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Compare and contrast Plato and Aristotle on the acquisition of ethical understanding.

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Introduction

Compare and contrast Plato and Aristotle on the acquisition of ethical understanding. It is almost impossible to have a universal definition of what ethics is, the only way to really observe it is in practise; how does ethics shape our lives and how is it acquired? Ethics applies to both us and the people around us and so is both politically important and important to the individual. Plato and Aristotle had contrasting opinions on both what ethics is, how it is useful and who can obtain it. I have chosen to focus on justice when considering the acquisition of ethics as I think that the two philosophers treat justice in increasingly different ways and that its relation to ethics as a subject allows an easier definition of ethics itself and the acquisition of it. Plato founded his Academy in Athens in 387 BC. It was an institution devoted to research and instruction in philosophy and the sciences and Plato taught there until his death in 347 BC. Plato had been disappointed for a long time over the way that politics was used as a instrument to gain power through corrupt means, rather than an education both for the politician themselves and for the people. To remedy this he believed that the men he taught would become statesmen, having had the moral education necessary to improve the political leadership in Greece. It was through his disillusionment with his own country's politics that he became to realise how important ethics was in both governing a state and also becoming a good person. In 367 BC, Aristotle became a student at Plato's Academy in Athens. At this point the Academy was highly involved in politics and this influenced Aristotle's views and life. Aristotle eventually became a teacher at the academy and for some time strongly supported Plato's views. Towards the end of his twenty years at the Academy his position became difficult to hold due to the political problems at the time and Aristotle found politics ...read more.

Middle

Similarly to practical wisdom, it is a matter of perception rather than principle. Justice can be seen as the product of ethical understanding as acting just is relevant both in living a virtuous and ethical life, but also developing a system for which the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people can be upheld; found in Plato's idea of the ideal state. Plato considers the unjust before assessing the just, and draws a parallel between the just person and the just state. He shows the state as a framework for ethical development, that acquiring ethics is possibly through the state itself. Plato however sites that the perfectly just society is one that, 'I doubt will ever exist on earth'. In this way, ethics through justice becomes an abstract theoretical issue, something unattainable, yet something that should still be strived for. Plato and Aristotle's study of ethics can be described as normative ethics; considerations are made to what is good and bad and how we decide what actions are right and wrong. However, Plato and Aristotle differ in which category of normative ethics they appear to agree with. Plato is a teleologist, described by C.D.Broad as, 'the rightness or wrongness of an action is always determined by its tendency to produce certain consequences which are intrinsically good or bad.' This is assumed from the fact that it is the Good and not justice which faces the greatest study. Justice is only what it is because of its relation to the Good; justice is simply a product of a utilitarian setting, where it enforces the greatest good and therefore the greatest happiness, rather than being a virtue in its own right. However, this view of Plato is criticised by Annas, who argued that Plato did not really represent utilitarian ideas at all, 'the consequence of justice is argued to be the agent's happiness' showing Plato as a believer in the greatest happiness for the individual. ...read more.

Conclusion

There is obviously times when things are inherently just or unjust but sometimes things must be judged on their situations, such as when a just legal system appears to provide an unjust outcome. Aristotle appears to argue for a more democratic society and also places a lot of weight on the development for the individual, such as the fact that anyone can become virtuous. Unlike Plato's quest for utility, Aristotle cites Eudemonia 'living well' as the greatest happiness for the individual, which appears to abolish the rigid class system that Plato argued for. In this way, the acquisition of justice and assumed acquisition of ethics, through learning the virtues or otherwise is available to anyone. Ethics, it appears, is handled differently by the two philosophers but they do agree that the consequences of actions to some extent determine their rightness or wrongness through normative ethics. The conclusive difference is that Plato's focus was on the greatest happiness for the greatest amount of people and therefore, ethics would represent a basis for making decisions based more on the group happiness rather than the individuals and so people who could understand this, would be the only ones who acquire ethics. Aristotle's focus being on the greatest happiness for the individual is pursued practically, by the individual themselves, showing ethics as being innate to the individual. It conclusively makes more sense why Plato cited the philosophers as the only people who could know things, as it is assumed that human nature allows us to make ethical judgements about ourselves and see the consequences of our actions. However, it would require an exterior knowledge that does not simply come from our experiences as an individual to be able to decide what is best for the greatest amount of people. So to conclude I would argue that Plato and Aristotle only disagree on who would acquire ethical understanding simply because they cite the use of this ethical understanding differently and have different aims for the society's understanding of ethics. ...read more.

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