Aristotle on How to Approach Ethical Questions

Section three of the first book of The Nicomachean Ethics is a little throat-clearing before the real work begins.

First, Aristotle wisely warns us that the subject matter we’re dealing with — values, ethics, means & ends, choice, will — is the fuzzy stuff of human interactions, intentions, and motivations, and because of that we’re very unlikely to come across any precise mathematical formula that is up to the task of describing it. General rules-of-thumb are what we’re after, and we should expect in advance that there will be particular specific cases that the rules won’t apply to.

I like this humility. I see its opposite a lot in amateur political philosophy from the anarchist and libertarian wings — I’m thinking of folks who rediscover the non-aggression principle and think that they’ve found the universal solvent for political philosophy, when in fact they’ve just sort of swept under the rug most of the complexity and difficulty.

Anyway, after this, Aristotle discourages youngsters from trying to follow along. He says the young just don’t have enough experience and wisdom to really understand the breadth of the problem or of the arguments he’ll be advancing when trying to solve it.

I’ve decided to forge ahead anyway.

Index to the Nicomachean Ethics series

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics