Review and Critique of Book 2 of the Eudemian Ethics

Should people require a point of reference I am using the Loeb Classical Library edition of Aristotle’s Eudemian Ethics as translated by H. Rackham.

 Book 2 of the Eudemian Ethics discusses the following;

  • A conclusion on the definition of happiness
  • An investigation into the human spirit
  • The relative mean in conduct
  • Voluntary and Involuntary
    • Appetition, purposive choice or thought
    • Aristotle’s three subdivisions of appetition – wish, passion and desire
    • Further discourse on purposive choice which leads to moral goodness
  • Moral goodness

A conclusion of the definition of happiness

Towards the end of Book 1 Aristotle says, “Now it is agreed that happiness is the greatest and the best of the human goods.” Aristotle seeks to bring his theory of happiness to a close in Book 2 firstly by reasserting that a good life is akin to a functional life and then by examining what it means to be human, “Again let us grant that the work of the spirit is to cause life, and that being alive is employment and being awake; with the consequence that since the work of the spirit and that of its goodness are necessarily one and the same, the work of goodness would be a good life.” And once again its link to happiness is restated, “Therefore this is the perfect good, which as we saw is happiness. And it is clear from our assumptions laid down that, since an activity is a better thing than a disposition and the best activity than the best state, and since goodness is the best state, the activity of goodness is the spirit’s greatest good.

One final note on Aristotle’s theory of happiness is that it is not complete until the End, “There is also evidence of the opinion that a person is not happy for one day only, (hence also Solon’s advice holds good, not to call a man happy while he is alive, but only when he has reached the end) for nothing incomplete is happy, since it is not a whole.” Solon of course being the great Athenian reformer accredited with laying the foundations for Athenian democracy.

In conclusion Aristotle’s definition of happiness demands an End to provide active goodness which shall grant, “The pleasantest, the fairest and the best of all things whatever.”

Yet is it fair to say that one man’s interpretation of happiness provides us with a universal rule on the matter? After the 20th century’s brutal dictatorships and the various ideologies that were championed (i.e. happiness of the state or some other utopian doctrine) can we really say that all happiness resides in active goodness? Aristotle’s defence might read, “Happiness is at once the pleasantest, the fairest and the best of all things whatever.” And we would be inclined to agree as this was clearly not the case with dictators who were constantly fearful of overthrow or assassination, and as such devoted a large amount of state resources to fund the secret ‘policing’ activities of the Gestapo and the NKVD. However, if such dictators had truly achieved their End then they would surely attest that they had achieved “The pleasantest, the fairest and the best of all things whatever.” For what else had they set out to achieve but to correct some grievance? Would it not be truer to suggest that happiness consists of many conflicting opinions? Some wish to gain acceptance, some wish to inflict pain, some seek sexual gratification, some seek isolation? Perhaps Aristotle’s definition of happiness is vague for this reason and a completed version might read, “Happiness is at once what a person perceives to be the pleasantest, the fairest and the best of all things relative to themselves?” This is very far from our current, duty-bound ethics of equality but I doubt Aristotle would have agreed with such a rigid doctrine that limited “goodness, wisdom and pleasure.” It must be stressed here that the Greek sense of ‘goodness’ is less limited than ‘virtue’ and refers to excellence in any department, not simply moral.

