Aristotle was born in 384 B.C.E., in a town in northern Greece called Stagira. He began studying philosophy under Plato in 367 in Athens. Although he was a good pupil, Aristotle didn’t agree with all of Plato’s teachings. After Plato died, Aristotle left Athens to tutor Alexander the Great. After Alexander conquered Athens, Aristotle returned to start his own school, the Lycuem. After Alexander the Great’s death, Athens rebelled. Because of his political affiliations, Aristotle’s life was in danger. To avoid being put to death, he fled Athens to the island of Euboea. He died shortly after, in 322 B.C.E. (Waggoner, 1996).
Although Aristotle is credited for his knowledge in multiple fields throughout his lifetime, he is extremely famous in the area of ethics. He considered ethics an attempt to find our personal “chief end.” Basically, this is happiness. But, happiness means many different things to many people. Aristotle believed that for anyone, happiness can’t be achieved through abstract concepts, but only through something that is practical and human, or stemming from human nature. It can only be achieved through “the active life of a rational being, or in a perfect realization and outworking of the true soul and self, continued throughout a lifetime” (“Aristotle,” n.d.).
Because happiness is a part of human nature, Aristotle explained this through an analysis of the human soul. He believed that the parts of a human soul are divided into rational and irrational parts. Three faculties make up these two parts. There is the calculative faculty, which is our intellectual virtue. Next is the appetitive faculty, which is our moral virtue. Last is the vegetative faculty, which is our nutritional virtue. Aristotle said that the irrational part of our soul is the part we share with animals, while the rational part is what makes us human. The vegetative faculty is irrational, and is said to be responsible for nutrition and growth. The appetitive faculty is both irrational and rational, because it is responsible for emotions and desires, which both humans and animals have. But, as humans we can control our emotions and desires. The calculative faculty is purely rational, and it is what makes us human. It’s responsible for our ability to reason logically and think critically (“Aristotle,” n.d.).
Aristotle believed that the only way to properly balance all of these things in order to reach one’s chief end, is through a principle that he called the Doctrine of the Mean. This doctrine states that one must look for a “proper intermediate point between extreme examples of excess or deficiency” (Plaisance, 2014). This basically means that, in any given ethical situation, it’s best to find the middle ground between the two extremes. For example, it’s ideal to be courageous. But, you should do this without giving into the vice of being overly courageous. At the same time, you don’t want to be cowardly because this isn’t beneficial either. It is best to find the “mean,” or the middle between two evils. By finding the mean in any situation, one can then flourish (Plaisance, 2014).
While Aristotle believed that there are certain ways to reach our chief end, and that the Doctrine of the Mean should be followed in order to do this, he also acknowledged the fact that we are all part of a community, and that these principles must be followed practically. Not every situation has a definitive answer, and there’s no exact, perfect middle ground between two vices. This is extremely important to understand in media ethics.
For example, if a journalist writes a story for a newspaper, gets it published, but then realizes a minor mistake, what should they do? Some would argue the only option would be for him to immediately get a retraction or a correction published in the next issue. Someone else could argue that the best option would be to inform his editor, and let the editor decide what to do. Another person might say that, since it was a minor issue that many people probably won’t even notice, it makes sense to just let it be and not bring any negative attention to the newspaper or the writer. In this situation, there’s no solution that is perfectly in between doing too much and doing too little. It’s a matter of perspective. This is why we have things like a code of ethics, to tell media professionals what to do in ethical situations like this one.
Aristotle (384 – 322 B.C.E.). (n.d.) In Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from http://www.iep.utm.edu/aristotl/#H7
[Photo of Aristotle]. Retrieved from http://creativethinking.net/what-i-learned-about-creative-thinking-from-aristotle/#sthash.K6mqecat.dpbs
Plaisance, P.L. (2014). Media ethics: Key principles for responsible practice. Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE Publication, Inc.
Waggoner, B. (1996). Aristotle (384 – 322 B.C.E.). Retrieved from http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/history/aristotle.html