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Aristotle: Nichomachean Ethics Essay, Research Paper
As adolescents growing up in such turbulent times, it is often difficult for persons of my young age to make decisions that are both rational and moral. I have watched a countless number of my peers make decisions that they understood to be immoral. Whether or not they were simply trying to “fit in” or avoid peer pressure, I cannot say. I can only say that I observed this with sadness. For I only wish that my friends could have the strength to believe in their morals, values and reason that are the roots of their very existence and not have to resort to acting out of their desire to be accepted.
I feel a sense of sadness because I know in my own life, I have developed a moral system that allows me to make decisions without a question or doubt. It is this system that allows me to face situations with the knowledge that I will come out ahead. It is true that the majority of what I believe to be moral can be attributed to my parents and the values they have instilled in me. For example, I have been told from an early age that lying is wrong. My experiences as I have grown older, and the constant reminder from my parents have only shown this value to hold consistent moral worth. However, my education, socialization and firm faith have only been the stepping stones to becoming a righteous individual. As a thinking, rational being, I see it as my duty to take this basis to a higher level. I must be able to critique my thought processes and analyze them in order to understand fully the roots of my very existence. Only then can I find myself on the road to becoming a mature and original thinker.
In addition to the moral framework that I have received from my parents, I have also instilled in myself another system that adds to and enhances the already existing one. The basis of this moral code stems from the inspirational work of art known as “Desiderata” by Max Ehrmann. There is a quote from this piece that I continually strive to base my life around. This quote states:
You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.”
The preceding passage emits to me several sentiments, which are the basis of my morality and my value system. First, I believe passionately and deeply that each and every being deserves and should demand the respect that they are due. No one being is above another and no one being should ever be treated as if they were anything less than the rational creature that they are. Second, stemming from respect, each being has the right to make their own decisions. I, and only I, am able to decide what is right for me. I am truly the master of my own destiny and not a single other person has the right to decide what is right for my life or me. Thirdly, as the master of my own destiny, I believe that reason is the master over my passions. Without this precept, my actions would not be chosen out of rationality or coherence in their justifications. Attempting to lead a wholesome life sans this principle may prove to be quite difficult.
With these principles in mind, I am constantly forced to make decisions about what is right and wrong. Above all, my reason drives me towards being a moral individual. Those actions that I choose to partake in are those that conform to my moral system and I therefore believe to be virtuous. Although it is nearly impossible to understand exactly how each and every choice is made, I do know that my reasoning powers irrefutably play an immense role in that process. It is not often that I let my passions run away with my mind passively in store. With every challenge and obstacle that I face, small or large, my reasoning powers continuously take into account all sides, hemming and hawing over which elements carry more weight. My reason considers all facts, influences, and possible consequences and makes a judgement based on their parallelism with my method of morality.
As I have contemplated my morality and approach to moral decisions, I have come to find that my moral system is most similar to that of Aristotle and his Virtue Theory of morality. Aristotle offers his theory of virtue through his Nichomachean Ethics. Aristotle is concerned primarily with molding virtuous people and shaping society into one that flourishes through morality. The virtues that drive the moral system of Aristotle are formed by means of habits and settled dispositions. It is not enough merely to know what is right or just but one must practice such things day in and day out in order to truly be virtuous. Through education and extensive training, Aristotle believes that any rational human being can become a virtuous person. It is the creation of these educated and habitual beings that Aristotle is primarily concerned with and above all, the end to all our moral actions is to develop good character.
According to Aristotle, we are not born knowing exactly what makes us moral or which actions are inherently good. It is therefore the role of parents and society to teach children which actions are exemplary and virtuous. He believes that as children, we learn by example. As we see those around us committing moral acts, we too will begin to mold our impressionable lives around such deeds. Eventually, those virtuous actions will become to us habits, behaviors that we shall take part of on a regular basis. The virtues that make us moral people will become things that we don’t even think about such as brushing our teeth. The habit of virtue will come to those who practice that moral act and take pleasure in doing so. Aristotle thought that this habitual practice of virtuous activities is the one necessary prerequisite to attaining ultimate happiness.
In presenting his moral system, Aristotle is also concerned with understanding what is the “good life” or eudiamonia of human beings. It is doubtful that Aristotle had in mind the retired statesman with a cigar in one hand and a martini in the other. According to Aristotle material things such as wealth, power and pleasure are not the ultimate “good” for they are short-lived. Wealth, power and pleasure may come and go with the sun whereas the supreme good is believed to be self-sufficient by all means. In addition, Aristotle believes that the ultimate good should be 100% fulfilling. One should never be able to add to it for as the absolute good, it should be able to sustain us in all situations.
For Aristotle, this ultimate “good” comes in the form of reason. According to Aristotle, reason and reason alone gives us the ability to be virtuous beings. He believes that the only activity that is sustainable and not a means to something else is that of reason or contemplation. In opposition to the wealth and power of the statesman, the life of reason and thought is self-sufficient and fulfilling in and of itself.
