How are the virtue ethics of Aristotle and Confucius Similar? Distinct?

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How are the virtue ethics of Aristotle and Confucius Similar? Distinct?

The development of virtue ethics by Aristotle and Confucius aimed at helping human beings live a good life. Although Aristotle and Confucius strived at enhancing morality in society, their approach to virtue ethics is different. The difference may be attributed to the environment and traditions of the time. For instance, Aristotle was a Greek Philosopher born in 384 BC and influenced philosophy in the West (Aristotle and Ross, 2). On the other hand, Confucius was an ancient Chinese philosopher born in 551BC (Peters, 423). Therefore, the philosophical ideas of Aristotle represent the philosophy of the West while the philosophical ideas of Confucius represent the philosophy of the East. While Aristotle and Confucius aimed at the development of morality, they differ on how individuals exercise moral values. Aristotle emphasizes the development of character while Confucius goes beyond to include cultivating the relationship between people. The essay, therefore, compares and contrasts the virtue ethics of Aristotle and Confucius.

Both Aristotle and Confucius aimed at the development of morality- the ability to distinguish between the right and wrong behavior. According to Aristotle and Confucius, virtue ethics involve living a good life and for one to live a good life, he or she must know the different between right and wrong (Santiago, 7). Also, Aristotle and Confucius recognized the ability of human beings to reason and differentiate the desired action from an undesired action (Thiroux and Krasemann, 42). Although Confucius does not state explicitly the concept of reasoning in human beings, his theory of the Golden Rule is consistent with reasoning. For instance, treating a person that way one would expect to be treated involves reasoning. If one expects a person to treat him or her well in future, one will exhibit the desired behavior. The decision to act or exhibit the desired behavior shows that an individual has the ability to reason. The English Philosopher, Alasdair McIntyre, in his book, “After Virtue” talks about moral choice, which is consistent with rationality of human beings. According to MacIntyre, “Human beings must know what they are doing when they judge or act virtuously, and then they should do what is virtuous merely because it is so” (46). MacIntyre’s views on rationality reflects Aristotle and Confucius’ approach to morality.

The virtue ethics of both Aristotle and Confucius aim at fulfilling the people’s potential. For Aristotle, the development of character leads to fulfilling one’s potential (Aristotle and Ross, 4). For example, the achievement of spiritual ideal or material possessions require the development of character. Similarly, Confucius’ virtue ethics aim at fulfilling one’s potential through enhancing relationships. The development of Character from Aristotle’s virtue ethics helps people to achieve their potential by knowing how to respond to situations. People can attain their potential and live a good life if they know how to respond to circumstances- this is what Aristotle calls the Theory of the Mean (6). For instance, the mean of cowardice and recklessness is courage. When a person applies the theory of the mean, it becomes possible to attain the potential. Similarly, the focus on developing relationships leads to the fulfilment of potential, and ultimately happiness in life.

The virtue ethics of Aristotle and Confucius are distinct in the manner in which the two philosophers approach the issue of morality. While Aristotle aims at the development of character, Confucius assesses the singular acts. Aristotle states that everything has a function and a person develops a good character is he or she knows his or her function. Aristotle implies that people become useful when they make meaningful contribution in the society.  Aristotle says, “The end of human life is happiness, and the basic activity of human beings is to reason” (Thiroux and Krasemann, 42). According to Aristotle, therefore, human beings can live a good life and attain happiness if they reason well for a whole or complete life. For example, a doctor aims at treating the sick. The doctor’s reasoning, therefore, functions to improve health.  On the other hand, Confucius emphasizes the development of an individual’s character towards other people, that is, enhancing relationships. Confucius goes beyond Aristotle’s focus on the development of individual character to the development of relationships. According to Confucius, human beings attain happiness when they are in a good relationship with others. Confucius emphasized humaneness, conscientiousness and kindness.  Confucius’ approach to virtue ethics is consistent with the Golden Rule, which states that do unto others what you would want to be done unto you.

