Aristotle’s Ethics towards his view of humanity

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A colloquial philosophical exploration

Sophocles Kitharidis

Before writing this philosophical exploration, my third year political philosophy Professor asked us (his students) a question which to me, at first, seemed to be one of the easiest questions one can ever be asked: What is happiness? Naturally, some students were throwing answers and theories such as ‘happiness is the absence of worries’, or ‘the absence of pain and hardship’. When pressed, we may even be tempted to say that happiness is really when one has a ‘loving relationship, flourishing children, or even to go as far as to say when one has great measures of wealth’. True this may be to the logical yet simple mind, however when we stop to think of what notion lies behind these very simple, justifiable and obvious theories, we may come to the conclusion that the answer to what is happiness is certainly more deep. I state this as it would be fair to say that a person can be happy without some or even all of the above, and it may therefore seem that happiness is more of a subjective matter. If logic prevails, we see in everyday life that some people find happiness in some things, while others in other things. I therefore ask you: if what I am saying is correct, can one provide a general characterisation of happiness?

According to Aristotle, the answer to the above would definitely be a yes, as he would use the word Eudaimonia to summarise the characterisation of the term happiness. To note, Eudaimonia is a Greek word ‘combining eu meaning “good” with daimon meaning “spirit”’. (Dr Matthew Sharpe, 2010) For Aristotle, happiness consisted in a form of contentment that came from having lived a fulfilling life, and a fulfilling life was one that was filled with the sorts of activities that fulfilled the potentials and goals of human nature. Aristotle distinguishes eudaimonia from other kinds of perfection of action by exploring the part of the soul which that action exercises. So, good exercises of the desiring part of the soul (desiring the right objects and to the right degree) are virtuous and important constitutive parts of eudaimonia, but even finer are good exercises of the rational part of the soul. Aristotle contended that there is a goal that one may seek by virtue of their human nature, and then argues that the fulfilment of that goal represents their happiness. According to my Professor, to live ethically is to develop and use those virtues that help us to fulfil our goal and so to achieve the happiness that it is our nature to seek. We therefore can see that Aristotle’s understanding and notion of happiness is argued and explained on ethical, naturalistic and teleological grounds.

Note: All interpretations of both primary and secondary sources used in this article are of the authors, and authors alone. The author apologises if interpretations have been theoretically misunderstood.

Theoretical Exploration:

Arguably, in Aristotle’s ethical writings, reality is the world in which one finds himself, as Aristotle’s aim as a moral philosopher was to discover what makes a good life for a man. This notion of Aristotle’s ethics leads to the theory that a good life will be the life in which a man, as far as possible, does those things which a man is peculiarly fitted to do, and in such a life there will be pleasure and satisfaction.[1] However, certain theorists and philosophers, contend that the subject-matter of moral judgment may be extremely difficult to identify. This includes judgments as to what ought to be done here and now, principles of conduct and specifications of those qualities of human mind and character that are intrinsically admirable such as ‘the virtues’.[2] Further, it is common to contrast ethical systems founded in the study of human nature and virtue such as that of Aristotle, with those founded in the reasoned analysis of moral principles, such as that of Kant.[3] It is also common to distinguish those systems which argue that the value of every act is ultimately to be found in its consequences for human welfare, such as consequentialism, from those which therefore attempt to derive a system of morality from the study of duty, such as deontology. In stating this, Scruton contends that in the political sphere, only the consequentialist attitude is appropriate, since in this sphere the end must be allowed to justify the means.[4] However, deontologists oppose such a view as intrinsically immoral and argue that if there are any moral values at all, then there will be circumstances when they simply cannot be overridden by any reasoning from consequences. It is Aristotle’s understanding of ethics and his interpretation of humanity that allows for such debates to be present in the academic and philosophical realm.

Critically, in order to understand Aristotle’s interpretation of ethics, one must ask ‘what is the best life for a man?’. Aristotle sought to elucidate the question by identifying two central concepts. Firstly, one must sought to analyse what is ‘good’, and secondly the theoretical dissimilarity between what is wanted for its own sake and what is wanted for the sake of something else.[5] According to philosopher and classiest John Ackrill, Aristotle’s interpretation of ‘good’ is clear by stating that goodness is not a single simple property, and makes only tentative suggestions as to how various sense or uses of ‘good’ are inter-related. Ackrill further contends that Aristotle repeatedly insisted on the necessary connection between the concepts good and aiming at, that being the good of a thing, activity, or agent is that at which it or he aims, the desired end.[6] However, Aristotle takes it to be a conceptual truth that men want to live a good life and indeed the best possible life, or that men want eudaimonia; ‘this being the word anyone uses for the life he thinks best, most worthwhile, most desirable.’[7] Ackrill goes on to argue that this question may be more important than the question of ‘what sort of life is morally best’, and that it may or may not prove to be the case that the most ‘satisfying and desirable life for a man is always and necessarily the most morally good’.[8]

