Aristotle’s Ethics and Its Impact on Women


12/4/03


Aristotle deviates from the metaphysical views of previous philosophers, including his beloved teacher Plato, that state that the purpose of human life lays beyond this world. Instead of this doctrine, Aristotle argues that the purpose of human life lies only within this world. Because Aristotle held this belief, he argues that one must make the most out of his life. To do so one must live the best possible life. Aristotle believed that knowing and pursuing the purpose of life is the most worthy end humans can aim at. Asking what the purpose of life is important because if you are right you win everything but if you are wrong you lose everything. Suppose you play chess without knowing the rules of the game: instead of moving the pieces you eat them, thus you lose the game. Losing a chess game is really not a big problem, you can play again or not play ever again it really doesn’t matter. However, if you do not know the rules of life then you not only lose a game, but you lose everything. Aristotle held the view that it is of great importance to know the rules of life and follow them to win. Because of this view Aristotle saw ethics and achieving the purpose of life as the same thing. A person’s ethics should be achieving the best purpose of life, eudaimonia.


Aristotle’s ethics consists of two objectives. The first objective consists in knowing what you are supposed to aim for in life. Like the archer who must know where the target is so he knows where to aim, so humans must know where their target is so they can know where to aim. In Nicomachan Ethics Aristotle states that the target for humans is to achieve eudaimonia. (Biffle, p.291) Eudaimonia is a Greek word that is usually -and inadequately- translated as “happiness” but better translated as “human flourishing.” (Biffle, p.289) Eudaimonia is supposed to mean living a fulfilling life involving moderation and the correct use of reason. By living this type of life one will be satisfied because he will constantly be happy and satisfied. Aristotle considers this the most worthy goal one can have in life. Aristotle’s second objective is actually reaching eudaimonia. He gives an outline of rules one should live by to do this: among them are use of reason, applying moderation, having good fortune, being successful an entire life, and being a philosopher. (Biffle, p.189-290) Aristotle claimed that “philosophical ethics is practical. ‘The end is not knowledge but action.’ (Broadie, p.3)Thus if one is able to apply these rules and achieve eudaimonia he will fulfill Aristotle’s wishes.


To achieve a greater understanding of Aristotle’s philosophy we need to understand how Aristotle views the world. In the Aristotelian perspective all of the disciplines -ethics, politics, economics, metaphysics, psychology, etc…- work together. For example, Aristotle argues that you need politics to have eudaimonia because only by interacting with others will one be fulfilled as a person. Thus, we need to take into account that there is an active interaction by the disciplines and that none are isolated completely. They all depend on each other in terms of defining their nature. Therefore, we should not expect to know ethics without knowing psychology, politics, metaphysics, etc… because they all influence the goals one should aim for in life.


A big problem with Aristotle’s ethics regarding eudaimonia is that it is not intended for women. “Aristotle’s great ethical works, the Nichomachean and Eudemian Ethics, are directed to the free male… they therefore have little to say about the virtues of women.” (On, p.131) Aristotle viewed women –like he did slaves and children- as inferior human beings. He argued that women lack proper reasoning capacities. Furthermore, he did not believe that they could aim to achieve eudaimonia. Rather, he argued that the most they can hope for is to be virtuous by being “industrial” in their job in the household and “submissive” to their husband’s or father’s will. (On, p.131) Today we know that women are equal in cognitive capacities to men. Furthermore, women are equal to men in everything today they are involved in: politics, sports, war, etc… Regardless, we cannot apply Aristotle’s to women by simply ignoring the fact