Aristotle and the egoist worry (part 1)

Aristotle famously held that happiness is the ultimate goal of human life, or — to use language more in keeping with Aristotle — that happiness is the chief good and last end of human life:

Let us resume our inquiry and state… what is the highest of all goods achievable by action. Verbally there is very general agreement; for both the general run of men and people of superior refinement say that it is happiness. (NE I.4, 1095a14–19)

Happiness, then, is something final and self-sufficient, and is the end of action. (NE I.7, 1097b20)

Happiness… is the best, noblest, and most pleasant thing in the world… for all these properties belong to the best activities; and these, or one — the best — of these, we identify with happiness. (NE I.9, 1099a24–30)

But if our happiness is the aim of everything that we do, does that not make Aristotle an ethical egoist? That is, does Aristotle think that everything we do ultimately is done for the sake of ourselves? We will call this the “egoist worry,” and in this post and the next we will see how Aristotle’s account of happiness manages to avoid it. This first post will lay the necessary ground work and context for his account, so that the next post can unpack the account and explore some consequences of it.

Activities, goods, and ends

As we discussed in detail a few years ago, on the first page of his Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle delineates the core notions that he will be exploring in what follows, and notes the varieties of ways these notions relate to one another.

He starts by saying that every activity, action, pursuit, choice, or inquiry is done for the sake of some good, and that therefore the good is that for the sake of which things are done. Now, when Aristotle uses the term “good” here he is not simply talking about moral goodness, but about goodness in general, as when we say that ice-cream is good, or that a chair is well-made (“well” being the adverb for “good”), or that a particular orchestra performance or movie is good. Nor is his conclusion that there is some one thing that is the goal of every activity, but rather that the good is the concept that picks out at the broadest level why we aim at the things that we do. In other words, the goodness of something is what makes it worthy of pursuit, what causes you to desire it. There are many different kinds of goods, depending on what activity we’re interested in, and Aristotle lists some examples in what follows: medicine is aimed at health, strategy at victory, and shipbuilding at a vessel. The point is that the good in each case is the reason for which the pursuit is done, it is the end of each activity.

Aristotle proceeds to talk about something we’ve recently discussed at length, namely the two fundamental ways that an activity can be related to the end for which it is done. He says that “a certain difference is found among ends; some are activities, others are products apart from the activities that produce them.” That is, sometimes an activity is identical to its end and is therefore desired for its own sake, or it is distinct from its end and therefore desired for the sake of something else. We call the former immanent activities and the latter transient activities.

Now, when an activity is done for some good, we can ask whether that good itself is desired for its own sake or for the sake of some further good. For instance, I study (activity) in order to pass the test (good), so that I can pass the year (further good), so that I can get a job (further good), so that I can make money (further good), and so on. A good might also be desired for its own sake, as when I am honest with a friend simply because it’s the right thing to do, or when an orchestra performs a musical piece with no aim to making any money. Aristotle calls a good which is desired for its own sake a chief good, and notes that every chain of desires will eventually lead to a chief good.1 Furthermore, since the good of an activity is the end for which it is done, the chief good of an activity is the last or final end for which it is done. And just as the good is not meant to be understood as a single good for all activities, neither is the chief good understood as a single chief good for all activities. The honesty and orchestra performance we just mentioned are two different chief goods, and, of the goods Aristotle mentioned earlier, victory could easily be the chief good of strategy and health the chief good of medicine.

The chief good of human life

Having introduced the notions of good and chief good, and having discussed how they relate to one another and the activities that are done for their sake, Aristotle notes how important it would be for us to investigate the chief good of human life:

Will not the knowledge of it, then, have a great influence on life? Shall we not, like archers who have a mark to aim at, be more likely to hit upon what is right? (NE I.2, 1094a23–24)

And in fact, this is the focus of the Ethics from here on out. After a brief digression on the nature and limits of the study of ethics, he notes that there is general agreement about what the chief end of human life is called but not necessarily what it consists in:

Verbally there is very general agreement; for both the general run of men and people of superior refinement say that it is happiness, and identify living well and faring well with being happy; but with regard to what happiness is they differ, and the many do not give the same account as the wise. For the former think it is some plain and obvious thing, like pleasure, wealth, or honor; they differ, however, from one another — and often even the same man identifies it with different things, with health when he is ill, with wealth when he is poor; but, conscious of their ignorance, they admire those who proclaim some great thing that is above their comprehension… (NE I.4, 1095a16–26, emphasis added)

Notice that this is the polar opposite of how we approach happiness in our everyday lives, since we usually start with an idea of what happiness is and then do our best to achieve that. But when we want to investigate happiness, such an approach won’t do. Accordingly, at this point in the Ethics happiness is not the name of something we already know, but a placeholder for our chief good that we have yet to figure out.

What happiness is not

After another brief digression on methodology, Aristotle considers various common proposals for what happiness is, and rejects each one. Happiness can’t only be about pleasure, he says, since this would reduce us to slaves of our tastes and make us no different from the beasts. It can’t be about money-making either, since wealth is merely useful and properly desired only for the sake of something else, which would go contrary to happiness being the chief good of human life. And it can’t just be about honor, “since it is thought to depend on those who bestow honor rather than on him who receives it, but the good we divine to be something of one’s own and not easily taken from one.”

