We’ve mentioned before that the goodness of some thing is relative to that thing’s nature. It is good for a human to have two legs because our biology is structured in such a way that having two legs is conducive to our flourishing. By the same token, it is not good for a cat to have two legs.
Now, these various goods can be grouped together and structured hierarchically: colour sensitivity, amoung other things, is a good which is subsumed under the good of seeing. Good seeing is itself subsumed under the goods of sensing, which in turn is subsumed under the goods of animal life.
At this point three things can be said. First, the goodness of the lower goods is dependent on the higher goods. Put another way, the lower goods are for the sake of the higher goods. Colour sensitivity, for instance, is for the sake of seeing and is good to the extent that it enables us to see well.
In the opening passage of the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle, while discussing human acts, makes the same point:
Now, as there are many actions, arts, and sciences, their ends also are many; the end of the medical art is health, that of shipbuilding a vessel, that of strategy victory, that of economics wealth. But where such arts fall under a single capacity — as bridle-making and other arts concerned with the equipment of horses fall under the art of riding, and this and every military action under strategy, in the same way other arts fall under yet others — in all of these the ends of the master arts are to be preferred to all the subordinate ends; for it is for the sake of the former that the latter are pursued. (I.1 1094a7-16)
We might visualise his scenario as follows:
The second thing to note is that this hierarchy has a limit. That is, the tree does not go up indefinitely. Aristotle says that “we do not choose everything for the sake of something else (for at that rate the process would go on to infinity, so that our desire would be empty and vain)” (I.2 1094a21-23). If you are familiar with the distinction between per se and per accidens causes, what Aristotle is getting at here is that the relationship between the lower goods and the higher goods forms a per se final causal chain, and as such has an endpoint. If you are unfamiliar with this distinction, unfortunately space doesn’t not allow me to argue for this here, so you’ll just have to trust me.
Aristotle called these highest goods chief goods, and Aristotelians these days typically call them basic goods. Basic goods are desired for their own sake and not for the sake of another. Now, in simple things there might be only one basic good, but for many things there is more than one, and they can often be quite broad. David Oderberg, for instance, thinks the basic human goods are life, knowledge, friendship, work and play, appreciation of beauty, and religious belief and practice (The Structure and Content of the Good).
So how do we figure out what the basic goods of a thing are? This relates to the third thing to be said: the basic goods correspond to the various distinctive faculties something has according to its nature. After all, broadly speaking, being a human is an activity and the basic goods represent the broadest aspects of this activity by which we measure it good or bad. Given that the way a thing acts correspond to the faculties it has, it seems that the basic goods and faculties of a thing would correspond to each other.
Now, at this broad level it’s not always clear how we are to carve up reality, but we can make some comments that will help us on our way. First, it isn’t particularly informative to say that “given that humans are rational animals, the basic human goods must be rationality and animality”. What we’re looking for are the various aspects of what being a good rational animal involves. Second, the basic goods might overlap, but their faculties should not be wholly reducible to one another. This would be a clear sign that we’re not thinking at a broad enough level. Third, Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics can be seen as his attempt at studying the basic goods by means of studying the various human virtues.
One clear example of a basic good, given our recent discussion about substantial activities, would be what Aristotle and Oderberg call “friendship”, which corresponds to our faculty for working together toward a common end. More on this another time.