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Theoretical Ethics

Aristotelian Perspectives on Social Ethics

Joanna G. Patsioti
The American College of Greece (Deree College)

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ABSTRACT: I examine the philosophical perspectives of Aristotle on issues of medical ethics and on his social ethics in general, including the moral issues of abortion, euthanasia, and other issues of social ethics such as the issue of cloning. I have chosen the domain of applied ethics as viewed from the Aristotelian point of view precisely because certain issues have been virtually unexamined by scholars. I shall direct attention to certain treatises of the Aristotelian corpus such as On the History of Animals, On the Generation of Animals, On the Soul, The Nicomachean Ethics and The Politics. My main objective is to provide a more systematic account of the Aristotelian perspectives on the above controversial issues and to establish the Stagirite’s main approach to social ethics. For this reason, issues like the notion of personhood, his attitude towards death, and his theory of the will and ethical conduct of a moral citizen-agent will be examined. Throughout this investigation, the close interrelation between philosophy and medicine, both in antiquity and in modern times, will also become more apparent.

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I. Abortion

Concerning the issue of abortion Aristotle's views are not considered as very clear or consistent throughout. We shall examine the relevant passages from both the biological and psychological treatises in connection with other of his contemporary — or not — medical findings. In our attempt to establish his main approach, we shall also unfold his views on the more modern notions of personhood as they are examined in his ethical and political works.

According to the Hippocratic oath, abortion is forbidden as morally unjustifiable. A physician is not to help a woman abort her fetus by giving her an abortive remedy. Concerning the possible influence of Hippocrates by the Pythagoreans we would accept Edelstein's (1) position, according to which the Pythagoreans saw the fetus as an animate human life unconditionally worthy of preservation from the moment of conception. We learn about the Pythagorean views on marriage and procreation from Iamblichus (BII, 211-212) who indicates that a man should take the best of care for bringing a child into the world considering both the time and the way this should happen. What is more important, however, is to relate their views on procreation to their theory of the immortality of the soul. After death the soul disappears like a dream and dwells in a spiritual heavenly world until it reappears cleansed in a new birth. (2) The soul keeps only the fragmented happy moments of each of its cycles on an earthly life and will conclude its dream in the heavenly world, which is interrupted by its visitations (reincarnations) on earth. Thus, it is evident that for the Pythagoreans and, as result, the Hippocratic tradition, abortion would be morally unacceptable, since it stops this journey of the soul — the incorporeal part of the human body — towards its ultimate enlightenment, i.e. its relation to the divine. After all, such cases of bloody events like abortions, were seen as possible sources of ritual impurity. It is also noteworthy that such a view on abortion would relate to the conservative approach to abortion according to which the fetus has full moral status which implies that its right to life must be respected with the utmost seriousness and an abortion — apart from cases where the life of a woman is endangered—is as morally objectionable as any other murder. (3)

Moreover, apart from the Pythagorean influence that might give birth to some religious implications along with the moral ones, we should indicate that in the classical period medicine in Greece was devoid of any superstitions or irrational influences and was emerging as a truly rational science. The Greek physicians began to develop a science which was an amalgam of observation, rational methodology, and intuitive perception. (4) Thus, Hippocrates expressed mainly his school's views in that oath and not just the Pythagorean tradition.

Having established the medical theoretical framework by which Aristotle must have been influenced let us now follow exactly what he has to say on the moral issue of abortion. In the Historia Animalium (583b10-20) he says:

"About this period (the ninetieth day) the embryo begins to resolve into distinct parts, it having hitherto consisted of a fleshlike substance without distinction of parts. What is called effluxion is a destruction of the embryo within the first week, while abortion occurs up to the fortieth day; and the greater number of such embryos as perish do so within the space of these forty days. In the case of a male embryo aborted at the fortieth day, if it be placed in cold water it holds together in a sort of membrane, but if it be placed in any other fluid it dissolves and disappears. If the membrane be pulled to its bits the embryo is revealed, as big as one of the large kind of ants; and all the limbs are plain to see, including the penis and the eyes also, which as in other animals are of great size. But the female embryo, if it suffer abortion during the first three months, is a rule found to be undifferentiated; if however it reach the fourth month it comes to be subdivided and quickly attains further differentiation".

