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Aristotle's View Of Ethics

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An Overview of Aristotle’s Ethics

The Hierarchy of Goods:

According to Aristotle, everything that we pursue or aim at is good. Some of the goods we pursue are activities (e.g. dancing) and some are products of activities (e.g. a good grade on an exam).

While there are many goods that we pursue, these goods can be hierarchically ordered according to “for-the-sake-of” relationships. While some goods are pursued for their own sake (e.g. comfort), others are pursued for the sake of something else (e.g. money).

If money is pursued for the sake of comfort, then comfort is a higher good than money.

By ordering goods in this way, we find a kind of pyramid of goods, with those goods that we pursue for their own sakes near the top, and those goods that are merely useful for the attainment of other goods near the bottom.

Thus, while every goal we pursue is good in itself, sometimes it can be pursued in a way that compromises the attainment of higher goods—making the overall pursuit bad.

There is only one good that Aristotle thinks is pursued entirely for itself, and not for the sake of anything else. That good, according to Aristotle, is eudaimonia—usually translated as “happiness” (although “flourishing” might be as good a translation).

In order to understand what kinds of pursuits are really good for human beings, we need to understand the nature of human happiness.

[Karl Note:  One friend of mine defines happiness like this:

An awareness of fulfillment of objective or (and) subjective desires,  totally free from any sense of guilt,  leading to contentment.  In its fundamental character it is relatively longer lasting as an experience compared to pleasure.  This does not suffer the same or similar inherent dichotomy of pleasure & pain,  hence can be pursued limitlessly both qualitatively and quantitatively without jeopardizing / endangring the safety of the seeker.  (source:  Indian Scholar, Dr. Ayyangar)

 Another good friend of mine defines happiness, paraphrased, like this:

Happiness is the overcoming of obstacles between you and some goal.]

What Happiness Is Not:

Aristotle rejects three common conceptions of happiness—pleasure, honor, and wealth.

Happiness, he says, cannot be identified with any of these things (even though all three may be part of an overall happy life).

Pleasure, he says, is found in satisfying desires—but whether or not we can satisfy our desires is as much up to chance as it is up to us.

[Karl Note:  I would simply disagree with my friend, Aristotle.  Any objective, any desire, can be attained.  I won't concern myself to explain that here, now, but that is my reality.  In any event Aristotle dismisses "pleasure" as the fundamental principle of a moral code.]

If human happiness were nothing more than pleasure, then the attainment of the chief human end wouldn’t be up to us. We’d be “slaves to our desires.”

[Karl Note:  Man, in his fallen state, is, of course, a slave to his desires.  Thus, I agree with Aristotle in the main, but suggest that man can arise to greater heights, well high enough to be able to attain any goal or desire.]

Furthermore, our chief good—our purpose in life—would be no different from that of lower animals.

But then why do we have all the intellectual abilities that distinguish us from animals?

Aristotle also rejects the idea that the life of honor (the life of being publicly recognized and revered) is the happy life.

[Karl Note:  It is a losing game to seek approval.  That puts your future into the hands of others, as Aristotle says.]

Again, he points out that whether or not we are honored is not up to us—so this view of happiness would put the attainment of our chief end in life into the hands of others.

Furthermore, we do not seek honor purely for its own sake—we also seek it as a measure of our worth.

But happiness is sought for its own sake.

Finally, wealth is merely useful—it is not sought for itself but for what it can be used to achieve. But what is the chief end that we should seek to attain, making use of wealth and other resources?

The “Function of Man” Argument:

Aristotle notes that we tend to identify the chief good of something with its fulfillment of its function—such that a good hammer is one that does what hammers are supposed to do, and does it well.

The properties that contribute to a hammer fulfilling its function are said to be “virtues” of the hammer.

Do humans have a function? Human beings certainly have functions that they acquire as the result of taking on certain social roles—parent, student, teacher, police officer, concert pianist, janitor—and hence various role-specific virtues.

But we are looking for the chief good of human beings as such. Do humans have a function simply as human beings, apart from any and all social roles?

Put in a somewhat different way, is there some end that we are uniquely suited to attain by virtue of our human nature, apart from our particular roles and occupations? If so, it would have to be some more generic end than “making beautiful music” or “keeping the floor clean.”

Aristotle thinks that we do have a function, and he thinks that the function of any thing is to be determined by its distinguishing power or capacity: while a TV has the power to hold down paper, that is not its function because the TV has a power that distinguishes it from paper weights.

So Aristotle’s question becomes, “What is the distinguishing power of human beings?”

His answer is rationality. Our function, he concludes, is to be excellently rational. But what does that involve?

Intellectual and Moral Virtues: 

Aristotle believes that human beings have three parts to their psychologies, what he calls three “souls”:

  • the vegetative soul (that unconscious part that takes care of autonomic functions such as digestion and circulation),
  • the animal soul (that conscious part that feels emotions, desires, and appetites), and the
  • rational soul (that part that thinks, evaluates, judges, forms beliefs, etc.).

Of these, the animal and rational souls may both exhibit excellent rationality.

The rational soul may be rational in itself, and the animal soul may be subject to reason—that is, ruled by reason.

When the rational soul is doing its job well, it attains wisdom, understanding, and knowledge. The habits of thought and intellectual skills that help it to do this job are called intellectual virtues.

These are the virtues that are acquired through the kind of training one receives in school. But someone can have great “book smarts” and still be very irrational in how they conduct their lives: they are led by irrational desires, uncontrolled emotions, etc. Their animal soul is not subject to the guidance of reason. Such a person lacks what Aristotle calls moral virtue.

The Golden Mean:

For every emotion, every desire or appetite, every behavioral disposition, there is a corresponding moral virtue, as well as moral vices.

Virtues and vices are states of character.

According to Aristotle, emotions and desires have purposes with respect to the whole person, but they fulfill these purposes only if they are felt at the right time, in the right way, to the right degree.

How you are conditioned to feel and respond to life situations is your character.

This “right amount” of an emotion or desire is said to be the mean between the extremes of excess and deficiency.

Thus, for every feeling you have, you can be virtuous (if your character is such that you feel it in the appropriate way), or you can exhibit the vice of excess (too much of the feeling) or the vice of deficiency (too little).

For example, with respect to anger there is the vice of short-temperedness (excess), the vice of insensibility (deficiency) and the virtue of even-temperedness.

There is also a golden mean with respect to the disposition to perform certain kinds of actions.

For example, the generous person has the virtue of being disposed to give away money in a fitting way (neither too much or too little).

Our rational soul, when it is operating effectively, can tell through experience what is fitting—but until our feeling and dispositions are aligned with what reason dictates, we are not excellently rational.

Cultivating Moral Virtue:

But how do we bring our emotions, desires, and behavioral dispositions into line with what reason recommends?

Aristotle says that our states of character are cultivated “through like activities.” Our feelings and behavioral dispositions are a matter of habituation.

If we consistently behave in an angry way in a given situation, we will develop the habit of feeling anger in that situation.

If we consistently behave in a calm manner in the situation, we will develop the habit of feeling calm.

Hence, if we want to develop virtuous states of character, we need to do so through repeatedly acting in the corresponding ways until it becomes internalized. Virtues are really nothing more than good habits.


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