Book I: The Human Good, Human Happiness, and Human Function The Human Good and Happiness



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BOOK I: The Human Good, Human Happiness, and Human Function

The Human Good and Happiness

In the opening chapters of Bk. I of his Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle considers two alternatives. If everything chosen is desired as a means to some further end, and to this chain of means there is no final end desirable for its own sake, all desire will ultimately be in vain. (We want to go out in order to exercise, we want to exercise to be healthy, we want to be healthy…) If, on the other hand, there is a final end for such a chain of ends as means, it will be the good. 

Without arguing decisively for either of the two alternatives, Aristotle poses a more narrow question: what is the good which serves as such a final end in human life-- that for the sake of which we want anything else we want, which we never desire for the sake of something else, and which, if we had it, would be so self-sufficient we would want nothing further? This is the human good. Nearly everyone agrees on the name for it-- happiness (eudaimonia)-- and means by that a condition of flourishing or living well. But there is the greatest controversy about what happiness consists in and, therefore, what the good life is which would realize happiness for a human being. 

Some say the human good is pleasure, as the final end of the life of enjoyment, others honor as the end of the public life, still others a life devoted to making money; there is, finally, a theoretical life which is thought by some to be the best human life. But the human good should be something distinctively human, so it cannot be pleasure; for pleasure, because it is something all animals share, cannot be unique to human beings. And the human good, roundly presumed to be a self-sufficient end, should not make us dependent on others; so it cannot be honor, because for that we depend upon the recognition of others. And the human good must be final, an end in itself, so it cannot be money, which is essentially a means to attaining other ends. As for the end of the theoretical life, and whether it could count as the human good, Aristotle defers this discussion, suggesting it must be left open for further consideration. 

The Function Argument

In searching for the human good, Aristotle suggests that it is worthwhile to ask whether human beings have a distinctive function; for in the case of anything which does have such a function, its virtue or excellence consists in its performing that function well and to do so is the good for that subject, the activity in which it flourishes. The hand or the eye has a function, and being a good hand or eye is a matter of performing its function well; but what flourishes in that condition seems to be the whole body of the organism to which this particular function makes a contribution. The carpenter or shoemaker has a function, and being a good carpenter or shoemaker is a matter of performing well the work of the carpenter or the shoemaker well; but what flourishes in that condition seems to be the whole community which benefits from this division of labor or arts. If the human being did have a function, being a good human being would be a matter of performing it well; but is there some whole, equivalent to the community of arts or the organic body, which would flourish in that condition, and if so, how would this help us understand the good for the human being?

In the first place, assuming that there is a human function, what would it be? Human life does involve certain biological processes, e.g. breathing or digesting; however, these are common to all living beings and, therefore, are not distinctively human. Humans have the capacity for sensation and feeling pleasure or pain; but this is common to all animals and so again are not the uniquely human function. 

What remains, according to Aristotle, is some kind of practice using language and reason (logos). If this were the distinctive human function, performing it well would be the virtue or excellence of a human being. But analogous to the models of the community of arts and the organic body, there should be some kind of cosmos of the living to which this distinctive human function makes a particular contribution, and which flourishes when the human being functions well. What we wanted to know, however, was the good for the human being. Is there, then, a part of the human being which performs the distinctive human function of exercising logos, so that the human being flourishes when it does so well?

On the assumption that there is a human function, which is some kind of exercise of our distinctive rationality, and that the excellent human being is one who performs this function well, which means in accordance with virtue, the good for a human being would be an actualization of the soul in accordance with virtue. It is not easy to answer all the questions raised by this argument, or to clarify and deepen our understanding of the terms it uses in such an abstract way; but it provides a starting point out of which the rest of the inquiry as a whole is supposed to unfold.


Book II: Moral Virtue and the Doctrine of the Mean  

Moral Virtue


Virtue or excellence is a psychic phenomenon. Is it an emotion, or the capacity to experience an emotion? An emotion is something we feel or undergo and we cannot hold ourselves responsible for that; but it is an essential feature of virtue that we praise it, of vice that we blame it. But we do not praise and blame that for which we cannot be held responsible. Therefore, neither virtue nor vice can be an emotion or the capacity to experience an emotion. 

Virtue and vice should be understood, rather, as dispositions, a certain habitual stance we take in regard to our emotions. Someone who is habitually afraid of everything has developed a disposition of cowardice in regard to the emotion of fear, for which he can be blamed; someone who is habitually inclined neither to indulge in pleasures excessively nor to shun them at all costs has developed a disposition of moderation in relation to the desire for pleasure, for which he can be praised. 

These praiseworthy and blameworthy dispositions are not something we are born with; nor, on the other hand, can they be taught theoretically. They are acquired by a process of habituation, which begins with parents’ training of children. As "political animals," we take pleasure in being praised, and are pained by the shame that accompanies blame; this pleasure and pain can be used to mold an immediate or natural attraction to pleasure and repulsion from pain which would not prove to be the good for us. It is, then, by practicing moderation that we develop a moderate disposition; of course, we can only be said to be virtuous when we practice moderate actions motivated by a disposition of moderation, which is different from the motive governing our practice such actions in the process of acquiring that virtue.

