The new morality and the way of Aristotle

The new morality and the way of Aristotle

Should a person tell a lie? Or should any man or woman engage in premarital sex? Or may abortion be performed on a woman? The foregoing issues are a few of the thousand and one common yet critical problems that pressingly demand answers resolved in the individual’s forum of conscience. How would a situationist go about these problems? And what would Aristotle, the Greek encyclopedic thinker, have to say about the same?

This essay is concerned in the main with mapping out of commonalities in the working approaches of the two aforementioned types of casuists that are separated from each other by some two thousand four hundred years. Hence, I have advisedly used the connective “and” in our title, the assumption being that the two concepts in fact lend themselves to comparison. Then after a comparative analysis of the philosophic procedure of Situation Ethics, so called The New Morality, and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, a look at how the methodologies of the two ethical theories work with our sample questions will be done. This will be followed by some concluding comments about the implications of both ethical systems to the moral problems facing humans in contemporary society.

Situation Ethics has emerged out of a markedly 20th century syndrome: the philosophic movement that posits an absurd world devoid of meaning in which man himself is solely responsible in creating the values he chooses to live by and the sociological phenomenon of secularization in which the temporal process of changing the world devolves squarely upon man’s shoulders and not thrown up upon some transcendent, providential Heaven. Harvey Cox observes: “Paul Tillich once called this age…’the land of broken symbols’–an apt image. Secular man’s values have been deconsecrated, shorn of any claim to ultimate significance. Like nature and politics, they are no longer the direct expression of Divine will.”1  In the wake of this distinctively modern, or postmodern, developments, we see man fall back upon himself, alienated, quite bewildered, and virtually left with nothing but his terrible freedom.

The pagan ethics of Aristotle, on the other hand, was written in the 4th century B.C. as a carryover of an anthropocentric concern so characteristic of Hellenic culture over the question of man’s place in the universe, the nature of his being and the meaning of his existence. And Aristotle, in trying to make sense of human life and its purpose, charted his way through the ticklish issue by making man himself as the point of departure. This is to say that he made man himself the standard and not some outside measure. It is in this respect that Aristotle broke faith with some fundamental points in the philosophic idealism of his teacher Plato, especially with respect to the treatment of the ethical question of human good and evil.

Then, of course, it goes without saying that across the centuries, from Aristotle or even Plato and the pre-Socratics to the modern-day situationists, many a different ethical systems were fashioned to suit the temper and exigencies of the times or particular epoch. Yet the methods of the whole spectrum of Western moral philosophies may be narrowed down, notwithstanding the various shades in-between, to two diametrically opposed philosophic approaches, namely the Platonic and the Aristotelian. And just as the procedure in Nicomachean ethics in dealing with  moral questions developed in reaction to Platonism, so the situationist approach may be said to be an index of the modern temper, a struggle of sorts against the crippling constraints of Sunday school morality. It is in this regard that both ethical philosophies share a common denominator. The situationist pits himself against the moral absolutes of traditional church morality with all its emphasis on guilt and repentance; Aristotle directed his assault against the universals of Plato who looks upon matter as an insubstantial will-o’-the-wisp.

What course of action should an individual take in the face of problems that call for sound moral judgment such as those which we have posed at the outset? Are there universal norms by which the morality of human acts may be gauged once and for all? The schoolmen have provided them in black-and-white. The situationist would reply by saying that everything is relative. And because human reality is characterized, among other things, by eternal flux, it is claimed that there is thereby no ultimate yardstick that can correctly measure the multifaceted terrain of human behavior, in the same manner that no prefabricated shoe-model can fit everybody’s feet or even those of a single individual at various stages of growth. Situationism is case-oriented, that is, it proceeds by factoring in the ensemble of circumstances surrounding the act, and only in accordance with the demands of the particular case in a given context that a decision or moral pronouncement is made.

Aristotle, in a similar vein, begins with particular perceptual fact. As a relativist, he too recognizes no immutable standard of moral truth. His ethics reasons to first principles (a posteriori), not from them (a priori). In Aristotle’s conception, individual things are the primary substance, a view that runs counter against Plato’s universal ideas having an absolute and eternal, objective existence in some sort of supra-mundane realm of the universe. Like his situationist brother, he does full justice to the concrete particularity of individual facts, for, in his methodology, the concrete fact is the beginning, the starting point. He says: “… When we are treating of conduct, it is experience of the facts of life that is the test of truth, for here it is experience that has the last word. We are bound then in our ethical studies to bring our preliminary statement of the case to the test of the facts of life….”2  And in view of the irregular character of the empirical data of human acts, no preconceived deductions can adequately deal with them. Therefore, the procedure which Aristotle deemed proper to ethics as a practical field of study is descriptive rather than prescriptive, that means working with contingent thing as the given, he goes on to make deliberative choice without forgetting that his moral choice are not 100% demonstrable. This is actually non-arbitrary, even superior, compared to imposing conceptual categories on the given whose uniqueness all too often escapes the pale of general codes that more often than not are but mental constructs.

