which allows for an optimal level of growth in individuals without any sense of guilt or shame. Morality thus does not become a burden to life or happiness, but the means to life and happiness.

I wrote this essay, posted at Homer Reborn, concerning the "Organic" nature of Aristotle's Ethics.

Aristotle's Organic Ethics

It is a colloquial expectation that morality is a strict set of rules, of thou shall and thou shall not, the purpose of which is to guide humans to a better life. Many non-philosophically-minded people who strive toward moral excellence view each encounter requiring moral action in a strict sense. For example, many do not see a difference between the virtue of honesty in one situation (let us say, a situation where a person is late to work and must decide whether to lie to his boss, lying that he was in a wreck) and in another situation (let us say, a situation where a sketchy and dangerous looking man asks if a woman has any money, and though she does, she must decide whether to tell him or not.) This rigid system of morality, where each virtue is an angel or a demon upon one’s shoulders, has lead to a popular conception that morality is burdensome. In fact, many people view morality as a hindrance to the actual enjoyment of life; a necessary evil. A large number of modern philosophers have tried to solve this problem, viewing the problematic morality as an objective black or white, by introducing a subjective grey. It is their purpose, supposedly, to do away with the guilt, the rigor, or the road-block imposed by traditional morality in favor of a “new” moral grey whereby individuals can wear both the badge of moral and the badge of pleasurable living. Ironically, however, this move towards a moral grey does away with the need for morality at all, leaving only a slim visage in title that only serves to falsely boost the self esteem of the deluded advocate. However, the idea that morality is burdensome need not always apply. Morality can not only abate happiness, but it can indeed lead one to a greater level of happiness. For morality must not necessarily be a system of thou shall and thou shall not; similarly, it must not necessarily also be a subjective grey area veneering one in a pseudo-self esteem. Morality can be objective without being rigid and can be life-enhancing and happiness-promoting without being subjective or without giving one a pseudo-self esteem. It was this exact type of morality that Aristotle promoted in the Nicomachean Ethics. Thus it will be necessary to display what exactly Aristotle’s meta-ethical framework is, henceforth called organic ethics or organic virtue; what the benefits are of an organic ethical system; and what the implications are of such a system.

Organic ethics seems an odd term, especially when observing the plentitude of terms that exist to differentiate all of the ethical systems that exist. However, the term organic not only serves to describe Aristotelian ethics, but also serves as a wonderful image to keep in mind when thinking about his ethics. The term organic not only comes to mind because of the teleological nature of Aristotle’s ethics, but also from the fact that he himself was primarily a biologist, and thus it seems quite fitting that a man who viewed the world through the lens of a biologist would incorporate naturalistic or biological imagery into the inner-workings of his ethics. Organic ethics can thus be defined qua Aristotle as an ethical system with a teleological end, happiness (henceforth called flourishing), towards which all actions aim, tailored to the specific qualities of each individual. The end, for Aristotle, is to flourish (or to be “happy”), as fleshed out in almost all of Book I. In Book II, Aristotle describes how the actions which lead to flourishing are properly called virtues, stating, “…the good for man is an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.” It is by means of the different virtues that an individual can attain a state of flourishing, similar to the way in which a tree must gain water and nutrients from its roots, must protect itself from external forces by its bark, and must gain sunlight via photosynthesis, in order to flourish and grow. This focus on growing is essential, for growing is merely another term for acting. When faced with either two choices, to act and thus to grow and thus to flourish, or to not act and thus to whither and thus to die, it is simple to see why actions are so important for Aristotle. To not act, or to act in an improper way (if trees had volition, were trees to choose not to gather sunlight with their leaves, or to stick their roots straight up into the air as opposed to in the ground) will not lead to a blessed and flourishing life, but will lead to the death of the entity.