Yet, how do we know that reason is the “good” act for humans? One of Aristotle’s main arguments consists of answering this very question. Aristotle presupposes that everything in nature has a function by which makes it unique. He claims that to know if something is inherently good, we must look towards its purpose or function and whether or not the entity is performing its function in the correct manner. For example, a good car will run well or a good axe will chop well. By asking the question, “What is the unique function of humans?” we can only answer that is our ability to reason. The reasoning power of human beings is the one thing that sets us apart from the animals and the plants. This being concluded, Aristotle also believes that we can state that a good human will reason well.
As reasoning beings, we are then able to use our unique function to determine which acts are good and should be acted upon. Aristotle declares that good acts are those that are completed in moderation. There must be neither a lack nor an excess of the virtue relative to each separate situation. It is through this Doctrine of the Golden Mean by which we are to choose which acts are virtuous. For example, courage is the mean between cowardice and foolhardiness. According to Aristotle, only those acts that are courageous are to be done. Anything other than acting out of courage would not be virtuous. Yet a problem is posed if the Golden Mean is to be applied in all situations that require a free choice. There are some actions in which a middle ground does not exist. There is no mean between murdering someone and sparing his or her life. The respect for one’s existence seems to take precedence in all circumstances.
With all this said, my moral system of respect and reasoning seem to correlate closely to those of Aristotle and his Virtue Theory of ethics. As I attempt to live my life in a virtuous manner I am also striving to make the world around me a better place, so far as my meager efforts will permit. To demonstrate this and the commonalties between Aristotle and myself, I shall present an ethical issue and the process of making a final decision.
As a student of business and commerce, who will one day become an accountant, I will be required to submit myself to several codes of ethics and will no doubt be bound to them in all situations. Deviation from such ethical codes, such as the divulgence of insider information, would most likely to lead to serious consequences including the possible loss of my Public Accountant certification. Although I understand such consequences, there may come a time when I must call into question my moral beliefs and what is most important to me.
The following ethical question was brought up on the State University of New Jersey Rutgers Accounting Web (RAW) site:
You work for an Accounting Firm and you are auditing company X. During the audit you receive insider information that the company is in severe financial problem. Your father then calls you and tells you that he has invested his entire retirement fund into company X.
Do you tell your father about the company’s situation or not?
Upon first looking at this issue, my gut instinct was to say, “Of course I would tell him. Do I really want to see my father end up in financial ruin with no retirement funds?” It’s hard to believe that anyone would honestly want to see that happen to a family member.
Although instinct is often an excellent guide as to what is acceptable behavior, I feel that this situation calls for deeper thought and insight. For this, I shall call upon Aristotle. What would Aristotle do in this situation? Would Aristotle’s Virtue Theory support my moral system and decision making strategies in this situation? If I were to embrace an inflexible Aristotelian analysis of this issue, would I be forced to change my evaluation of the issue at hand? To answer these questions, I must look towards my decision making process and whether or not Aristotle would agree.
The first question that arose when I was presented with this issue was directed towards an end or consequence. “Who would benefit the most or whose happiness should take more precedence in this situation?” Should I think first of my father and the possible loss of his retirement funds? Should I think first of myself and the code of ethics that I have been submitted to as an accountant? Or should I think first of Company X that could lose the much needed revenue from clients such as my father? The validity of such inquiries cannot be refuted. However, Aristotle might say that I need only ask myself one question: “Will my actions make me virtuous?” The making of a virtuous and just person has already been shown to be Aristotle’s chief matter when scrutinizing moral issues.
The final decision is made through the application of Aristotle’s Golden Mean. I must find the middle ground between breaking my oath to my code of ethics and letting my father invest his entire savings into a dying company. Fortunately, the Golden Mean seems to provide a satisfying answer to the moral course of action in this case. I most certainly cannot tell my father the insider information that I am aware of from both a legal and ethical perspective. Even if the news about company X were good, I could not morally divulge any information. However, I cannot also stand by silently and let my father make a dreadful mistake by investing all of his money. The middle ground to this situation seems to be talking to my father about the consequences of investing his entire retirement fund into a single company. Not mentioning any company names or types of investments, I would attempt to discourage him from risking his money in a sole company, one that is flourishing or otherwise.
Adopting an Aristotelian approach to moral situations would not require my life to change dramatically. It seems as though, with my desire to be a virtuous person and maintaining my reasoning powers, allows me to make many of the same decisions that I feel Aristotle would have made. As I face battles, obstacles and choices day in and day out, it is often hard to keep my passions in check and make decisions based on what is moral and just. Yet as a strong-willed and determined individual, I strive each day to use my reasoning powers not only to make the correct choices but also to guide my life towards one that is complete and satisfying.
Johnson, Oliver A. Ethics: Selections from Classical and Contemporary Writers, Eighth
Edition. Harcourt Brace College Publishers. Fort Worth, TX. 1994.
Pojman, Louis P. Ethics: Discovering Right and Wrong, Second Edition. Wadsworth
Publishing Company. Belmont, CA. 1995.
State University of New Jersey, Rutgers Accounting Web (RAW).
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