Aristotle's Ethics: Theme Analysis

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What is Happiness?

First it is more than mere pleasure. Aristotle warns that to pursue pleasure without regard to virtue or reason would be to lead a life of no greater value or significance than that of an animal. Aristotle uses the term eudaimonia: well-being or flourishing. The easiest way of describing it is to say that it is that sense of deep fulfilment when we use our abilities well. It manifests itself in a sense of harmony and integration of those things that makes us what we are. We experience this in part with many of our abilities, but we experience it in its most complete form when we use well our highest, most superior ability, our rationality, our ability to reason.

Aristotle explains that what is good for a thing, what leads to its flourishing, depends upon what type of thing it is. This means finding out its function. If it performs this well, this will lead to happiness. Humans are rational beings, so our function is to think rationally about how we conduct ourselves. A harp player can perform the “harp-playing function,” but a good harp player can perform it well. So the function of a good person is to use his faculties well in accordance with reason and we do this when we perform in accordance with the excellence proper to it, 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.

Virtue and free will

But still, are we all capable of this or are some by nature more virtuous than others as some are more intelligent than others? Virtue is the mean, while vices are the extremes of excess and deficiency in our actions. These extremes impair our moral qualities in the same way that physical fitness is destroyed by too much and too little exercise or health is ruined by eating and drinking too much or too little. But we are not born with these: we develop them as we develop any habit, whether good or bad. As we develop the habit of acting according to the mean, the experience of acting virtuously becomes pleasant. This is the one way we know that we possess the virtue – we experience pleasure in it.

So, our capacity for virtue and virtuous activity is not an ability, which some have and others don’t; it’s a disposition. Aristotle explains that our behavior is influenced in three ways by feelings, capacities and dispositions. Virtue cannot be feelings (states attended by pleasure or pain). We’re not praised or blamed for the feelings we have, because we can’t help them, whereas virtues are an expression of our wills – we choose them. But neither are they capacities. What capacities we have, we have by nature, but it’s not nature that makes us good or bad.

So virtues must be dispositions. The doer must be in a certain frame of mind to act virtuously, for which there are three conditions. First, we must know what we’re doing. Second, we must “will” it and will it for its own sake. And, third, we must do it from a firm, clear disposition. Given these, we become virtuous by performing virtuous acts.

But if this is true, how do we distinguish it from other dispositions? Aristotle explains that it is that disposition that enables a thing to perform its function well. So the virtue of a man is the habit, the disposition, which enables him to become good and to perform his function well. And we do this when we avoid the extremes and choose the mean in our feelings and actions.

Justice and virtue

If, as Aristotle maintains, justice is the most complete expression of all virtue, what’s the difference between justice and virtue? Justice is the foundation of social life. Something is just if it promotes or conserves the happiness of the community, so all lawful things are in some sense just, because laws aim at promoting the common interests of all citizens. In this sense justice is complete virtue, because its end is virtue in its complete sense in that the individual exercises it in relation to another person and not just himself.

Whereas a just person is law abiding and fair, an unjust person is someone who breaks the law and takes unfair advantage of others by taking more than his share of goods. The worst person is one whose bad behavior is directed towards both himself and his friends, while the best is not someone who directs his virtue towards himself alone, but towards all other people. Justice in this sense is the whole of virtue, not just a part, and injustice, likewise, is the whole of vice, not just a part. The only difference between justice and virtue is that justice is qualified by being defined in relation to somebody else, whereas virtue is unqualified: it is simply a certain kind of moral state.

Friendship and justice

But then, having argued that justice is the most complete expression of all virtue, in book 8 Aristotle goes on to maintain that friendship goes beyond justice. Where there is friendship there is no need of justice, yet when there is justice there is still a need for friendship. Lawmakers attach more importance to friendship than justice. The two main reasons for this are that friendship binds societies together in a way that nothing else can and it promotes our moral dispositions towards others.

The reason why lawmakers attach more importance to it than justice is largely explained by the fact that between friends there is no need of justice. In a genuine friendship each friend loves the other for their own sake. A good friendship seems to consist more in giving than in receiving affection. So, while justice insists on reciprocity, genuine friends are happy to go beyond that and give what they can, regardless of what they receive in return. So a society composed of people who are just will still need friendship, but those who have friendship will not need justice. For this reason friendship is considered to be justice in the fullest sense by binding society together on bonds that will always be fair, law abiding and just.

But equally important friendship is much more effective than justice in promoting virtuous moral dispositions towards others. From what we’ve just said it’s clear that what each gives to the relationship they give without thought of reciprocation, simply for the benefit of the other. For this reason friendship could be regarded as a type of virtue, in that as virtuous behavior makes us more virtuous, so friendship improves us in the same way.

In genuine friendship each party views the other as their second self, so that what they wish for themselves they wish for the other person and what they admire in the other person they would most like to emulate. When people wish what is good for those they love for their own sake, it is not from a mere feeling, but in ac