Notes on Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics Books I, II, and X

Book One

"The good" is that at which all things aim--all activities, choices, actions, investigations (seekings), arts or crafts or skills or trades, etc. That is, we do what we do for a reason (even if that reason is "having fun" or "survival"--these are still reasons, and we wouldn't do things "for fun" or "for survival" if we did not think that fun and survival were in some way "good" things). Or, put another way, we speak of "actions," "choices," etc.; and we distinguish these from their goals or ends or products. But every action or choice is said to have an aim or goal or end or completion.

If we did not think that doing something would bring us some good, or get us into a better position, or prevent pain or sadness or death, we would not do the thing.

So if we do what we do for a reason, what is that reason? What do we hope to attain? Put another way, we do things for fun, we do things for survival, we do things to make others feel good (or not), we do things to help others (or not), we do things to get money or power or fame or learning--but why? We seem to think that these are "good" things to do, in some sense of "good". But what does that mean? What do we do the things "for the sake of"? (We do some things "for the sake of" other things, e.g. we seek money in order to buy things we need or like; we like the things we buy either in themselves or for another reason, e.g. because we think that they will give us status in the eyes of others; we seek status in the eyes of others because...? There must be a reason, otherwise, why bother?) It is this ultimate reason that Aristotle is studying in the Ethics.

He wants to see what this ultimate reason, this "final good" would involve, and how we can go about trying to attain it.

Aristotle suggests that "happiness," eudaimonia, is the "highest good." He understands "happiness" as "living well and doing well."

Happiness is that for the sake of which all other things are done, and it is "final" (ultimate and complete) and "self-sufficient": it is pursued for its own sake (final); it is something which, taken by itself, makes life desirable and not deficient in anything (self-sufficient).

But, what does that mean? What does it involve? What kind of thing is it? If we are talking about human happiness (and we don't have access to any other kind, after all), perhaps we need to look at the "function" (ergon) of a human, i.e. at the specific activities and capacities that make a human human (1097b).

There are several possible reasons for approaching the question of human happiness from this angle. It may at first seem odd, in that a "function" might seem to us to be something automatic, or something that has little or no relationship to enjoyment (for example, unflavored soybeans might serve the purpose of nourishing us, and do it well, but we might not enjoy eating them). Or it might sound as if Aristotle is saying that humans have a "use", that we are merely tools.

But these modern connotations are not what Aristotle has in mind. The "functions" or "workings" he has in mind are our activities as humans, the things we use to get what we want and need, and the activities we do in order to live as humans. That is, imagine that you had to describe humans to a creature from another planet. How would you indicate which things on earth were humans? It's not looks alone that make one human; dummies and robots look like humans; and the space alien might even think that chimpanzees and gorillas look confusingly like humans. Now, if the space alien could understand language, we could tell it about the activities that we think are characteristic of humans, and those that are unique to humans. These would be what Aristotle means by the "function" of humans (maybe other animals have them, but we don't know.)

Thus one reason for looking at humans' "function" in the discussion of happiness would be that if we left out anything that made us human, anything that we need to use or enjoy using in our lives, we wouldn't be talking about happiness: we would be leaving out something and talking about a life that lacks something important.

Another reason is that it is precisely through our specifically human functioning that choice is possible as we know it, and that the question of happiness can even arise!

That is, we share certain functions (nutrition, respiration, growth) with all life forms; we share some functions with other animals (movement, appetites, sensation) - 1098a. But there are also life activities that seem to Aristotle to be unique to humans, activities that make humans human, or at least reflect what makes humans human. These activities are those of the "rational element" in us, activities related to reasoning and choice. Thus Aristotle suggests that "the proper [i.e. special] function of a human, then, consists in an activity of the soul in conformity with a rational principle [i.e. a source of reasoning] or, at least, not without it" (1098a).

He notes too that when we speak of the function of something, we mean the way it works when it functions correctly or best, or when it works excellently. For example, if the function of a car is to convey people from place to place safely, and if your car stalls out all the time or can't convey people because the doors keep falling off, you might say that your car does not perform its function. The function of a car is what a car does when it does what it is supposed to do - not what your car might happen to do. Or we might say that your function at your job is given by your job description; if you perform up to standard then you are performing your function. Your function at your job is not what you do if you neglect your work. The implication for what Aristotle is saying is that when we speak of the proper function of a human as an activity of soul in conformity with a source of reasoning, we mean not merely using reasoning any way we feel like at the moment, but using and acting on reasoning well - whatever that involves.

