Aristotle’s Ethics and Its Impact on Women
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 that Aristotle didn’t direct his ethics toward women. It would be an
error to apply his moral philosophy as it stands to women because it was
not intended for this end. I mentioned above that Aristotle saw everything
as dependent on each other.
Thus changing the fact that women are inferior
to men would alter the whole system. However, the fact that women are
inferior to men seems incompatible with our world today. Therefore we need
to either find a way to reconcile the two perspectives or simply reject
Aristotle’s views because clearly an ethics that is only meant for half of
the population is not a correct set of ethics.
As a starting point to studying Aristotle’s ethics, we need to know
what his metaphysical perspective is because this influences his ethical
perspective. Aristotle believed that body and soul are one that the body
is the matter and the soul is the “life force.” (Biffle, p.286) By life
force Aristotle means the animating principle or that thing that makes
Aristotle believed that the body and the soul are united;
when you die your soul stops living and that is the end of you.
Furthermore, he did not believe in an afterlife (Biffle, p.312). Hence he
believed that the purpose of human life lies within this world. Another
important part of Aristotle’s metaphysics is that he wants to define the
nature of everything. To achieve this means he pursues aitia (the reason
for something happening) and he hopes to do this through the application of
his four causes.
When applying Aristotle’s four causes to humans we can
learn what their nature is: The material cause of humans is the human body.
The efficient cause of humans is the biological parents. The formal cause
of humans is the soul, specifically the “life force” and “the power of
reasoning in your soul.” Finally, the final cause, or purpose, of humans
is to achieve eudaimonia.
This begs the question: what is eudaimonia? Eudaimonia literally
means “life success” or “human flourishing.” (Biffle, p.289) To achieve
eudaimonia Aristotle argues that we need to try to achieve gratification in
the long run. Thus eating a cake will not give eudaimonia but pursuing a
life long good diet will. “The central good of a life is the one which, if
that life were rightly regarded as happy, would be the source of its being
a happy life.” (Broadie, p.26)Thus eudaimonia are goals that are ends in
This contrasts to subordinate ends. For example one lifts
weights to get strong, to look good, to get a girlfriend, and so on.
However, goods that are ends in themselves, such as reasoning, are
intrinsically superior and these are the goals that should be sought.
Since Aristotle claimed that “philosophical ethics is practical. ‘The end
is not knowledge but action.’ (Broadie, p.3) Thus we must know how to
apply his doctrines.
Christopher Biffle in Landscape of Wisdom summarizes Aristotle’s
doctrines from the Nichomachean Ethics into five main lessons. The first
lesson states that eudaimonia is achieved only by the use of our reason.
Reasoning is the unique human excellence and it is a worthy end in itself.
It enhances your life in training you to make proper choices. Aristotle’s
second lesson is that eudaimonia is “concerned with choosing the mean
between excess and deficiency.” Thus one must seek the middle ground in
everything. It is not good to have too much of one thing but likewise it
is not good to have too little of one thing.
Thus being able to practice
moderation requires that we make wise choices every day. Taking the middle
path will lead to a life full of success. If there is a constant
fluctuation in our life you will not be able to live a consistent life and
thus you will not live a fulfilling life. Aristotle points out that the
right amount one should have of something cannot be determined
mathematically, thus thinking that if too much money is one million dollars
and too little money is zero dollars then the mean should be half a million
dollars is wrong.
Furthermore, he states that the right amount is
different for everyone. Thus a professional soccer player should not eat
the same amount of meat as a bodybuilder. How then can we know what the
middle path is that will lead to human excellence? The right amount is
that which will satisfy you and maximize your gratification and
satisfaction for the longest time.
The third lesson Aristotle preaches is that a certain amount of
external good fortune is necessary to achieve eudaimonia. Physical and
familial blessings are a vital part of achieving welfare. Aristotle
states: “A man is not likely to be happy if he is very ugly, or of low
birth, or alone in the world, or childless, and perhaps still less if he
has worthless children or friends.” (Biffle, p. 290) Thus a man with a
good wife, good children, good friends, and such will live a better life
than he who has the opposite: a bad or no wife, bad or no children, enemies
instead of friends, etc.