Aristotle’s approach to virtue ethics focuses on the independence of an individual. For example, Aristotle’s theory of the Mean states that human beings should avoid the extremes of the situations. Modesty in actions is the key element in Aristotle’s philosophy of virtue ethics. For example, when an individual feels angry, the extremes include the lack of spirit, which is the deficiency of virtue, and irascibility, which is the excess of the vice (Aristotle and Ross, 2). However, patience is the Golden Mean or the virtuous disposition.  When a person applies the Golden Mean, he or she learns to respond to situations. Aristotle’s approach to virtue ethics, therefore, implies that how human beings respond to situations is their choice. For example, when one is angry, he or she may choose to be patient and wait for the tempers to cool down before making a decision, or may rash to make a decision in anger. Aristotle helps individuals to think independently and make decisions based on the Golden Mean. On the other hand, Confucius’ virtue ethics focuses on inter-dependence. According to Confucius human beings need one another for existence. Therefore, the development of human relationships is important for attaining happiness. Confucius’ idea of inter-dependence is consistent with Alasdair’s MacIntyre’s view that human beings are dependent rational animals who are also vulnerable. According to MacIntyre, the vulnerability of human beings makes them dependent (MacIntyre,72). However, inter-dependence among human beings leads to happiness. For example, in an organization, people need to work together to achieve the desired results. Different departments work with the common goal- to make profit. All departments, therefore, need each other for proper functioning of the organization.

Aristotle’s virtue ethics answers the question, “How should I live?” while Confucius’ virtue ethics answers the question, “How should we attend to others?”. The answer to Aristotle’s central question to morality is individualistic. Aristotle, therefore, focuses on a life of contemplation, which is consistent with Socrates’ view on examination of one’s life (Plato and Jowett, 23).  Aristotle’s virtue ethics requires people to use the Golden Mean regardless of the situation- this means people need to think independently about a situation. On the other hand, Confucius’ central question to morality considers other people in the determination of right and wrong. According to Confucius, people need each other to become virtuous. Confucius rejects the notion that excellence is tied to reasoning and advocates for the development of the whole person through inter-dependence.  Aristotle states that independence leads to the development of virtue and happiness. People become independent by reasoning, and function to make a meaningful contribution in the society. However, Confucius states that human beings increase self-cultivation by exercising creativity.  Therefore, people can attain happiness by investing themselves in relationships and being useful to others.

Aristotle and Confucius virtue ethics aim at living a good life- attaining happiness. The two philosophers, however, differ in their approach to morality. Aristotle’s virtue ethics aims at making an individual independent by use of reasoning.  Confucius’ virtue ethics aims at development of inter-dependence. Aristotle’s views on morality reflects the traditions in the West, for example, the development of capitalism in the West emanated from individualistic thinking. On the other hand, Confucius’ views on morality reflects the traditions in the East, for example, the development of communism in the ancient China emanated from communal thinking. There is a need therefore to integrate both Aristotle and Confucius virtue ethics. Firstly, human beings are dependent, that is, they depend on others for support, as Alasdair MacIntyre states. Secondly, people become independent by exercising the freedom of thought and reasoning as emphasized by Aristotle. Thirdly, human beings can move beyond dependence and independence to inter-dependence. Therefore, while people can act independently, a good life involves cultivating relationships with others.

Works Cited

Aristotle, and W. D. Ross. Nicomachean Ethics. Generic NL Freebook Publisher, 2000. 

MacIntyre, Alasdair C. Dependent Rational Animals: Why Human Beings Need the Virtues. Chicago, Ill: Open Court, 2001. Print.

Peters, Michael A. “Socrates and Confucius: The Cultural Foundations and Ethics of Learning.” Educational Philosophy & Theory, vol. 47, no. 5, May 2015, pp. 423–427. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/00131857.2014.930232.

Plato, , and Benjamin Jowett. The Trial and Death of Socrates: Four Dialogues. New York: Dover Publications, 1992. Internet resource.

Santiago, John. Confucian Ethics in the Analects as Virtue Ethics. 2008, Accessed 5 Mar. 2019.

Thiroux, Jacques P. and Krasemann Keith W,  Ethics: Theory and Practice . Place of publication not identified: Prentice Hall, 2009. Print.