Term papers writing service


The complexity of morality honored and yet questioned by the people

Aristotle's Ethics

Preliminaries Aristotle wrote two ethical treatises: In any case, these two works cover more or less the same ground: Both treatises examine the conditions in which praise or blame are appropriate, and the nature of pleasure and friendship; near the end of each work, we find a brief discussion of the proper relationship between human beings and the divine. Though the general point of view expressed in each work is the same, there are many subtle differences in organization and content as well.

Clearly, one is a re-working of the other, and although no single piece of evidence shows conclusively what their order is, it is widely assumed that the Nicomachean Ethics is a later and improved version of the Eudemian Ethics. Not all of the Eudemian Ethics was revised: Perhaps the most telling indication of this ordering is that in several instances the Nicomachean Ethics develops a theme about which its Eudemian cousin is silent.

Only the Nicomachean Ethics discusses the close relationship between ethical inquiry and politics; only the Nicomachean Ethics critically examines Solon's paradoxical dictum that no man should be counted happy until he is dead; and only the Nicomachean Ethics gives a series of arguments for the superiority of the philosophical life to the political life.

Access Check

The remainder of this article will therefore focus on this work. Page and line numbers shall henceforth refer to this treatise. It ranges over topics discussed more fully in the other two works and its point of view is similar to theirs.

Why, being briefer, is it named the Magna Moralia?

  1. When he makes friends, and benefits friends he has made, he will be aware of the fact that such a relationship is good for him. Self-love is rightly condemned when it consists in the pursuit of as large a share of external goods—particularly wealth and power—as one can acquire, because such self-love inevitably brings one into conflict with others and undermines the stability of the political community.
  2. Aristotle's search for the good is a search for the highest good, and he assumes that the highest good, whatever it turns out to be, has three characteristics.
  3. Although Aristotle characterizes akrasia and enkrateia in terms of a conflict between reason and feeling, his detailed analysis of these states of mind shows that what takes place is best described in a more complicated way.
  4. To say that there is something better even than ethical activity, and that ethical activity promotes this higher goal, is entirely compatible with everything else that we find in the Ethics. His defect consists solely in the fact that, more than most people, he experiences passions that conflict with his rational choice.
  5. The sketchy answer he gives in Book I is that happiness consists in virtuous activity.

Because each of the two papyrus rolls into which it is divided is unusually long. Just as a big mouse can be a small animal, two big chapters can make a small book. A few authors in antiquity refer to a work with this name and attribute it to Aristotle, but it is not mentioned by several authorities, such as Cicero and Diogenes Laertius, whom we would expect to have known of it.

Some scholars hold that it is Aristotle's earliest course on ethics—perhaps his own lecture notes or those of a student; others regard it as a post-Aristotelian compilation or adaption of one or both of his genuine ethical treatises.

Although Aristotle is deeply indebted to Plato's moral philosophy, particularly Plato's central insight that moral thinking must be integrated with our emotions and appetites, and that the preparation for such unity of character should begin with childhood education, the systematic character of Aristotle's discussion of these themes was a remarkable innovation. No one had written ethical treatises before Aristotle.

Plato's Republic, for example, does not treat ethics as a distinct subject matter; nor does it offer a systematic examination of the nature of happiness, virtue, voluntariness, pleasure, or friendship. To be sure, we can find in Plato's works important discussions of these phenomena, but they are not brought together and unified as they are in Aristotle's ethical writings.

The Human Good and the Function Argument The principal idea with which Aristotle begins is that there are differences of opinion about what is best for human beings, and that to profit from ethical inquiry we must resolve this disagreement. He insists that ethics is not a theoretical discipline: In raising this question—what is the good?

He assumes that such a list can be compiled rather easily; most would agree, for example, that it is good to have friends, to experience pleasure, to be healthy, to be honored, and to have such virtues as courage at least to some degree. The complexity of morality honored and yet questioned by the people difficult and controversial question arises when we ask whether certain of these goods are more desirable than others.

Aristotle's search for the good is a search for the highest good, and he assumes that the highest good, whatever it turns out to be, has three characteristics: To be eudaimon is therefore to be living in a way that is well-favored by a god.

But Aristotle never calls attention to this etymology in his ethical writings, and it seems to have little influence on his thinking. These terms play an evaluative role, and are not simply descriptions of someone's state of mind. No one tries to live well for the sake of some further goal; rather, being eudaimon is the highest end, and all subordinate goals—health, wealth, and other such resources—are sought because they promote well-being, not because they are what well-being consists in.