The fourth lesson is that to achieve eudaimonia
one must be successful throughout your whole life. Having fleeing
instances of happiness or success will not yield eudaimonia. One must have
a constant supply of happiness and as such one must seek those things that
provide satisfaction for a long time. Thus having a wife will give you
more satisfaction than sleeping with a prostitute one night.
Finally, the fifth lesson for achieving “human flourishing is that the
philosopher leads the best of all possible lives.” (Biffle, p.290)
Aristotle gives three possible goals for life: physical pleasure, fame, and
wisdom. He rejects the life of physical pleasure as a good life to live
because this is like the life of a cow constantly chewing on grass. Thus
this life is akin to those of animals, and this is not worthy. The life of
fame is not desirable because it depends on what others think. To have
fame you must constantly cater to the needs of others and this is not what
is best for you, but what is best for others.
Finally, Aristotle praises
wisdom as the best goal because by seeking wisdom we “are contemplating the
largest questions that the human mind can pose.” (Biffle, p.290)
Furthermore, Aristotle argues that the life of the philosopher is
pleasurable and self-sufficient because “the wise man… is able to
contemplate truth even by himself, and the wiser he is the more he is able
to do this… he is more self-sufficient than anyone else.” (Biffle,
An important fact to keep in mind is that Aristotle considers politics
to be a key component of human nature. “To Aristotle, human beings are
political and social beings. Moral action is possible only within society
and community.” (Biffle, p.294) Thus Aristotle considers that everything
must be done within the scope of interaction with other humans.
Furthermore, “[p]olitics prescribes which of the sciences a state needs,
and which each man shall study, and up to what point; and to politics we
see subordinated even the highest arts, such as economy, oratory, and the
art of war.” (Biffle, p.295) Thus seeing the importance of politics
Aristotle argues that to achieve eudaimonia one must take an active
position in politics.
If one does the things prescribed by Aristotle, and is also fortunate
to have those things that are out of your control such as good looks, then
you will achieve eudaimonia. By achieving this you will live the best
possible life. Now we will go into the discussion of how the ethics of
Aristotle fits to women.
Aristotle, like Plato, accepted the doctrine that a difference in role
or pursuit be tied to a relevant difference in nature and at the same time
to reassert the claim of Gorgias that the virtues of women are different
from those of free men because their activities are different. (Barnes, p.
135) Thus Aristotle creates a political and psychological reason for
explaining the differences between men and women.
“In comparison with
man’s bodily condition the bodily condition of women is one of weakness,
and his comparative weakness points toward a retiring domestic role within
the home.” (Barnes, p.139) Furthermore, Aristotle argues that women’s
deliberative capacity is akuron, that is that it lacks authority and is
overruled easily. The woman’s “decisions and actions are too often guided
by pleasures and pains, so that she is unfitted for leadership and very
much in need of temperance.” (Barnes, p.139)
Having established this we see tat Aristotle holds women to a much
different standard that he does men. Just as he holds women to be
different from men in their nature, so he holds women to be different in
their virtues. Aristotle demands of women a virtue that reflects their
domestic role. (Barnes, p.137) Aristotle describes women’s virtues as
being two-fold: “in body, beauty and stature; in soul, self-command and an
industry that is not sordid.” A virtuous female must do the utmost to
present a presentable physical figure; she must also delight in hard work
and work hard. The most troubling fact is wondering whether women can live
a fulfilling life, or whether they are incapacitated of doing so because of
they cannot achieve eudaimonia.
Clearly Aristotle argues that women cannot
achieve eudaimonia because they cannot reason like men, and reasoning
properly is an integral part of achieving eudaimonia. If women act upon
the virtues enumerated by Aristotle, toiling long and hard hours, being
submissive to their husbands, keeping an orderly household, etc… will
they live a good life? Aristotle thinks so. However, this life will be
inferior to eudaimonia. Thus in Aristotle’s view women are doomed, by
nature, to live an inferior life than men.