The Doctrine of the Mean

If virtue and vice are psychic dispositions, what is the specific characteristic which distinguishes them? Assuming that each emotion has a range, eg. more or less fear or more or less anger, it is possible to experience it either in excess or deficiency of what is fitting for the individual in a given situation. Thus, the virtuous disposition is one which, in the case of any particular passion or emotion, aims at the mean between excess and deficiency. This disposition Aristotle understands as itself a mean state between extremes, the vices. Each particular emotion is connected with such a triad of states: courage is the mean between cowardice and rashness or fearlessness, moderation the mean between indulgence and a lack of sensitivity to pleasures. Virtue is a fixed disposition, then, aiming at the mean; the ability to make the correct choice is due to prudence or practical wisdom (phronesis).

Consequently, it turns that Aristotle’s account of the mean develops in two phases. Initially, the mean is presented as an objective target which the agent aims to hit by the way he chooses to deal with his emotions and by his choice of action. Once the agent’s perspective is taken into consideration, however, shifts into its second phase. The mean is no longer simply an objective goal of choice and action; it now begins to assume the character of an extreme contrary to the agent’s own inclination to the opposite extreme. Thus, to a cowardly person courage appears as rashness, to an impetuous person it appears as cowardice. Since the mean is difficult to discern, the second best way to achieve the aim of hitting the mean, according to Aristotle, is to become aware of our own misleading propensities, especially the attraction to pleasure and the aversion to pain. We must compensate for these proclivities by willing ourselves go against our natural grain and to choose in the opposite direction.


Book III: Responsibility, Deliberation, and Choice


Responsibility for Action and Character

We try to help children develop virtuous character and avoid vicious character by praising actions of the former sort and blaming those of the latter sort. Virtue is essentially a state which is praised and vice a state which is blamed. However, our praise and blame is justifiable only if we can truly be held responsible for the states or actions which are praised or blamed, and we can be held responsible only if they are voluntary. Responsibility is only for the voluntary.

That which is excused as involuntary can be restricted to a very narrow sphere: it includes only 1) those actions which are done strictly under compulsion and do not originate in the agent at all, and 2) those which are done in a state of ignorance, which could have been avoided, about the particular circumstances of the action. If someone acts in a state of ignorance which is the result of something he has done, say getting drunk, he can be justifiably held responsible for the action which results.

Voluntary actions, in contrast, can be assumed to cover a very broad range: they include not only those resulting from rational deliberation, but also those resulting from irrational passions, like anger or desire, as long as they originate in us and we are aware of the circumstances in which we act. Now some people may think that even if it is in our power to choose and to act, what we choose, and thus what we do, is motivated by an end which appears best to us, and this appearance is something which is not in our control or up to us. Perhaps the appearance of the good is even a matter of good fortune and one either is or is not born with a natural capacity to discern what is really good. Even if the law cannot entertain this possibility—otherwise it would never be right to punish anyone—this is actually a difficult objection to overturn with any confidence. This much, at least, is clear: if we want to take credit for our virtues—since we are at least partly responsible for the kind of character we have-- then we must equally take blame for our vices.

Choice and Deliberation

Virtue is a state we praise, vice a state we blame, assuming the responsibility of the person for his character. But virtue is, more specifically, a disposition to choose, and choice is not as extensive as the whole sphere of the voluntary. It is not the same thing as desire or the passion of anger, for animals have these but not choice. And it is possible for a person to choose the right thing but not really desire it. Nor is choice quite the same thing as wish; for we can wish for something impossible but we cannot choose it. Wish, furthermore, can be for an end– we wish to be happy; but what we choose is the means to a given end. Choice is the result of a process of deliberation. What we deliberate about are neither things which are the same always, like a mathematical proposition, nor things which come about by chance, like finding a treasure. We deliberate about things which are in our power and which could be done in one way or another in order to achieve a given end. When we reach the end of the process of deliberation we arrive at our choice.



This account of choice assumes that desire is in itself irrational, and reasoning a matter of calculating means to an end; it does not account for our orientation to the end which motivates us. A very different understanding of choice eventually emerges in the argument, under different assumptions about the nature of desire and rationality and the relation between them: insofar as desire can be informed by reason and reason oriented toward an end, choice would have to be understood as the inseparable union of one modified by the other, either rational desire or desiring reason, and it would be the motivating principle of human action.


Moral Virtue and Practical Wisdom

There is one particular human excellence which is the perfection of the activity of deliberation; that is the virtue of prudence or practical wisdom (phronesis). It is the excellence of discerning what is truly good for us, as an individual, or for human beings in general. It is the excellence of a certain kind of thinking-- an intellectual virtue—but it is involved in guiding action and is thus differentiated from the intellectual virtue of theoretical wisdom. Since phronesis is at work in discerning and choosing the mean at which ethical virtue aims, ethical virtue cannot achieve its own end without phronesis. On the other hand, discernment of the good and perfection of deliberation is dependent on having a good character; hence, without ethical virtue, one might have cleverness in figuring out the means to any end, but one would not have phronesis, the virtue of choosing the appropriate means to the right end. Excellence of character, then, and practical wisdom together form a whole which alone counts as genuine virtue.


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