Thus he notes: "If we take the proper function of a human to be a certain kind of life, and if this kind of life is an activity of soul and consists in actions performed in conjunction with the rational element,..., and if a function is well performed when it is performed in accordance with the excellence appropriate to it; we reach the conclusion that the good of a human is an activity of soul in conformity with excellence or virtue [of the rational element and of our ability to act on our decisions] (1098a)."

Thus "happiness" will be activity of soul in accordance with this sort of virtue or excellence. That is, to "live well and do well" involves deciding and acting in conformity with our source of reasoning. (Keep in mind that reasoning is a process, not a source of all our values or wants or needs.) What Aristotle seems to have in mind when he says that happiness is an activity of soul in conformity with the excellence of the rational principle is that it is through reasoning, conscious choice, understanding and evaluating the consequences of our actions, and learning how to put our choices into action effectively that we will be able to do as much as we can to achieve our goals. It is also by living in that way that we will develop all the capacities and abilities that we consider worthwhile in themselves. If our reasoning is poorly developed or poorly used, we will be like cars that stall or that won't go where they are steered: we won't be able to tell how to achieve the results we desire, we may make disastrous choices that were avoidable, things will almost never turn out as we think they will, and so on.

Book Two

Aristotle now discusses what virtue or excellence must be. In Book One, Ch. 13, he had said that people distinguish 2 kinds of virtue or excellence: "intellectual" virtues such as theoretical wisdom (wisdom involving knowledge of theories, among other things, as described in the Metaphysics), understanding, and practical wisdom (discussed below); and "moral" or "ethical" virtues or excellences, such as courage, generosity, self-control/moderation, and justice. The "moral" virtues are the subject of the Nicomachean Ethics, and as Aristotle notes, the name 'ethics' in Greek reflects the fact that virtues seem to be developed by means of habit (ethos in Greek). That is, virtues are not inborn, to Aristotle, though the capacity to develop virtues is inborn in all of us. And of course, it is not all habits that impart virtues; there are also habits that work against virtues. For example, if we develop the habit of paying no attention to money or to other people's needs, we are unlikely to become generous (at least, not consistently generous); if we develop the habit of never trying anything new or unknown, we will not learn certain kinds of courage.

Aristotle suggests that we become virtuous by performing virtuous acts, or by acting virtuous. But he is aware of how odd that sounds. He clarifies the contention by saying that he does not mean that merely happening to perform any action that happens to be just makes you just, that merely happening to do something courageous (or something courageous people do) means that you are courageous, etc. First of all, some awareness and skill are involved. We don't say that a person is literate if he or she can copy letters that someone else wrote, while not knowing how to read him- or herself. Similarly, we don't say that a person is just if he or she did something just without knowing that it was just, or without knowing why it was just - or if he or she only did it because someone else told him/her what to do, or forced him/her to do it.

Moreover, says Aristotle, "an act is not performed justly or with self-control [simply] if the act is of a certain kind, but only if in addition the agent [(person who does the act)] has certain characteristics as he/she performs it" (1105a). That is, being morally virtuous or excellent requires more than simply doing the right thing. You also have to do it in a certain way, for certain reasons, in order to have true excellence:

- you must know what you are doing (you're not being generous if you don't know the value of what you give, for example)

- you must choose to act the way you do (as opposed to being forced to do something, or doing something by accident)

- you must choose to act this way or to do this thing for its own sake (you're not being courageous if you are acting only to impress people, and would not do the same thing if no one was watching. You must choose your action because you think that it is good in itself.)

- your act must "spring from a firm and unchangeable character or habit" (you have not acted with moral excellence if you acted on a whim, or if you simply did what your friends were doing without considering whether this was an appropriate thing to do - and why. You must try to be consistent, and if that turns out badly, you must try to understand why.) (1105a-b)

Aristotle now tries to determine what virtue or excellence involves. He concludes that "virtue or excellence is a characteristic involving choice; it consists in observing the mean [(middle point)] relative to us, a mean which is defined by a rational principle, such as a person of practical wisdom would use to determine it." (1107a)

For example, Aristotle will say in Chapter 7, we consider what we call "courage" to be a virtue (a good quality to have), and it is a mean or middle point between cowardice and recklessness. We consider what we call "moderation" or "self-control" to be a virtue, and it is a mean between insensitivity (lack of feeling or desire; or refusal of all feeling or desire) and indulgence. In other words, a person is thought to be cowardly if he/she runs away or surrenders at the slightest sign of threat or danger, or if he/she exhibits a lot of fear at situations that are not really very dangerous (or, not considered dangerous by his/her society's standards) - and acts on that fear. A person is considered to be reckless if he/she does dangerous things unnecessarily, or shows no fear at things that are considered (in his/her society) to be very dangerous, etc. The person who is considered courageous is one who exhibits a level of fear that is considered (in his/her society) to be appropriate in each situation, who faces necessary dangers without letting fear get the better of him/her (this is not the same as not feeling fear at all), and who does not do dangerous things that are not necessary.