An investigation into the human spirit

Aristotle’s study into the spirit aims to imbue man with a reasoning faculty and a view to conduct. This is important to Aristotle as, in his opinion, our reasoning faculties differentiate us from animals. So he begins, “Next we must study the spirit; for goodness is a property of the spirit, it is not accidental. And since it is human goodness that we are investigating, let us begin by positing that the spirit has two parts that partake of reason, but that they do not both partake of reason in the same manner, but one of them by having by nature the capacity to give orders, and the other to obey and listen.” But is this only present in humans? One may say that human language allows us to form abstractions but Aristotle does not say this. His phrasing is, “to give orders, and the other to obey and listen.” This quality is not unique to the human spirit as various creatures such as chimpanzees are able to cooperate through violence and displays of mistrust.  The next sentence is the real meat of the argument, “If considered as a man, he must possess a reasoning faculty for a principle and with a view to conduct.” Yet again I must offer some criticism. Has this been witnessed or proven? On a universal level? Does blind obedience to propaganda suggest that all of humanity possesses a reasoning faculty? Does drunk and disorderly behaviour suggest that all of humanity possesses a view to conduct? Does environmental destruction and industrialised warfare suggest that man lives with a reasoning faculty? I would agree that the creation of these problems require intelligence to develop the appropriate science but if reasoning and view to conduct were really universal qualities in man would we have reached this point as a race? I would argue that man applies his intelligence, not as a rational enterprise, but to gain dominion over others. Conduct has become a tool to convince the ignorant masses that the best man is in charge. Mannerisms, speeches and gestures are all engineered to keep an ignorant people subjugated. I feel that Aristotle has not been careful enough in his definition of man. Or perhaps he suggests that only those who display rationality (for we should not assume such things) can be called man? In either event the definition is not sufficient for our use. I would follow Francis Fukuyama’s explanation, “When norms [concerning behaviour] are invested with intrinsic meaning, they become objects of what the philosopher Georg W.F. Hegel called the ‘struggle for recognition’. When a monkey or a human being succeeds in achieving high status, levels of serotonin, a critical neurotransmitter, are elevated. But human recognition differs from primate recognition because of the greater complexity of human cognition. An alpha male chimp seeks recognition only for himself; a human being can seek recognition for an abstraction, like a god, a flag, or a holy place.” I do not mean to be unkind to Aristotle, I am merely suggesting that many observed facts have been recorded since 322BC – which is the whole point behind this revaluation.

From his analysis of the human spirit Aristotle seeks to explore the two forms of goodness – moral virtue and intellectual excellence, “And goodness has two forms, moral virtue and intellectual excellence; for we praise not only the just but also the intelligent and the wise. And since the intellectual excellences involve reason, these forms of goodness belong to the rational part, which as having reason is in command of the spirit; whereas moral virtues belong to the part that is irrational but by nature capable of following the rational – for in stating a man’s moral qualities we do not say that a man is wise or clever but that he is gentle or rash.” Aristotle’s goodness is available in one of two ways; either a person is intelligent such that their reason governs their conduct, or a person is moral so that he can listen to and follow a rational explanation of good conduct that subdues his irrational disposition to do harm. In this way it is necessary for an intelligent person to first define what good conduct is before it can be followed.

The relative mean in conduct

Aristotle’s relative mean in conduct seeks to explain exactly what virtues man should aim for. The relative mean lies in between excessive and deficient characteristics, which Aristotle calls ‘mutually destructive’, “These distinctions having been established, it must be grasped that in every continuum that is divisible there is excess and deficiency and a mean. And in all things the mean in relation to us is the best, for that is as knowledge and reason bid. And everywhere this also produces the best state. This is proved by induction and reason: contraries are mutually destructive, extremes are contrary to each other and to the mean, as the mean is either extreme in relation to the other – for example the equal is greater than the less and less than the greater. Hence moral goodness must be concerned with certain means and must be a middle state. We must, therefore, ascertain what sort of middle state goodness is and with what sort of means it is concerned.” This, I believe, is Aristotle’s first attempt at a cooperative ethics. By standardising virtues he avoids a conflict of interpretation, that is – by highlighting the incompatibility of excess with deficiency he understands that a consensus would never be reached between two parties who stand either side of the relative mean. To overcome this dispute Aristotle shows the fallacies in the extremes before explaining how the relative mean is the only correct, and thus lasting, condition. Aristotle then produces a table made of three columns. Here he lists excess, deficiency and then the relative mean, i.e.



Relative Mean







Other relative means (virtues) include, Gentleness, Temperance, Righteous Indignation and Hardiness. Aristotle continues, “These and such as these are the emotions that the spirit experiences, and they are all designated from being either excessive or defective. He that pretends to have more possessions than he really has is a boaster, and he that pretends to have fewer is a self-deprecator.” In this example Sincerity is the relative mean and thus the virtue. And again, “He that rates himself to high is vain, he that rates himself too low, small-spirited.”

