Many philosophers have discussed the question of ethics and their application in various aspects of human life. While some agree on what the concept suggests, others completely differ in their definition and understanding of ethics. Some of the philosophers, such as Aristotle and David Hume are empiricists in their focus on ethics. However, though the two are empiricists, they differ in their definition and application of ethics. Therefore, important information could be derived in comparing their ethics and how they differ from each other, and hence, discern which of the two had a more elaborate understanding of the concept (Frankena 82). Superiority is determined by the usefulness of the philosophy and the realistic application of virtue in human life. In addition, it is regulated by the conduciveness of the ethical principle of human happiness. Although the two philosophers have convincing arguments about ethics, Aristotle is superior to Hume in terms of the potential for his philosophy to achieve pleasure.
Conceptualization of Ethics
One of the general questions in understanding how the two theorists differ is to find out whether Hume’s ethics could be characterized as a kind of virtue ethics. In virtue ethics, the key question is: “What kind of person should I be?” instead of “What action ought I to perform?” (Frankena 64). The idea of virtue ethics relates to the individual’s tendency to act virtuously or to have a moral nature. Nonetheless, it is challenging to comprehend or defend the priority since people denote characters in relation to principles defining the nature of an action that articulates the traits. In that case, a virtuous individual is any person whose actions have specific principles (Frankena 83). Furthermore, virtues are required solely to motivate an action that makes a person virtuous. From this perspective, it is possible to compare the ethical principles of Aristotle and David Hume.
While David Hume’s ethics could be characterized as virtue ethics that considers the character of the actor, Aristotle’s ethical theories tend to follow the perspective of action-based principles. In his argument, the actor is not subordinate to practical reasoning. Therefore, unlike David Hume, Aristotle considered both the character of the actor and the nature of the action to determine the actuality of ethics. His work included the idea that the character of the agent can be clearly articulated to reveal how his nature is not reducible to an act and the principles that govern action. Aristotle further argued that the character could supersede the role of motivating action if the attachments, non-rational emotions, and attitudes that are part of the character direct and limit the agents’ deliberations such that they affect their determination of the best course of action (Frankena 67). If the agent can reason in that way, then they do not use practical reason in determining their action, independent of character. Therefore, the action and the character are important in determining the virtuous action.
The Doctrine of the Mean
Aristotle differed from David Hume’s conceptualization of ethics. David Hume stated that “to be a moral person, you must act according to what you feel to be right” (Frankena 65). Such a statement went completely against what Aristotle believed ethics to be. Aristotle provides a means to question action by the agent before performing the act. His argument relates to the modern moral philosophy that relies on the person’s pathos in what is seen as “popular wisdom.” Various aspects of Aristotelian ethics reveal the need for knowledge that makes one act ethically. The doctrine of the mean is one of the major elements of the Aristotelian ethics that disproves the understanding of ethics explained by Hume (Frankena 69). The stance evident in Nicomachean Ethics suggests that no distinct rules exist when considering the meaning of the character of ethics and the way an agent should act morally.
Although the original understanding of virtue is “excellence,” the Aristotelian definition is the mean state between deficiency and excess. For example, Aristotle speaks about the character of courage as a virtue that he defines as the mean between two states, rashness and cowardice. He suggests that a deficiency of courage is denoted as a sign of cowardice while an excess of courage is regarded as rashness. Since no definite understanding of virtue, it depends on the nature of the actor and the action. Although the doctrine remains imprecise, it offers a more concrete guideline compared to the conceptualization of David Hume’s ethics that only considered the character of the actor independent of the action, which is definite (Frankena 85). For example, in Hume’s idea, a person is either courageous or not. Therefore, according to Aristotle, when an individual seeks to live a virtuous life, he must understand his action’s strength or weakness. The person gains perspective by taking the time to examine actions in this mini moral spectrum.
The morality issue reverts to the reality that specific rules do not exist in practicing it. The fact results in a dilemma regarding what one should do and what the person wants to do. People are always confronted with a moral dilemma whose review should be on a case-by-case basis. Aristotle proposes the application of reason to determine the best way to act when faced with a moral choice. The proposed way to act when facing such a dilemma is to reexamine previous experiences and realize the relativity of virtue. For instance, it is unethical to murder in cold blood. However, killing another person to protect a loved one is an act of courage. The argument is based on David Hume’s conception of virtue (Frankena 85). On the contrary, based on past knowledge, it is important to differentiate between courage and the vice of rashness. Human emotions tend to be flimsy and should not be used as the basis for determining moral actions.
Another evident difference between the two theorists relating to the doctrine of mean is that ethics is not an exact science, according to Aristotle. Borrowed from the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argues that ethics are ruled by extensive generalizations working mostly and are evident with experiences. It is based on the idea of practical wisdom that determines the actions of the agent (Nicomachean Ethics, 1094b15-1095a10 qtd. in Korsgaard 5). For example, men do not require a scientific study to determine or understand good action. Hence, what is required is an understanding of the external elements of life that affect actions, such as pleasure, friendship, honor, and wealth. These elements must always operate in concert to determine the agent’s action. Notably, the agent cannot practice these external aspects that determine action. They cannot be practiced in deficiency or excess; virtuous acts are performed between these two extremes. Furthermore, through consultation, an individual can establish the middle ground between deficiency (Nic. Ethics, 1097b5-20; Nic. Ethics, 1104a10-25 qtd. in Irwin 17). The concept relates to the Aristotelian idea of the Golden Mean.
