Don’t take Aristotle seriously

This is an article by Michael White.
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Michael White

This article is a reaction to the news that Aristotelian ethics will be covered in my Consumer PR module next year. To write an in-depth analysis of Aristotle and PR would require more coffee than I can afford and more patience from you than I deserve – but I hope the overview that follows is enough.

I cannot describe how important intellectual endeavours are. No matter if you are a student, or outside of further education, philosophy is open to all. In my mid-teens I stumbled across the Socratic problem.

In love with Aristotle

Whilst Socrates is considered to be a founding father of Western philosophy it is only through the writings of other Hellenic philosophers that an image can be built of the founding father.

A love interest spawned, which involved Aristotle.

Aristotle’s philosophy is not the emotional would consider attractive. Deeply shaped by his political views, his theories could be considered stoic and far from the traditional Christian ethics that the British are more inclined to accept.

Morality for Aristotle required individual introspection; practical action was not required. Unfortunately Aristotle wasn’t present to read Edmund Burke’s famous remark, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

How easy Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) would be if endeavours could only ever be considered but never implemented. It seems clear to me that CSR is rarely a tool used by an organisation genuinely seeking social justice as PR objectives are a means to an end.

In 2008 I recall my interview with Averill Gordon at the University of Gloucestershire which entailed a conversation about Western philosophy. Immanuel Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason” became a basis of interest but his ideal of an individual living in a kingdom of ends does not align well with implementing a campaign with objectives, or indeed many other human endeavours. Even ordering a coffee would be questionable within Kantian ethics as you are using staff as a means to an end. Aristotle’s approach to ethics is primarily deontological, meaning you have a duty to follow a series of doctrines in order to reach happiness.

Golden Mean

Aristotle’s doctrine of the Golden Mean is likely to have been discussed if you have taken a business ethics module. Equality is applied between two different virtues. So, courage is a mean between cowardice and rashness, honesty is between secrecy and loquacity, ambition is between sloth and greed. This approach indicates the skill of Aristotle’s logic but may be too rigid for practical application. How would you question the integrity of Andy Coulson’s alleged involvement with News International’s phone hacking? It is tricky.

Society often mistakes cultural norms as absolute truths, an example of this being traditional Christian ethics. Last week the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible was celebrated by prime minister David Cameron, with his announcement that the UK is a Christian country “and we should not be afraid to say so”. One may have mistaken his comments as sloshed if it wasn’t for his further recognition of the close relationship between British values and the Bible.

Just why does David Cameron feel it necessary to relate Christianity to the idea of appropriate British values? The answer is equality. Fortunately Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ is an adequate irony against his “Christian Country” statement and confirmation of Aristotle’s observation that humans are not equal.

Justice is often coupled with equality but Aristotle makes a clear distinction that it deals with proportions. On an individual basis this could mean that a customer would be unable to refute an organisation’s statement if they have benefited in magnitude from their products or services.  If you too squirm at this 21st Century comparison but are unable to decipher why, then let me enlighten you.

Reconsidering Machiavelli

Last year I wrote an article examining Niccolo Machiavelli’s ethical views. In that same article I took the liberty of extracting ‘state’ to define how a business should behave. An offence which spawned the question, “Have I taken philosophy out of its original context?”

Well, yes, but marrying ethical theories to business ethics is nonsensical if context is to be maintained. Globalisation has resulted in organisations exceeding in power and size, overshadowing the Hellenic world order. Therefore the question between how a politician should act or the PR/CSR department should act can align laterally in many aspects.

To this extent Aristotle’s examination of the state could translate to a modern organisation. It is the only method we have of a wide application of his theories and one you are entitled to disagree with. Transcribing would lead to organisations maintaining the highest authority within a community but maintaining society is split into different groups bound and dictated by opposing ethical requirements (For instance slavery was a constitutional right). To take Aristotle seriously would lead to a rather alternative socialist approach, one which would invoke far more than the recent ‘Occupy’ protests.

No single industry likes to talk about themselves more than the media. Today it is necessary for the PR industry to reflect upon radical transparency and how this will influence our ethical approach. I recommend the reading of Greek philosophy but ask you to consider the Renaissance as a more meaningful guide to a 21st century business.


  1. Here’s a thought from Morris and Goldsworthy’s new book, PR Today. ‘Some textbooks treat PR as though it is a branch of moral philosophy. Such an approach leaves most PR practitioners bemused and is of limited practical use’.

    I agree with their approach that it’s more important to understand the historical context of philosophy and political thought than to treat these sources as infallible and immutable guides to action.

  2. You should read Aristotle and not introductions for kids. I am sorry for you, but everything you say here is incorrect. For example, you say “Morality for Aristotle required individual introspection; practical action was not required.” Where did you find that?! Aristotle is the most practical author and he writes that a man cannot become virtues just by thinking about virtue, he/she needs to practice virtue. Should I continue?! Should I tell you that Aristotle’s insight into the human mind (soul, for him) and mechanisms of moral action is proven by the latest discoveries in Neurosciences?!

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