Term Paper: Feminist Interpretation of Aristotle

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Feminist Interpretation of Aristotle

Aristotle and Women's Position in the World

In "The Virtue of Care: Aristotelian Ethics and Contemporary Ethics of Care," Ruth Groenhout states "hierarchies should be evaluated on their own merits." This interpretation of Aristotelian hierarchy stands in stark contrast to a literal interpretation of Aristotle's view of the man/wife dichotomy where there is no evaluation, the woman is mostly subservient to her husband. Instead, Groenhout claims, when people are denied a place in a hierarchy because of their gender, or race, it is not Aristotle's hierarchy that is objectionable, it is the criteria which gives the positions to certain individuals (Freeland p. 177). Therefore it can be surmised that while Aristotelian ethics exist, they can, indeed, also be valued; it is more important to regard women in positions of power today as a progression in positive thought pertaining to women. Hirshman insists that it is not freedom but utility that justifies women's right to take part in the labor market, because the increased competition those women will add will create great effects for society as a whole (Freeland p. 239). Aristotelian ethics can support equal representation for women as he too had an ethics of care. The original form of Aristotelian ethics as well as the modern form of virtue ethics shows a propensity toward essentialist hierarchies, unfair treatment, and a justification of oppression in regard to women (Freeland p. 187) thus ethics of care developed as a more equal and optimistic approach; however Aristotle's position is that by looking at a person's inner qualities, one can decide if those qualities would uphold the morality in a community, which does relate to care ethics. Aristotle's ethics and politics are so entwined because of it. Women today, especially those in positions of great power, struggle with contradictions in the system. The question of how they can exist in a world where personal needs seem unprogressive when it comes to their feminist views, is often a question left without a solution. But ethics of care does offer s solution and Aristotle was, perhaps, the first to illustrate this.

Aristotle sought out knowledge of the way the world is and, most importantly, sought to explain why the world is the way it is. Hegel's definition of philosophy was that it is "its own time apprehended in thoughts" (Okin 73). For years, feminists often disregarded Aristotle's work because of his overtly misogynistic views of woman, for instance, claiming that the men provide the actual life in procreation and women merely supplied the shelter for that life to grow. There is also the Aristotelian assertion that women have a "defective capacity for rationality" (Freeland; Groenhout p. 171). If we can tell anything about our world today by our apprehension in thoughts, it would be that the world has largely changed in its thought from the days of Aristotle. Today, the U.S. has a record number of women in Congress, 17 women in the U.S. Senate and 74 women in the U.S. House of Representatives, a statistic that shows progress, although it is still far off from equal political representation of women. Aristotle's ethical theory, such as virtue ethics today, are often reproached by feminist thinkers because Aristotle seems to suggest that women are best left to roles that are either under men's governance, or roles that are more domestic or service-related in nature. Aristotle seems to think that those who are "more human," or in his interpretation men, are put into positions of power and control, yet hierarchical theory should not be disregarded and his philesis theory should not be disregarded either. By rejecting Aristotle's hierarchical theory on the claims that it is anti-feminist, means to negate social structures as a whole. Without social structure, powerful and influential women, such as our Congresswomen, would not have a ladder to climb, so to speak. Thus, we must not reject Aristotle's theories simply because his ideas about gender equality are not representational of the modern woman today. It is better to reject the time in which Aristotle lived and focus on what he did say about care and the profound desire for the well-being of another person.

Aristotle's concept of care was the Greek term philesis or philein which translates today into "love" or "friendly affection" and he uses it in the same way that Carol Gilligan and Nel Noddings use "care" in ethics of care (Curzer 2007). Aristotle defines philein as so:

We may describe to philein towards anyone as wishing for him what you believe to be good things, not for your own sake but for his, and being inclined, so far as you can, to bring these things about.

He goes on to suggest that goodwill "does not involve intensity or desire, whereas these accompany philesis; and philesis implies intimacy while goodwill may arise of a sudden" (Curzer 2007).

The word anthropos is Aristotle's Greek term meaning "human being," however it becomes very apparent when reading Aristotle's work that a very small minority of one sex of the human race shares what, Aristotle characterizes, as the human virtues and man's highest good and happiness. Because "man" does not just need reason, he also needs certain external goods in order for him to achieve happiness and live a good life. Aristotle insists that a man cannot be happy without such things as friends, wealth, good children, spare time, fine breeding, and beauty (Okin 77). In order to obtain these things, other people will need to be involved in more of a service capacity to ensure there availability. Aristotle theorizes that the "entire animal kingdom" as well as the "vast majority of humans, are intended by nature to be instruments which supply to the few the necessities and comforts that will enable them to be happy in their contemplative activity" (Okin 77). Therefore, he is asserting that women, as well as slaves, are all auxiliary devices for use so that the man can achieve his greatest potential and ascend the hierarchy until he reaches the top. Aristotle believes that women are inferior by contemplating the duties she undertakes and the qualities she manifests in Athenian society. One must remember, however, that this was a society dominated by men, where men in society dictated women's roles as well as the qualities valued in her. Aristotle, it appears, is not very interested in women aside from this context.

While the mere association between women and slaves is no doubt offensive to feminists, and to society as well, if one is to take away Aristotle's blatant sexism, there is little doubt that mankind does require money, friends, and some leisure time, (fine breeding and beauty are bonuses) in order to be happy individuals in society. Of course, there is the necessity for all types of people, however, since many need to fulfill services in order to keep society functioning thus illustrating that Aristotle was quite reasonable in his way of thinking. Yet the problem is that his "thoughts apprehended of the time" was a time when generally the entire world put women into subservient roles. Therefore, in understanding this, we need not dismiss Aristotle's theories about society entirely. In fact, it is not just important to remember that there is a massive cultural difference between Aristotle's culture and our culture, but it is important to remember that cultural differences still exist and women are still considered second-class citizens in different parts of the world. Thus it is important to remember that there are truths that are held that are merely matters of perception. By looking at our world today and seeing that women are put into powerful positions, we see that perception is not as it was for Aristotle.

Aristotle also argued that human beings have commitments rather than preferences. Hirshman's theories on gender, class and politics suggest that given the lack of competent individuals to do "anything excellently" which necessitates a "considerable amount of ability to do," increasing the number of individuals who can run for political office, enter a profession like medicine or law, become a factory worker, will thus improve the quality of politicians, lawyers, doctors and workers in general (Hirschman p. 239). Of course, this means that new and increased competition will also affect the applicant pool, "namely men -- to improve themselves. Thus, women's freedom will increase overall social utility" (Hirschman p. 239).

Aristotle believed that individuals pursued endeavors that are important in themselves - or in their extrinsic goals, rather than external preferences helpful to some kind of unclear function. Again, this means that people have responsibilities not preferences. He said:

If, then, there is some end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake (everything else being desired for the sake of this), and if we do not choose everything for the sake of something else (for at that rate the process would go on to infinity, so that our desire would be empty and vain), clearly this must the good and the chief… [END OF PREVIEW]

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