Aristotle's relationship to moral realism and natural law

James Joseph Flynn, Fordham University


This study is an investigation into Aristotle's ethical system as regards the question of whether it is a true instance of moral realism, and, in particular, whether it is a genuine case of natural law ethics. Moral realism, as I define it, includes any ethical position that asserts that ethical judgments are true or false insofar as they correspond to a reality that is in some way independent of the person or culture making the ethical judgment. For example, whether slavery is ethically justified is taken to be a question that has a true and false answer. Thomas Aquinas, Immanuel Kant, and John Stuart Mill are examples of moral realists in this sense. Aristotle is usually taken to be a moral realist, but this assessment of his system has been recently challenged. This new reading of Aristotle has come about at a time when some contemporary philosophers are challenging the basis of any moral realism. Many moral realist actually go further than the above definition and assert that moral judgments are knowable as true or false, are constant over time, hold across cultures, and are based on a metaphysical understanding of human nature. This contains the definition of natural law theory. My project begins with the fact that some prominent philosophers working out of the Anglo-American analytic school read Aristotle neither as a moral realist nor as a natural law theorist. This contrast strongly with the scholastic school whose writers usually consider him to be both a moral realist and one of the founders of natural law. My study involves an evaluation of two main (MacIntyre and Nussbaum) contemporary analytical readings of Aristotle and the alternative reading of the natural law tradition on the key issues of ethical methodology, natural justice and equity, and practical reasoning. My conclusions show the scholastic tradition is much more accurate in its appraisal of Aristotle's system.

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Recommended Citation

Flynn, James Joseph, "Aristotle's relationship to moral realism and natural law" (1995). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI9530028.