How can I compare and contrast the ethical theories of Aristotle and Kant?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Aristotle (384–322 BC) and Immanuel Kant (22 April 1724 to 12 February 1804) were separated by over 2,000 years and lived in very different cultural contexts. Aristotle was a pagan whose religious beliefs were grounded primarily in philosophical thought, especially that of his teacher Plato. Kant on the other hand was a Christian and member of the Lutheran denomination. While both philosophers believed in a degree of inherent racial and gender differences, only Aristotle accepted the existence of "natural slavery," and his work was grounded in a differentiation of gender roles that was much more exaggerated in ancient Greece than in Enlightenment Germany.

Aristotle was concerned primarily with "eudaimonia" or "well-being," the condition of flourishing for an individual human. His ethics tend to be derived inductively. He treats ethics as inextricably linked with politics and the flourishing of the individual human bound tightly to social situation. Friendship and participation in civic society are as important within Aristotle's ethical works as the individual considered in isolation. He sees eudaimonia as best attained via a life of reason, which is a defining element in what makes us human.

Kantian ethics is often described as "deontological". It is concerned with what makes a specific act moral. Kant believes that for an act to be considered ethical, it must stem from a sense of duty alone. This means that Kant is especially concerned with intentionality rather than consequences in evaluating the moral nature of an act, a feature that reflects the Protestant influence on his thought.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

To Aristotle, ethics is about the pursuit of human well-being and thus is distinct from other sciences. Aristotle sees a well-lived life and a life of well-being as synonymous and sees virtue as the practical ways that one lives their life well. These virtues include ideas like courage and temperance. To Aristotle, these virtues ought to be made into habits, because one's habits define their character. Aristotle also believed that most ethical principles could only exist in general, and could not be made universal.

Kant, conversely, does not think that there are particular behaviors that can make people happ, but rather that happiness happens randomly, to some people but not others. Kant also opposed Aristotle's ideas because he believed that ethical principles must be universal and absolute.

Instead of focusing his thought on virtues, Kant believed in an idea of moral duty and that actions taken in accordance with that duty have moral value. Rather than making someone happier, this moral value instead is simply considered to be objectively good. Kant also valued habit less than Aristotle. To Kant, an action taken in resistance to habit had a greater moral value than an action undertaken out of habit, because resisting a habit represents an active choice to obey a sense of duty.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Aristotle's moral philosophy is an example of what's called virtue ethics. This is a theory where the main focus is on the cultivation of moral excellence or virtues over time. Examples would include temperance, courage, and wisdom. For Aristotle, the evaluation of moral behavior is a lifetime project. It's not enough that you act virtuously every now and again; you have to display virtuous conduct regularly throughout the whole of your life. Only this way will you ever be regarded by others as being consistently virtuous. Aristotle's system of virtue ethics has an unmistakably social dimension to it; a virtuous character is one that gains the approval of society.

Kant, on the other hand, offers us a deontological theory. This rather forbidding word simply means that moral evaluation is based on individual acts and whether they're intrinsically right or wrong. All of us at some point have asked ourselves the question, "What would we do in such-and-such a situation?" and that is the focus of Kant's whole moral philosophy. For Kant, unlike Aristotle, it's the discrete action that matters, not the development of a virtuous character over time. The role of society's approval in evaluating moral actions is another area where Kant can be distinguished from Aristotle. According to Kant, sometimes we need to take a stand and go against the opinions of others if we're to do the right thing. All that really matters in such situations is that we act according to the dictates of the rational, universal moral law that exists inside each and every one of us.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Aristotle, who was a Greek philosopher from the 4th century BCE, had a very different ethical theory from that of Immanuel Kant, an 18th century German philosopher. 

The first important difference is that Aristotle's ethical theory is agent-centered. He was concerned with describing what it was to be a virtuous or good human being, whereas Kant's ethical theory is action-centered. Kant was concerned with describing what good or virtuous actions were. For Aristotle, the right action is that which is done by a good person. For Kant, a good person is one who performs the right action. 

Aristotle, in the Nicomachean Ethics, claims that the best kind of life consists in a state of eudaimonia: objective happiness and flourishing. This happiness consists in activity in accordance with reason. Thus, the highest kind of happiness involves a life of theoretical contemplation by an individual with intellectual virtues who has been habituated to moral virtues. 

Kant, in his Critique of Practical Reason and other works, describes an ethical view that is often called "deontological." This means that the notion of duty is central to his ethics; he believes that we have perfect and imperfect duties both to ourselves and toward others and that living an ethical life requires us to fulfill these duties. These duties are derived from the moral law that is within each of us. 

While the above descriptions highlight the central difference between the two, it is also worth pointing out that there are some notable similarities as well. The most fundamental of these is their shared belief in an objective ethical theory: neither Kant nor Aristotle are ethical relativists and both believe that there is an objective ethical standard. Further, this standard is a universal system since it pertains to all of humanity, irrespective of any differences. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial