Essay: Aristotle's Ethics

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Aristotle and Relationships at Work

Work in the 21st Century

For centuries, work defined what it meant to be human. We see this again and again, even in television and motion pictures. The hit cable show Mad Men, for instance, is set in a 1960s advertising agency in which the employees can never find enough work -- or relationship drama at work. However, work in the 21st century is quite different than ever before. Employees and employers all have different expectations, the global economy requires different skills, and technology has moved at such a rapid pace that just keeping up with basic communication is a challenge. Many of the changes in this new workplace revolve around the concept of relationship. Relationships with family, self, colleagues, and a desire for lifelong learning. Quality of life is important, job satisfaction critical, and the need for positive ideals and work relationships quite coveted (Workplace Flexibility in the 21st Century, 2009).

Too, the idea of work being not only an extension on one's professional abilities, but a true way to actualize one's whole being is more and more the expectation rather than the rarity. The three major themes defining a great place to work are all built on the day-to-day relationships people have with their colleagues, managers, stakeholders, and customers. Most 21st century employees believe they work for a great company when the following three paradigms are present:

Trust -- Trust defines the modern workplace, makes it credible, and emphasizes fairness and allows the employee to feel they are an essential part of the organization.

Pride -- Pride in the product or service, pride in the process, and pride as a significant part of the emotional expression all stakeholders have for the organization.

Enjoyment/Fulfillment -- Not only must the work be enjoyable and fulfilling, the people surrounding the organization must be as well (What is a Great Workplace? 2012).


Aristotle was a Greek philosopher who lived in the 3rd century BCE. He was a student of Plato, and sometimes best known as Alexander the Great's teacher. He wrote about many subjects: physics, poetry, music, logic, linguistic, politics, ethics, government, biology, and his works remain some of the founding documents in Western philosophy. His views on the physical sciences influenced Medieval and Renaissance scholarship, he had a major impact on the basic theological philosophies of Judaism and Islam, and continues to influence all manner of philosophy in the modern world. Unlike his teacher Plato, Aristotle found that the universal, or essence, of things exists in their being. Taken logically, Aristotle's reasoning considers this essence as being a part of the practical study of humans and their relationships with each other. To be a good person, or virtuous, one must work within the function of the object -- the optimum action of that experience. Thus, when one follows the best path towards actualization, and one consciously choose to do the best thing for society; one then reaches the highest point of human virtue, philosophy (Ackrill, 2010).

The Nicomachean Ethics

In the Ancient World, the concept of friendship was thought of as both a necessity for a fulfilling life and a good society -- primarily because the empathy filled the need for a society in which participative democracy was engendered by wisdom and happiness. For Aristotle, for instance, friendship fell into three major categories, all, however, which were comprised of "a single soul dwelling in two bodies." These types of friendships could be based on utility, pleasure, or goodness but all established the parameters that helped or hindered creativity and intellectual pursuit, power, and even the opposite darker aspects -- jealousy, envy, and exploitation of the soul.

Aristotle is quite verbose about the ideas surrounding friendship in his Nicomachean Ethics, a ten volume tome based on Aristotle's lectures at the Lyceum and either edited or dedicated to Aristotle's son, Nichomachus. It seems Aristotle wanted the Nicomachean Ethics to be a less intellectual and more practical guide to what humans should strive for in a moral life (NE II;2). The correct approach to happiness (actualization) should be one of the sole goals of the individual and can only be found through virtue. There must be a harmonious relationship, note the similarity between harmony for Aristotle and the idea of a trusting, relevant place to work. That is, virtue is a process that requires ethical behavior to oneself, to others, and to society. Aristotle believed that most activities were a means to a higher end; and that the highest is an activity that is an end in itself. Humans constantly strive for happiness yet happiness is divined only with references to appropriate historical texts. Additionally, the idea of the Doctrine of the Mean" -- all things in moderation, exists in friendship as a way to balance out loneliness of the self and a lack of a supportive, "no matter what" peer group.

Now, understanding that Greece of Aristotle's time was essentially a tight knit community structure, one can see that the public nature of happiness becomes friendship for Aristotle, flushed out with a bond that that works from within a situation. This outward expression of friendship -- the loyalty and steadfastness involved, caused glue by which society is based: "If a good person is self-sufficient, it follows that he or she has no need of friends. However, friendship is one of the greatest goods in life, so a good person cannot achieve perfect happiness without friends" (NE, IX).

Aristotle and Relationships at Work

Basically, in practicality, Aristotle can be summed up in the following drama: A person was upset, and another person wanted to help them, it would be correct to ask the person what was wrong because a mild amount of curiosity is between two vices (disregard and prying), and to ask the person at the right time: when the person was able to talk about the problem without getting upset, and only talk to the appropriate people- not spread rumors about the problem. The second person should only get involved for the right reasons too- to help the upset person. Aristotle, while acknowledging the possibility of value, finds that "in unequal friendship, it is important that each person receive an appropriate benefit. A poor person cannot give money to a rich benefactor, but can give whatever honor is within the poor person's means" (NE, VII). This view, pervasive throughout the NE, finds the positive in all potential, and simply warns of the possibility of the negative.

A broader approach to the ethic of friendship also helps explan the organization between individuals -- the politics of relationships, if you will. Instead of being focused so much on the actual action of this friendship, Aristotle's ethic asks about the approach, the journey, or the path towards the idea of friendship. However, when one looks at the history of any philosophical subject, it is important to note that differing concepts of philosophy often arise "out of" that very historical and cultural fabric of the time -- and then evolve so that they become more acceptable to future generations rather than contemporaneous ones.

Civic Relations and Best Places to Work

The idea of virtue is that if one is moral, then right actions flow -- if we are moral, we know innately what is right or wrong. Thus, Eudemonia, or the state of knowing what is really right or wrong, moral or immoral, is then part of our actualization. Virtue for Aristotle is similar to what it is today -- contrasting rules and duty from the kind of characteristics one should have as a good human being. Virtue is that middle value between extremes, the path, the grey, and what is desirable. For Aristotle, though, virtue could be thought of in a wider scope. Virtue was the grey between the black and white -- the center between two evils or vices. For example, the idea of modesty would be a virtue to Aristotle because it is in the middle of two extremes: tremendous egotism and low self-esteem. Within our model of the workplace, a virtue would be to apply oneself and work sensibly; the virtue is between overworking and taxing oneself unnecessarily and utter laziness. This would be correct, and virtuous because if we act in the right manner, using our skills, and at the right time and place, we become moral creatures: "...To experience these emotions [fear, courage, desire, anger, pity, and pleasure] at the right times and on the right occasions and toward the right persons and for the right causes and in the right manner is the mean or the supreme good, which is characteristic of virtue" (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, II).

However, if we look at the three major paradigms of the modern age that focus on the workplace: trust, pride, and enjoyment/fulfillment, we see that they are all bound in the very heart of virtue ethics. Happiness is not the same as being jovial for Aristotle. Modern humans tend to see happiness as something that feels… [END OF PREVIEW]

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