But unless we can determine which good or goods happiness consists in, it is of little use to acknowledge that it is the highest end. One important component of this argument is expressed in terms of distinctions he makes in his psychological and biological works.

The soul is analyzed into a connected series of capacities: The biological fact Aristotle makes use of is that human beings are the only species that has not only these lower capacities but a rational soul as well. The good of a human being must have something to do with being human; and what sets humanity off from other species, giving us the potential to live a better life, is our capacity to guide ourselves by using reason.

If we use reason well, we live well as human beings; or, to be more precise, using reason well over the course of a full life is what happiness consists in. Doing anything well requires virtue or excellence, and therefore living well consists in activities caused by the rational soul in accordance with virtue or excellence.

Aristotle's conclusion about the nature of happiness is in a sense uniquely his own. No other writer or thinker had said precisely what he says about what it is to live well.

But at the same time his view is not too distant from a common idea. As he himself points out, one traditional conception of happiness identifies it with virtue 1098b30—1. Aristotle's theory should be construed as a refinement of this position. He says, not that happiness is virtue, but that it is virtuous activity. Living well consists in doing something, not just being in a certain state or condition.

It consists in those lifelong activities that actualize the virtues of the rational part of the soul. At the same time, Aristotle makes it clear that in order to be happy one must possess others goods as well—such goods as friends, wealth, and power. And one's happiness is endangered if one is severely lacking in certain advantages—if, for example, the complexity of morality honored and yet questioned by the people is extremely ugly, or has lost children or good friends through death 1099a31—b6.

If one's ultimate end should simply be virtuous activity, then why should it make any difference to one's happiness whether one has or lacks these other types of good? Aristotle's reply is that one's virtuous activity will be to some extent diminished or defective, if one lacks an adequate supply of other goods 1153b17—19. Someone who is friendless, childless, powerless, weak, and ugly will simply not be able to find many opportunities for virtuous activity over a long period of time, and what little he can accomplish will not be of great merit.

To some extent, then, living well requires good fortune; happenstance can rob even the most excellent human beings of happiness. Nonetheless, Aristotle insists, the highest good, virtuous activity, is not something that comes to us by chance.

Although we must be fortunate enough to have parents and fellow citizens who help us become virtuous, we ourselves share much of the responsibility for acquiring and exercising the virtues. Suppose we grant, at least for the sake of argument, that doing anything well, including living well, consists in exercising certain skills; and let us call these skills, whatever they turn out to be, virtues.

Even so, that point does not by itself allow us to infer that such qualities as temperance, justice, courage, as they are normally understood, are virtues. They should be counted as virtues only if it can be shown that actualizing precisely these skills is what happiness consists in. What Aristotle owes us, then, is an account of these traditional qualities that explains why they must play a central role in any well-lived life.

But perhaps Aristotle disagrees, and refuses to accept this argumentative burden. In one of several important methodological remarks he makes near the beginning of the Nicomachean Ethics, he says that in order to profit from the sort of study he is undertaking, one must already have been brought up in good habits 1095b4—6.

The audience he is addressing, in other words, consists of people who are already just, courageous, and generous; or, at any rate, they are well on their way to possessing these virtues. Why such a restricted audience? Why does he not address those who have serious doubts about the value of these traditional qualities, and who therefore have not yet decided to cultivate and embrace them?

Addressing the moral skeptic, after all, is the project Plato undertook in the Republic: Aristotle's project seems, at least on the surface, to be quite different. He does not appear to be addressing someone who has genuine doubts about the value of justice or kindred qualities.

  1. His examples are people who are asleep, mad, or drunk; he also compares the akratic to a student who has just begun to learn a subject, or an actor on the stage 1147a10—24.
  2. The gene—culture coevolution account of the evolution of morality is, of course, radically different from the theory I am advancing here, in which moral behavior evolved not because it increased fitness but as a consequence of advanced intelligence, which allowed humans to see the benefits that adherence to moral norms bring to society and to its members. Aristotle's conclusion about the nature of happiness is in a sense uniquely his own.
  3. A pleasure's goodness derives from the goodness of its associated activity.
  4. Aristotle makes it clear that the number of people with whom one can sustain the kind of relationship he calls a perfect friendship is quite small IX. If, however, there is a large gap in their moral development as between a parent and a small child, or between a husband and a wife , then although their relationship may be based on the other person's good character, it will be imperfect precisely because of their inequality.
  5. Silberberg and collaborators 28 have shown that the capuchins rejected a reward whenever a more desirable reward was visible to them, not just whenever the more desirable reward was offered to other individuals. He takes it for granted that self-love is properly condemned whenever it can be shown to be harmful to the community.

