Aristotle’s discourse on ethics begins by asking what a good life is and how it may be obtained.
Book 1 of the Eudemian Ethics aims to establish the following;
- The means by which people acquire happiness
- The different states of happiness
- How Aristotle will obtain a consensus on ethics
- The aim and the practice of good
- How the Absolute Good differs from the Form of good
Central to Book 1 is the concept of happiness. Aristotle begins by rejecting the inscription supposed at the Temple of Leto by the man at Delos. It read;
“Justice is the fairest and health is the best. But to win one’s desires is the pleasantest”
Here the properties of fairest, best and pleasantness lie separate. Aristotle rejects this thesis by suggesting that “Happiness is at once the pleasantest, the fairest and the best of all things whatever.”
The means by which people acquire happiness
Aristotle attributes the acquisition of happiness to any of the five means listed below;
- Nature (one’s disposition)
Aristotle further states that “to be happy and to live blissfully and finely may consist chiefly in three things to be most desirable; Wisdom, Goodness and Pleasure.”
The question Aristotle poses must be considered as such – what is the proper conception of happiness? Does it reside in an individual possessing some particular quality as the old sages have maintained? Or is a particular quality of conduct more necessary? For, in Aristotle’s words, “If living finely depends on things that come by fortune or by nature, it would be beyond the hopes of many men, for then its attainment is not to be secured by effort, and does not rest with men themselves and is not a matter of their conduct. But if it consists in oneself and one’s own actions having a particular quality, the good will be more common and more divine – more common because it would be possible for more people to share it, and more divine because happiness would then be in store for those who made themselves and their actions of a particular quality.” It would seem that Aristotle is already convinced that happiness is attainable by all through a particular quality of action and not some stroke of fortune as he has assigned it a divine property.
The different states of happiness
Aristotle continues with his inquiry into happiness by describing the various modes of life and striking a distinction between necessity and happiness. “There are various different modes of life, and some do not lay any claim to well-being of the kind under consideration, but are pursued merely for the sake of things necessary – for instance the lives devoted to the vulgar and mechanical arts and those dealing with business. But on the other hand, the things related to the happy conduct of life being three… goodness, wisdom and pleasure.” He continues, “We see that there are also three ways of life in which those to whom fortune gives opportunity invariably choose to live, the life of politics, the life of philosophy, and the life of enjoyment. Of these the philosophic life denotes being concerned with the contemplation of truth, the political life means being concerned with honourable activities, and the life of enjoyment is concerned with the pleasures of the body.”
In his evaluation of ethics Aristotle has created a hierarchy of habits. Once man has freed himself from the burden of labour he may then pursue a virtuous life by living blissfully, happily and finely. If this is the End then what means are justified to obtain it? Can a man act rapaciously to secure an abundance of wealth which will later fund his happiness? By building virtue upon happiness Aristotle’s ethics are centred upon excess; whether it be an excess of time, wealth or longevity. Perhaps we may be gracious enough to offer Aristotle a way out. Perhaps an individual has inherited this excess through the labour of their parents. Yet this transfer of excess is part of a larger system of wealth extraction conducted to ‘sanctify’ any unlawful acquisition. Excess comes through exploitation; either of kindness, ignorance or cowardice. Simply put, Aristotle is too focused upon the End.
Aristotle continues to debate the different states of happiness by comparing individual tastes. “Owing to this, different people give the name of happy to different persons, as was said before too; and Anaxagoras of Clazomenae when asked ‘Who is the happiest man?’ said ‘None of those whom you think, but he would seem to you an odd sort of person.’ But Anaxagoras answered in that way because he saw that the man who put the question supposed it to be impossible to receive the appellation ‘happy’ without being great and beautiful or rich, whereas he himself perhaps thought that the person who humanly speaking enjoys bliss is he that lives by the standard of justice without pain and in purity, or participates in some form of divine contemplation.” The argument continues a little later in Book 1, “When asked why one should choose to come into existence rather than not, Anaxagoras replied ‘For the sake of contemplating the heavens and the whole order of the universe.’ Anaxagoras therefore thought that the alternative of being alive was valuable for some kind of knowledge; but those who ascribe bliss to Sardanapallus or Smindyrides of Sybaris or some of the others living the life of enjoyment, all appear to place their happiness in delight.”
