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"Universal Morality"

by Tony Pellum

Philosophers have always searched for the Good. Aristotle wrote Ethics in search for what was right. Plato and many religious zealots insist that higher truth exists which is beyond human capacity, while Stoics believe humans ultimately determine Goodness. These views have been meshed together throughout history to create an interesting view of Goodness. Although laws have changed historically depending on their relative culture, there is an overriding morality that drives people to act in certain ways. Aristotle argues each civilization has different distinct views of Goodness, and we see changes in the laws they create. However, Plato's theory of a supreme Truth can be seen in human action, contrary to Aristotle's definition of the Good.

To begin to understand what Plato and Aristotle mean in their search for Goodness, we must understand their definitions of it. Aristotle claims that the Good is simply what everything aims toward. He states, "if then there be one end of all that man does, this end will be the realizable good- or these ends, if there be more than one" (Gochberg 352). Whatever a person chooses to do, the Good is the result that he is striving for. Therefore, "[Good] in medicine is health, in war is victory, in building is a house- a different thing in each different case, but always in whatever we do, and in whatever we choose, the end" (Gochberg 352). This excludes evil acts, which Aristotle agrees are morally wrong. Aristotle continues, explaining that the best one can become is a "high-minded" man. The high-minded man uses reason to search for answers. He observes the different solutions to problems around him, removes deficiencies and excesses, and lives the mean of these to satisfy the most people. Plato's view of Goodness contrasts Aristotle's, he sees the Good as an object of knowledge. Plato believes, "the highest object of knowledge is the essential nature of the Good, from which everything that is good and right derives its value for us" (Cornford 215). Plato separates the world into two sections: the intelligible and the perceptual. The perceptual world, that of images and visible objects, is the inferior because images can be deceiving. Plato believes that knowledge can't be found in a single person, but through philosophic discussion. In the intelligible world, knowledge is the highest form of living because we can only see truth through interaction. Plato, therefore states, "I need not tell you that, without that knowledge, to know everything else, however well, would be of no value to us, just as it is of no use to possess anything without getting the good of it" (Cornford 215). Plato argues that knowledge is the only thing worth striving for. Good is the best result of living intelligibly, and without it, there is no sense in searching at all. Plato refutes Aristotle's view. If Goodness can be found through the intellectual approach, as both Plato and Aristotle agree, it would make no sense to live in the mean. If a perfect solution can be found, as Plato argues, than why settle with the mean, it could not be the best solution.

Plato's philosophy states that Goodness is a form of Knowledge. Man can only achieve Goodness when he acknowledges Goodness as his goal, living and thinking intelligibly. Since opinions and images are in the perceptual world, far from the use of knowledge, man will not find Goodness in believing them. He questions, "Have you ever noticed that opinion without knowledge is always a shabby sort of thing? At the best it is blind" (Cornford 216). Plato stresses that a man who lives amongst opinions and images is blind to Goodness. He doesn't understand that Goodness can not be found among the perceptual world, because it is invisible, only a Form in the intelligible world. Plato uses an analogy, comparing Goodness to the sun. Just as the sun provides light for us to see the visible world, Goodness is what allows us to see knowledge by shedding it's "light" on it. The sun provides the "same relation to vision and visible things as that which the Good itself bears in the intelligible world to intelligence and to intelligible objects" (Cornford 219). The sun also provides nourishment to growing things on the visible world, suggesting that Goodness allows intelligence to flourish in the intelligible world. Therefore, Goodness provides knowledge, "not only their power of being known, but their very being and reality; and Goodness is not the same thing as being, but even beyond being, surpassing it in dignity and power" (Cornford 220). Plato is again stressing the inability for Goodness, or any form to have physical being, for it surpasses the physical world, allowing knowledge to be seen by man.

Aristotle strongly disagrees with Plato's view of Forms and the intelligible world. He thinks the idea of invisible objects surpassing the visible world is absurd; if you can't see them, they can't exist. The high-minded man becomes great by observing the multiple ways a situation is handled, eliminating excesses and deficiencies others have practiced, and finding the mean of how it is done, rationally concluding as the best solution for the given problem. Finding the mean is necessary, for, as Aristotle analogizes, "Too much and too little exercise alike destroy strength" and are "preserved by moderation" (Gochberg 357). For Aristotle, things are only valuable in their given situation, nothing is absolute so there can be no Forms. Aristotle argues, "In practical matters and questions of expediency there are no invariable laws" (Gochberg 357).

Aristotle directly criticizes Plato's theories when discussing his ideas of moderation. He argues:

Most men, instead of [practicing the mean], fly to theories, and fancy that they are philosophizing and that this will make them good, like a sick man who listens attentively to what the doctor says and then disobeys all his orders. This sort of philosophizing will no more produce a healthy habit of mind than this sort of treatment will produce a healthy habit of body (Gochberg 358).

