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Week 2—EGR 402, Plato and Aristotle


Glaucon's Three-Way Division of Goods


A. Good in and of itself, such as happiness. (357b)


B. The consequences are good, such as surgery. (357d)


C. Good in and of itself and the consequences are good, such as sex supposing one wanted to procreate. (357c)


Glaucon believes justice falls under (B). (358a)

Socrates believes justice falls under (C). (358a)


Ring of Gyges--Justice is practiced unwillingly and not as something good. The consequences of the acts show that justice is practiced unwillingly.


Ergon Argument


A thing is good IFF it functions well.

A person is good IFF it functions well.

A society is good IFF it functions well.


Analogous Structure


Part of the Psyche

Place in Society
















Types of City/People (bold is transition between cities/people).


Aristocracy or Kingship depending on the number of rules/good and just people. Remember the Ergon argument. (The Timocratic Person comes into being when appetites start pulling against reason consistently.)


Timocracy in thinking loves war and honor and is corrupted possibly by money. The timocratic person is pulled by appetites by his peers and towards reason by parents.The timocratic person still honors the polis/city. (The Oligarchic Person comes into being through a family that has had misfortune and overcompensates.)


Oligarchy--the appetites try to rule and those in the city desire money.  But they won't spend money on their defense. Furthermore, this creates a bifurcation of the haves and have nots. Some will have two functions and thus not follow the Ergon argument. The oligarchic person is bifurcated as well--she has the appetites but does not act upon them but only upon necessary desires. All of her time is devoted to making money but she never satisfies her appetites. The oligarchic person does not honor the city anymore. (The Democratic Person comes into being when the Oligarchical parent encourages the satisfaction of desires.)            


Democracy--one can do anything one pleases and the city has many constitutions. What Plato is getting at is that the society has no unique structure like the Aristocracy. You are possibly not doing the best job possible if you are doing what you want.The democratic person shifts between necessary and unnecessary desires.  Just like society, the person has no structure or way of keeping a healthy psyche.

(The Democracy and the Oligarchy result in too much freedom, honor, or liberty for the individual. To supress this liberty, liberty must be taken away and the result is the Dictatorship. Usually done through a war. A child of a Democratic person becomes a dictator through emphasizing her lawless desires as living an acceptable life.)


Dictatorship or Tyranny--one characterized by a further distinction in a breakdown of appetites, that is by lawless desires. The Dictator is driven by lust and has no shame. She consistently pursues her own lusts no matter how vile or right they are. The dictator is as unjust a person as possible.


What you want to notice is that as the cities start declining in various degrees, appetites are not being ruled by reason. Eventually we end up with lust ruling the dictatorship. Plato shows this decline through initially introducing a tension between desires, emotion and reason (timocracy), then as a conflict between acting on a desire and not exercising it (oligarchy), then as acting on both necessary and unnecessary desires with no structure (democracy), and finally acting strictly on the lowest form of desire, lawless ones (dictatorship).




There are two aspects to Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics: virtue and happiness.




General definition of virtue: good character traits


Aristotle’s definition of virtue: A virtue is a character trait that hits the mean and is manifested in habitual action, or what he called “habituation”. Specifically, this is Aristotle’s definition of moral virtue. Intellectual virtues are those we obtain through education and reason.


You become virtuous by doing virtuous actions. For example, consider the virtue of honesty. If you consistently tell the truth, you are exercising the virtue of honesty. If you lie more than you tell the truth, it would be fair to claim that you do not have the virtue. Likewise, consider the virtue of courage. If you act courageously on a consistent basis, you are exercising the virtue of courage. However, if you act cowardly too often, the virtue of courage is far from you and your acts.


As Aristotle was a rationalist, it follows that reason should be used to keep desire and emotion in their proper degree. The doctrine of the mean, where you choose the mean over the extremes of excess and deficit show that in each case, the desires need be kept in check. Aristotle, like Kant, thought that desires can lead us astray contra the utilitarians/consequentialists who believe desires play a fundamental role in moral calculations and action. Reason v. Desire is our second major way we will classify theories.


As an example of Aristotle's mean consider the following:


Vice—excess             Virtue                Vice--deficiency

shamelessness               —modesty                    —shame

rashness                         —courage                    ---cowardly


The two on the ends are extremes, ruled by desires/emotions and not rationality. The middle or mean, shows a rational course of action by choosing between the two competing desires letting neither desire have a complete foothold.  The mean is good and thus is a virtuous state to be in.


There are four primary virtues: courage, temperance, wisdom, and justice.


Courage—a brave person is not distracted by excessive fear from his/her pursuit of his/her rational plans.


           Temperance—a temperate person is not distracted from his/her rational plans by excessive attachments to his/her personal appetites.


            Wisdom—a wise person is one who can deliberate about the proper combination of goods that will result in the best life, as a whole. Wisdom is directly tied to our rational goal of happiness.


The first three virtues are called “self-regarding” virtues; they regard the self and not necessarily others. However, the fourth virtue, justice does focus on others.


            Justice—a just person is one who is concerned with others and the ways they are treated.


Aristotle states, “The complete good is thought to be self-sufficient. Now by self-sufficient we do not mean that which is sufficient for a man all by himself, for one who lives a solitary life, but also for parents, children, wife, and in general for friends and fellow citizens, since, a human being by nature is a political animal.”


Notice what Aristotle does here, he ties the individual’s happiness to the happiness of society. Thus, one cannot be happy unless a similar happiness is realized in the greater society.




Aristotle states that there must be one final end, which is an end-in-itself. That end is happiness. By living a virtuous life, we achieve happiness or eudaimonia.


Eudaimonia is more precise in meaning. Instead of our general notion of happiness where pleasure or feelings of well being are consider, eudaimonia refers to our well-being in general (our general welfare) or, if you will, flourishing as a human being. A happy life on this account is one guided by reason.


Summary: Aristotle’s ethics concentrates on character traits that allow one to lead a life that will result in the greatest eudaimonia or happiness. It is a rationalistic theory; reasons overrule desires and appetites. Thus, reason plays an integral part of leading a life filled with happiness.