How Aristotle will obtain a consensus on ethics
Aristotle’s proof of ethics consists of a consensus on the matter from all parties, “For the best thing would be if all mankind were seen to be in agreement with the views that will be stated, but failing that, at any rate that all should agree in some way.” Essential to his consensus is the use of observed facts, “And about all of these matters the endeavour must be made to seek to convince by means of rational arguments, using observed facts as evidence and examples.”
The aim and the practice of good
Aristotle frequently refers to ‘the End’ in his discourse of ethics. For Aristotle, one ought to have an aim against which his virtue can be measured. An aim, in Aristotle’s opinion, is a conscious and deliberate choice representing the ownership of action. “Everybody able to live according to his own purposive choice should set before him some object for noble living to aim at – either honour or else glory or wealth or culture – on which he will keep his eyes fixed in all his conduct (since clearly it is a mark of much folly not to have one’s life regulated with regard to some End), it is therefore most necessary first to decide with oneself, neither hastily nor carelessly, in which of the things that belong to us the good life consists, and what are the indispensable conditions for men’s possessing it.”
Aristotle surrounds virtue with an air of nobility. It is the ultimate goal of mankind and the responsibility of a rational man with the means to pursue it. By acting in accordance with all good things he will earn happiness for himself. This differs from our contemporary view of ethics in which every person is expected to fulfil a universal obligation in matters of virtue whereas Aristotle is adamant that the individual should set this aim themselves in accordance with what is attainable.
Aristotle’s ethics require more than a theoretical understanding of virtue, one must not simply aim for a knowledge of goodness but rather they must act upon it. This requires a practice that the Form of good cannot deliver (examined later). Aristotle considers Goodness and Wisdom to see if they themselves or the actions which spring from them are parts of a good life. “Accordingly Socrates the senior thought that the End is to get to know virtue, and he pursued an inquiry into the nature of justice and courage and each of the divisions of virtue. And this was a reasonable procedure, since he thought that all the virtues are forms of knowledge, so that knowing justice and being just must go together, for as soon as we have learnt geometry and architecture, we are architects and geometricians; owing to which he used to inquire what virtue is, but not how and from what sources it is produced. But although this does happen in the theoretical sciences, inasmuch as astronomy and natural science and geometry have no other End except to get to know and to contemplate the nature of things that are the subjects of the sciences, yet the End of the productive sciences is something different from science and knowledge, for example the End of medicine is health and that of political science ordered government or something of that sort, different from mere knowledge of the science. Although, therefore, it is fine to attain a knowledge of the various fine things, all the same nevertheless in the case of goodness it is not the knowledge of its essential nature that is most valuable but the ascertainment of the sources that produce it. For our aim is not to know what courage is but to be courageous, not to know what justice is but to be just.”
Given that Aristotle believes justice must be performed as well as studied one can be measured as to how far they deviate, either in success or failure, from the mean – that is, each person can be evaluated with regards to how well they have performed in achieving their aim. It may also be possible to deduce a person’s aim, if unstated, from their actions as it is much harder to deceive with actions than with words.
How the Absolute Good differs from the Form of good
Aristotle now revisits his inquiry into happiness by attempting to define the essential nature of happiness, i.e. what makes humanity unique is a connection to something divine (we may call this ‘abstraction’), “Now it is agreed that happiness is the greatest and the best of the human goods; since none of the other animals, which are inferior in nature to men, share in the designation ‘happy’, for a horse is not happy, nor is a bird nor a fish nor any other existing thing whose designation does not indicate that it possesses in its nature something divine.” and “It is clear that happiness must be set down as the best of the things practicable for a human being.” From this starting point Aristotle reviews the current system of Good, most notably professed by Plato.