Aristotle then links the relative mean to the right principle through the greatest good. He declares that the greatest good is in accordance with the right principle and that the greatest good is achieved through the relative means.  “But since it has been assumed that goodness is a state of character of a sort that causes men to be capable of doing the best actions and gives them the best disposition in regard to the greatest good, and the best and greatest good is that which is in accordance with the right principle, and this is the means between excess and deficiency relative to ourselves, it would necessarily follow that moral goodness corresponds with each particular middle state and is concerned with certain mean points in pleasures and pains and pleasant and painful things.” It is clear that the greatest good is in accordance with the right principle as one is simply a term for the other. What is not so clear is why the greatest good is the relative mean. By a process of elimination Aristotle has proven that the middle state has no destructive properties and through this mechanism he has assigned goodness to the middle state. Aristotle should then say this, ‘goodness is at once enduring and identifiable logic exercised through deliberate action’ as this is how he has reached his relative mean and how we may witness a person performing it. Deliberate, or purposive, action will be discussed next.

Voluntary and involuntary

I have two criticisms with this part; firstly, owing to Aristotle’s dialectic nature he brings up many arguments which he assumes to be true but then refutes which lends itself to confusion. Secondly, his distinctions between the various parts of human conduct overlap and become hard to distinguish, others seem to be unnecessary.

Central to Aristotle’s ethics is that man is accountable for his actions. For this to be true Aristotle requires that a man be the cause of his actions meaning he controls their existence or non-existence. For our analysis on the voluntary and the involuntary we shall separate our inquiry into three parts;

  • Appetition, purposive choice or thought
  • Aristotle’s three subdivisions of appetition – wish, passion and desire
  • Further discourse on purposive choice which leads to moral goodness.

Aristotle believes in free will. For his ethics to have any validity this is a necessity. His conclusion on voluntary action makes man the principle for his agency, that is – man must be cause. Nothing can come before him. His is responsible for his perceptions, his interpretations and finally his actions. Only then can any man be blamed if he deviates from the relative mean. What follows is the most important passage in Book 2, “And since as in other matters the first principle is a cause of the things that exist or come into existence because of it, we must think as we do in the case of demonstrations. Hence it is clear that all the actions of which a man is the first principle and controller may either happen or not happen, and that it depends on himself for them to happen or not, as he controls their existence or non-existence. But of things which it depends on him to do or not to do he is himself the cause, and what he is the cause of depends on himself. It is clear that goodness and badness have to do with things where a man is himself the cause and origin of his actions. We must, then, ascertain what is the kind of actions of which a man is himself the cause and origin. Now we all agree that each man is the cause of all those acts that are voluntary and purposive for him individually, and that he is not himself the cause of all those that are involuntary. And clearly he commits voluntarily all the acts that he commits purposively. It is clear, then, that both goodness and badness will be in the class of things voluntary.”

As mentioned, the crux of Aristotle’s ethics, both goodness and badness, relate to voluntary action. In light of this we must follow Aristotle’s inquiry into the voluntary and involuntary, “We must, therefore, ascertain what voluntary and involuntary mean, and what is purposive choice, since they enter into the definition of goodness and badness. And first we must consider the meaning of voluntary and involuntary. Now they would seem to relate to one of three things – conformity with appetition, or with purposive choice, or with thought: voluntary is what conforms with one of these and involuntary is what contravenes one of them. But moreover there are three subdivisions of appetition – wish, passion and desire.”