The goal of Aristotle’s normative ethics is not to contemplate the good but to act in a good manner. Imagine the absurdity of a conscious and volitional tree pondering whether or not it should gather light from the sun, and then once discovering that the sun is the good, separating itself from the world in order to contemplate the sun. Similarly, Aristotle was not as concerned with a life of contemplation devoid of action, but rather viewed contemplation as a means to fully understanding why and how to act in a proper manner. Unlike any other animal, man is a rational creature. Reason, however, is not automatic and thus will not automatically operate as will the leaves of a tree. This means that for man to act in accordance with a rational principle in order to lead the good life, as Aristotle describes, he must discover via his tool of reason what exactly the good life is and the steps to take in order to reach that point. Once he discovers the necessary steps, it is essential for man to act in a proper manner, for just as a tree cannot stop photosynthesizing once its leaves are fully grown, so too can a man not cease his virtues once he actualizes them. Rather, man must continually and consistently act with his reason and by his virtues in order to flourish. However, this process is not as cruel and unforgiving as it sounds. Quite the contrary, Aristotle’s ethical theory allows for mistakes and mishaps, for breaches of morality, for just as an entire limb of a tree can be severed in a storm, so too can man suffer setbacks and pitfalls yet continue to grow, being damaged only in correlation to the strength of the storm[1]. Just as a tree will grow a large number of limbs, a few of them falling off for some reason or another (being too low to the ground, to near an obstacle, to hidden in shade, diseased, broken off, etc.), and others growing quite large, so too must man grow in regards to his virtues by experiencing life, through all of its trials and tribulations, through the good and the bad, in order to discover the correct growth path which leads to a maximum state of flourishing.

One might raise an objection here, straining to see the objectivity in such a seemingly subjective system. How can it be that Aristotle promotes an objective ethics, yet allows for such variation, such growth, such individual development? The objectivity in Aristotle lies in his evaluation of the nature of man, and the end for which man must strive. He states that man is a rational animal and that the ultimate end for which man must strive is happiness, eudaimonia, or to flourish. The path to flourishing lies in the rational activity of the soul in accordance with virtue. Figuratively speaking in an objective manner, Aristotle states that an oak seed will grow into an oak tree, will grow by the same means and using the same resources, sharing a general similarity with other oak seeds, regardless of its environment (being of course in an environment in which it can live). Thus it is not the beginning, the end, or the general means which allows for leeway, for “subjectivity”, for “variance”, but rather the specific path or the individual steps that are taken from the beginning to the end via a more broad yet absolute means. As one would not say that an oak seed could become an oak tree by growing fur instead of bark and hands instead of leaves, so too would Aristotle say that a man could not flourish by being a coward or by being licentious. But the exact way that the limbs grow, the exact number of leaves, and the location of the tree are relative to each individual tree. Similarly, the same general actions must be taken regardless of a location; a man will flourish in modern America in a similar way to tribal man living in the wild Amazon. Though their circumstances may be different, and though the degree of their virtues might be different, the same general acts will yield the same general results regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation. In II.ii, Aristotle states:

“Now that we should act according to the right principle is common ground and may be assumed as a basis for discussion…But we must first agree that any account of conduct must be stated in outline and not in precise detail, just as we said at the beginning that accounts are to be required only in such a form as befits their subject-matter. Now questions of conduct and expedience have as little fixity about them as questions of what is healthful; and if this is true of the general rule, it is still more true that its application to particular problems admits of no precision. For they do not fall under any art or professional tradition, but the agents are compelled at every step to think out for themselves what the circumstances demand, just as happens in the arts of medicine and navigation.”

In proclaiming the universal nature of ethics for man qua man, Aristotle strongly pronounces an objective morality whose normative form is not full of thou shall and thou shall not, but rather, aim here and shy away from there. Though this distinction may seem non existent, its existence lies in the difference between a rigid set of rules (for good health, drink 8 cups of water a day) versus a guiding principle allowing room for leeway (for good health, if you are a male child under the age of 10, drink 5 cups of water a day, unless you have exercised a lot, in which case drink 7; for good health, if you are a female adult over the age of 60, drink 6 cups of water a day, unless you are sick, in which case increase your water intake to 8 cups a day). Thus the organic nature of Aristotle’s ethics lies in its teleological qualities, aiming towards the goal of flourishing; its focus on continual action (habituation) versus stagnation and decay; its ability to mold to different circumstances for different people; and its objectivity in being universal for a general species.

