Monday, 11 May 2015

Deontology in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics

For simplicity, hard lines are often drawn between Aristotle, Kant, and Mill, as ideal exemplars of virtue ethics, deontology, and consequentialism. However, whenever we look more closely, we will find a mixture of these 'systems' of ethics in each thinker. Or at least we can, depending on how we define our terms.

I have before me the Oxford Companion to Philosophy, which on pp.200-201 defines deontological ethics. It begins:
1. According to deontology, certain acts are right or wrong in themselves. ... Note that deontology is not the same as absolutism, according to which certain acts are wrong whatever the consequences
The second part of this will be addressed later. But the first part, that certain acts are right or wrong in themselves can be found almost verbatim in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, Book 2, Chapter 6, where Aristotle discusses virtues in terms of means between extremes:
But not every action or every passion admits of the mean, for some have names that are immediately associated with baseness-for example, spitefulness, shamelessness, envy, and, when it comes to actions, adultery, theft, and murder. For all these things, and those like them, are spoken of as being themselves base, rather than just their excesses or deficiencies. It is never possible, then, to be correct as regards them, but one is always in error; and it is not possible to do what concerns such things well or not well-by committing adultery with the woman one ought and when and as one ought. Rather, doing any of these things whatever is simply in error. 
 I think we can take "in error" to mean the same thing as "wrong". 

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