Aristotle versus Immanuel Kant
Aristotle and Kant are the two most influential theorists in the history and culture of the West. Both their theories are quite persuasive with each presenting an exciting notion of what morality is. In their definition of morality, the two theorists opine it as the way men, women, and children ought to act and live their lives (Vaughn, 2015). Despite the many similarities about their views, they present a lot of conflicts leaving the people which the choice to choose one and give up the other. The teachings by Aristotle have been put together to form what is popularly known as the Nicomachean Ethics while the works by Kant are presented in a short but powerful document called the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. The German philosopher published his work in the year 1785 several years after the man from Greece. Kant just like Aristotle pegs his argument on the notion of the good, but unlike his predecessor goes ahead accompany it with goodwill (Heinaman, 2018). This brings out the cutting conflicts that are presented by the two philosophers on morality and way of life.
The Nicomachean ethics consist of a collection of Aristoteles’ students’ notes that appear fragmented but holds a lot of wisdom with regards to the way of life. Kant on the other side first began with a little pamphlet which he considers as a guideline for more influential and ambitious works including the Critiques and the longer Metaphysics of Morals (Darwall, 2018). The ethical ideas by Aristotle’s were the most predominant ethical theory since the time of composition but the new generation of philosophers including Kant considered them outdated by the time they commonly called the period of Enlightenment. Aristotle’s beliefs are based on common assumptions of experimental beliefs and dogmas while those of Kant are based on personal reason and prior assumptions.
The first point of contrast between the works of the two great scholars is the question about what is good. Kant defines good as something that is always accompanied by “the goodwill”. In his words, Kant says that it is impossible to imagine anything in the world or even beyond the world which should be considered good without limitation except goodwill. Aristotle’s ideas agree with Kant’s definition of goodwill (Vaughn, 2015). According to Aristotle good is something “at which all things aim”. In his assertion, Aristotle claims that all knowledge and every choice is directed towards some good.
Kant defines good using something good, goodwill. It is therefore common to consider this a mere restatement and not a definition. Aristotle, on the other hand, defines “good” in an objective and absolute sense. In this way, he tries to bring out good in a manner that is common to everyone (Dierksmeier et al., 2018). Good is relative in the sense that what one considers good may not be good to another person. In this manner, I consider the definition by Aristotle quite relevant since good is the very object that we all aim at while doing our actions. This understanding of good helps avoid the disagreement of people. The two theorists agree on the notion that a good thing should help achieve a certain goal (Heinaman, 2018). When it comes to morality then a good thing is what will steer an achievement of morality and ethics.
What defines Kant’s moral theory in Groundwork is that a good action is distinguished from a bad action is absolutely the maxim or the principle on which it is based. When one saves a drowning man because he or she believes one should not drown where and when he or she is around then that is goodwill and the action qualifies to be good. The reason why is good is because it comes from the right principle. On the other hand, if he or she saves the drowning intending to receive a reward or applause for the people watching nearby then the action is not good since it is not done out of goodwill and the principle is wrong (Heinaman, 2018). Aristotle, on the other hand, takes a hand stance that it does not matter provided the action is appropriate and morally right then it qualifies to be good.
In an example, Aristotle claims that if he saves a life by telling a lie then telling the lie, in this case, is a morally good action. Virtuous people would want to save more, do more good. It is a story of the end justifying the means while Kant believes that the means is a prerequisite for the end. When the means are bad, according to Kant the end is bad but Aristotle believes in the true opposite (Vaughn, 2015). Therefore, Aristotle attaches the predicate “morally good” to objective actions of people independent of the performer and his will while Kant holds that no action is morally good apart from the will of the performer i.e. the mechanism of the motive.
Other than what is morally good, the two theorists also fiercely disagree on their understanding of who a morally good person is (Darwall, 2018). According to Aristotle, a morally good person is one who enjoys and therefore keeps doing morally good actions in his entire life (Heinaman, 2018). Kant on the flipside agrees with this part of the explanation by Aristotle but deviates when he asserts that a morally good person is one who may or may not necessarily be enjoying a virtuous action provided he respects his maxim and makes a decision to act based on the principle. In this way, Kant emphasizes that a good person is one who respects the rule of law and follows it faithfully to perform a morally good action. Aristotle comes out to object strongly that a good person does not require the rule of law to be good (Dierksmeier et al., 2018). According to him, the laws are useless in a country inhabited by morally good people.
The vocation of reason between the two great scholars is also a pint of concern. Aristotle defines reason as something that humans possess that is unique from all other animals. In this case, men are simply rational animals. In this case, the capability of reasoning is the definitive feature of men. Aristotle’s definition does not capture the essence of the thing (Heinaman, 2018). According to Kant, Aristotle should define reason without mentioning human beings. Kant adds that besides reason, free will is another gift that nature has bestowed on human beings alone. Human beings, therefore, have the free will to use reason or not. In this case, Kant’s definition of free will is similar to Aristotle’s notion of choice (Darwall, 2018). He asserts that “the acts of the morally weak person are accompanied by appetite, but not the choice, while a morally strong person acts from choice, but not from appetite.” Kant’s theory on the other side does not agree with the similarity between choice and free will, according to him, people make choices because they have the free will.
In the book Groundwork, Aristotle defines happiness as physical wellbeing but not necessarily of a good life (Vaughn, 2015). Kant then possesses a notion of happiness as that contentment or desire of being satisfied. For long people have had arguments on what constitutes a good life and whose life is worthy to be called good. Aristotle considers a good life as objective and not subjective as presented by modern philosophers like Kant. In the spirit of relativism, just in the discussion of morality, some consider a good life as being wealthy or famous while others believe that that is entirely dependent on good works. In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle concluded that happiness must be attained from the premise that nature does nothing in vain (Heinaman, 2018). This reason is premised on the theory of final good though Kant argues that virtues in the context of morality should be pursued for their own sake. In his example, he talks of justice which is entirely good for what it is. Finally is the question of ethics, where Kant defines ethics as nothing other than the system of the morals that govern human behaviors (Darwall, 2018). Aristotle then views ethics as the intelligible framework that separates the evil from good. On this issue, the two theorists agree that ethics is a roadmap to attain morality.
The role of reason or happiness is to build goodwill. Goodwill and good choices go hand in hand with morality and ethics. The comparison between Kant and Aristotle presents the ancient debate that has existed between the virtue ethicists and the duty ethicists. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Kant’s Groundwork of Metaphysics of Morals are the main books that describe these differences. However, we must focus less on the technical differences between these ethical theories and focus more on how ethics should be applied in our lives.
Darwall, S. (2018). Philosophical Ethics: An Historical and Contemporary Introduction. Routledge.
Dierksmeier, C., Amann, W., Von Kimakowitz, E., Spitzeck, H., Pirson, M., & Von Kimakowitz, E. (Eds.). (2016). Humanistic ethics in the age of globality. Springer.
Heinaman, R. A. (2018). Aristotle and moral realism. Routledge.
Vaughn, L. (2015). Doing ethics: Moral reasoning and contemporary issues. WW Norton & Company.
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