Pluralism without either Relativism or Absolutism in the Nicomachean Ethics: Some Considerations

(This is an unorthodox reading of the Nicomachean Ethics, but one that is supported by the text. It is very much a work-in-progress.)
Aristotle begins the NE by considering human good: that at which all of our actions, arts, investigations, and choices ultimately aim (cf. Metaphysics A2, where the good is that for the sake of which each thing is to be done). The ultimate human good, he says, is eudaimonia ("happiness" in most translations), which he glosses as "living well and doing well" (I.4). He analyzes this further (I.7) to find that happiness must be "final" (i.e. such that there is no goal that goes beyond it) and "self-sufficient" ("taken by itself it makes life desirable and deficient in nothing"; it is worth living for).
On the basis of some additional hypotheses about human capacities, Aristotle concludes that "the good of man [viz., happiness] is an activity of soul in accordance with arete [excellence or virtue]" (I.7). Thus happiness depends on virtue.

If this did not sound odd enough to modern ears, Aristotle has also said that the study of human good is the province of politike, the skill of maintaining and running a community (I.2)

Already questions arise: why should the search for human happiness be tied to a community? What counts as "living well and doing well," and why? What is virtuous or excellent, and how can we tell?

    A. To modern thinkers, the idea that the individual's happiness depends on the way the community is run may suggest that Aristotle means to subordinate the individual's happiness to the preservation of the community or its leaders (authoritarianism), and/or that Aristotle would suppress the values of diverse cultural elements within a community to the preservation of the community as a whole (anti-pluralism).

I argue that the first inference (authoritarianism or the subjugation of individual interests to the preservation of the community at any cost) is false in that it only looks at one side without seeing the balance that Aristotle envisions. As regards the second (anti-pluralism), I argue that although Aristotle probably did not have experience of cultural diversity within a single citizenry, he was aware of differences between cultures, and of differences of interest and of interpretation of standards within a single culture. I suggest that his frustrating vagueness about arete (virtue) leaves room for cultural and other variation - within certain parameters. The "other" variations might include e.g. different interpretations and priorities based on class or other interests, which certainly existed in Athens in the 4th century BCE.

How then is Aristotle able to support pluralism without espousing either relativism or absolutism, and how is he able to support community without loss of the individual's ability to pursue happiness? Here is an account.


    1. Humans aim for "living well and doing well," a condition that would be both desirable for itself and worth living in.

        a.What most people want in their lives requires some sort of cooperation. Aside from desire for human company, many of our desires can only be fulfilled or even pursued if there is division of labor, trade, some sort of rule-governed social and economic relations, protection, and so on. These things mean that some sort of community, loosely speaking, must be in place. This is true both with respect to basic survival needs and with respect to gaining the time and resources to pursue further goals that make survival worthwhile.

    At the same time, of course, a community that prevented some of its members from pursuing their goals, without any sort of recompense or other opportunity, would not be worth living in for those so hindered. Although Aristotle does not say this outright, it is reasonable to conclude that for a community to maintain itself without collapse, internal revolt, or vulnerability to outside pressure, it must provide opportunities for its members to live better than they could elsewhere, and well enough that they will not be driven to revolt or defection. Athens should have known this well, because in the 7th and 6th centuries BCE, a combination of crop failures, clashes between aristocrats, attempted coups, concentration of wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer people, and the practice of debt-slavery almost caused the city's demise. The polisalmost collapsed economically and socially, and the peasant-slaves were quite receptive to the offers of would-be tyrants who offered them their freedom in exchange for helping to defeat the current rulers of Athens. It was the successive reforms of legislators Draco, Solon, and Cleisthenes, that saved the city. These reforms, taken together,  granted more legal protection to both peasants and land-owners, put an end to debt-slavery, and arranged a balance among the claims of the aristocrats.
    Thus we have a first reason why a community that is ruled in the interest of only one part of it would not be what Aristotle has in mind.


        b.Our aim of happiness also requires that we be able to use all our capacities and potentials to their best advantage, especially those most human of capacities, the capacities involved in making and acting on good choices. This excellence in making choices would be "moral excellence" or "moral arete."(I.7)

        Aristotle notes that we say that each part of us (eyes, ears, hands, etc.) has an ergon, a working or function proper to it; we also say that each job and social role has a working or function proper to it. This seems to suggest, A. says, that we conceive of an ergon of the whole human. That is, we cannot state what the ergon of an ear is unless we have some idea of what a human can best use the ear to do. If we hold that there is nothing to hear, ears might just be ornaments on the sides of our heads. If we hold that there are things important to hear, we will say that the ergon of the ear is to hear those things. We may also, even at the same time, say that the ergon of the ear is to hold jewelry, which we use in the pursuit of beauty, religious ritual, etc.
        Similarly, we say that the ergon of carpentry is to produce buildings of the kinds we value, as shelter, as workspace, as place of worship, etc.  The ergon of musicianship is the playing of music of the kinds we value; and we may value that music for its beauty, its religious significance, its mood-altering effects, etc.
        In other words, the erga we conceive for each part of us and each task we have depend on what it is we find necessary or desirable. It may be that our perceived desires and needs conflict with one another, or are not really as beneficial as we think, or are unviable in our current environment. Therefore we need to reflect on the capabilities, goals, and directions we have as whole humans in so far as we are humans, in order to find out what our proper excellences might be. For only if we can exercise these excellences will we have a shot at living well and doing well, A. thinks. And these excellences all involve our ability to choose.