The relativization of absolute values, however, may carry with it its own seeds of danger–that of absolutizing the relative. And this can easily fall into ethical anarchism. To grant that one man’s meat is another man’s poison is to grant that all things are absolutely relative–which is to ultimately grant that anything goes. If any man must subjectively decide for himself what is good or bad, then morality suffers the existentially conditioned and circumscribed perspective of the individual. To claim that what I personally think is right is the right certainly amounts to solipsism pure and simple.

Modern situation ethics, in the formulation of Joseph Fletcher, parries the objection by   contending that ethics is relational. It operates by testing the truth of morality in the crucible of interpersonal relationships. Man does not act ethically except in relationship to himself and his fellow man. His actions are done relative to the human social context. Hence, situation ethics is personalistic. In other words, it is other-directed. It asks the moral agent, in coming to grips with the conflicting points in a dilemma, to do the most loving thing under the circumstances. It is not just a question of doing or acting according to the requirements of the occasion simply because one is left, after the manner of a despairing Stoic, with no choice but to adapt his will to the inexorable scheme of things he cannot alter. It is a question of willing the greatest good of the individual, his well-being, after the shape and every angle of the human setting have been duly taken into consideration.

The situationist’s invocation of the love ethic while declaring all other moral laws to be relative appears to be a logical self-contradiction comparable to the self-contradiction of the postmodernist when he declares that “all absolute principles are not true.” But love actually lends a liberating dimension to the rigidity of “absolute relativism,” a phrase, which is no less a contradiction in terms. How else, indeed, can one transcend the hard-and-fixed confines of an otherwise subjective morality without at the same time losing sight of the particulars of the given case except by the introduction of an ethic of concern, an outgoing regard for the individual for his own sake? It is assumed that a human agent, acting on the path of love, cannot err in matters moral. The situationist’s categorical imperative is the Augustinian precept “Love and do what you will.” The corollary to that may be stated thus: “The only sin is the failure to love.” The whole of the law and the prophets was summed up by Jesus Christ in terms of the command to love God, to love God in the neighbor, and to love the latter as one’s self. Immanuel Kant’s second maxim has special relevance here. It says: “Treat persons as ends, never as means.” Fletcher writes in a similar vein: “Love is of people, by people, and for people. Loving actions are the only conduct permissible.”3

In saying that man is a social animal, Aristotle shares the situationist’s recognition of the centrality of the social dimension in human reality. That is why he made politics an integral part of the study of ethics. That is also why he devoted Bks. VIII & IX of the Nicomachean Ethics to a longish discussion of the subject of friendship in which he discussed the moral significance of “Philia” (love between friends) as an essential component of man’s life as a social being. In fact he describes here the good qualities of those who lay down their lives for others—prefiguring a few hundred years the man who, in a supreme act of self-giving, acted out his very own words: “Greater love hath no man than this that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

Within the frame of reference of the body politic, Aristotle first focused his field of vision to an in-depth study of man as the ethical subject. Unhampered by no preconceived notions of man, he proceeds with the teleological observation that all things have a purpose and that the good of every natural thing is its ideal development. Man qua man has a function, a purpose, the realization of which constitutes his final good. To know the end of man as man is also to get at his essence. Now, man is a thinking entity. Since his reason defines his uniqueness, it follows that the intellect is the man. It is his soul’s essence. Therefore, in the soul’s activity of mentation—not found among the lower animals—man attains his full human possibilities. Virtue or human excellence can only consist in a life lived in accordance with reason, and this is something which every man, or woman, at least potentially, can achieve. Morality which consists of acts governed by intelligence can only bring us “happiness” which is Aristotle’s name for the final good. It can be gathered from all this that our philosopher lays stress upon the paramount importance of the role of inductive reason in his ethical system. His categorical command would bid us to reason well, and act accordingly. For, what is moral but the reasonable; and what is immoral but the unreasonable. Furthermore, the right is that which accords with practical reason, the wrong is that which goes against our better knowledge.

