A Problem with Aristotle's Ethical Essentialism

By Machan, Tibor R. | Libertarian Papers, January 2010 | Go to article overview

A Problem with Aristotle's Ethical Essentialism


Machan, Tibor R., Libertarian Papers


This discussion is motivated by both my sympathy with Aristotle's meta-ethics and my problems with certain elements of his ethics. I consider naturalist cognitivism sound. Ethics has to do with the nature of the being to which the principles, virtues, guidelines to action or what have you, apply. When we judge something good, we do so because we know what kind of thing it is and then check whether it is fully consistent with the implications of its nature. So a tomato is a good one if it is as fully developed in its essential respects as possible. With human beings, too, they are good ones of their kind if their essential or central potentialities are fully realized in their particular circumstances. That seems like a very promising way to tell whether something is good or bad or mediocre, despite a good deal of derision the approach has received throughout the history of ideas.

Though Aristotle's meta-ethics has much going for it, there are some liabilities that arise from how he establishes the nature of the human good, namely, by reference to the distinctive human essence, not human nature itself. Because of this Aristotle stresses rationality, not being a rational animal, as normatively central in his philosophy. In consequence, he can favor at least a certain type of slavery and entertains certain misguided notions about the proper place of women. And there is also his conception of wealth seeking as of merely instrumental value, not capable of being a virtuous pursuit.

So I am trying to figure out if there is some way to rescue the naturalism without throwing out the baby with the bath water, as it were. I believe the problems in Aristotle can be fixed and that's what I want to address.

To start with, even though naturalism may well be sound, essentialism might not be, given a certain way of understanding the essence of something--namely what differentiates it from its genus. It is quite possible for one to arrive at a misconception of the nature of something by focusing only on the differentia and neglecting the genus. Such a misunderstanding can result in the distortion of standards, very likely leading to misjudgments as to what is good or bad, right or wrong.

This discussion is motivated, as noted before, by my concern with another area, namely, professional--in particular business--ethics. I am very concerned, in my scholarship and teaching of business ethics over the years, that there is a basic bias against the professional of business. There has always been this problem of where the idea comes from that business somehow does not manage to be as honorable a profession, akin to education, medicine or even law. In my view some elements in Aristotle's ethics contribute to this bias and I think that some corrective adjustment in Aristotle's conception of human nature would also help to see business as every bit as honorable a profession as many of these others are. One often hears the response when one tells of teaching business ethics, "Well, isn't that an oxymoron?" Nobody says that with medical ethics. They do say that with military intelligence, and people in the business world are often denigrated in literature. In works such as Death of a Salesman people who are in sales and marketing and business in general, from top to bottom, come out looking pretty bad.

Generally, the culture is ambivalent about business so that as much as we depend upon the works of people in this profession, they are morally evaluated mainly on the pro bono work they do or do not do. In short, whether they are socially responsible. While few ask a teacher, "Have you taught the poor lately?" because teachers are morally upstanding by virtue of being teachers, that's not so with people in business.

Where does the intellectual support for this come from? You can find it certainly, first of all, in Plato's Socrates--or, let me say in deference to certain specialists in Plato's philosophy, a certain prominent rendition of Plato's Socrates.

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