Appetition, purposive choice or thought

Aristotle conducts an exhaustive analysis of appetition, purposive choice and thought to determine where the voluntary lies. Before we continue let us define the terms. Appetition means longing for and as noted relates to three subdivisions; wish, passion or desire. Purposive choice is a human quality and must be something that is deliberately chosen and relates to the means rather than the End. To qualify as purposive choice it has to be something within one’s power to achieve. Thought relates to deliberation and of opinions although not necessarily acted upon, as such it might be a deliberation about something unobtainable or erroneous. We might ask ourselves the question, ‘why these three’? Appetition is considered an impulse as it is an internal command to perform some action – eat, drink, breed. It is necessary for the survival of an animal and by extension the species. If we did not possess a reasoning faculty then we could end there. However, as we are, in Aristotle’s opinion, capable of rational thought we must add this to our motivations. This is the part of Aristotle’s argument that I find difficult, simply because I don’t agree with it. Anyway, we shall proceed and my criticism shall come later. Aristotle attributes deliberation to all humans exclusively. He breaks down this rational thought process into purposive choice and thought. In his own words, “Now even animals possess passion and desire, but they do not have purposive choice. But moreover purposive choice is not the same as wish either; for men wish for some things that they know to be impossible. So that this much is clear – a thing purposively chosen must necessarily be something that rests within oneself.” Curiously he then says this, “But if as we have said the voluntary must necessarily be one of three things – what is in conformity with appetition, or with purposive choice, or with thought, and if it is not the two former, it remains that voluntariness consists in acting with some kind of thought.” Now I had understood that ‘acting with some kind of thought’ was purposive choice. Is this thought external to the person in question? Then it would be someone else’s thought which coerces the person into action. For if the thought had originated within oneself it would be purposive choice. By process of elimination I would say that thought relates to opinion, but as some opinions cannot be acted on they register as thoughts, whereas those opinions that can be acted upon register as purposive choices. Anyway, let us proceed with caution.

Aristotle’s three subdivisions of appetition – wish, passion and desire

Aristotle begins by analysing desire and asking whether it is voluntary or involuntary. Immediately he starts out by calling desire voluntary, “It would seem that everything that conforms with desire is voluntary. For everything involuntary seems to be forced, and what is forced and everything that people do or suffer under necessity is painful. So that if a thing is painful it is forced and if a thing is forced it is painful (for desire is for what is pleasant), so that it forced and involuntary. Therefore, what conforms with desire is voluntary, for things contrary to and things in conformity with desire are opposite to one another.” This becomes an annoying habit of Aristotle’s as he asserts something to be true only to prove himself wrong later. And again, “For all that a man does voluntarily he wishes to do, and what he wishes to do he does voluntarily, but nobody wishes what he thinks to be bad. But yet the uncontrolled man does not do what he wishes, for being uncontrolled means acting against what one thinks to be the best owing to desire; hence it will come about that the same person is acting voluntarily and involuntarily at the same time. But this is impossible. It therefore follows that the same person will do the same action voluntarily and involuntarily at the same time.” The uncontrolled man is key to Aristotle’s ethics for anything that is forced is involuntary and thus cannot be called bad. By the theory of contradiction Aristotle proves that desire is involuntary. I would have said this, ‘Desire is involuntary because it arises from taste. No one freely chooses their tastes and no one can alter what they find to be pleasing. Therefore, desire is involuntary.’

Next comes passion, “The same argument applies also in the case of passion; for there appear to be control and lack of control of passion as well as of desire and what is contrary to passion is painful and restraint is a matter of force, so that if what is forced is involuntary, what is in accordance with passion will always be voluntary. And if it is impossible to do the same act voluntarily and involuntarily at the same time and in respect of the same part of the act, action guided by one’s wish is more voluntarily than action guided by desire or passion. And a proof of this is that we do many things voluntarily without anger or desire.” Again, by stating conflicting accounts of passion and comparing it to wish Aristotle arrives at the conclusion that passion is involuntary. Here I would say, ‘passion is an outward expression of an internal desire, as the desire is involuntary so too is the expression. A person is responding to a stimulus and has not freely chosen their response to this stimulus.’

