Aristotle’s Ethics Examined

A defense of Aristotle’s theory of happiness as presented in my previous post:

Given Aristotle’s definition and necessary and sufficient conditions it seems that the activity of study is the only activity that fits Aristotle’s criteria. For this reason the examination of Aristotle’s theory must begin and end in an examination of his conditions for happiness. In chapter five of Book I Aristotle examines “three lives.” It is in this examination that he tries to defend a portion of his claims about the nature of happiness. In this chapter he considers, most specifically, the lives of “gratification” and of “political activity”.

In the examination of the first life Aristotle considers whether or not simple pleasure is sufficient for happiness. Aristotle dismisses this rather quickly, positing that this is a slavish life like those of animals grazing in a field.

Now it might appear to some that what Aristotle calls “slavish” could easily be understood rather as a kind of desiring, perhaps the same kind of desiring that people exhibit towards happiness. This could lead someone to disagree with Aristotle, believing that happiness really is pleasure. However, this is clearly not the case. Aristotle refutes such a belief in Book X, showing that pleasure is better when accompanied with virtue. This could not be the case if pleasure was the ultimate end in and of itself, entirely self sufficient. No one can deny that at some point in their lives they have experienced pleasure both with and without virtue. Clearly reality is in fact how Aristotle claims, pleasure in accordance with virtue is better than pleasure alone, proving that pleasure is merely a good among other goods not the ultimate good in itself. The second manner of life Aristotle considers is that of political activity. He judges the life of political activity to be aimed at honor, and seeks to refute the thought that honor is happiness. This he does with some ease, claiming that this “seems to depend more on those who honor than on the one’s honored, whereas we intuitively believe that the good is something of our own and hard to take from us.”

This also seems to be a true statement of happiness, primarily because happiness is a kind of internal thing, not dependent on others. Considering these two arguments for Aristotle’s theory, there is still one more that is perhaps the strongest yet.

Happiness appears to be something all creatures seek. It would be quite difficult to prove a dog seeks happiness, but considering how dogs can be conditioned and trained it seems that animals too seek at the very least pleasure. However the topic in consideration is human happiness, or human flourishing. Therefore since it is happiness or flourishing specific to humans, it follows that the activity of happiness will be an activity specific to humanity. Aristotle states, “Activities that differ in species are also completed by things that differ in species.”

No one would argue that the activity of happiness in a person is different than the activity of happiness in an animal. Because this is the case, these activities will be completed by things that differ in the species themselves. So what activity is specific to the human species? The activity specific to the human species certainly seems to be the activity of contemplation. This is not to say that animals are incapable of thinking, but rather that animals are incapable of thinking and reasoning in the same fashion that human beings think and reason. It seems unlikely that anyone would challenge this claim. However from this it follows that the Final Cause, the ultimate end, the self sufficient good, the activity of happiness of humanity, is nothing other than that activity specific to humanity which is contemplation, reason, and study.


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