Aristotle's Ethics: Summary

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Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, Trans. J. A. K. Thomson (London: Penguin, 2004).

Book 1

Aristotle’s method is to begin with a generalization which he holds to be true, although at this stage he is only presenting it as a proposition. Then, once we have accepted it, he will go on to develop a more detailed and exact account. The proposition he presents is, “The good is that at which all things aim”; a proposition that is fundamental to his philosophy. But to understand its full implications we must be clear what’s meant by “aim” or in ethics the more technical term “end”.

Every rational activity aims at something it regards as “good,” therefore, “good” is all those things that our activities aim at. But as moral agents, if there is not to be an infinite regress, there must be an ultimate end which we seek for its own sake that justifies us seeking all the other things. Ethics is a branch of politics in that both aim at that which is good for man. And even if the good of the community is equivalent to what is good for the individual, the good of the community is clearly a greater and more perfect good. What is good for the nation or community is higher than the individual.     

The end of political science is happiness. We all choose different ends and some of these are ends to other things. But because of this these cannot be ends in the full sense of the word, whereas “good,” the supreme good, is surely such an end. In other words, it is the end beyond which there are no further ends: it is completely satisfying; pursued for its own sake. So, what is it that is the good for man? Happiness! More than anything else it is chosen for its own sake, never for the sake of something else. Happiness is everything it needs to be and has everything it needs to have.  

When we consider the function of man we find happiness is the virtuous activity of the soul (the psyche – for the Greeks this was the part of us with which we think and feel. More particularly it is that rational part of man not shared by other animals or plants). Man’s function lies in possessing and exercising the power of reason: exercising the soul’s faculties in accordance with a rational principle. The function of a good person is to perform these activities well and rightly. Like everything else in the world, man has a function and when that function is performed to its proper excellence he is happy. This excellence is virtue: the good for man is an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue. Virtuous activities constitute happiness for man.

But happiness is more than momentary pleasure. It is the end of life. There is a distinction between things that are praised and things beyond praise, that are above it. The end of life must be something that is beyond praise and such is happiness. It is the first principle for the sake of which we do what we do. But if happiness is the activity of soul in conformity with perfect virtue or goodness, we must know what we mean by “virtue.”

Analysis

Aristotle’s ethics has been described as “teleological” or goal-directed because he believes that any discussion of ethics must at an early point concern itself with what is the ultimate end of man. This he believes is happiness or eudaimonia, meaning well-being or flourishing. To achieve this he believes man must fulfil the function proper to him. Everything has a purpose. A knife has the purpose of cutting things, so to perform its function well it must have a sharp cutting edge. Man, too, has a function: unlike any other being he is capable of rational thought. So happiness consists in the rational exercise of the soul’s faculties in conformity with excellence or virtue. 

It’s important to be clear what he means by happiness or eudaimonia. It is not itself a virtue, but virtuous activity. Similarly, it’s not a mood or a passing state, but something that is achieved as a result of a lifetime of virtuous activity. Still, this doesn’t mean that all virtuous men will be happy. Fortune may have deprived a good man of friends, money and power. A man’s happiness depends upon him possessing these things as well. Without them the individual will lack opportunities for virtuous activity and to that extent will not have the happiness he could have had.

This underscores one other aspect of Aristotle’s approach. For him studying ethics involves practical reason: it must result in lives lived virtuously. If a person doesn’t live virtuously then he will not be disposed to accept the logic of these arguments and put them into practice. So to understand ethics it is necessary first to live virtuously.

One final point, he rejects Plato’s idea of the “universal good,” which exists beyond space and time. This is Plato’s “Theory of Forms,” which he developed out of the belief that since human beings can contemplate both the abstract concept of the object and the object itself, they must both exist separately: there must be an ultimate realm of ideas, a universal realm of forms. In contrast, Aristotle believes that goodness, far from being an ultimate form beyond human activity, is in fact the end of all human activity. It has a practical impact on our lives through our practical reason. 

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