But we could modify this honor proposal slightly to avoid this criticism: instead of saying that happiness is about being honored by others, what if it were about the underlying reason that people honor others, namely the virtue that they possess? The word “virtue” has different connotations today than it did in ancient Greek thought. For philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, a virtue is a quality of something that enables it to perform an action well.2 Sturdiness is a virtue of a chair, for instance, because it enables it to hold us up without collapsing under our weight. This modified proposal, then, says that happiness is about having the appropriate virtues with which we can do various things well. But, Aristotle says,

… even this appears somewhat incomplete; for possession of virtue seems actually compatible with being asleep, or with lifelong inactivity, and, further, with the greatest sufferings and misfortunes; but a man who was living so no one would call happy, unless he were maintaining a thesis at all costs. (NE I.5, 1095b31–1096a3)

Evidently he thinks this virtue proposal has some merit, but that there is still some important nuance missing.

The only view he does not reject is the contemplative life, which he promises to consider in more detail later. Ultimately, he will accept this account, but we will only see the details of this at the end of the Ethics. Why, we may ask, does it take him ten books to come back to it if he already mentions it right at the beginning? Because there are different ways the contemplative life can look, and he doesn’t want his proposal to be confused with forms of this answer that he finds unacceptable. His immediate goal is to give a rough outline of happiness which we will gradually fill in with details throughout the Ethics, so as to arrive at a comprehensive account of the happy life and the role contemplative activity plays within it.

Notice that by now Aristotle has already rejected the understandings of happiness that are most prevalent these days, and which to some extent motivate the egoist worry. If happiness were about pleasure, honor, or wealth, then it would be very easy to see why we should take Aristotle to be an egoist for saying that it is the ultimate goal of human life. But if it is not about these things, then the intuitions behind the egoist worry are somewhat undermined. Not so as to be totally removed, mind you, for Aristotle might yet propose something that is just as self-centered as these; but his rejection of these proposals should give us enough pause to listen more carefully to what he has to say.

The “chiefest” and self-sufficient good

After another digression — this time a more lengthy one on the Platonic Form of the Good — Aristotle returns again to his investigation into happiness. After giving a brief recap of the key notions he outlined at the beginning of the book he notes that happiness must have two features if it is to be the chief good of human life. (In a way, you could see this as a more systematic discussion of the reasons he rejected the earlier proposals.)

First, happiness must be the most chief — or the “chiefest” — good. Every chief good is desirable for its own sake, but some chief goods can also be desired for the sake of something else beyond themselves. For instance, being honest is desirable for its own sake, but it can often also be desirable for other reasons, such as avoiding embarrassment or as a way to prove your trustworthiness. The chiefest good, on the other hand, is something always desirable for its own sake and never for the sake of something else:

Now such a thing happiness, above all else, is held to be; for this we choose always for itself and never for the sake of something else, but honor, pleasure, reason, and every virtue we choose indeed for themselves (for if nothing resulted from them we should still choose each of them), but we choose them also for the sake of happiness, judging that through them we shall be happy. Happiness, on the other hand, no one chooses for the sake of these, nor, in general, for anything other than itself. (NE I.7, 1097b1–7)

We’ve said that the good of an activity is the end for which it is done, and the chief good of an activity is the final (or last) end for which it is done. The chiefest good, then, would be the most final end, or as Aristotle says, the end which is final without qualification.

The second feature that happiness must have is self-sufficiency. By this we do not mean that the happy person lives a solitary life, as if happiness would have no place for friends or family. After all, humans are social animals and thrive most fully within community; or as Aristotle says, “man is born for citizenship.” Rather, when we say that happiness is self-sufficient, we mean that it by itself “makes life desirable and lacking in nothing,” and as such could not be made better by adding other goods. As Aristotle notes, the self-sufficiency of happiness is a consequence of its being the chiefest good, since if some good X could be made better by adding some other good Y, then either X or Y could be desired for the sake of having both X and Y together. But the chiefest good is never desired for the sake of something else, and therefore cannot be made better by the addition of some other good.

Thus, as we saw in the second quote of this post, happiness “is something final and self-sufficient, and is the end of action.” But, says Aristotle, “to say that happiness is the chief good seems a platitude, and a clearer account of what it is is still desired.” (NE I.7, 1097b20–22). Aristotle recognizes that merely giving these two features of happiness does not amount to a proposal of his own. At best he’s given the two requirements that any satisfactory proposal of happiness must fulfill. Accordingly, he proceeds to his own proposal, which we will discuss in detail in the next post.


  1. The argument that Aristotle gives parenthetically in the Nicomachean Ethics is based on the premise that essentially ordered (or per se) series always have an ultimate member, in this case an ultimate reason for action. At the end of the post mentioned earlier I listed a number of resources which further unpack and defend this premise, but since then I have also written up my own defense of it.
  2. As Aristotle explicitly states later as a premise in an argument, “… any action is well performed when it is performed in accordance with the appropriate virtue…” (NE I.7, 1098a14–15)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s