• October 7th, 2017
  • Posted by athanne

Classical Ethical Theories

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The classical ethical theories are referred to as classical because they were developed during the ancient history of philosophy. They are two:-

  • Plato’s theory
  • Aristotle’s theory

The two are prominent philosophers besides Socrates.


Plato’s theory in classical ethical theories


Plato tied morality to human nature and more specifically to an individual’s personality, determined by the harmony between the three elements of the soul, moral status and character. Plato observed that there are three elements/parts of the human soul and with this there are 3 activities that go on in the person in classical ethical theories.

Rational element


Appetitive element

Spirited/emotive element

Classical Ethical Theories Classical Ethical TheoriesRational element

According to Plato, the rational element is the centre of reason. In classical ethical theories, it is where the desire to figure out a problem, understand or know a fact is located.

Spirited/emotive element

The spirited element in classical ethical theories is superior to other elements. I.e. it has the ability to compare and contrast other elements. It controls the spiritual and appetitive elements so hat they do not operate outside the moral framework. The spiritual element in classical ethical theories exists to act as an ally of a rational element but is always subjected to the rational element. In classical ethical theories, the spirited element is therefore the centre of our emotions.

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Appetitive element

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In classical ethical theories, this is where a person’s physical is located e.g. hunger, lust, thirst, etc. therefore, of the three elements, the rational element is entitled to leadership. In classical ethical theories, when reason takes up leadership, an individual is said to be wise/prudent as one will always be able to moderate emotions/appetites which sometimes may be in excess. When reason is in charge, it directs our emotions towards happiness.

In classical ethical theories, when the spirited element surrenders to the rational element, one is said to have the virtue called fortitude/courage. When the appetitive element surrenders in classical ethical theories, one is said to have the virtue of temporands/moderation. The three virtues in classical ethical theories sire justice.


Aristotle’s theory in classical ethical theories

In classical ethical theories, it is based on the argument that all human beings just like all other things in nature have a distinctive goal to achieve/fulfill. Aristotle’s ethics in classical ethical theories are therefore goal oriented/purposive. They are teleological. He identified happiness as the ultimate goal towards which we act in classical ethical theories.

In classical ethical theories and according to Aristotle, happiness consists of acting in accordance to reason. Since reason is central in human life, it is necessary for the ultimate good to be fulfilled. Intellectual values in classical ethical theories are those that assist us to reason well e.g. knowledge, skills etc.

The moral values in classical ethical theories are also referred to as virtues of individual character and assist in making decisions based on a reason, to control our emotions and appetite.

Aristotle’s Golden mean theory

In classical ethical theories, it is also called doctrine of golden mean. It shows human beings on how to conduct themselves and therefore achieve happiness. Being virtuous and therefore happy is, according to Aristotle, being ‘well-fed’. It is the mean because it strikes between too little (deficiency) and too much (excess) in classical ethical theories.

He applies the idea of golden mean to the moral sphere such that the action is in accordance with reason. Virtue therefore lies at the centre in classical ethical theories.


This therefore requires that individuals adopt a rational, emotional approach to life thereby avoiding being too much or too little in actions/comments. The mean in classical ethical theories is not common although. Not all our actions can be classified into their means of extremes e.g. keeping promises has no excess or deficiency.



Cowardice                                                          Rashness



Among Aristotle’s virtues, there are four which he considers important.

  • Prudence – knowledge of moral goodness.
  • Fortitude – state of moral character that gives us courage to face vanity.
  • Temperance – gives us the capacity to resist the attractiveness of physical desires.

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Conclusion of classical ethical theories

Once one has prudence, fortitude and temperance, one can be fair in his/her dealings. It enables one not just to pursue one’s own interests but willing an equal good to others in classical ethical theories.


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