Aristotle's Ethics: Essay Q&A
1. Why does Aristotle believe that the good life is a life of happiness and not just pleasure?
When Aristotle describes the good life he explains that it is full of happiness and happiness is the most desirable of all good things. It is the end at which all actions are aimed. Final and self-sufficient it depends upon nothing else for the justification of its importance. But to Aristotle happiness means more than mere pleasure.
Pleasure comes from the satisfaction of desires: getting what you want and wanting what you get. But happiness comes from the fulfilment of the person. And what is good for a thing, what leads to its fulfilment, depends upon what type of thing it is. So for the good life we must know what type of thing we are.
We all share similar capacities with other things. Like plants and animals we have nutritive capacities: we ingest and process nutrients. We also share with other animals appetitive capacities: desires for food, water and sex. But what sets us apart from nature is our capacity to make free and conscious choices. What is unique and peculiar to us, higher than all other capacities, is our capacity to reason. Reason is nature functioning at the highest level. It is characteristic of us and our highest capacity. Therefore, the good life, the life of the most complete fulfilment, in which the individual flourishes, is the life of excellence in this capacity. And this is what Aristotle calls the life of virtue.
Indeed, the key elements of Aristotle’s argument reflect what most of us believe. We generally believe that our fulfilment is not to be found in the bodily or animal side of our nature, but in our rational side. Indeed we define fulfilment in just these terms. We don’t merely do things, we have a conception of what we do and why, and of ourselves as doing it. We regard ourselves as fulfilled when we approve of ourselves and the qualities we possess, which are usually those we most admire in others.
2. Why should a life of fulfilment involve leading a good life, a life of virtue?
The answer, according Aristotle, is simple: because “virtuous activities or their opposites are what constitute happiness or their reverse.” And happiness or eudaimonia (well-being or flourishing) is a life in which the individual is perfectly fulfilled. Happiness is “an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.” Therefore, only the virtuous are happy.
The answer can also be found in the actual definition of virtue. Aristotle explains that everything has a function and if it performs this function well this will lead to happiness. Humans are rational beings, so our function is to think rationally about how we conduct ourselves. So a good person is one who uses his or her faculties well in accordance with reason at that point where we perform in accordance with the excellence proper to our function, which is the mean of the activity between deficiency and excess. At this point the activity of the soul (the rational part of man) is in accordance with goodness or virtue. So, happiness is the virtuous activity of the soul.
As for why we should want to be happy, Aristotle argues this is the ultimate end, the goal to which all else is a means. It is the one thing we try to achieve for its own sake. It cannot be improved, as pleasures can, by the addition of something else. However, while you can aim directly at pleasure, you cannot aim directly at happiness. This is what has been described by modern philosophers as the “Paradox of Hedonism.” John Stuart Mill argues you can only experience it en passant in the process of pursuing other things – personal goals, values, ideals. Happiness comes when you don’t aim at it directly, when you’re content with what you have done and who you are.
3. Ethics is practical reason. Aristotle develops the theory, but what does he say about how we are to put it into practice?
Ethics is not just concerned with theory, it is practical reason concerned with questions about how we should act in any particular situation. If our ultimate goal is happiness and this only comes through acting virtuously, we must learn how to do this. Aristotle argues that moral virtues are not given us by nature; we acquire them by first exercising them, through proper training in which we develop certain habits and the right dispositions to act in virtuous ways. We become virtuous by acting virtuously. He explains, “states of character arise out of like activities.”
So, we must examine the nature of our actions, because these determine the nature of our character. We must learn to exercise our character traits in a virtuous way. For this there are some general principles, the most important of which is “mean” – the key to using our practical reason. This is the principle that the virtuous nature of our actions and therefore our character can be destroyed by a deficiency or excess of any particular character trait. Excess and deficiency in these both constitute a vice, while the mean between them is a virtue. While eating and drinking is good for our health, too little destroys it as does too much. It is good to keep fit, but too much fitness training can destroy our health just as easily as too little.
And this applies equally to all those actions that affect our moral characters. Temperance is a good thing, but too much pleasure results in self-indulgence, while too much abstinence results in insensitivity. Likewise too little courage results in cowardice, too much in rashness. All such virtues are destroyed by excess and deficiency, but preserved by the mean. And when we have pleasure in acting virtuously in this way this is a sign that the virtuous disposition has been acquired.
4. Can we really be blamed for being naturally over-emotional or praised for being naturally patient?
An important focus of Aristotle’s theory is how we manage our passions and our faculties when we act. These are given us by nature: we’re not praised or blamed for our capacity to feel strong passions. But we acquire our moral character ourselves, and we are praised and blamed for the way our character controls our passions. We can be blamed if we feel anger violently or too weakly, and praised if we feel it moderately. In this way we let our anger work the way it should. Aristotle says, “every virtue or excellence both brings into good condition the thing of which it is the excellence and makes the work of that thing be done well.”
=om:4.0pt;text-autospace:ideograph-numeric;">Mssions, like fear, confidence, appetite, anger, pity, not too much and not too little. Anyone can give and spend money, but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way is the mean, the intermediate, the virtuous. Virtue, then, is a kind of mean; it aims at what is intermediate. It is possible to fail in many ways, but only possible to succeed in one way. To miss the mark is easy, to hit it is difficult. Aristotle says, “men are good in but one way, but bad in many.”
5. We’re taught to admire the ruthless businessman, who single-mindedly uses any means he can to get to the top. So is Aristotle right? Do cheats really never prosper?
Perhaps the most difficult of all problems lies in a paradox of which we, and indeed the ancient Greeks, are all acutely aware. Even though Aristotle argues that a life of virtue is the highest goal for mankind, a life in which we flourish as the kind of being we are, we all know that the cheat who ignores all this seems to prosper at the expense of the good man. Those who cheat and swindle their way to wealth, power and success seem to have all we could possibly need to be happy, while those who trudge the moral path are likely to be taken advantage of as they strive for justice and treat others as they would like to be treated themselves.
Nevertheless, what appears to escape us as we hustle about our lives with little time to reflect, is that, as Aristotle argues, cheating destroys the very thing that makes happiness possible – our self-respect. Who can genuinely respect a victory won by foul means? Least of all can we convince ourselves, when we reflect on it, that what we have done deserves our own respect. So, as he says, the bad man is continually in conflict with himself; he runs away from any careful self-examination that might reveal these flaws.
What’s more, those with virtuous characters, who commit themselves to others, deal fairly with those they meet, stand up for justice and good causes, and are temperate in their ways, are more likely to be surrounded by long-lasting, durable relationships. For them relationships are about genuine respect and affection, not about what they can get out of them, to be discarded as soon as they are spent or no longer useful or pleasurable. They are prepared to commit themselves for the long-term and are rewarded for that with good, enduring relationships that contribute to their own happiness and fulfilment.
And perhaps more important still, while they may be more vulnerable to those who seek to exploit and take advantage of them, they are much better able to cope with this. Those who take the easiest and most lucrative path, like the coward who avoids all dangers, returning from war to tell his tales, or the businessman who carefully calculates his way out of a difficult situation, cheating others as he goes, ending up with his vast fortune intact, fail to develop the qualities that enable them to survive bad luck.
Someone who courageously overcomes the severest challenge emerges happier and better equipped to face fresh trials in the future, than the coward, who does everything he can to avoid them. The virtuous character has indeed inculcated the dispositions which will lead to fulfilment while at the same time leaving him vulnerable to exploitation, but only by developing the means of overcoming this.