What we notice in this passage is that Aristotle makes the distinction between the male and the female embryo attributing different developmental characteristics to each of them, andthe distinction between effluxion which is a destruction of the embryo within the first week of gestation and abortion which occurs up to the fortieth day. As Paul Garrick (5) maintains, Aristotle followed a theory of epigenesis according to which "the individual organism develops by structural elaboration of the unstructured zygote rather than by a simple enlarging of a performed entity". What is further noticed is that Aristotle was well aware of both the contraceptive and the abortive methods used by women at that time. In fact, he appears to be very agreeable with any contraceptive methods used as shown from his discussion in the Politics VII, 1335b20, according to which he would accept infanticide of deformed children as well as a law that prevents the explosion of the population. What is more important, however, is the last line of this passage in his Politics "if children are then conceived in excess of the limit so fixed, to have miscarriage induced before sense and life have begun in the embryo". The words Pats2.jpg (2176 bytes) used by Aristotle relate to the notion of Pats1.jpg (1024 bytes) (soul). So, there arises the question whether the human zygote is a living organism or not. According to his embryological and psychological theories, a zygote and even more so an embryo, does possess a soul, for it is a living organism. In the treatise On the Soul, the soul is defined as the form of actuality of a living thing (whereas body is its potentiality). Aristotle also makes the distinction between (i) the nutritive soul, (ii) the perceptive soul, and (iii) the rational soul. Thus, the minimal soul ascribed to the living organism is the nutritive one. So, the zygote must at least possess soul in the nutritive sense, for it is capable of nourishment and growth. It is, however, questionable whether the zygote or the embryo involves the capacities of the perceptive soul, that is, feelings of pleasure and/or pain, desire and love that are ascribed to the conceptus. As for the last kind, the rational soul that involves the capacities of reason, contemplation and moral choice Pats3.jpg (1647 bytes), it is certainly not ascribed to the fetus. This shows that the embryo possesses only the nutritive soul, that is, soul of a minimum capacity and development that lacks the characteristics of a fuller existence. Perhaps, it is not by chance that Aristotle allows abortion to take place before the fortieth day of gestation and this should definitely relate to his theory about the development of an Pats4.jpg (1482 bytes) (an animate organism). It could be said that his moral approach to abortion relates to the so called moderate view in modern applied ethics, according to which the reason for abortion and the stage of fetal development are relevant factors in assessing the moral acceptability of abortion. (6)

What should also be noted is that in the Generation of Animals B3, 736a33-736b16, Aristotle maintains that the embryo is not soulless, thus, not devoid of life and it actually possesses the nutritive soul while as it progresses, it also has the perceptive soul in virtue of which it is an animal. He goes on providing a very essential information that the fetuses which are not yet separate must clearly be classed as possessing the nutritive soul potentially, but not actually until they are drawing in their food like the separate fetuses and are performing the function of this sort of soul (736b9-13). What follows from this is that the embryo possesses all the forms of the soul in potentiality (following the distinction between potentiality and actuality in Aristotle's Physics). In other words, the embryo possesses all three kinds of the soul but not in their actualized state as yet ("for all souls must be possessed potentially before actually", 736b15-16) (7) What is equally important is the basic question he poses as to whether the souls are produced in the body without existing beforehand, or they must pre-exist, or some must but not others (736b17-19). His conclusion is that they cannot all pre-exist:

"all principles whose actuality is bodily are clearly unable to be present without body. Hence they cannot enter from outside . . . . It remains then that the intellect alone enters additionally from outside and alone is divine; for the bodily actuality is in no way associated with its actuality" (736b22-29).

As for the notion of pneuma, he considers it as the heat that acts as the vital force and it is related to the Pats5.jpg (1653 bytes) (active intellect) to which Aristotle ascribes a divine element in a rather obscure way (736b36-737a1). So, the intellect both pre-exists and enters the seed from outside, a point that relates to what he says in his treatise On the Soul: "The intellect is already a kind of being Pats6.jpg (1218 bytes) when it is born within us" (A4, 408b18). Thus, the position reached at 736b29 is that both the perceptive and the intellective faculties are brought by the seed in a state of potentiality, the former embodied in the seed and the latter disembodied (8) And every faculty of the soul, whether it is associated with a bodily activity or not, it is associated with the pneuma, this vital heat that relates to the divine.

