Aristotle's Ethics and the Nature of Contemporary Policies and Politicians

A. Contemporary Ethical Dilemmas – Legislating Institutions and Individual Politicians

In the contemporary political discourse, ethics are frequently mentioned both in the form of a series of factors and ideas that are taken into account in the decision-making process, but also as reference points for evaluating the conduct of politicians as individuals. When topics such as abortion, oil drilling, or various fiscal policies come into discussion, there are always ethical arguments and debates that arise. Accordingly, an institution like the church might be pro-life and successfully lobby for the criminalization of abortions, a transnational oil corporation might get permission to start drilling within the border of a state, or a car manufacturer might get a tax cut for being extra productive – and it is exactly this type of situations that bring up ethical debates on behalf of both the legislator as an institution (How ethical was the government when making the decision?) and the politician as an individual (Are his or her beliefs truly ethical and did he or she act according to them?).

However, every modern state that is based on the principles of rule of law contains legislation covering every aspect and dimension that is thought to preserve a prosperous, peaceful, ethical, and moral conduct of all citizens, irrespective of their status. Therefore, one might argue that under the rule of law, it is the legality of the actions that makes them either ethical or non-ethical and consequently what is legal should be considered ethical by default. This leads to a type of dichotomy which separates what is both ethical and legal (thus compulsory and enforced by law) from what is moral (and is customary and based on social and organizational conventions whose rules are not enforced by law). Yet this type of argumentation is unrealistic for the simple reason that no legislator or organization can solve the ethical issues to the extent that debates and divergent discussions are eliminated – unless the regime type is authoritarian or totalitarian, thus opposing opinions are not expressed or are harshly punished. If the government allows women to make abortions, then certain citizens will declare the law unethical and immoral in relation to current and previous realities and situations; conversely, oil drilling in oceans will be considered ethical by representatives of the oil companies and unethical by clean-environment lobbyists; once the car industry gets a tax cut, the owners will be pleased and praise the decision by calling it ethical, whilst competing industries will say the opposite. Law, though it is legitimate by virtue of the legislator, can always be declared immoral, unethical or unjust in comparison with the previous state of affairs or the laws from other states.

All these arguments are meant to demonstrate that politics (defined as the art of governing and referring to both the institutions and the individuals who are in office) is in its very nature a subject to ethical debates and no type of government which makes decisions can be defined without resorting to a certain amount of criticism from a purely ethical point of view. Since it was previously stated that legitimate does not necessarily mean ethical, the inquiry will take an innately fundamental approach and seek for answers in two of Aristotle’s best works, “Nicomachean Ethics” and “Politics”, in an attempt to rediscover eudaimonia (happiness and well-being) and arete (virtue). These two concepts shall be applied to contemporary situations as a series of recommendations, for the purpose of providing an example for a framework that fosters more ethical legislating institutions and politicians.

B. Aristotle’s treaties on Ethics and Politics – Eudaimonia and Arete

Aristotle is widely regarded as one of the most influential thinkers of Antiquity, a deductive researcher whose pioneering works have laid the foundation of many scientific branches, while also taking part to the establishment of what is today known as “The Western Philosophy and Political Thought”. Furthermore, he is responsible for separating the study of politics from the larger field of philosophy, as he regarded the regime and constitution classifications of his predecessors to be theoretical and impractical. Rather than being concerned with the ideal type of regime like in “The Republic”, he took the regime classifications of his predecessors and sought to find the best and most concrete way in which people can be governed. But before showing his concern for the science of politics, Aristotle has expressed his views on the art of governing.

What is striking about his approach to reaching the state of eudaimonia (well-being) is the universal unbreakable linkage between the citizen and the polity’s institutions: the governing and the governed should both act based on arête (virtue), as the only differences between them are in social status and wealth, but they are interdependent and have to coexist in order to function. Given the fact that one might straightforwardly inquire about the purely philosophical and impractical nature of this virtue, the next section will explore the main arguments that can be found in the two works on ethics and government, “Nicomachean Ethics” and “Politics”.

It is no coincidence that Aristotle has written a treaty on ethics before establishing politics as a science, as the moral qualities and virtues he presents in “Nicomachean Ethics” are meant to serve as ways of conduct for the individuals, whilst a reflecting principle is applied on the whole of society. Virtues and vices, according to the philosopher, do not thoroughly characterize an individual unless they are repeated to the extent that they become a habit – it is not what one does at a certain moment that generates a characterization, but a repetition of deeds. Furthermore, the habits can be classified as being good only when they are placed between two antithetic vices: courage, for example, is the middle ground between cowardice and recklessness. To Aristotle, moderation is a virtue in itself, and the behavior towards well-being on behalf of the citizens should be reflected by the rulers of the polis.