Of course such the concepts Aristotle held of women regarding seem
nothing short of ludicrous to us today. Thus, we are left with the task of
understanding what to do with Aristotle’s ethics, should we try to
reconcile it with today’s views or should we outright reject it? In regard
to this question there are two opposing schools of feminist scholarship.
The first argues that all one must do to reconcile the present views of
women with Aristotle’s ethics is to simply reject the doctrines that
Aristotle mentioned regarding women being inferior and such and apply his
ethics of “free men” and eudaimonia equally to everyone. This is a
tempting option as we may feel that Aristotle was simply mistaken in his
regards to women.
After all, don’t women really have equal reasoning and
cognitive as males? Since this is true, then it follows that everything
Aristotle said regarding “free men” must also be true for women. An
advocate of this includes Charrlote Witt who argues “that you can take away
some of the doctrines that argue that women are inferior to men without
affecting Aristotle’s ethics.” (Witt) The opposing school of scholarship
argues that gender doctrines cannot be removed from Aristotle’s theories
without altering other theories.
“For example, in “Woman Is Not a Rational
Animal”, Lynda Lange argues that Aristotle’s theory of sex difference is
implicated in every piece of Aristotle’s metaphysical jargon, and she
concludes that “it is not at all clear that it [Aristotle’s theory of sex
difference] can simply be cut away without any reflection on the status of
the rest of the philosophy.” (Witt) These scholars thus argue that the
only values that feminists can get from studying Aristotle are learning
about the ways in which the philosophical tradition has devalued women.
I do not believe that you can just ignore some parts of Aristotle’s
works and keep the rest intact. Aristotle interconnected every discipline:
ethics, politics, metaphysics, biology, psychology, etc… In Aristotle’s
understanding nothing was completely isolated. Thus you cannot take his
ethic principles and apply them wherever you want. He intended these rules
to apply to “free men” in the Athenian polis. Thus I cannot see how you
can simply ignore one section, especially one as influential as his views
on gender, and believe that the other sections will remain untouched. As a
matter of fact, I go as far as to argue that Aristotle’s ethics, as they
stand, is not very valuable in itself in term of applicability.
But Aristotle argued that the main strength of his philosophy was that it was
actually applicable. Aristotle claimed that “philosophical ethics is
practical. ‘The end is not knowledge but action.’ (Broadie, p.3) The reason
why I think this is so is that Aristotle viewed his ethics in regard to
everything that he thought was true. However as science has progressed we
see that his views on such basic things as psychology no longer hold true.
Thus we see that his views are becoming outdated.
I believe that the true influence of Aristotle rests on how he can influence future philosophers
who will try to create an ethical system that will be befitting to our
times. I heard just a couple of weeks ago something that surprised (and
angered) me a little. A fellow philosophy student told me, “I don’t know
why you study ancient philosophy so much. If Aristotle and Plato would
have had discovered everything there was to know about philosophy then we
wouldn’t still be struggling to find even the most basic philosophical
At the time I felt mad because I have given a heavy emphasis
on my studies of philosophy in ancient philosophy. However, I had to admit
that he had a point and I could see this more clearly applying to Aristotle
than Plato. Aristotle’s philosophy heavily relied on scientific
assumptions that simply do not hold today. Furthermore, we see that
Aristotle’s views of politics and ethics are so specific that many concepts
-such as those of having slaves do all our work for us- are simply
The reason why Plato is superior to Aristotle in
regard to having a useful philosophy is that Plato sought unchanging
truths; the virtues. Meanwhile Aristotle wanted an applicable philosophy.
However, the fact that their philosophies are not applicable today does not
subtract from the influence of either philosopher has had in modern
thought. However, I feel that the applicability of Aristotle’s theories are
no longer valid and that we should rely on more modern philosophies that
account for our current, more updated, views.
Barnes, Johnathan. Articles on Aristotle: Ethics and Politics.
Biffle, Christopher. Landscape of Wisdom. Mayfield, 1999.
Broadie, Sarah. Ethics With Aristotle. Oxford, 1991.
On, Bat-Ami. Engendering Origins: Critical Feminist Readings in Plato
and Aristotle. State University of New York, 1994.
Witt, Charrlote. Stanford Internet Encyclopedia. Feminism/ Ancient