In fact, this discussion of the potential existence of all the faculties of the soul relates to the modern discussion of the potential personhood and the fetus' right to life. A fetus does not resemble a person in any way but if it is nurtured and allowed to develop naturally it will very probably become a person. On the other hand, we need not conclude from this that a potential person has a right to life by virtue of being potential. And even if a potential person does have some prima facie right to life, such a right could not possibly outweight the right of a woman to have an abortion, since the rights of an actual person outweigh those of any potential person. (9) What would be the Aristotelian answer to that? His response would probably relate to his theory of the will and the notion of Pats7.jpg (1430 bytes) as exhibited in his moral treatises. In the Nicomachean Ethics 3, 1113a10-11, Aristotle discusses the notion of Pats8.jpg (1493 bytes) (moral choice) defined as a deliberating desire and stresses that it is one of the main presuppositions of both action and truth being necessarily a combination of cognition and desire (NE, Z1-2, 1139a17-18; EE, B9, 1227a4). It is what urges the moral agent to set up a whole process of discursive reasoning in order to select the appropriate means for the attainment of the desirable end. In fact, Pats8.jpg (1493 bytes) is what precedes a moral action and it involves desire and reasoning towards an end (NE, Z2, 1139a31-33). In his treatise On the Soul G7, 431a8-14, Aristotle refers to the notion of desire as a psychic assertion or denial connected with that of voluntary action. It is an activity of the soul in respect of objects conceived of as pleasant and painful, or good and bad. So, a pregnant woman is a rational agent that all things being well, is capable of a moral choice that is the result of moral reasoning, a proper assessment of facts. By respect of being a complete human being, a person with all the faculties of the soul actualized, she also has full moral status and as a result her rights outweight those of the potential being, the fetus. However, this does not mean that Aristotle would allow abortion on the basis of a free will. In fact, it is the opposite. According to his ethical doctrine, a rational moral agent who is Pats7.jpg (1430 bytes) (practically wise) would only make the best possible and morally justifiable choice. She would choose the right means and hit the right target. And although nowhere in his corpus does he state the reasons for having an abortion apart from the prevention of the population explosion, it is certain that he would not consider it as morally acceptable especially after the third month exactly because the fetus is an animate organism that potentially develops all the faculties of the soul and carries the vital pneuma that relates to the divine and the mother is an actualized person who as a virtuous moral agent should make the right choice. His limited approval of abortion is based on utilitarian grounds but this does not mean that he presents a confused account as Carrick believes. (10) It is just that as a good rationalistic philosopher he takes into account the special requirements of each particular case and draws his conclusion on the basis of a reasoning that considers both the particular case and the commonly accepted general ethical principles.

II. Euthanasia

The moral issue of euthanasia is examined by Aristotle when he discusses the problem of suicide, although we must state that he did not pay so much attention to it as his teacher Plato did. He contributes to this problem through some passages in the Nicomachean Ethics. In the ninth book he opposes to suicide and says that men who have committed a number of crimes and are hated for their wickedness, actually flee from life and kill themselves (Q4, 1166b12-15). In his discussion of justice in the fifth book, he regards suicide as an act of injustice , since it is the voluntary infliction of bodily harm not in retaliation and therefore contrary to the law (E6, 1138a6-16). He considers it as an act of injustice against the state rather than against himself, for he suffers voluntarily and nobody suffers injustice voluntarily. For Aristotle, it probably sounded not only unfair, that is against the wishes of the state, of which a citizen is always an integral part (11), but also unwise, something that the Pats7.jpg (1430 bytes) would never do. So, it is blameworthy for someone to cause unnecessary harm to himself and contrary to the right rule of life.

However, it is questionable what Aristotle has in mind in either of the above books. In the ninth book most probably he refers to invirtuous people who are habituated to wrong actions and having developed a distorted moral vision could end up harming themselves as well as other people. It is not so clear though what he refers to in the fifth book. He does not explicitly mention the case of diseased people who suffer from incurable diseases and may undergo painful treatments. Would Aristotle morally justify the act of a moral agent-citizen who suffering from a terminal, degenerate disease begs for a mercy death (an assisted suicide, or physician assisted suicide), or even commits suicide on his own? The answer would be negative and unequivocal. In his discussion of courage in the third book he says:

"But to seek death in order to escape from poverty, or the pangs of love, or from pain or sorrow, is not the act of a courageous man, but rather of a coward; for it is weakness to fly from troubles, and the suicide does not endure death because it is noble to do so, but to escape evil" (G7, 1116a13-17).