That is why, in this series of virtues, two of the most important that are explained are eleutheriotes (generosity, as a middle ground between meanness and wastefulness), aletheia (truthfulness, as the space in between self-deprecation and boastfulness) and megalopsuchia (magnanimity, as the intersection between smallness of the soul and vanity), since they establish the archetype of the morally righteous citizens and rulers who keep away from easily accessible and worldly pleasures by seeking higher pleasures and understandings.
Additionally, Aristotle also presents a distinction between legitimate and ethical, by presenting a division between nominos (law abiding) and isos (ethical, fair) and affirming that unfair conduct cannot be punished by law, whilst only some law-infringing actions are unethical: the law-abiding citizen is not always the good and ethical citizen. Consequently, the two points of reference that the philosopher sets are the law and the community; justice is regarded as only a small fraction of complete ethical virtue, and therefore the citizen must always put his moral values to good use. It can be said of the actions of the blacksmith that they strive to reach for ethical virtue if they attempt to both support the community and respect the law. Conversely, a politician or government is ethical only if the law is respected and the decisions are made in favor of a larger community.

The bridge between ethics and politics, in the opinion of Aristotle, is education: since both governments and citizens want to achieve virtue and serve a higher purpose than their own well-being, it is the education of the young that preserves and improves the status-quo. The philosopher argues that parents’ efforts are not enough to foster a good development, as virtuous communities and laws are also required. The emphasis is put on the idea that very few law makers have made education the ultimate purpose of law-making and a change needs to be made if ethics, eudaimonia and arete are the desired priorities.  Consequently, “Politics” is a work that describes known forms of government and constitution for the ultimate purpose of achieving a better education which revolves around greatness of the soul and virtue. And rightfully so, the polis is established as the highest form of community (which is of greater importance than the household or the village), whilst the family and household affairs are presented as the most noble undertakings for the nurturing of virtue. The ultimate goal should not be the acquirement of silvers or social capital, but eudaimonia within the family – and therefore the spiritual and intellectual development of the polis.  As a conclusion to his treaty on politics, Aristotle argues that no form of government can progress without an education that preserves the values of the constitution, and education should be an affair of the state. It is more likely for the educated to make the right moral decisions, as they will both respect the law and the nature of the constitution, but also perform good deeds for their community.

C. Aristotle’s Ethics in Contemporary Politics and Politicians

“Nicomachean Ethics” and “Politics” by Aristotle are two treaties which, from both a sociological and institutional point of view neglect hierarchical aspects and what modern thinkers refer to as elite theory – they start from the assumption that those in government are all first and foremost citizens and should act correspondingly, which might be a mirroring of the smaller polity framework in which the work had been written. This simplicity would later be found in the Rouseaunian political theory, with an emphasis on the idea that there is a general will which is bestowed by similar virtues and vices among individuals in a political community. Furthermore, from an economic point of view, the analysis of Aristotle is superficial and only mentions how money shouldn’t be a purpose in themselves and getting wealthy should serve as a mean to a higher level of knowledge – thus money should be spent wisely for the acquirement of goods and services that foster eudaimonia. However, these shortcomings should not stand in the way of reinterpreting the philosopher’s teachings on practical ethics, as the elites and the regular citizens can both learn how to discover arete.

Furthermore, an important lesson about ethics should be learned by both those who govern and those who are governed from the concept of being defined by habits – in the age of the internet, news can be spread within seconds, and most of the times it is the latest event that reshapes one’s opinion on the individual who makes the headlines.

This characterization based on what is usually done serves as a long-term observation on a human subject and provides for a more objective point of view – one wrong decision or statement should not be regarded as such, but should be put into the larger context instead. A politician can be declared unethical if he habitually performs such acts, whilst a legislating institution can receive the label only after a series of passed bills that lack arete. If this larger context criterion is not taken into consideration (and in contemporary media it usually is not), then the analysis is narrow, superficial, and meant to incite outrage among those who did not witness the events personally and have to rely on what they are told. Observing habits on the long term can be a tool for the legislator in order to find virtue, but also a way for those who are governed to understand the true nature of their polity.

Another tool that Aristotle provides for a practical analysis of ethics is the distinction between lawful and virtuous – a political decision cannot be declared completely good if it doesn’t take into account the existing laws and principles of the government, but also the more general needs and demands. If a bill modifies the law for the sake of changing the balance in certain affairs, then it can easily be called unethical by those who find themselves on the losing side. Conversely, if the community isn’t helped by an otherwise legitimate bill, then virtue can be questioned.

Last but not least, it should be stated that the virtues described in the previous section can best be achieved through education – and the philosopher’s argument for public education as an affair of the state has largely been put into practice, yet for different purposes. Aristotle argued for a distinction between the goals of education, as it can either stimulate batter life in terms of virtue, or a purely wealth-oriented behavior. Contemporary education tries to find a compromise between laying foundations of ethical conduct and encouraging a free market economy-influenced behavior – yet the missing link is moderation as a way of avoiding the extremes, finding happiness both intellectually and materialistically, and helping the community develop. And ultimately, it is these qualities that should be found more often in politics and politicians, for the purpose of more than just behaving in an ethical way for themselves, but promoting ethical conduct in the polis.


Aristotle – “Nicomachean Ethics”, Available at:
Aristotle – “Politics”, Available at:


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