The Existence of Practical Reason
Although Aristotle and David Hume discussed the association between character and action, they differed in their conceptualization of the way the two operate in a virtuous agent. According to David Hume, what matters is the character of the actor independent of the action. On the contrary, Aristotle warns against divorcing the character from the action. He further suggests that the content of the practical knowledge is affected by the character and its accessibility to the actor. One might suggest that although the strategy constitutes a functional approach to Aristotelian ethics, it might be an altogether unwise approach to David Hume’s understanding of ethics. Thus, to begin with, David Hume denies the reality of practical reasoning (Treatise 416 qtd. in Selby-Bigge and Nidditch 37). Secondly, David Humes claims to have triumphed over the position of moral rationalists (Cudworth and Clarke 197). The rationalists’ position suggests that the moral rules are judgments of the reason (Treatise 455-457 qtd. in Selby-Bigge and Nidditch 37). Furthermore, the morality rules are the extension of the propensity of an individual to be sympathetic (Treatise 581-585). Therefore, he concludes that the practical reason does not exist.
However, various reasons emerge, which conclude that David Hume does not beat moral rationalists. Firstly, his claims against moral rationalists appear to confound the question of moral epistemology with the question of moral motivation (Korsgaard 5). The theorist might be wrong in the claim in Treatise 455-457, that “from the fact that I am not moved to do the right thing, it follows that I cannot understand what the right thing to do is” (qtd. in Korsgaard 5). Secondly, his attempt to explain the way moral differences arise from human passions invokes substantive, non-instrumental reasoning that he tries to discount. He uses non-instrumental reasoning that might be subordinate to the character. Although David Hume assumes a virtue ethics perspective, he appears to contradict his thinking about the superiority of reason in human action. Nonetheless, Aristotle provides a clearer and more convincing idea of ethics from a moral reasoning perspective.
Aristotle discusses moral reasoning effectively in EN VII.1-3 of incontinence. The philosopher speaks about akrasia or the weakness of the will. He interestingly responds to the question of whether Socrates correctly argues about the incontinent agent as being uninformed. He further argues, “Incontinence is failing to understand the practical syllogism’s last premise” (EN 1147b9) and failing to have “perceptual knowledge” (EN 1147b18). The views of Aristotle are more complex than Socrates’ position (Frankena 84). He suggests that during incontinence, the person’s appetite breaks off the normal deliberative process of the agent. Therefore, incontinent becomes more complex than what Socrates believes is ignorance. For example, the incontinent might not understand some general principles of the right action. However, Aristotle introduces the idea of good deliberator as a reasoning person who is capable of performing a virtuous action (EN 1151a29-b4). In essence, moral reasoning appears to be a major part of Aristotelian ethics.
Furthermore, moral reasoning is one of the most important factors in moral decision-making. Unlike David Hume, Aristotle suggests that one cannot be a moral agent by depending on what he feels to be the right action in whatever situation. Aristotle further suggests that the most effective way of one to become virtuous is to portray all virtues. Therefore, when faced with a need to make a moral decision, one should think about all virtues and establish the right course of action. Virtue is all or nothing and depends on the character of the person and the act that is considered ethical in the situation. For example, if killing is unethical, it remains so despite all the circumstances. After all, all virtues emanate from a commonplace, “the good” (Korsgaard 6). Therefore, according to Aristotle and against David Home, some standards of the good are evident and should be used to reason about and perform the act that is considered ethical by a moral agent.
Aristotle differs with David Hume in terms of defining the moral agent. According to David Hume, the actor is independent of the action in determining the morality of a person or action. However, Aristotle suggests that a naturally virtuous person is capable of performing a moral action and that the two variables work together. For instance, a person with no virtues is not capable of performing a moral act because the character determines the action. Furthermore, virtue is a habit. The moral agent practices morality from a young age, which forms a moral or good character. Therefore, a decision to act on the spur of the moment based on feelings does not make one a moral person. Notably, a moral person builds morality as part of one’s character and learns how to be virtuous through practice. Hence, through experience, an individual can discover “the good” and apply it to ethical decision-making (Frankena 85). The knowledge emanates from previous decisions to develop a character. A moral agent acts according to what he or she knows to be right and not what he or she feels.
As it is evident from the analysis of the two philosophers, David Hume and Aristotle differ significantly in their definition and understanding of what morality entails, especially on the role of the character of an agent and the action. While David Hume focuses on the nature or character of the agent, Aristotle suggests that the character of the agent is as important as the moral act because the two cannot be divorced. Hence, moral actor, in terms of the character built over time through experience, is capable of performing a moral act. Furthermore, Aristotle includes the role of moral knowledge in determining the role of the moral actor in ethical choices or decisions. He suggests that moral actions require reasoning and not just the feelings of the agent. The ability to reason and use knowledge enables a person to understand and react to practical situations. Therefore, unlike Hume, who considers a character as capable of making a moral decision using emotions and feelings, Aristotle suggests the role of reason, experience, and moral character built over time to determine the ability to make a moral choice. Therefore, a comparison of the two philosophers reveals that Aristotle has a more superior idea of ethics and one that can be applied to practical situations involving moral decision-making.
Cudworth, Ralph and Samuel Clarke. An Inquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge, 2nd ed., Clarendon Press, 1972.
Frankena, William Ethics, 2nd ed., Englewood Cliffs, NJ, Prentice-Hall, 1973.
Irwin, Terence. Nicomachean Ethics, Hackett Publishing, 1985.
Korsgaard, Christine M. “Skepticism about Practical Reason,” The Journal of Philosophy, vol. LXXXIII, no. 1, 1986, 5-25.
Rawls, John. Political Liberalism. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1993, pp. 82-85.
Selby-Bigge and P. H. Nidditch, Treatise of Human Nature. Ed. Clarendon Press, 1978.