Before we continue we must explain what is meant by the term ‘Form’ as expressed by Plato. Form denotes the permanent immaterial reality only perceptible by the mind. It is the perfect Form, or design, of an object that has been crudely assembled in the physical world. Let us be clearer, imagine you want to build an archway for an entrance to a temple. The idea of an archway exists before you physically construct it. The Form, the design, will always remain even after the archway crumbles and collapses. The physical archway may not even be as good as you imagined it would be, it will have imperfections and will never reflect the pure Form. Plato imagined that objects perceived by the senses were a corruption of their Form. Now let us continue with our review, “For it is said that the best of all things is the Absolute Good, and that the Absolute Good is that which has the attributes of being the first of the goods and of being by its presence the cause of the other goods of their being good; and both of these attributes, it is said, belong to the Form of good, since it is of that Form that goodness is most truly predicated.” For Aristotle the Form of good is “unchangeable and impractical”. Aristotle goes further to discredit the Form of good as it has no value to his practical philosophy, “But if we are to speak about it concisely, we say that in the first place to assert the existence of a Form not only of good but of anything else is an expression of logic and a mere abstraction; next, even granting that Forms and the Form of good exist in the fullest sense, surely this is of no practical value for the good life or for conduct.”
Now let us further define the Absolute Good so that we can appreciate a distinction between it and the Form of good. The best of all things is the Absolute Good, as we may say the Form of good is also. But Aristotle goes on to suggest that the Absolute Good in not universal as there is a multiplicity about it, “For instance opportunity and moderation in respect of food are studied by medicine and gymnastics, in respect of military operations by strategists, and similarly in respect of another pursuit by another science; so that it can hardly be the case that the Absolute Good is the subject of only one science.” And again, “For if justice is a good, and courage, there is then, they say, a Good-in-itself, so the term ‘in itself’ is added to the common definition. But what could this denote except that the good is eternal and separable?” Here the unity of good has not been proven as it contains many elements each particular to its own field. Here then Aristotle surmises, “But ‘good’ has many meanings, and there is a part of it that is beautiful, and one form of it is practicable but another is not. The sort of good that is practicable is that which an object is aimed at, but the good in things unchangeable is not practical. It is manifest, therefore, that the Absolute Good we are looking for is not the Form of good, nor yet the good as universal, for the Form is unchangeable and impractical, and the universal good though changeable is not practicable. But the object aimed at as End is the chief good, and is the cause of the subordinate goods and first of all; so that the Absolute Good would be this – the End of goods practicable for man.”
The key difference between Plato’s Form of good and Aristotle’s definition of Absolute Good is that the latter provides practical value for the good life and for conduct and the End is defined by action rather than contemplation.
Finally, Aristotle reaffirms the importance of the End by declaring, “And that the End stands as a causal relation to the means subordinate to it is shown by the methods of the teachers; they prove that the various means are each good by first defining the End, because the End aimed at is the cause.”
Yet, if the Form is merely an abstraction and human happiness is distinct because it possesses something divine, namely an ability to abstract, then what is Aristotle even aiming at? His End must be something that is possible to obtain but how does this grant legitimacy to virtue? The End arises from the cause following deliberation but this does not give ethics a transcendental quality. In effect, one can only do what is possible to him. How are we to determine what another person is capable of if we do not have a truthful account of his disposition? We shall see if Aristotle establishes this legitimacy in his following Books.
Critique of Book 1
Aristotle separates men from animals with the term ‘inferiority’. Animals, being inferior to men, cannot attain the happiness of man and so cannot enjoy the best of all things. Yet what happens if we extend this inferiority to other men? Are they expected to follow our reason and attain nobility? Do they possess the making of it? Or are we to excuse them based upon the deficiencies that they possess? Whether it be flawed character, ignorance of virtue or not having acquired the level of excess that Aristotle demands. The benefit of the Form of good is that at the very least it creates a universal doctrine which lends itself to legitimacy. Even if people cannot perform it they will be held to account by its standard.