A deeper understanding of the meaning of Aristotle’s organic ethics allows one to begin to see the benefits of such a system. As stated in the opening paragraph, many people feel that guilt and morality go hand in hand. Guilt hereafter is defined in a very strict sense as a deep and looming psychological state of shame and regret attained by a breach of morality. Many moral systems endow a sense of guilt in people from the 10 year old child who lets slip a curse word and feels utterly horrible about it to the 70 year old who still holds guilt over a lie told 50 years prior, all strangling themselves with the noose of guilt, cutting their efficacy, happiness, and self worth due to a rigid moral system. It comes then as no surprise that morality is seen as a burden if the direct consequences, within the soul, of a moral breach include a low and powerful feeling of guilt. Guilt can originate from a variety of sources, from the concept of original sin (guilty from birth) to a system with so many rules that one is guaranteed to break them, to a system that restricts and represses the most basic human needs or desires, and so on. Aristotle’s organic ethics, on the other hand, has no conception of guilt due firstly to the fact that Aristotle places ethics within the realm of the individual, making the ultimate arbiter of an individual’s moral actions reality. The man who has too much to drink will get a hangover. The man who is rash will get killed in battle. The woman who is unjust will gain such a reputation, thereby not being dealt with by other people. However, even in these cases, reality is forgiving. For the person who gets drunk once does not risk the destruction of his liver, and the person who tells one white lie does not risk the reputation of a liar (though of course, moral breaches are correlational to the depth of the action; intense over-consumption of alcohol will lead to alcohol poisoning, which can lead to death. These cases, however, are rare.) If a limb is torn in a storm and falls off of a tree, the tree can still work and grow and flourish. Similarly, a person who commits an immoral act can “regrow” their moral “limbs” and live a flourishing life. Because it is inevitable that a tree will lose branches or limbs throughout the course of its life, so too is it inevitable that an individual will experience moral setbacks. However, as long as the individual continues to strive for moral growth and excellence, these acts will be nothing more than setbacks. Indeed, it is sometimes even necessary for an individual to have setbacks (and in reality, almost guaranteed) so that they can grow and flourish even better than before; any gardener will tell you that the best way to help your plant grow large and healthy is to have it trimmed.

It is also a fault of many moral systems to set unreasonable, “universal” expectations for all people, through all walks of life, all ages, and all levels of maturity. Is it truly reasonable to expect a 13 year old to honor his mother and father in the same way that a 31 year old does? While, thankfully, some moral systems have incorporated an organic approach, allowing room for moral growth, into their ethics, Aristotle’s ethics from its conception does not suffer from this problem. A tiny sprout cannot be expected to weather a storm as well as a tall and sturdy tree can. Similarly, a youth or an individual just setting down on the path of moral excellence will encounter difficulties that might “knock them off the bike”. But they are not expected to jump on the bike and ride it like Lance Armstrong. Aristotle’s organic ethics states that an individual must develop moral habits or dispositions, which can only come about through repeated actions of a virtue coupled with the knowledge about that virtue. Over time, what once was intemperance can slowly evolve to “slightly” temperate, until a habit is formed that eventually an individual becomes temperate. Each step along the path is moral growth and is a necessary step in order to reach the end goal. Thus, by not setting unrealistic expectations, Aristotle’s organic ethics allows an individual to celebrate and marvel at each stage of his moral development.

