Aristotle’s writings include ample fodder against today’s corporations; he emphasized the value in virtue and simplicity, and prioritized the betterment of society over the advancement of the individual. And yet, the philosopher’s teachings were not an absolute condemnation of the pursuit of profit. Denis Collins argues in the Journal of Business Ethics, “that it would be improper to use Aristotle’s thought as a blanket disapproval of business and profits.”
Aristotle contended that men were made for mutual cooperation. In all societies, Aristotle pointed out, our survival relies on others, and our lives are enhanced by learning to combine forces, make compromises, and commit to a goal larger than ourselves.
In Aristotle’s philosophy, businesses are self-created mini-societies geared to one goal, which in turn serves larger goals, which in turn serve the state and society as a whole. Collins uses the example of publishing a book to show how commercializing the process of writing, packaging, and selling the product is made infinitely more effective through the specialized efforts of the myriad players. On a macro level, it isn’t difficult to see this in action. Private corporations create jobs and salaries. They spur innovation. They advance technology and medicine. They’re a natural extension of humanity’s admirable drive to invent, create, contribute, appreciate, and progress. A powerful society is based partially on good businesses driving its economy.
“The end of the medical art is health, that of shipbuilding a vessel, that of strategy victory, that of economics wealth,” wrote Aristotle. On the face of it, this sentence excuses a great deal of capitalism. He also writes, however, that every other “art” serves a “master art,” which is political science.
By placing the other arts, including the art of making money, under the guise of Political Science, Aristotle wants to ensure that mediating structures do not conflict with the goals of the individual and state. Thus it is permissible for business to seek profit as it is merely fulfilling its proper function, just as the medical profession seeks cures for illness.
Though Aristotle did see the inherent need to fuel economic growth, he did not appear to condone the nature of capitalism as we know it. Ultimately, Collins suggests that Aristotle would ask, “What business activity are people participating in? Does it contradict the end goal of society? What expenses are involved in the making of profit?”
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Aristotle denied the idea that the acquisition of material things would lead to a happier life, and criticized the systems of retail and high-interest money lending that he witnessed. He would inarguably have taken issue with the monopolies that exist today, and the deep inequality that exists within today’s free societies. But he does stress the notion that profit, like other pursuits, has its place in the creation of a working, virtuous society.