In other words, a voluntary death is morally unjustifiable under any circumstances even if those include the case of a miserable or not easily to endure life. But why would Aristotle exclude those cases of terminally diseased people that suffer so much pain? This is because such a person would be a coward, an invirtuous agent that is not habituated to good actions and his decision is not a proper moral choice, the result of reasoning and a rational desire. In this case, there is no proairesiV involved but the sovereign of a vice, that of cowardice which gives way to extreme fear.

By that Aristotle does not mean that the courageous person Pats9.jpg (1512 bytes) is fearless, but although he will sometimes fear even terrors not beyond man's endurance, he will do so in the right way, and he will endure them as principle dictates, for the sake of what is noble, for that is the end at which virtue aims (G3, 1115b11-14). After all, as Aristotle says

"the more a man possesses all virtue, and the more happy he is, the more pain will death cause him; for to such a man life is worth most, and he stands to lose the greatest goods, and knows that this is so, and this must be painful".

Thus, the decision to kill oneself, or ask a relative or even a physician to assist a person with that is a moral Pats10.jpg (1302 bytes) for it violates the sanctity of human life, the most noble thing, and even more important, it hits the wrong target. In the same way, either active or passive euthanasia would be blameworthy and totally unjustifiable.

An interesting question that would arise, however, is to what extent such an approach to the issue of euthanasia violates the principle of moral autonomy. What about the right to a more dignified death, if life is not endurable? Isn't this a moral agent's right? On the basis of what we said earlier, Aristotle would not recognize such a right, for a moral agent is, on the one hand, a free person to plan his/her own life and make his/her own moral choices on hard life cases, and on the other, s/he is a citizen, hence an organic part of whole (12) and it is pure injustice, if not to say selfishness, to view civil life in such a way. As far as the moral autonomy of a person is concerned, there seems to be an apparent violation but not a real one. In fact, the Eudemian definition of free will (or voluntariness) allows an agent to do things in his power (EE, B9, 1225b2ff) but it makes a distinction between a moral mistake Pats11.jpg (2412 bytes) (misadventure). In the latter case no blame is attached to the agent, but in the former it is, if this could have been foreseen and avoided. (13) Not all error is blameworthy, but only ignorance of what one should and could easily have known, or error that is due to negligence. It is also important to consider the effect of one's action on both his/her life and the lives of other people (the distinction about what one is doing and the mistakes about the effect of what one is doing is discussed in his NE, G1, 1111a4). So, a moral agent is free to choose his/her own course of action but s/he is also a rational agent whose choices must be in accordance with the mean, with virtue. And such a moral agent would never harm others or cause harm to oneself.

What we have noticed throughout our examination so far, is that the Aristotelian approach to the above moral issues becomes clearer once we direct our attention to his ethical doctrine of the development of ethical understanding and his theory of action. The Aristotelian arete (virtue, excellence) denotes not only the notion of a habituated good ethos but also an advanced stage of ethical understanding that relates to good ethical judgement. Or, as Aristotle himself says: "For virtue makes us aim at the right mark and practical wisdom makes take the right mean (NE, Z7, 1144a7-9). In other words, Pats7.jpg (1430 bytes) is the capacity to plan one's life well" (Z4, 1140a24-28). To be wise is an excellence; it is the disposition to judge rightly about human goods (Z5, 1140b21-22). According to this, for Aristotle, an ethical manager is a good planner who aims towards a good end. In fact, wise planning and deliberation have to satisfy two criteria: they must conduce to the desired end and the end must be good, that is, it must lead towards eudaimonia (ultimate happiness), and since we referred to the domain of business, that would be ultimate success from which supreme happiness derives. And even more important, such an advanced ethical understanding enables a manager to resolve conflicts of interests without violating a party's rights. On innumerable occasions, people in business face ethical questions in which a balance has to be found between the different and often conficting rights and interest of the parties involved. So, the ethical manager is the person who will be able to weigh up rights and interests in the most successful and proper way. Such a capacity is very important for in the domain of business ethics there is not always a well-defined code of conduct that guides one's course of action. (14) As a result a misapprehension of the ends, that is maximization of a company's profit at the expense of both employees and consumers, or a very calculative utilitarian approach to business, would cause enormous problems to a company in the long run. It would not survive.