Perhaps, then, he realizes how little can be accomplished, in the study of ethics, to provide it with a rational foundation. Perhaps he thinks that no reason can be given for being just, generous, and courageous.

The difference of being human: Morality

These are qualities one learns to love when one is a child, and having been properly habituated, one no longer looks for or needs a reason to exercise them. One can show, as a general point, that happiness consists in exercising some skills or other, but that the moral skills the complexity of morality honored and yet questioned by the people a virtuous person are what one needs is not a proposition that can be established on the basis of argument.

This is not the only way of reading the Ethics, however. For surely we cannot expect Aristotle to show what it is about the traditional virtues that makes them so worthwhile until he has fully discussed the nature of those virtues. He himself warns us that his initial statement of what happiness is should be treated as a rough outline whose details are to be filled in later 1098a20—22. His intention in Book I of the Ethics is to indicate in a general way why the virtues are important; why particular virtues—courage, justice, and the like—are components of happiness is something we should be able to better understand only at a later point.

In any case, Aristotle's assertion that his audience must already have begun to cultivate the virtues need not be taken to mean that no reasons can be found for being courageous, just, and generous. His point, rather, may be that in ethics, as in any other study, we cannot make progress towards understanding why things are as they are unless we begin with certain assumptions about what is the case. Neither theoretical nor practical inquiry starts from scratch. Someone who has made no observations of astronomical or biological phenomena is not yet equipped with sufficient data to develop an understanding of these sciences.

The parallel point in ethics is that to make progress in this sphere we must already have come to enjoy doing what is just, courageous, generous and the like. We must experience these activities not as burdensome constraints, but as noble, worthwhile, and enjoyable in themselves.

Then, when we engage in ethical inquiry, we can ask what it is about these activities that makes them worthwhile. We can also compare these goods with other things that are desirable in themselves—pleasure, friendship, honor, and so on—and ask whether any of them is more desirable than the others. We approach ethical theory with a disorganized bundle of likes and dislikes based on habit and experience; such disorder is an inevitable feature of childhood.

But what is not inevitable is that our early experience will be rich enough to provide an adequate basis for worthwhile ethical reflection; that is why we need to have been brought up well. Yet such an upbringing can take us only so far.

We seek a deeper understanding of the objects of our childhood enthusiasms, and we must systematize our goals so that as adults we have a coherent plan of life. We need to engage in ethical theory, and to reason well in this field, if we are to move beyond the low-grade form of virtue we acquired as children. One of Plato's central points is that it is a great advantage to establish a hierarchical ordering of the elements in one's soul; and he shows how the traditional virtues can be interpreted to foster or express the proper relation between reason and less rational elements of the psyche.

Aristotle's approach is similar: Aristotle's goal is to arrive at conclusions like Plato's, but without relying on the Platonic metaphysics that plays a central role in the argument of the Republic. He rejects the existence of Plato's forms in general and the form of the good in particular; and he rejects the idea that in order to become fully virtuous one must study mathematics and the sciences, and see all branches of knowledge as a unified whole.

Even though Aristotle's ethical theory sometimes relies on philosophical distinctions that are more fully developed in his other works, he never proposes that students of ethics need to engage in a specialized study of the natural world, or mathematics, or eternal and changing objects. His project is to make ethics an autonomous field, and to show why a full understanding of what is good does not require expertise in any other field. There is another contrast with Plato that should be emphasized: In Book II of the Republic, we are told that the best type of good is one that is desirable both in itself and for the sake of its results 357d-358a.

Plato argues that justice should be placed in this category, but since it is generally agreed that it is desirable for its consequences, he devotes most of his time to establishing his more controversial point—that justice is to be sought for its own sake.

By contrast, Aristotle assumes that if A is desirable for the sake of B, then B is better than A 1094a14—16 ; therefore, the highest kind of good must be one that is not desirable for the sake of anything else. To show that A deserves to be our ultimate end, one must show that all other goods are best thought of as instruments that promote A in some way or other.

Accordingly, it would not serve Aristotle's purpose the complexity of morality honored and yet questioned by the people consider virtuous activity in isolation from all other goods. He needs to discuss honor, wealth, pleasure, and friendship in order to show how these goods, properly understood, can be seen as resources that serve the higher goal of virtuous activity.