It behooves man as a moral agent to keep his aim centered at the target. In Aristotle’s parlance, the bull’s eye, as earlier mentioned, is the good of man, which is in his power to attain. Reason, as the marksman’s weapon in this case, can however fall short of the mark because of putting the critical sense to sleep by letting his baser element get the better of it. Now, the target, which is man’s good, is hit by keeping to what lies midway between the extremes of human conduct. By avoiding the too much and the too little, one treads upon the middle course of moral excellence. Continence, temperance, courage, etc. are some of the moral virtues developed by veering away from the polar end of vice. The “Golden Mean” also works with justice especially the distributive kind, though not the rectificatory one that seeks to restore balance between unequal categories.

There is another aspect of reason that is capable of bringing the human person not just his good but his summum bonum: the theoretical intellect. The end-all and be-all of human existence as far as Aristotle’s thinking goes, is the contemplation of the eternal. For him, this constitutes the highest activity man can ever engage in. The happiest man is the contemplative man. Philosophic wisdom is all a man needs if he is to transcend his humanity and realize the divine element in his frame. For the contemplation in question is not a quest for the truth, but the contemplation of the Truth. This is a reaching out of the mind towards the infinite in such a way that one becomes mystically identified with that which is contemplated and, in the process, become all the greater for it. Obviously, it is now the Platonic influence in Aristotle (having been Plato’s student) that is talking to us in this fashion. And as if to hold himself in check, the Aristotle in Aristotle hastens to remind us that all this is well and good, only that there is a need for us to remember that we are still in or of the world and must of necessity bring ourselves back from our metaphysical never-never land, if we have ever been to it, into the order of mundane reality, and once again relate ourselves to the stream of historical process. For the experiential knowledge of the truth, if obtained, must be put at the service of humanity in order to have any significance at all. Otherwise, it all becomes a sterile accomplishment.

If in the Nicomachean ethics Aristotle permitted himself, at least for a moment, the luxury of such philosophic flights, it must be for the sake of consistency. Having singled out reason as the very heritage of man that links him to the Divine, Aristotle cannot but be drawn to the inevitable conclusion that with it man can aspire to scale the heights where the gods dwell as it were. But it is a mark of his genius that he did not thereby invoke divine sanctions in explaining human conduct. Instead, he had concentrated upon an empirical analysis of the inner dynamics of the soul as the wellspring of action at the same time also included motive, memory or lack of it, intention, passion and the like as factors to reckon with in determining the shape of behavior as well as the extent of moral responsibility. For man, first and foremost, is a living being, not a marionette on strings. As Aristotle says: “No living process can be thought of as devoid of psyche for it is the first principle of living things.”4 Without such basic understanding of the human framework, any moral philosophy purporting to serve as a guide to human action would be doomed to be superficial, to say the least. Without a proper understanding of the psychological mechanism of behavior, any sweeping categorization of an ethical subject as either moral or immoral betrays myopic self-righteousness. It is nothing short of cruelty, for instance, to apply to a person the full force of the law without looking into the conglomeration of forces behind the act.

It should be evident by now that just as the Nicomachean ethics must have been revolutionary during Aristotle’s time, so is situation ethics during our time. Both of them sound off a clarion call to set matters back in their proper perspective: Aristotle by arguing in effect that any study of man should begin with man himself as an empirical fact, and the situationist, especially the Christian brand, by insisting that in case of conflict between the impersonal universal and the personal particular, the latter should prevail. Aristotle thinks that reason is man’s redemptive faculty, the situationist believes love will save the world, that is, love in the agapeic sense. Both together, the pagan’s reason and the situationist’s love, would not abandon flesh-and-blood human being for the sake of lifeless abstraction.

From what has been said all along, it may more or less be surmised how the relativist approach would tackle the specific problems of morality sampled in this article at the outset. To lie or not to lie, to fornicate or not to fornicate, to abort or not to abort—those are the questions.

The situationist would proceed by considering the particulars of the given case. It all depends upon the circumstances, he would characteristically say beforehand.  He will demand to be told the whole story, fleshed out with the factual details. To lie or not to lie? Well, to begin with, who lies to whom? And what are the four other W’s? Should one, let us say, lie to the would-be murderer the whereabouts of his intended victim? By all means. Lying in this case is the same as merely withholding the truth. Besides, life is of greater moment and depth than the academic question whether the greater lie is white or nonwhite, material or formal. Only an exteme legalist of Shylock’s cast of mind can betray that victim. People of that kidney would subscribe to Cardinal Newman’s view as quoted by Fletcher that it were “far better for the sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the millions who are upon it to die of starvation in extremist agony…than that one soul, I will not say should be lost, but should commit one single venial sin.”5 The situationist simply refuses to stick to the letter that kills but abides by the spirit that gives life.