Thus, the capacity of a "good judgement" is what would be the Aristotelian response to an ethical manager who wishes to maintain a good personal profile and promote the image of his company. And this capacity comes with experience and proper education and upbringing. It is also what is going to help somebody achieve the proper choice in determinate circumstances. It is what will help an agent balance and weigh conflicting concerns and come to a "fair" conclusion. At the same time, the Aristotelian ethical manager must be a man of integrity and an advocate of truth-telling to the extent that this does not violate the objectives of the corporation he serves. Moreover, s/he should be virtuous in the sense that s/he has acquired certain excellences that enable him/her to manifest his/her thoughts and actions in a way that suits the particular endeavors. There must be an honest dealing, fair play, good knowledge, wit and an experienced moral vision.

In conclusion, we have seen that the Aristotelian views on the issues of abortion and euthanasia as well as the case of the ethical manager can be established through the prism of his ethical doctrine in connection with the whole of his theoretical framework. For Aristotle, a moral agent should be endowed with the necessary capacities, the prerequisites for a good life. S/he should be able to reach the right decision on a hard life case that relates to any moral issue. And above all, when such a hard reasoning takes place, the Aristotelian moral agent must consider oneself as an integral part of a whole, a part of a community that develops every day and needs all of its members to be active and co-operative, for it is through such a conception of a commitment that a moral agent can fulfill his/her desirable ends. In other words, s/he must consider the choice and the effect that such a choice would have on both his/her life and the lives of everybody involved.

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(1) Reference to Edelstein's PhD dissertation in 1931.

(2) Pats12.jpg (10071 bytes)

(3) Mappes, Thomas A & Zembaty, Jane S (1997): Social Ethics: Morality and Social Policy, (5th ed.), U.S.A.:McGraw-Hill, p.3.

(4) Patsioti, Joanna & Rose, Clifford F (1995): "What did the Greeks mean?", Journal of the History of Neurosciences 4, 67-76 (particular reference to p.75). Cf. Longrigg, James (1963): "Philosophy and Medicine: Some early interactions", Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 67, 147-75.

(5) Garrick, Paul (1985): Medical Ethics in Antiquity: philosophical perspectives on abortion and euthanasia, Philosophy and Medicine vol.18, Dordrecht: D.Reidel Publishing Company, pp.115-19.

(6) Mappes & Zempaty in note (3) p.5.

(7) Balme, David M (1972): Aristotle's De Partibus Animalium I and De Generatione Animalium I (with passages from II.1-3) (translation with notes), Oxford: Clarendon Aristotle Series (General editor J.L. Ackrill), p.63.

(8) Ibid., p.160.

(9) Warren Mary A (1997): "On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion" (reprinted in Mappes & Zembaty edition above, 10-18), p.15.

(10) Cf. Garrick in note (5), p.119.

(11) Miller, Fred D, Jr. (1995): Nature, Justice and Rights in Aristotle's Politics, Oxford: Clarendon Press, reference to pages 47-56 where the organicistic view of the state is examined further.

(12) Ibid., pp.50-3, where the natural priority of the polis is discussed further.

(13) Kenny, Anthony (1979): Aristotle's theory of the will, New Haven: Yale University Press, p.59.

(14) Solomon, Robert C (1996): "Corporate Roles, Personal Virtues: An Aristotelian Approach to Business Ethics", in Donaldson, Thomas & Werhane, Patricia H (ed.), Ethical issues in Business: a philosophical approach, New Jersey: Prentice Hall Series, pp.45-59 (particular reference to p.53).


Clark, Stephen RL (1975): Aristotle's Man (speculations upon Aristotelian Anthropology), Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Edelstein, Ludwig (1967): Ancient Medicine, Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press.

Fye, Bruce W (1978): "Active Euthanasia: An Historical survey of its conceptual origins and introduction to medical thought", Bulletin of the History of Medicine 52, 492-502.

Gracia, Diego (1978): "The structure of medical knowledge in Aristotle's philosophy", Sudhoff Archiv 62 (No.1), 1-36.

Hartman, Edwin (1977): Aristotelian Investigation: Substance, Body and Soul, U.S.A.:Princeton University Press.

Jaeger, Werner (1957): "Aristotle's use of medicine as a model of Method in his Ethics", Journal of the History of Science 77, 54-61.

Kudlien, Fridolf (1970): "Medical Ethics and Popular Ethics in Greece and Rome", Clio Medica 5, 91-121.

Veach, Robert M (1978): "Codes of Medical Ethics: Ethical Analysis", Encyclopaedia of Bioethics 4, 172-9.

Westermack, Edward A (1906-8): The origins and development of the Moral Ideas, 2 vols., London: MacMillan & Co.

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