Moral philosophies of Aristotle and Kant compared

Rose asked:

Compare and contrast the moral philosophy of Aristotle and Kant?

Answer by Tony Fahey


It is in his Nicomachean Ethics that Aristotle sets out his ethical theory: his concept of what it is, for human beings, to live well. For Aristotle, the end or final cause of human existence is eudaimonia. Eudaimonia is most commonly translated as ‘happiness’, but a more accurate translation is ‘flourishing’. Aristotle believed that the desire to live a fulfilled life is part of what it is to be human. A eudaimon life is a life that is successful. It is important to relies that what Aristotle means by happiness/ flourishing has nothing to do with physical pleasure, but is an activity of the mind/ soul in accordance with virtue. (NB for the ancient Greeks, soul was a synonym of mind.)

For Aristotle there are two parts to the mind/ soul: the intellectual and the emotional. Correspondingly, there are two types of virtue: intellectual and moral. Moreover, virtue, whether intellectual or moral, is a disposition (a natural inclination) of the mind/ soul, which finds its expression in voluntary action – that is, it is consciously chosen.

Moral virtue is expressed in the choice of pursuit of a middle course between excessive and deficient emotion, and exaggerated or inadequate action: this is the famous doctrine of the Golden Mean, which holds that each virtue stands somewhere between two opposing vices. Thus, courage or fortitude is a mean between cowardice and rashness; and temperance is the mean between licentiousness or profligacy and insensibility. Justice, or ‘fairness’, the most important virtue of the moral virtues, is also concerned with a mean in the sense that it aims at each person getting neither more nor less than his or her due. However, it is not like other virtues, flanked by opposing vices since any departure from the just mean, on either side, involves simply injustice. Moral virtue prevents disordered emotion from leading to inappropriate action. What decides, in any situation, what is appropriate action and the correct amount of feeling, is the intellectual virtue of prudence or practical wisdom (phronesis): this is the virtue of that part of reason that is concerned with action.

The virtue of the speculative part of the reaction is learning, or philosophic wisdom (Sophia): this virtue finds its most sublime manifestations in more or less solitary contemplation (theoria). Supreme happiness, according to Aristotle, would consist in a life of philosophical contemplation. However, whilst this would be the ultimate in human fulfilment, it is also a life that is beyond the realization of mere mortals. The best we can aspire to is the kind of happiness that can be found in a life of political activity and public magnificence in accordance with moral values.


Central to Kant’s moral philosophy is the view that right actions are those actions that are not instigated by impulses or desires, but by practical reason. Right action is right only if it is undertaken for the sake of fulfilling one’s duty, and fulfilling one’s duty means acting in accordance with certain moral laws or ‘imperatives’. To help us identify those laws which are morally binding Kant has provided us with the ultimate calculus: the ‘categorical imperative’ which states ‘Act only in accordance with the maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law’. To the categorical imperative, Kant offers a codicil which relates specifically to human will; ‘so act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means’.

Whilst Kant’s moral philosophy can be said to hold considerable merit, in that it advocates that human beings should be treated as ends in themselves rather than means to ends, I would argue that, as an ethical theory, it fails in that it looks on people, not as sentient beings, but as duty automatons. Thus, it seems to me, of the two theories, by virtue of its rejection of closure in relation to what it is that determines right action, and its view that it is one’s natural disposition to seek to lead a life of excellence, Aristotle’s ethical theory is the closest we have come to identifying an ethical theory that requires the least alteration to allow us to lead an ethical life.


5 thoughts on “Moral philosophies of Aristotle and Kant compared

  1. I think the above is nonsense, a misreading and msunderstanding of Aristotle’s concept of the golden mean – that the right course is neither difficiency or excess.
    David is looking for the middle course between Envy and the negation of envy – say, non-envy. I think Aristotle would say that non-envy is the middle ground between envy and its opposite (and non-envy is not its opposite) – I don’t think there is a single word in English that is a true antonym for Aristotle.
    In any event, I think the greatest insight in the Nichomachean Ethics is that fulfillment (happiness) is the object of a moral life, and right relations the means.

    1. “Not every action nor every emotion admits of a mean. There are some actions and emotions whose very names connote baseness, e.g., spite, shamelessness, envy; and among actions, adultery, theft, and murder. These and similar emotions and actions imply by their very names that they are bad; it is not their excess nor their deficiency which is called bad. It is, therefore, impossible ever to do right in performing them: to perform them is always to do wrong. In cases of this sort, let us say adultery, rightness and wrongness do not depend on committing it with the right woman at the right time and in the right manner, but the mere fact of committing such actions at all is to do wrong.” EN 2.6.1107a8–18.

  2. Thankfully , Plato (Aristotle’s teacher) did not endorse the doctrine of the golden mean ,at least when it comes to the virtue of non-envy versus the vice of envy .

    Envy versus non-envy provides a ready touchstone to show that the doctrine of the golden mean is false , and absurd .

    Envy : the tendency of a person to resent either the good fortune of others , or resent a state of affairs wherein a person displays good qualities, if oneself has not cultivated those good qualities , is indeed a completely worthless tendency .

    There is NO good to be found in finding a middle ground between non-envy and envy . There is no good quality between non-envy and envy, since envy is not a case of someone taking some good quality “too far”, but is indeed a pointless mood ; a pointless tendency .

    It is good for a person to lament the lack of good fortune they have encountered . It is good for a person to lament also the lack of some good qualities that a person has not yet cultivated, and to continue to express the wish that they will eventually cultivate the qualities that they lament having not yet cultivated .

    Yet to resent that others have good fortune when one has not is pointless.

    Consider the following quote from the Timaeus of Plato .

    To resent that others have cultivated good qualities is also pointless …
    ‘Let us therefore state the reason why this framer of the universe of change framed it all. He was good, and what is good has no particle of envy in it ; being therefore without envy he wished all things to be as like himself as possible’ .(Timaeus, as translated by Desmond Lee, p.42)

    [Notice how Plato does NOT claim that God found some sort of middle ground beween envy and non-envy . Instead , Plato makes the far more maximal claim , that God (as a corollary of being good) had *not* a particle of envy . Notice how Plato indicates that the good has NOT a particle of envy …in the nomenclature of today, Plato would be affirming that the good has 0 percent envy (i.e. NO envy at all) ! So here we have a clear case of Plato going AGAINST the ever so weird doctrine of the golden mean . He affirms that the virtue of NON-envy of being unwilling to envy , should be taken to the maximal extreme ..Plato indicates that the virtue of NON-envy most certainly can be taken to the most maximal extreme *WITHOUT* that virtue becoming any vice, as a result of it being maximalized . The claims you have made wherein you alleged Plato was supposedly a supporter of the doctrine of the golden mean , have been discredited , Adam ! ]

    Notice the ‘NOT a particle of envy ‘ .

    Rather maximal and extreme, the advocacy that Plato presents of the virtue of NON-envy , and rightly so !

  3. The doctrine of the golden mean is quite obscurantist , indeed bizarrely inconsistent . It is a doctrine that is infinitely contemptible in is
    LACK of consistency: the muddled and spurious way it draws (false) conclusions . It is quite surprising that a thinker that was known for remarkable clarity and consistency in other writings (such as the Posterior Analytics, The Categories and other writings) would then go and abandon consistency and advocate such a muddled doctrine as the doctrine of the golden mean in the “Nicomachean Ethics” !

    The golden mean has indeed thankfully been systematically discredited as a fallacy (and a quite wrongheaded fallacy at that) in the hyperlinked article by the following logician :

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