What about fornication, abortion and the like? The conservative moralist would surely be appalled by the situationist’s answer that even these may be permitted too. But, of course, the contextualist has to go through the same thoroughgoing analysis of each cases with an eye for details that turn on the green light. He makes sure that his decision is steeped in agape strictly understood as loving-kindness. The question of having sex before or outside marriage is okayed not to humor libertine licentiousness. It is given the go-signal only if and when the individual’s well-being is secured and no one gets reduced to the status of an object or one’s dignity trampled upon. The same principle, but not rule, the situationist applies to the matter of abortion. The ramifications of the case are scrutinized with extra-careful attention: the woman involved, her emotional, mental and physical health, the legality or illegality of impregnation, the man’s identity, the state of his sanity, the stage of foetal development, etc. Then after a painstaking scrutiny, judgment is reached on the basis of the greatest good served. So, if the woman concerned happens to be an idiot forcibly taken advantage of by a sex-maniac, and the foetus is in the very early stages of germination, the question of abortion becomes academic. Often it is the labels we use that screen us from the ramifications of a problem, get stuck at them as a kind of straitjacket and eventually come up with an unfair decision.

Aristotle would have no pat and ready-made answers to the problems in question. Presumably he would invariably say yes or no to lying, sex, and abortion after rigorously subjecting each of them to the test of reasonableness. He would start with an examination of the bare facts and proceed to inquire into the whole array of ends and means. To be sure, lies are not told for their own sake. If it stands to reason that human truth is best served by a harmless lie, then one may do so without remorse. Similarly, if the consummation of sex under the given circumstances promotes an end that is its own justification such as restoring the psychophysical balance of the individuals concerned, it is unwise to stand in its way. On the other hand, if the harm that the act produces far outweighs the good, say, doing violence to the sense of integrity or dignity of the sex partner or whetting the performers’ libido to the point of turning them to slaves of passion or even sex machines, then Aristotle would intervene in the name of justice in the former instance and temperance in the second. As regards abortion, he would consider if the end is of such overriding importance as to necessitate or justify its performance. Thus, if the mother’s life is at stake, humanitarian considerations will deem it to her best interest to nip the embryonic bud as a precarious growth in her system.

There emerges out of the Nicomachean ethics an implicit faith that reason would not turn upon itself and will its own destruction. Being its own arbiter, reason can only will its own good. No wonder, then, that Aristotle rests upon the cornerstone of reason the whole structure of his ethical system. But man, rational animal that he is, does not always listen to reason. As he himself quite rightly admits near the end of Ethics, the average individual cannot be changed by the use of arguments. Man’s soul appears to be so immersed in materiality that it takes almost superhuman effort on his part to transcend himself. In fact, he finds excuses for his endless foibles and say with Pascal that the heart has its own reasons which reason cannot understand. But the truth is that, as revealed in the studies of modern scientists and thinkers, he is much else besides. Even so, Aristotle’s principle of moderation and his uncompromising conviction that other than the bar of reason and experience, there is no ultimate arbiter to appeal to—all these ring out across the ages to modern man with a note of urgency.

The situationist puts Aristotle’s self-absorbed reason at the service of love, the all-embracing kind that, like the sun, reaches out to saints and sinners alike. But while it may be understood at least conceptually, it may fail to sink into the consciousness of contemporary man. Ivan Karamazov, the tormented intellectual in Dostoevsky’s masterpiece, remarked that he can love man in the abstract but finds it simply difficult to love man in the concrete.6 Love, like Aristotle’s reason, demands of man to curb the Yahoo7 component in his nature and aspire to become like gods. It is actually a call to heroism. In declaring all moral laws to be relative, situation ethics frees modern man from the fetters of rigid rules. Yet in holding as absolute the one exception which is the command to love, it has placed upon his shoulders a deadweight only individuals of Christ’s caliber can carry. The senseless orgies of bloodbath in which humankind has twice been involved attests to the fact that people have not till now fully learned their lesson of love. But from the moment love or agape gets internalized or woven into the moral fiber of man, it is not wishful thinking to expect the emergence in our world of Maurice Nicoll’s new man8 or even Krishnaji’s new human being9.


1Harvey Cox, The Secular City (Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books Ltd., 1965, 1966), p.44.

2Ethics, Chap VIII, Bk X, 308-309.

3Joseph Fletcher, Situation Ethics (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1976), p. 51.

4De Anima, 420a.


6Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. by Constance Garnet (New York: New American Library, 1957), passim.

7Yahoos are despicable creatures with primitive, distasteful traits in the satirical novel of Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels.

8Maurice Nicoll, The New Man (Baltimore, Maryland: Penguin Books Ltd., 1950, 1972), passim.

9J. Krishnamurti, The Second Penguin Krishnamurti Reader (Middlesex, England: Penguin Books Ltd., 1970), passim. (AI/MTVN)

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