This raises two issues that must be discussed. First, in most societies there are different behavioral norms or expectations for different segments of the population. For example, it is considered normal and acceptable for small children to be afraid of things such as darkness, nightmares, unfamiliar people or animals, and so on; and the children are not considered cowardly if they ask for help in dealing with these things (or if they cry or run). Adults would be considered cowardly if they behaved as such children do. Aristotle is well aware of this, and takes it into account, for he refers to a "mean relative to us," i.e. a mean relative to each person or to each social segment or role.

Second, Aristotle is aware that different societies have different expectations or norms for what might be considered the appropriate behaviors and reactions for each segment that the society perceives itself to have.

Practical wisdom is discussed in Book Six, Chapter 5. There Aristotle says that practical wisdom is a "truthful characteristic of acting rationally (literally, 'along with reason') in matters good and bad for humans." That is, it involves being aware of and preserving (not denying or ignoring) what is true, and choosing and acting on this in a reasoning way. The person with practical wisdom (if such a person exists) will be one who can see what is good for him- or herself and for humans in general. Practical wisdom, then, includes both an aspect of understanding and an aspect of action. One who claims to know what to do in a given situation but then does not act on this will not have practical wisdom.

Aristotle's point concerning virtue or excellence would be that virtue or excellence involves choosing and doing something appropriate (neither excessive or deficient) in each situation where choice is involved. But he emphasizes that some people will not be good judges of this, at least at first. They may not recognize when choice is really possible, or may not realize what choices they have. They may be mistaken about what is really appropriate in each situation. Only the person who has practical wisdom will know what is right, and will be able to explain why that is what is right.

This does not mean that we must wait around for someone who convinces us that he/she has practical wisdom to tell us what to do - for if we lack practical wisdom, we might not be able to tell who really has it. At the same time, Aristotle is cautioning us against assuming that we already know what is right. Instead, he seems to be suggesting that the search for and development of practical wisdom is an ongoing process, and that it is important for each one of us to start the process now. That is, we must start by doing what we think is the "mean" in each situation that involves a choice. We may start by trying to live up to our society's standards, in so far as we recognize them. But that is not enough, because we must come to understand whether these things are really the best to do, whether they really have the best effects, why they should be chosen, what makes a particular result the one most worth seeking, and so on. We must observe and investigate both the actions we perform and the standards we used in choosing them; and we must evaluate the actions, their results, and our standards. (This may mean searching for a clear standard, as Socrates did...) Only if we can show that we understand why an action or its reason is best, will we really be able to be virtuous or excellent. In the meantime, the best thing will be to start the investigation of this (recall Socrates at Apology 38a) - that is, the best thing will be to search for virtue and practical wisdom. This will require both action and contemplation or reasoned investigation.

This brings us to the subject of Book Ten.

Book Ten

Recall that Aristotle had developed his description of virtue or excellence with the guiding idea that happiness was activity of soul in conformity with virtue or excellence. That is, virtues or excellences were supposed to be characteristics concerned with choice and action; they were supposed to be what we would need to cultivate in order to "live well and do well." Virtues were then understood in the context of our search for the best life. Virtues are not, for Aristotle, something imposed on human life and behavior by something extraneous to or at odds with human goals; rather, virtues are supposed to be the ways we need to choose and act and reflect in order to achieve what means the most to us (and to develop the kind of world that would need to be in place in order to achieve that).

Thus the question arises: what kind(s) of life are we seeking? What kind(s) of life would be best? What would a life of "happiness" (or as close as we could get), a life that was desirable and worth living, a life of "living well and doing well" include?

Aristotle holds that such a life will include friends and family, love and affection, various kinds of pleasure and amusement, and something more: "contemplation" or theoretical knowledge. The last one may seem strange, but there are several reasons for it.

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