Aristotle's Moral Absolutes: A Preliminary Look



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In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle introduces his Doctrine of the Mean, where he argues that virtue is the mean between two extremes, the mean between excess and deficiency. However, Aristotle mentions actions whose wrongness does not seem to be explained in terms of excess and deficiency; rather, it seems that these actions are always wrong, regardless of whether they are excessive, deficient, or neither. Among such actions Aristotle mentions moicheia, androphonia, and klop? (usually translated "adultery," "theft," and "murder"). Thus, with such actions the main questions become, first, what, according to Aristotle, explains the wrongness of these actions, and second, what makes it the case that they are always wrong.

With these questions in mind, I will take moicheia as a test case to come up with an account that can answer these questions. In order to build this account, I make use of an objection leveled by Rosalind Hursthouse against the Doctrine of the Mean and of Howard Curzer's response to this objection. Though I claim Curzer's account fails, I make use of Curzer's work in another context in order to respond to Hursthouse's objection. Ultimately, I will claim that the wrongness of actions like moicheia can be satisfactorily explained as failures of the virtue of justice in which the agent goes beyond what properly belongs to her, beyond her proper share.

However, in order for this account to succeed, I must get clearer about what resources Aristotle might have to specify what properly belongs to an agent, or what makes for one's "proper share." This can be done by looking deeper at Aristotle's theory of justice. Making use of the work of Richard Kraut, I claim that the concept of proper share involves Aristotle's ideas of nomoi (laws), and the common good. Ultimately though, what will allow us to make sense of prohibitions against acts like moicheia being absolute will be Aristotle's claim that certain laws are based on phusis ("nature"). In the last analysis, it is Aristotle's concept of phusis as it relates to human beings that will be central to his account of absolute moral prohibitions.