The Lesser of Two Evils — Brutus Through Aristotle and Mill

In Mill’s essay “Bentham,” he declares Brutus’s act of sentencing his sons to secure the freedom of his country to be morally right and aesthetically admirable, but not sympathetically lovable. The three viewpoints distinguished by Mill—the moral, sympathetic, and aesthetic—simply do not occur to Aristotle, whose analysis of action consists solely of whether it is virtuous or not. In this paper, I argue that, while Mill defends Brutus’s action as morally right, Aristotle would conclude that Brutus faces a tragic dilemma in which there is no virtuous course of action. I will defend this in three parts. In Section I, I will explain the passage by Mill briefly; then, in Section II, I will lay out how, methodologically, Aristotle would evaluate Brutus and his actions. In Section III, I will discuss the similarities and differences between the views of Aristotle and Mill in reference to their evaluations of Brutus.


In “Bentham,” Mill criticizes Bentham for treating the moral perspective as the sole standpoint from which to evaluate action. Since Bentham’s notion puts him in opposition to popular sentiments, Mill wishes to offer two other perspectives, though he concedes that the moral view is “unquestionably the first and most important mode of looking at them” (84). According to Mill, there are three aspects from which we can view actions: the moral aspect, concerning its (the action’s) rightness or wrongness; the sympathetic, concerning its lovability; and the aesthetic, concerning its beauty. In order to elucidate these three perspectives of action, Mill analyzes those of Brutus in sentencing his sons to death on account of their violation of laws. In deeming Brutus’s action to be right, Mill means that his actions were in accordance with the “greatest happiness principle,” since they contributed to the freedom of his country and therefore overall happiness (and not just the happiness of those directly concerned with the act(s) in question). By admirable, Mill considers Brutus’s actions aesthetically beautiful on account of the virtues (e.g. “courage,” “self-discipline,” and “patriotism”) required to undertake such a difficult action. Yet, in line with popular sentiments, Mill considers the action of Brutus as not lovable, because our fellow-feeling generally discourages us from rejoicing in or finding lovable such acts of the sort that require one to have their sons executed.

Image result for brutus and his sons david
Jacques-Louis David, The Lictors Returning to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons,


In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle inquires into the human good in order to find out how a human is to live well. The human good, Aristotle claims, must be the end at which all our actions are aimed. This end, the human good, is living well or well-being, eudaimonia. And eudaimonia, for Aristotle, is rational activity in accordance with virtue(s). If we are to be considered responsible for our actions, they must be voluntary (i.e. they must be in our power). Aristotle, then, evaluates the choices that agents make, even though choices are only part of what is voluntary (1111b.7-8). To evaluate Brutus’s choice to execute his sons, Aristotle must also examine the circumstances of his choice and the available alternatives. This is integral to discovering whether Brutus is responsible.

Aristotle, of course, did not judge Brutus’s decision himself, but we can employ his principles to determine whether Brutus was right to act as he did and whether he acted virtuously. First, Brutus seems to be placed in a situation where he must decide what the most virtuous (or least vicious) course of action would be: to either sentence his sons for their crimes or not. Brutus’s functions as a statesman and as a father delineate his relevant concerns for him in making this decision. For, if Brutus were not a statesman or if his sons were not the criminals in question, the issue wouldn’t arise (he wouldn’t have to sentence his sons) or the virtuous course of action would be relatively clear (sentencing a criminal with whom you are not kin). Instead, it seems like Brutus actually has to fulfill one and only one relevant function in this circumstance and neglect the other, since the two seem to be in tension. Were Brutus to spare his sons, he would be neglecting his role as a statesman, which entails promoting the end of political science by preserving law and order. As a practitioner of the “most authoritative… and master art” (political science) whose aim is that of the human good for the state, he would be neglecting “something greater and more complete” than the good of any individual; it is “finer…to attain [the good] for city-states” (1094a.25-1094b.10).

However, in sentencing his sons to promote the good of the state, Brutus’s evil would consist of neglecting his role as a father, which entails being “responsible for the existence of his children, which is thought the greatest good, and for their nurture and upbringing” (1161a.17). Aristotle believes there to be special moral relevance in Brutus’s blood relation to the criminals: “the demands of justice also seem to increase with the intensity of the [relationship]” (1160a.8-9). Precisely because the criminals in question are Brutus’s sons, the demands of justice are more weighty (i.e. the demands are partial to kinship); Brutus cannot take the act of sentencing his sons lightly. For example, as Aristotle points out, “the injustice increases by being exhibited towards those who are friends in a fuller sense; e.g. it is a more terrible thing to defraud a comrade than a fellow citizen…more terrible to wound a father than anyone else” (1160a.4-7). Brutus’s prioritization of the public good at the expense of his sons’ well-being would constitute a dereliction of the fatherly role.

Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein, Brutus Discovers the Names of His Sons on List of Conspirators and Sentences Them to Death

Brutus faces a sort of tragic dilemma—no matter what course of action Brutus takes, he will not be acting virtuously. Considering that Aristotle believes that virtuous actions must “in themselves be pleasant… also good and noble, and have each of these attributes in the highest degree,” Brutus cannot commit anything better than the lesser of two evils. He must fulfill his role as a statesman, but no man could take pleasure in executing his sons (1099a. 21-24). In essence, we can’t imagine any virtuous course of action in this instance. Brutus’ dilemma is thus comparable to that of a man, who, in the midst of a storm, must decide between throwing goods overboard and sacrificing the lives of his men. In Brutus’s case, since the end of the family is the state, which renders the state supreme over the family, Brutus must choose to execute his sons (Politics I.1-2). This would be the right thing to do in this circumstance even if it’s not virtuous, since ordering the execution of one’s sons could never be a virtuous action. When evaluating Brutus’s action, Aristotle would consider whether the circumstances allowed for virtuous action (and thus, voluntary action) to take place. Since Brutus’s dilemma is similar the overthrown-goods scenario, Aristotle would conclude that Brutus’s dilemma is a mix of both voluntary (on account of his having to make a decision) and involuntary (on account of the extenuating circumstances):

[emphasis my own]

“Such actions, therefore, are voluntary, but in the abstract perhaps involuntary; for no one would choose any such act in itself” (1110a. 18). For Aristotle, if we don’t have the proper circumstances to act virtuously, we won’t be living well, even if we do everything right. Such a situation would be considered tragic. Thus, we can relate Brutus’s situation to that of Priam, who, through no fault of his own, fell “into misfortunes in old age…one who ha[d] experienced such chances and ha[d] ended wretchedly no one calls happy” (1099a.24, 1100a.4-7).


Aristotle’s object of inquiry is the well-being of the agent. His concern for action is only indirect, insofar as it is integral to producing good character in the agent: “Neither by nature, then, nor contrary to nature do the virtues arise in us; rather we are adapted by nature to receive them, and are made perfect by habit” (1103a.24-26). For Aristotle, by doing virtuous actions we become more virtuous, which then entails doing more virtuous actions—virtuous activity thus becomes habit. To illustrate, we can look at how one becomes an expert craftsman, say a builder. To become a builder, one starts building by emulating the way that a professional builder builds. More specifically, just building isn’t enough to call one a builder; to be a builder is to build in the way that a builder builds (i.e. a builder builds well). One can only become a builder through time and practice, until building well becomes habit—a natural part of the building process. Similarly, one can become virtuous by emulating how a virtuous person would act until they, themselves, get into the habit of acting virtuously.

As we can see, Aristotle’s concern for action is only indirect; his primary concern is what type of agent one is (because that is reflective of character and how one lives), and that is reflected in how one acts. Virtuous action, for Aristotle, is a sort of mean, between excess and deficiency of virtuous action. Simply, “it is no easy task to find the middle… anyone can get angry—that is easy—or give or spend money; but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for everyone, nor is it easy; wherefore goodness is both rare and laudable and noble” (1109a.24-29). If one or more of these factors are out of balance, the action isn’t virtuous. And for some actions, like murder or sentencing one’s sons to death, there is never a right time, though, in a certain circumstance, it may become necessary to avoid a greater evil. It is in this sense that an unvirtuous action can be right, simply because there is no action in the given scenario that virtue requires. The circumstances hinder the exercise of virtue. In the unfortunate case of Brutus, he’s left in a scenario in which, no matter what decision he makes, he cannot act virtuously.

Mill is directly concerned with action in his moral inquiry. In fact, the whole purpose of his inquiry is to allow agents to, under any circumstance, decide what the right action is. For Mill, there are no lesser evils, only right actions and wrong actions. The right action will always be praiseworthy whether or not it is lovable or beautiful. For Aristotle, however, the lesser evil is the right action, but the right action is not necessarily always praiseworthy or lovable. Thus, the right action can also not be virtuous, depending on the circumstances. Moreover, while Mill’s utilitarian decision-making procedure is a sort of calculus that outputs an answer by weighing the pains and pleasures of interests according to the greatest happiness principle, Aristotle does not subscribe to any such formula. Excellent moral decision-making, for Aristotle, is established through habit and reasoning, not a calculus.

Another substantive disagreement between Aristotle and Mill concerns the partiality of interests. Aristotle, as illustrated previously, holds there to be moral relevance in the intensity of one’s relationship to those affected by the act in question, regardless of consequential pain or pleasure. For example, he considers it “more terrible not to help a brother than a stranger” (1160a.5-6). Meanwhile, Mill considers partiality to be fundamentally inconsistent with justice and morality: “impartiality where rights are concerned is of course obligatory” (219). For the purposes of deciding what the right action is, our relationships can only be morally relevant insofar as they are relevant to calculating general happiness as a natural part of our interests in the realm of pain and pleasure. When one is a judge, like Brutus, the obligation of impartiality is particularly strong. Mill would claim that Brutus ought to base his decision to administer his punishment “solely influenced by desert” and morality (219). As alluded to in the introduction, one of the most readily apparent differences between Mill and Aristotle that arises from their differing aims for ethical inquiry is the Moral/Sympathetic/ Aesthetic (MSA) distinction. This distinction most likely would not even have occurred to Aristotle due to his characterization of virtue and well-being (eudaimonia). Aristotle’s analysis of action is chiefly concerned with whether it can be characterized as a rational activity in accordance with virtue. Aristotle makes no MSA distinction, as his primary concern is eudaimonia or living well in all aspects of life, which would encompass, to use Mill’s MSA distinction, the moral, the sympathetic, and the aesthetic. Aristotle’s focus on eudaimonia can be distinguished from Mill’s preoccupation with the rightness of action. Morality, for Mill, concerns the consequences of our actions and how they affect general happiness, including our happiness and the happiness of others. Aristotle is concerned with the practice and habituation of rational activity in accordance with virtue, rather than the rightness of their consequences, in order that we may live well in all aspects of life, fully and completely.

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