Moral Flexibility

Anna Ruzicka Honorbound

Aristotle says “where there is an end beyond the act, there the result is better than the exercise of the faculty.” [1] This means that the action does not have to be good, as long as the end result is good. However, the Catholic Church teaching from our morality class tells us that the action or end result itself is not good unless the object, intention, and circumstance are each good as well. 

Is this necessarily true, or are some bad actions worth their good outcomes, as Aristotle explains? For example, in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, Jean valJean steals a loaf of bread to keep his family from starving and is sentenced to  years in jail. Should valJean have followed the law and let his family starve?

Aristotle would assert that although Valjean violated the “faculty” of law by stealing a loaf of bread, his actions stand morally sound because it prevented his family from starving. However, if the law allowed Valjean to go without punishment to save his family but condemned a thief who stole goods for his own purposes, the state overall would be corrupt. In response to this, Aristotle states, “the good of the state seems a grander and more perfect thing to both attain and to secure” [2]. This statement would put Aristotle on the side of Javert and the French Government. However, a truly just society must find a middle ground between these two moral extremes.

While both of Aristotle’s theories are sound, it is difficult to bring both of them to action in a real society. Aristotle also responds to this; “the things that are noble and just (with which Politics deals) are so various and so uncertain, that some think these are merely conventional and not natural distinctions” [3]. Therefore, it is impossible to have a truly just government under rigid laws when it is impossible to know what is distinctly good or bad, moral or immoral, and legal or illegal.

This problem still remains prevalent in today’s society, as it did in that of Hugo’s novel. There are still some actions that cannot be justified, as Aristotle admits when he says, “it is not all actions nor all passions that admit of moderation; there are some whose very name imply badness, as malevolence, shamelessness, envy, and among such acts adultery, theft, murder” [4]. Therefore, it may be impossible overall for a government to rule justly over all of its citizens.

In order to achieve true justice, the government must strive to combine Aristotle’s principles with the morality of the real world, judging the circumstances and outcomes of each distinct case, building a more perfect republic one law at a time.


[1] Aristotle. The Nicomachean ethics. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999. Book 1 Chapter 1.

[2] Aristotle. The Nicomachean ethics. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999. Book 1 Chapter 2.

[3] Aristotle. The Nicomachean ethics. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999. Book 1 Chapter 3.

[4] Aristotle. The Nicomachean ethics. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999. Book 2 Chapter 6.

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