Further, Aristotle points out in Book I.i of Eudemian Ethics, that certain things are sought for the sake of others, and that some arts and activities are naturally subordinate to others.[9] Ackrill argues that the brief discussion provided by Aristotle leaves many distinctions undrawn, such as ‘while bridles just as, by definition, things for use in horse-riding, horse riding itself is not by definition subordinate to the military art’,[10] although it is exploited by it.[11] However, according to Ackrill, the most important argument is the one made in the last sentence of the chapter which states ‘an activity A must be for the sake of B not only where A produced a product or outcome which subserves B but also where A is pursued as an activity and not for any outcome.’[12] Ackrill argues that the case which Aristotle was trying to make is a kind were one’s terminology of ‘means’ and ‘ends’ would not be appropriate, but where nevertheless the notion of one end being subordinate to another is appropriate.[13] Evidently, when Aristotle states that an individual wants various things not only for their own sake but also for the sake of eudaimonia, he means that one must regard them not as means to subsequent felicity but as ingredients in the whole happy life one wants. If there are several such activities, there can still be the good for man, namely the life that contains all these activities. Aristotle may wish in the end to identify the highest form of eudaimonia with one particular activity. Though in working up to his question ‘what is the best life for a man?’, Aristotle is not assuming any such identification. The notion of eudaimonia or the best life is a comprehensive notion and final.[14] Evidently, this demonstrates Aristotle’s view of humanity to his notion of ethics.

Notably, Ackrill contends that Aristotle may be criticised for assuming that there is an answer to the question ‘what is the best life for a man?’ as opposed to the question ‘what is the best life for this man or that man?’.[15] According to Ackrill, this is how Aristotle demonstrates his interpretation of humanity to ethics,[16] as Aristotle does think that the nature of man, the powers and the needs of all men have, determines the character that any satisfying human life must have.[17] However, since Aristotle’s account of the nature of man is in general terms, the ‘corresponding specification of the best life for man is also general’.[18] Therefore, philosophers such as Ackrill and Hardy argue that while Aristotle’s assumption places certain limits on the possible answers to the ethical question of ‘how shall I live?’, it leaves considerable scope for a discussion which takes account of many individual tastes, capacities and circumstances.[19]

Moreover, in Aristotle’s Eudemian Ethics, Aristotle seeks to discover what the ‘good’ is for man by determining his specific function. By doing so, he expands on his view of humanity towards the notion of ethics, through his analysis of human nature and man. Aristotle’s argument does not presuppose that men are made to serve a purpose, ‘but only that men have certain distinctive powers’.[20] According to Aristotle, excellence is the ‘exercise of these will make a man a good man and his life a good life, just as excellence in cutting is what makes a knife a good knife.’[21] Aristotle holds that it is the ability to think that distinguishes men essentially from other animals and ‘that the good life is therefore one in which this activity is exercised well’.[22] Ackrill further contends that albeit, this type of argument, which was first formulated by Plato at the end of the Republic I, has reverberated down the centuries, there are three particular remarks about Aristotle’s use of the terms. Firstly, one may ask if ‘man’ is a functional word in anything like the way that ‘knife’ is, criteria for being a good man may be derivable from consideration of man’s distinctive powers.[23] Though what should be noted is that Aristotle is not asking ‘what it is to be a good man’, but rather ‘what is the good for man’. It is not self-evident that the best thing for a man is to be the best possible man, and this is well interpreted by the fact that ‘living well’ and ‘doing well’ are equivalent with eudaimonia.

Further, it is clear that at best, the argument from function will give only a ‘very general and almost formal characterisation of the criteria for being a good so-and-so’.[24] In the hope of interpreting Aristotle’s understanding of the term ‘ethics’, one therefore must ask, ‘what is excellence in the exercise of reason?’. Ackrill asserts that Aristotle divides ‘the excellence in question into two main kinds, intellectual virtues and virtues of character’;[25] for the latter depend upon the ability to think. However, flaws lie within this division as Aristotle’s list of various virtues and the description which he provides of them, does not flow straight from the formula reached by the ‘function agreement’,[26] as malice is as distinctive of man as is charity.[27] Furthermore, after concluding that eudaimonia is a life of excellent activity, that being ‘activity of soul in accordance with virtue’, Aristotle asserted that ‘…and if there are more than one virtue, in accordance with the best and most complete’.[28] Political philosopher Richard Kraut argues that it is not immediately clear what Aristotle’s intentions were by this phrase.[29] However, one would presume that ‘full human excellence would require the display of all the distinctive virtues of a man’.[30] In stating this though, Ackrill believes that there is nothing in the function argument to imply that there is an ‘order of importance among these, or that, if there is, excellence consist in the display of only the most important’.[31] Albeit, Aristotle does in fact argue for the superiority of theoretic activity over practical, and provides a distinction between the highest forms of happiness from a secondary form,[32] he does provide for a more theoretical interpretation of humanity in ethics.  Since he allows that man is capable only to a limited extent of pure theoretical activity, and ‘not in so far as he is a man, but in so far as something divine is present in him’, Aristotle’s recipe for the best life does presumably include a ‘large dose of the “secondary eudaimonia” to be found in action’.[33] However, it can rarely be stated that Aristotle resolves the tension between the line of thought that makes man’s good something comprehensive, involving the display of all distinctive human virtues, and that which selects one type of activity and one virtue as constituting happiness par excellence.[34]