Finally comes wish, “It remains, therefore, to consider whether acting as we wish and acting voluntarily are the same. This also seems impossible. For it is a fundamental assumption with us, and a general opinion, that wickedness makes men more unrighteous, and lack of self-control seems to be a sort of wickedness. But from the hypothesis that acting as we wish and acting voluntarily are the same the opposite will result; for nobody wishes that he thinks to be bad, yet he does them when he has become uncontrolled. Therefore it is clear that acting voluntarily does not mean acting in accordance with appetition nor acting involuntary acting in opposition to appetition.” I don’t understand why Aristotle feels the necessity to incorporate wish with appetition. I think desire and passion suffice. In my opinion wish requires a conscious action to influence the outcome in a favourable manner; i.e. if I do this then I will get that. That is a logical expression. A lot of problems here arise from Aristotle’s distinctions between animals and humans and our erroneous perceptions of animal behaviour. Animals can receive instructions, they can be influenced by other animals in their pack, they can deliberate as when a dog looks down from a table and decides whether it is a good idea to jump or not. Simply saying, “Now even animals possess passion and desire, but they do not have purposive choice” leads to errors in our own reasoning.

Further discourse on purposive choice which leads to moral goodness

Aristotle seeks to clarify what he actually means by purposive choice and how it differs from wish, desire, passion, and opinion. Once again he declares something to be true which he later refutes, “Also it is clear from the following considerations that voluntary action does not mean acting in accordance with purposive choice. It was proved that acting in accordance with one’s wish is not acting involuntary, but rather everything that one wishes is also voluntary – it has only been proved that it is possible to do a thing voluntarily without wishing; but many things that we wish we do suddenly, whereas nobody makes a purposive choice suddenly.” Now please consider, “But if as we have said the voluntary must necessarily be one of three things – what is in conformity with appetition, or with purposive choice, or with thought, and if it is not the two former, it remains that voluntariness consists in acting with some kind of thought.” Yet if wish is part of appetition and yet appetition is involuntary then how can wish be voluntary? Now please consider this next part, “Now that this is concluded, and as the voluntary has been found not to be defined by appetition, nor yet by purposive choice, it therefore remains to define it as that which is in accordance with thought.”

Ignorance is not voluntary. To count as voluntary an act must not be in ignorance and come through one’s power and agency, “It follows then that all the things that a man does not in ignorance, and through his own agency, when it is in his power not to do them, are voluntary acts, and it is in this that the voluntary consists; and all the things that he does in ignorance, and through being in ignorance, he does involuntarily.” This is the key consideration and Aristotle is determined to make some human characteristic fit with this description.

Aristotle now comes back to purposive choice, “Next let us speak about purposive choice, first raising various difficulties about it. For one might doubt to which class it naturally belongs and in what class it ought to be put, and whether the voluntary and the purposely chosen are different things or the same thing.”

First comes the separation from wish, desire and passion, “Now it is evident that it is not appetition; for in that case it would be either wish, or desire or passion, since nobody wants to get a thing without having experienced one of those feelings. Now even animals possess passion and desire, but they do not have purposive choice. But moreover purposive choice is not the same as wish either; for men wish for some things that they know to be impossible.” And next the separation from opinion, “And similarly it is manifest that purposive choice is not opinion either, nor something that one simply thinks; for we saw that a thing chosen is something in one’s own power. For no one purposively chooses any End, but the means to his End.”

Despite his previous assertion that purposive choice was involuntary he now reverses his opinion and makes it voluntary, “It is clear that purposive choice is deliberative appetiton of things within one’s power. For we deliberate about everything we choose, although of course we do not choose everything that we deliberate about. Consequently people who have no fixed aim are not given to deliberation. Hence inasmuch as if a man of his own accord and not through ignorance does or refrains from doing something resting within himself either to do or not to do, he acts or refrains from acting voluntarily, but yet we do many such things without deliberation or previous thought, it necessarily follows that, although all that has been purposively chosen is voluntary, ‘voluntary’ is not the same as ‘chosen’.”

This is important to Aristotle as his moral goodness depends on an individual choosing to act in accordance with the relative mean. Without this his entire system of ethics does not work. Please see the next section on moral goodness for further clarification.