As stated above, many individuals view morality as an impediment to pleasure, a “necessary” evil. Pleasure can only be obtained either by engaging in the act and then “repenting” afterwards, or by abandoning morality all together. However, the dichotomy between pleasure and morality is not present in an organic ethics. Aristotle encourages people to drink or engage in sensual pleasures (saying that the mean for temperance is closer to licentiousness than it is to insensibility), showing a deep understanding of the need for pleasure and relaxation within the psyche of an individual. Though it could be argued that the licentious person is experiencing more pleasure, it is necessary to view a large span of time as opposed to a single isolated incident. The long-term licentious individual will find their health failing, their addictions leading to problems at home and work, ultimately resulting in a net displeasure or misery. The long-term temperate individual, on the other hand, will be able to engage in pleasure over an entire period of time without it being a detriment to his well being; in fact, as a virtue, it will benefit his life and aid in his ability to flourish. It is also true that, due to an organic ethics not setting insurmountable expectations and due to the fact that youth have a larger tendency towards excess in regards to pleasure than do adults and especially the elderly, the growth and maturation of an individuals ethical system will conversely see a decrease in the excess without damning the youth who engaged in such an act. Thus it is entirely proper for a college person to go out and party, as long as he is on the path to flourishing, because this path will slowly develop within him the framework and the habit of temperance enough to where he will always experience a maximum level of pleasure at a reduced actual intake. For Aristotle even says that what once was pleasurable to a person without the right dispositions will, upon gaining the proper dispositions, not become pleasurable (rarely does a person enjoy his first beer or cigar, but rather “gains a taste” for it). Thus a flourishing life is inseparable from the pleasant life, because to a flourishing and active organism, the pleasant is the act of flourishing.

In the true democratic spirit of Athens, Aristotle’s organic ethics is also applicable to all individuals[2] and not restricted to an elite class or a pre-chosen set of people. The objectivity of his organic ethics means that any man, because they are of the same species and possess the same tools (reason), can live a flourishing life. Though some individuals might flourish more than others, due to them being more wealthy or them being more philosophically oriented, it nevertheless is true that all men have the potential to flourish to the best of their abilities. Many other ethical systems can also claim to allow anybody to practice their system and gain the rewards thereof. However, it is a unique characteristic of organic ethics that the most that an individual can achieve is indeed the best, and that individual can be satisfied as opposed to being belittled by “moral superiors”. Anybody from the simple farmer to the wise philosopher has the ability to flourish and live a rewarding life. The role of fate in this situation is minimal, however it is important to remember that Aristotle does place fate as a component of happiness (an unforeseen mudslide can topple a tree; though rare, it can happen). Nevertheless, the majority of flourishing lies in the hands of the individual. Moreover, though he may not have stated it himself, Aristotle’s ethics laid the framework for the equality of all people regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation. For Aristotle’s analysis that all men are the same basic species, and perform in the same basic ways, and can all reach the same basic level of flourishing, if taken to its logical conclusion, also means that all women are the same as well, that they too have the same faculties, and that they too can flourish just as well as men can (and the same for other minority groups). While it is true that Aristotle believed in barbarians, in brutes and savages, his evaluation of people as such was not an evaluation of an intrinsic character, bur rather an evaluation of a disposition brought about by culture and actions. Thus a barbarian was a barbarian because he was a human who was not acting qua human. Ultimately, though, it is a benefit of organic ethics that the good life, flourishing, is able to be reached by any human who so desires.

