Does Aristotle’s doctrine of virtue as a mean relative to us imply that he really is an ethical relativist? Why? or, Why not?
Answer by Caterina Pangallo
No, Aristotle is not a relativist. You must not confuse relativity with relativism.
In simple terms, Aristotle says that virtues, for example moderation in eating, are relative to a person. This means that “moderation” has a different context for different persons. For example an athlete such as a wrestler must eat more food than you or I. There is no offence to moderation involved.
The point is that this virtue, although it may change from one person to another, is part of his doctrine of the mean because the mean is at the bottom of good and ethical living.
With all the virtues on his balance of the mean, the same arguments apply. Bear in mind he is looking for what benefits people and society.
Immoderation is therefore a vice in the context of individuals who over-indulge. This is bad for them, but also for others because sickness may result and the person becomes a burden on everyone else.
Aristotle’s doctrine is essentially aimed at cultivating good social habits. The relativity here is based on nothing other than the different abilities of people to practise ethical living. It may depend on their skills, income levels etc.
But it is not the same as relativism. It simply says that good ethical practice has different levels of achievement depending on who is doing it.
Whereas relativism is something very different. It relates to the customs and traditions of different cultures. Let me give you an example:
In one community the religious dogma in force may result in the community practising ritual murder. For instance some tribes in India used to burn the widow of dead man alive. That was their custom. As far as the tribe is concerned, it is the right thing to so. It is, in a word, a cultural value for them.
In our modern enlightened society, we view this practice with horror. The cultural values in our community exclude ritual murder.
And now the upshot of this is that our community leaders would criticise the other community for their barbaric practices. They would say this is not a cultural value, but an unmitigated evil.
Relativism comes in at this point, when for example anthropologists try to remain neutral and not criticise the ritual murder. They might say: All moral values depend on humans; and therefore no single group has a genuine right to call another barbaric or evil. In the long run, all cultural values have the same source and are therefore equal
So relativism is actually an extremely dubious intellectual position, because in effect it removes the concept of value from social living.
However, Aristotle wrote his Ethics with the wishes and fears of every human being in mind, no matter what their tribe or community. No person wants to be tortured, raped, murdered, enslaved etc. So here is a foundation for social virtues that Aristotle rightly thought would be universally acceptable.
So you see that the aim of Aristotle was not to allow inhumane behaviour (relativism), but to promote humane behaviour at the highest level that a society may reach. In the course of his thinking about ethics he understood that some principles apply to all human beings alike.
His concept of virtue is for a common good in every community. The highest human good is happiness. The goal of the Ethics is to determine how best to achieve happiness. A central part of this doctrine is the doctrine of the mean.
I believe that Aristotle developed something really fundamental for the benefit of mankind in society. His ethics are primarily designed to make people conscious of themselves in what they strive for–why they have certain goals and aspirations in life; and just as importantly, what kind of good and evil must be known to achieve these goals.
So in conclusion, Aristotle is nowhere near relativism in his doctrine. In fact I think he would call relativism itself an intellectual evil that stands in the way of making humans more humane.