Moral goodness

Aristotle next considers moral goodness to establish a connection with pleasure and pain.

If you will remember that, in Aristotle’s opinion, good produces happiness and happiness produces the best of all things, and as such man will act in accordance with reason to exercise good so that he may have the best of all things. Also notice that there is no duty associated with good itself for good is not the End. The End is the best of all things. So states Aristotle on moral goodness, “Then let it first be taken as granted that the best disposition is produced by the best means, and that the best actions in each department of conduct result from the excellences belonging to each department. Therefore goodness too is the sort of disposition that is created by the best movements in the spirit and is also the source of the productions of the spirit’s best actions and emotions; and it is in one way produced and in another way destroyed by the same things, and its employment of the things that cause both its increase and its destruction is directed towards the things towards which it creates the best disposition. And this is indicated by the fact that both goodness and badness have to do with things pleasant and painful; for punishments, which are medicines, and which as is the case with other cures operate by a means of opposites, operate by means of pleasures and pains.” Here Aristotle is suggesting that the best actions come from within oneself from the excellence one possesses in each department whether it be philosophy, leadership, athletics, etc… What is curious is Aristotle’s mention of destruction and his assertion that the good spirit is destroyed by the same things that created the best disposition (I read Aristotle’s term ‘destruction’ as ‘excess in a particular virtue’). Why this exists might seem strange as an excess of kindness amounts to charity, yet Aristotle takes offence to this. I suspect this is because Aristotle aims at the best of all things and simply sharing one’s abundance not only reduces the lot of a charitable man but falsely increases the stature of another.

What is important is Aristotle’s exhaustive definition of moral goodness, “It therefore follows that since moral goodness is itself a middle state and is entirely concerned with pleasures and pains, and badness consists in excess and defect and is concerned with the same thing as goodness, moral goodness or virtue is a state of purposively choosing the mean in relation to ourselves in all those pleasant and painful things in regard to which according as a person feels pleasure or pain he is described as having some particular moral quality.” This concludes Book 2 of the Eudemian Ethics.

Critique on Book 2

I am not satisfied with the Aristotle’s work on the voluntary and involuntary. I find the distinctions either lacking or contradictory and I find the conclusion to be clumsy. Entirely lacking from the analysis is what forms choice. How do men choose? Why do they choose? How are they in control of their interpretations? Why do some interpret differently to others? Are we responsible for errors in perception? How does the mind deduce appropriate behaviour? For Aristotle’s ethics to contain any validity he must prove that a man is a cause of his actions but he is yet to do this. I blame this on the distinctions he has made and his separation of human characteristics from animalistic behaviours. These distinctions being wish, passion, desire, purposive choice and thought. Even reason is driven by a sense of vanity, that is – a desire to interpret and impose reason on others. Philosophy, science and logic are all passions. No one would pursue and develop them if they weren’t. Doing so fills us with a sense of achievement and worth. By forcing others to accept our system of beliefs we are actually aiming for an ease of life which superiority bestows. Where other men use violence to assert their dominance, i.e. the justification for their being, we use intelligence as a means of coercion. We are driven to it by our passion. I will also say this, isolated men cannot gain respect from the pack as we are external to it. The only way we can achieve validity is through reason and by imposing this reason upon others so that they cannot legitimately claim dominion over us.

Relating to man as cause I shall quote Friedrich Nietzsche, “There is no error more dangerous than that of confusing consequence with the cause: I call it the real ruination of reason. We believed that we ourselves, in the act of willing, were causes: we thought that we were at least catching causality in the act.” Man is not cause, he is the effect of all that preceded him; his language, his culture, his environment, his genetics, his taste, his values. This he has no control over. He does not get to preside over the formation of his soul. Aristotle claims that man has agency over his acts. Tell me where this happened! Tell me where man got to choose himself!

In order to follow advice I must grant another being greater authority than I grant myself for even reason comes through man. What if I reject this? What if, after I have exposed the rationale behind his arguments, I call him a liar?

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