Archive for Ethics

Aristotle’s Ethics Examined

Posted in Philosophy with tags , , on November 20, 2012 by taylorvincentroche

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.

Aristotle’s Ethics

Posted in Philosophy with tags , , on November 18, 2012 by taylorvincentroche

The question, what is the ultimate end of mankind? Is one that many have contemplated on a universal scale. Three hundred and fifty years before Christ this question was already being discussed, by a philosopher name Aristotle. In some of his writings on ethics, which later came to be titled Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle searched for ultimate end of humanity. His search led him to conclude that “happiness” or “eudaimonia”, in ancient Greek, was the end which all human endeavors strived for. Of course simply stating the ultimate end of mankind was happiness would be a gross oversimplification of Aristotle’s work. This essay seeks to examine what Aristotle meant by “happiness” and defend his position as the correct one.

The ancient Greek word “eudaimonia” should really be understood as “flourishing” rather than “happiness”.

From the first page of Nicomachean Ethics this concept of human flourishing captivates Aristotle, and indeed he spends the rest of his book articulating what it is and how exactly it functions in the human experience. From the very onset Aristotle proposes that there is an end beyond all others, that is to say an ultimate end. Aristotle explains that every action has an end, and because each action has an end, there are as many ends as there are actions.

It seems generally accepted to Aristotle that the end of each action could be, at least loosely, labeled a “good”.

But Aristotle submits that there is a good beyond each of these individual goods, a chief end or  greatest good that all mankind seeks. Aristotle thinks the answer is widely agreed upon, namely that the chief good is “eudaimonia” or human flourishing.

However although many people might agree that the chief end is happiness or flourishing, there is much debate about what constitutes human happiness or human flourishing. Aristotle seeks to provide a definition of happiness in Book X of his work Nicomachean Ethics.

The discussion in Book X begins with the observation that pleasure must have something to do with happiness. Aristotle reaches this conclusion by pointing out that “when we educate children, we steer them by pleasure and pain.”

Eudoxus (a mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher c.390-c.340CE) is cited as claiming that pleasure is the ultimate good, primarily because all creatures seek pleasure. Both rational and irrational creatures seek pleasure in all that they do, making it the most “choice worthy”.

Aristotle objects to this, claiming that pleasure is certain a good, but is not the ultimate good. This is because if pleasure is added to another good, it is even more choice worthy than pleasure alone.

From is it is the Aristotle draws the conclusion that pleasure is but a good among other goods, not the ultimate good. Not only this but it appears that pleasures are different depending on the kind of thing something is, namely pleasures vary between species.

The ultimate good, or aim for the human species in happiness. This happiness is “not a state. For if it were, someone might have it and yet be asleep for his whole life.” Happiness is an activity, not the kind of activity that leads to some other end, but an activity for its own sake.

So what kind of activity, or what activity, is happiness? Aristotle thinks that the happy life is one that lives in agreement wisdom.

“If happiness is activity in accord with virtue, it is reasonable for it to accord with the supreme virtue, which will be the virtue of the best thing. The best is understanding, or whatever else seems to be the natural ruler and leader, and to understand what is fine and divine…Hence complete happiness will be its activity in accord with its proper virtue; and we have said that this activity is the activity of study…For this activity is supreme, since understanding is the supreme element in us, and the objects of understanding are the supreme objects of knowledge.”

It is the action of study therefore that Aristotle claims is happiness. He offers in support of this claim the following assertions. That study is a more continuous activity than any other action, and the pleasure that comes from study is the most “pleasant of activities in accord with virtue.”

The activity of study is also more self sufficient of any other activity, study is desired for its own sake, and most often discovered in leisure all of which is consistent with the human experience of happiness.

Happiness than for Aristotle is the activity in accordance with the highest virtue, that being wisdom, and as such the activity is that of study and contemplation. So the question now arises, is Aristotle right? Is the activity of study and contemplation true happiness and the ultimate end for humanity?