The concept of organic ethics leaves room for a few peculiar implications. Aristotle’s ethical framework allows for the possibility that the virtues he discusses may not be the correct virtues, and, akin to the Constitution, his ethical system may need “amendments” as time goes on. Interestingly enough, these “amendments” do not contradict Aristotle’s ethics, but rather, follow along in the exact metaethical framework that he set up. If mankind has a uniform nature and the same tool (reason), and mankind lives the best life when is he flourishing via virtuous activity guided by a rational principle, then those virtues which might be found not to be conducive, or optimally conducive, to a flourishing life are allowed to be discarded in favor of virtues which do. Thus it is necessary to distinguish between absolute and optional virtues, or rather, virtues that are objective and necessary, in all places, for all people, throughout time, and those virtues that may be more relevant to certain individuals in certain situations in a specific period of time. Though it is not my intention to delve into Aristotle’s normative ethics, an example might serve to further the point. It would be correct to say that temperance is a universal virtue, because the acts of eating, drinking (alcoholic or nonalcoholic), and sex are necessary to the very nature of man. Liberality, on the other hand, may not be so. Take the example of the pioneer family who does not have money, but takes from the land what they need (be it lumber or water or food). What use would liberality be to them? One might stretch the definition of liberality to include how the wife acts towards her children, or the husband to his wife, but this stretch seems unjustified. Unlike the modern urban city dweller, however, it could be said that “the virtue of land management” might be important to the pioneer, because his ability to flourish depends on his ability to properly manage his land, ensuring that the ground does not become “over-farmed”, that rivers are diverted enough to provide the right amount of water to his crops and livestock, and so on. Thus while lawn care might be a luxury for the urban dweller, land management would be a necessity for the pioneer, and the proper action in regards to this value would lead to a life of flourishing, whereas a poorly kept lawn will not cause the urban dweller to morally decay (though it could be said that his psychology might become more depressed). On the other hand, the “virtue of time management” may not be as important to the pioneer. Though he does have work to do, it does not necessarily matter that he finishes feeding the chickens at 5:00 a.m., that he milks the cows at exactly 6:15 a.m., and that he begins tilling his fields at 7:30 a.m. The urban dweller, however, finds time management to be of the utmost importance to him. The ability to properly manage his time ensures that he can keep his job (which leads to money, which leads to the many necessities and luxuries conducive to a flourishing life), that he watches his daughter’s softball game (which is necessary to ensure a positive and flourishing family life), and that he turns in his income tax form at the appropriate time. Thus time management is a very important virtue for the urban dweller, for the proper actualization of this virtue will yield a more flourishing life. Ironically, an organic ethics that promotes the growth and development of its adherents has itself the ability to grow and change while maintaining its same basic structure and same key attributes.

As was eluded to in the discussion of the egalitarian nature of Aristotle’s organic ethics, an organic ethics that places its objectivity in human nature has the ability to grow and develop from early human prejudices to modern human understandings. While Aristotle did not say that the Nicomachean Ethics was intended for women, and indeed it can be assumed that it was not, the very nature of Aristotle’s organic ethics means that once society advanced to the point of realizing that women were equal to men and shared the same basic nature, it was thus logical to assume that the same ethical system which allowed men to flourish would be the same ethical system which must allow women to flourish as well. For though the way in which each virtue is specifically practiced might be difference (for example, a woman on the battlefield; though in our modern world, even this is coming to be accepted), the fact is not changed that a woman can be just as courageous as a man. Similarly, a black homosexual man is by nature the same as a white heterosexual female, and thus just like her, it can be expected that a black homosexual man has the potential to be just as virtuous as anybody else. Yet even beyond this, Aristotle’s organic ethics has the ability to answer modern moral questions that did not exist in Aristotle’s own time, such as abortion. For it is one interpretation to say that a potentiality (a fetus) is not an actuality (a born human) similar to how a potential temperate man is not an actual temperate man. Though Aristotle did not directly discuss such issues, it can be rationally concluded from the framework that he set up that an organic ethics has the ability to expand and grow to new areas that Aristotle himself had no notion.

Aristotle’s organic ethics is vastly different than any other ethical system in philosophy. While most philosophical systems contain either a very rigid set of rules that one must follow in order to be “burdened” by morality, or a loose and subjective moral system that gives one the visage of morality while leading one down a path that is far from moral, it is unique that organic ethics allows for an objective system of morals that is applicable and true in almost any situation while also allowing the growth and flexibility needed to cater towards the specific peculiarities of each individual’s life. The benefits of the system not only lie in its accessible objectivity, but in its ability to grow and develop, custom tailored towards each individual. This means that any person must discover how to properly adhere to virtue in order to live a flourishing life. For morality is not a lifeless and rigid stone but is a flourishing and organic entity that will only enhance the life of its adherents by actualizing their potential.

[1] See Aristotle’s account of Priam in EN I.ix.

[2] The term individuals here is understood as normal humans, functioning as they were intended to by nature, devoid of any ailments (such as mental retardation).

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Thank you, JRoberts. I have known the framework of Ethics for a little while now, it was nice to read your fresh interpretation. Also, I very much enjoyed how you named it "organic." Just the other week I described my theory of political economy as organic (I must admit Jean-Baptiste Say is to me how Aristotle was to Ayn Rand). Well done and again, thank you.

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