This direct assault on Plato's theories magnifies Aristotle's differences in theologies. Instead of looking toward an intelligible world, Aristotle lobbies that Goodness is found by looking at what's already around you and finding moderation. The best man is the one who is just and temperate, and becomes so, "only by doing what is just and temperate" (Gochberg 358). Doing just and temperate acts doesn't necessarily make you a high-minded man, for you must act with intent. He argues, that nobility is acting justly and temperately, "to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right manner" (Gochberg 363). This combination of moderation and intent establish Aristotle's high-minded man- who exemplifies Goodness.

Plato and Aristotle agree that society's job is to encourage knowledge and establish educational facilities so knowledge can be found. Plato speaks of a common good, which his Republic would contain. All citizens would work to contribute to this goodness and will be happy. Since no man contains Goodness himself, it is necessary for the government to establish a common good to which all citizens contribute, so knowledge and goodness can be obtained. Plato argues:

By persuasion or constraint [law] will unite the citizens in harmony, making them share whatever benefits each class can contribute to the common good; and it's purpose of forming men of that spirit was not that each should be left to go his own way, but that they should be instrumental in binding the community into one (Cornford 234).

Aristotle agrees with Plato's view of government's role in society. He understands that, "Man is naturally a social being" (Gochberg 353) and knowledge can only be found through social behavior.

After defining Goodness, philosophers next ask where humans fit into the scheme. Both Aristotle and Plato agree that man cannot possess Goodness himself, but must interact through politics to gain knowledge. Aristotle, however, doesn't limit Goodness to knowledge. He believes that, while knowledge is righteous, other virtues exist that are more important. Rather than striving for knowledge, Aristotle believes that if man acts rationally, he will find Goodness. He argues, "The function of man, then, is exercise of his vital faculties [or soul] on one side in obedience to reason, and on the other side with reason" (Gochberg 354). He is stating that man should act in obedience with reason, because man is a rational creature, and should side with reason to find moderation. Aristotle is preaching that Goodness is relative to the situation it is in. Aristotle's views can be seen throughout history by the laws nations have created. Laws tend to be made to suit the majority of people, analogous to Aristotle's moderation theory. Although both Plato and Aristotle disagree with the ideas of democracy, it reflects Goodness as being relative to society by passing laws based on what is best for the most people. These laws however, tend to side with Plato rather than Aristotle. Plato believes in a divine existence of Goodness that is unpossessable and unchangeable by man. Traits of Goodness can be seen in humans throughout history. Despite various societal practices of greed, humans generally have the same beliefs of what is right, and want to help others. This human goodness is instinctive, and has not changed throughout history. These ideas relate to Plato's Forms. We are driven by an urge to gain knowledge and to help others. These Forms are apparent throughout history and, although laws have changed relative to societal beliefs, the overriding Goodness that humans follow has been unchanged.

While Aristotle agrees that knowledge can only be found through social interaction, he disagrees with Plato in stating that pleasure is goodness, not merely knowledge. Aristotle argues that it is rational for people to want to gain happiness, and since reason is the route to goodness, pleasure must be good. He states, "Happiness seems to be more than anything else to answer to this description [of good]: for we always choose it for itself, and never for the sake of something else" (Gochberg 352). Since we naturally wish to benefit ourselves, Aristotle argues that pleasure is the key to goodness. He believes, "it seems happiness is something final and self-sufficing, and the end of all that man does", and since he defined the end, or the aim at which goodness is, goodness can be defined as happiness. He states happiness is most desirable and, "of two goods, the greater is always more desirable"(Gochberg 353). Plato directly argues this belief about desire. He states, "Most people identify the Good with pleasure, whereas the more enlightened think it is knowledge"(Cornford 215). Plato states that man will find happiness, but only in the intelligible world. Knowledge is the key to Goodness and happiness. Those who believe that satisfying pleasure as the way of finding goodness, Plato argues are lost. He argues, "What of those who define the good as pleasure? Are they any less confused in their thoughts?" (Cornford 215). Plato has the most accurate view of these philosophies. Aristotle argues that pleasure is the key to Goodness, but disregards that destructive pleasure exists. While pleasure can be found in such acts as greed and gluttony, these can not lead to Goodness. These can destroy the body and spirit. How can these qualities benefit society? Plato argues that pleasure can have very harmful effects on individuals and society.

Self-gain can not help the common good, because it is not in everyone's best interest. Plato is correct in stating that satisfying pleasure is not the key to Goodness. Pleasure can harm individuals, and even if it results in good for one, if will have a negative effect on society. Aristotle even agrees that there is a morality when he states that evils exist. Plato's ideas of Goodness are more logical than Aristotle's theory. Plato's theory of Forms explains human action throughout history, explaining overriding morality. Although laws are made relative to culture, they are based on a morality that remains constant throughout time.