Aristotle’s theory on moral virtues provides for a critical analysis on his interpretation of the term ‘ethics’, and the importance of humanity to the term. Specifically, Aristotle insists that the virtuous man does what he does gladly, ‘with pleasure’.[35] However the pursuit of his own pleasure or satisfaction is not his motive, but rather, he does what he does ‘for its own sake’, or as Aristotle repeatedly stated, because it is kalon.[36] One must therefore ask, what then is the relation between this motive and man’s pursuit of eudaimonia? From a utilitarian perspective, what makes an act or type of act right is that it promotes happiness. For Aristotle, the doing of right acts for their own sake constitutes a form of happiness. One therefore asks, what then is the ultimate criterion of right action? How may disputes as to what is kalon be developed? Ackrill contends that if the ‘good for man is, or includes, acting in a virtuous way, one cannot explain why a certain way of acting is virtuous by saying that it promotes the good for man’.[37] Conversely, one may argue that Aristotle systematically aligns himself with conventional values and takes them for granted, and when it comes to difficult cases, Aristotle withdraws to the comment that ‘decisions in individual cases require a judgment or insight analogous to eye-sight’.[38] Ackrill argues that Aristotle still recognises that he is under an obligation to provide account of the manner in which the man of practical wisdom determines virtues and right action, however his answer remains obscure.[39] This being said though, Aristotle’s interpretation of humanity and how an individual should act, provides the theoretical and philosophical reasoning needed to link both dimensions of humanity and ethics.

When providing an analysis of Aristotle’s interpretation of ethics, one can come to the conclusion that he conceived a field distinct from the theoretical sciences, though its methodology correlating with its subject matter, and in the process, respecting the fact that in this field many generalisations hold only for the most part.[40] Aristotelian philosophers have drawn to the fact that Aristotle’s notion of ethics was aimed to improving one’s life, and therefore its principal concern was with nature of human well-being and evidently humanity. Concluding, granted that every individual aims to lead a good, satisfying and successful life, Aristotle’s interpretation of ethics is the question of what we really mean when we say this, and what counts as good in connection with an individual’s life on earth? It is the answers which Aristotle provides which leads to his outline and understanding of ethics, and the importance of humanity towards his notion of ethics.

Sophocles Kitharidis

Bibliography

Ackrill, J, Aristotle’s Ethics, 1st edn, Humanities Press, New York, 1973.

Ebenstein, A, and Ebesntein, W, Introduction to Political Thinkers, 2nd edn, Wadsworth Cengage learning, Fort Worth, 2002.

Hardy, W, Aristotle’s Ethical Theory, 1st edn, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1968.

Kenny, A, The Aristotelian Ethics, 1st edn, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1978.

Kraut, R, Aristotle: Political Philosophy, 1st edn, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2002.

Mackay, A, ‘Aristotle’s Dilemma’, The Journal of Ethics, vol. 9, no. 3, 2005, pp. 533-549.

Monan, J, Moral Knowledge and its Methodology in Aristotle, 1st edn, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1968.

Niebuhr, R, Christian Realism and Political Problems, 1st edn, Faber and Faber, London, 1954.

Price, A, ‘Aristotle’s Ethics’, Journal of Medical Ethics, vol. 11, no. 3, 1985, pp. 150-154.

Scruton, R, Dictionary of Political Thought, 3rd edn, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2007.

Footnotes


[1] J Ackrill, Aristotle’s Ethics, 1st edn, Humanities Press, New York, 1973, p. I5.

[2] R Scruton, Dictionary of Political Thought, 3rd edn, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2007, p. 223

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., p. 224.

[5] Ackrill, op. cit., p. 18.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] W Hardy, Aristotle’s Ethical Theory, 1st edn, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1968, p. 76.

[15] Ackrill, loc. cit.

[16] Ibid.

[17] J Monan, Moral Knowledge and its Methodology in Aristotle, 1st edn, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1968, p. 24.

[18] Ackrill, op. cit., p. 19.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid., p. 20.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid., p. 21.

[26] Ibid.

[27] R Kraut, Aristotle: Political Philosophy, 1st edn, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2002, p. 13.

[28] EE (I6)

[29] Kraut, op. cit., p. 127.

[30] Ackrill, op. cit., p. 21.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid., p. 176; Nicomachean Ethics, Book X, 7-8.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid., p.23.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid., p. 24.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid.

[40] A Kenny, The Aristotelian Ethics, 1st edn, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1978, p. 32.

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One Response to Aristotle’s Ethics towards his view of humanity

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