    This condition also suggests that a community in which some people are not able to use their capacities is one in which those people do not have a chance to seek happiness. This in turn implies that such a community is not worth living in for those people, and thus that they would be reasonable if they sought opportunities elsewhere when possible. Aristotle himself notes in Book X, Ch. 6 that a slave cannot be happy, no matter how comfortable a life the slave has. The slave, Aristotle say, does not have the opportunity to exercise what is most human in him/herself.

    2. Therefore we need to consider how to make choices well, and how to act on them well. We need to consider this both order to be able to identify and seek our own goals; and order to live with others in a way that makes such seeking possible.

What then is this virtue/excellence, this making and acting on good choices?

Aristotle characterizes arete as follows (II.6): "virtue/excellence is a characteristic involving choice; it consists in observing the mean relative to us, a mean which is determined by a rational principle [by reasoning], such as a person of phronesis would use to determine it."

    In Book VI, Ch. 5, Aristotle characterizes phronesis(usually translated as "practical wisdom") this way: "a truthful rational characteristic of acting in matters involving what is good for man." This seems to mean not only honesty, but understanding what is true.

    3. Aristotle goes on to describe how several characteristics normally called "virtues" fit this model of observing a mean between extremes: courage is a mean between cowardice an recklessness, generosity a mean between stinginess and extravagance, etc. But he never gives a criterion for determining what should count as e.g. courage, cowardice, or recklessness in a given situation.

    Partly this is because there will be different standards for different individuals depending on age, strength, resources, etc. But there is another variable: different societies may have different ideas about what is worthy of fear, about how much of one's resources others may claim, etc. Aristotle says nothing about this, and does not indicate that he subscribes to any one society's value system in this. Then too, some of what a society deems worthy of fear, respect, pity, etc. may depend on its beliefs about what exists (we feel that an epileptic is a person who is disadvantaged and needs our aid; other societies feel that epileptic fits are visitations from gods and that the epileptic is privileged to have them and needs no assistance). Aristotle says nothing about this either.

Therefore it appears that there could be several different way of adhering to arete and arranging a society to enable the pursuit of happiness. Are there any limitations, or is Aristotle advocating ethical relativism? Is he saying that any value system is as good as any other, or that any idea about happiness is as good as any other?

    4. I argue that he is not a relativist; yet that he is not an absolutist either. Rather, there are certain checks or parameters on any value system and any conception of arete.

        a.Consistency.If phronesis is to be the guide for determining what is right to do, and phronesis involves truth, then no value system or custom (and no aggregate of value systems and customs) that involves contradictions can underlie arete and enable us to pursue happiness.

        b.Social viability. Nothing that will destroy law or community or trust can be virtuous. Again, without a community no one (A. thinks) could have the opportunity to seek what is worth gaining.

        c. "Contemplation" must be possible. In Book X, Aristotle finds that the most "self-sufficient" of goods, and the one that most deeply engages what is most human in us, is theoria, "contemplation," roughly the active consideration of knowledge.

    Aristotle does not mention works of art as objects of "contemplation"; he is thinking more of learning gained through philosophy and science. However, it is also true that visual and performing arts in his time appeared only in the context of religious and social functions; that was the only way to fund them. It is possible that the arts of today, whose directions come more from their creators, might be another source of objects for contemplation; I don't know.

        d.A virtuous action is done for the sake of what is kalos (beautiful; noble); an action done for the sake of something else may be helpful, but it isn't virtuous (III.9, III.11, etc.); to perform noble/beautiful and good deeds is something desirable for its own sake (X.6). Therefore what is beautiful in itself and what is good in itself are integral to happiness. A society that does not allow these to be pursued when resources are available would not be one that promotes (or allows) virtue. Note too that virtue is not virtue without the beautiful as its goal.

        e.All of the virtues mentioned involve doing the "right amount" of the "right thing" at the "right time." That means that justice - balancing claims, actions, desires, needs; giving each person his/her "due", making restitution or reward, etc. - is central and no society can have arete without it.

        f.The search for knowledge must be possible. Aristotle does not mention this, but he's clear elsewhere that we don't have any significant amount of knowledge for contemplation; we don't always understand what the right restitution or the right reaction is; we don't know much about what is at all; our ideas may contradict themselves or lack warrant. Yet moral decisions are weakened by these lacks. We may believe that we know what would make life desirable, and be wrong; we may be wrong about how to seek it or how to get it; we may be wrong about what people need or about what a person is. Not only is it important then for individuals to question their own assumptions about particular situations, but it becomes the responsibility of the society that wants happiness to foster opportunities for scientific, philosophical, and other research aimed at both useful understanding and beautiful understanding.

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Pluralism without Relativism in the Nicomachean Ethics by Rose Cherubin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.