Aristotelian philosophy, some two thousand three hundred years old, is perhaps one of the most influential philosophies in history. After being preserved by Arab scholars during the fall of Rome, the teachings of Aristotle were found by Christians during the dark ages. His works, including Nichomachean Ethics, were of great influence to many Christian philosophers during medieval times, but soon philosophies began to shift, marking the conception of the Enlightenment. Philosophy took a drastic shift from predominantly substantive reason to procedural views, markedly seen in works by philosophers St. Augustine, Rene Descartes, and quite notably Immanuel Kant.
By comparing the views shared by Aristotle in Nichomachean Ethics, and Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals it is possible to better understand the shift from substantive to procedural reasoning. Although Aristotelian philosophy and logic shares some common ground with the writings of Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals marks a shift from society and substantive thinking toward the self and procedural reason.
Kant believes that each living organism serves a purpose. For example, the highest purpose of a honey bee is undoubtedly to produce honey. Much in the same sense, Kant feels that because humans alone are given the ability to reason that the highest purpose of humanity is to use reason. (Groundwork, Ch. 1, Ln. 50-80) Aristotle would agree with this statement but uses a different logic. Aristotle sees an intrinsic good within every action, as well a hierarchy of goods and actions. Using the logic that any action partaken for the purpose of some greater cause is secondary to the greater cause, Aristotle reasons that for humans, the act of reasoning is of the greatest “good” because all other actions exist only to maintain the ability to reason. (NE, Bk.1 Pg. 1-2)
Between these two philosophies, the purpose of human reason differs based on what each philosopher believes to be the function of humanity within society. Aristotle states that because happiness is the ultimate goal of nearly all human actions (especially within what he considers one of the most important realms of humanity: political science) the purpose of humanity, and thus human reason, is to find happiness. (NE, Bk.1 Pg. 4) Kant, on the other hand, feeling that to succumb to the needs of the body and desires (what he calls heteronomy) is selfish, feels that it is the responsibility of humanity to use its reason to act out of “good will.” (Groundwork, Ch. 1, Ln. 3-5) Exemplifying the procedural nature of Kant’s logic, Kant feels that it is the duty of humanity to act only out of good will by using reason to determine what Kant calls the categorical imperative. Kant defines the categorical imperative as an act of good will which is preformed with no consideration to the ends, or consequences of an action. (Groundwork, Ch. 2, Ln. 280-300)
In the world of Aristotelian philosophy, the only way to truly attain the end goal of happiness is to be virtuous. (NE, Bk.1 Pg. 4) To define virtue Aristotle looks to society’s views of an individual. People praise a brave man for being brave and strong man for his ability to run quickly or lift great objects. (NE, Bk.1 Pg. 4) Because of the importance of society within Aristotle’s thinking, he feels that for a person to truly be virtuous, society must perceive desirable characteristics within that person and recognize those characteristics through praise. To illustrate and explain his organization of virtues and what is required of them, Aristotle uses the final paragraph of book one in Nicomachean Ethics:
“Virtue too is distinguished into kinds in accordance with this difference; for we say that some of the virtues are intellectual and others moral, philosophic wisdom and understanding and practical wisdom being intellectual, liberality and temperance moral. For in speaking about a man’s character we do not say that he is wise or has understanding but that he is good-tempered or temperate; yet we praise the wise man also with respect to his state of mind; and of states of mind we call those which merit praise virtues.” -Aristotle, (NE, Book 1, Final Paragraph)
Unlike Aristotle, Kant finds goodness not in the views of society, but instead finds goodness by turning inward and looking individual within one’s self and their exertion of good will. Kant feels that to express good will, an individual must use what he calls a priori reason. (Groundwork, Ch. 2, Ln. 280-300) A priori reason requires that the individual ignores subjective influences like consequences and circumstances. By focusing on objective means like morality and reason Kant suggests that the individual attempting to exert good will should act in a way that he or she would consider a moral maxim (categorical imperative). Kant thinks we must ignore the norms of society and the way society functions and act only using a priori reason because society inherently cannot function in an a priori fashion.
This is because society takes into account its own needs, desires, and calculates the consequences of its own actions while placing all of these things over pure reason and good will. By taking into consideration circumstances and consequences society fails to create universal moral law and thus contradicts its own reasoning because the actions of society are not appropriate in all situations and circumstances. (Groundwork, Ch. 2, Ln. 580-590) Should a man in need of money to buy food borrow money from a lending institution knowing that he will not be able to pay that institution back? Kant argues that that man should not, for if his decision were to become universal law and every man or woman were to borrow money without the intention of paying it back than lending institutions would fail. (Groundwork, Ch. 2, Ln. 590-605)
Aristotle, believing that society can teach its citizens to be virtuous (and thus happy), finds that virtues are not found intrinsically within each individual. For a person to be virtuous he must be born to a respectable family, for he were not born into respect then he would never be viewed by society with the same esteem as others. He must also not have any major disfigurations, for these too would lead to a lower value within society. Assuming these conditions are met, the individual may then begin to practice virtuous actions, because through habituation virtuous actions can become the nature of that individual, and that through practice an individual may grow to perform virtuous acts not out of desire to be virtuous, but because he simply enjoys the virtuous acts. Only if the individual finds pleasure in performing virtuous actions may that person be seen as virtuous within the eyes of society, for if pleasure is the end goal of humanity, then surely the enjoyment of virtuous acts is worthy of praise from society.
After outlining and discussing both Kant and Aristotle’s views on the purpose of humanity, its role within society and the moral and ethical consequences to those roles it is clear that Kant’s thinking is representative of enlightenment thinking. Before the Enlightenment Aristotle’s views were widely accepted. During this time it was customary that each person function in a manner accepted by society. Ethics and morality were dictated by social norms. The purpose of reason was seen as the pursuit of pleasure, and through virtue and the practice of virtuous actions reason could allow the individual to attain the end goal of life: happiness.
In response to Aristotle’s logic, a shift in thought occurs. This shift, called the Enlightenment, is represented by the belief that only pure reason can lead to true morality. The consequences of this belief is that individuals no longer focused on the norms within society to dictate morality, but to look within themselves to use their own reasoning to dictate what should and should not be done. An example of this thinking can be found in Kant’s beliefs about a priori reason and the categorical imperative. By ignoring consequences within society, as well as the ends attained by each possible action Kant feels each individual can find true moral goodness through pure reason. This type of procedural logic is representative of the moral and ethical “turn inward” which exemplifies Kant’s philosophy as well as the revolutionary shift thinking that became the basis of the Enlightenment.