Aristotle and the egoist worry (part 2)

In the first part we introduced the egoist worry about Aristotle’s ethics: does his claim that happiness is the ultimate goal of human life imply that everything we do is done for selfish reasons? We also traced Aristotle’s discussion from the beginning of his Nicomachean Ethics up to just before he puts forward his own proposal for what happiness is. This included a delineation of certain key notions used throughout the Ethics, a clarification of what we mean by happiness in this investigation, a rejection of common proposals for what happiness is, and a statement of the features that any satisfactory proposal of happiness must have. If you have not read it, please do so before continuing here.

The complete and virtuous activity of life

Aristotle’s own proposal is presented as the conclusion of his famous “function argument.” What interests us here is less the details of the argument and more the proposal that Aristotle draws from it: happiness is (1) the activity of living a life involving reason (2) in accordance with the most complete virtues (3) so that they pervade that life completely. Let’s unpack this one bit at a time.

First, happiness is not a passive state but an activity. And it is not just some activity that we might happen to perform — like playing a musical instrument or participating in a team sport — but is the activity that we must necessarily perform as humans, namely the activity of life itself. Furthermore, since we’re interested specifically in human life we can be a bit more specific about the nature of this activity:

What then can this be? Life seems to belong even to plants, but we are seeking what is peculiar to man. Let us exclude, therefore, the life of nutrition and growth. Next there would be a life of perception, but it also seems to be shared even by the horse, the ox, and every animal. There remains, then, an active life of the element that has reason; of this, one part of it in the sense of being obedient to reason, the other in the sense of possessing reason and exercising thought. (NE I.7, 1097b32–1098a4)

He is not saying that human life is exclusively about reasoning, as if the other aspects of our lives were irrelevant, but rather that it distinctively involves reasoning. All living things have in common that they take in nutrients and grow in the course of their life, but within this commonality they are distinguished from one another — at a very high level — by the capacities which affect the fundamental way in which they carry out their lives, capacities which build upon earlier ones rather than replace them. Plants have just the capacities we mentioned, nutrition and growth, so that their lives are very simple and in almost no way up to them. Animals add to these the capacities for consciousness and self-movement, which enable them to better perform the activities of life shared with plants (food can now be sought out and death avoided, for example), as well as to perform activities that plants cannot, like childrearing and housebuilding. Humans add to these the capacity for reason, which again enable us to better perform those activities of life we share with plants and non-human animals (incorporating creativity and automation, for example), as well as to perform activities beyond these, “like tell jokes and paint pictures and engage in scientific research and philosophy.”1 With each layer of capacities comes a richer and more fulfilled way of living, making how one lives more “up to” the individual. Aristotle’s point in the above quote, then, is that we should pay attention to the distinctive layer of human life when considering its chief good. Notice that he also distinguishes two parts the life of reason, namely exercising reason and following reason. Both of these involve reason in different ways, and this distinction will eventually lead to the distinction between intellectual virtues (which have to do with exercising of reason) and moral virtues (which have to do with following reason). The details of this distinction do not interest us here, though, and we raise simply to reinforce the point that when Aristotle speaks of happiness as an activity of life involving reason he does not have in mind a purely intellectual life.

So much for the first part of his proposal; the second part adds that in order for the activity of life involving reason to be considered happiness it must be done in accordance with the most complete virtues. We saw Aristotle reject the earlier virtue proposal as incomplete, since virtue is had just as much in action and in inaction, as well as during times of significant suffering. Here we see how he incorporates virtue into his own proposal without falling prey to the same objection: happiness consists in the use of virtue in an activity rather than merely the possession of virtue. That is, happiness is not in the first place about virtue but about the activity of living a life involving reason, and virtue is added to this as a qualification. So, the original virtue proposal was correct in that it saw virtue playing a role in happiness, but it was incorrect in that it placed virtue at the center by itself. As Aristotle says later:

With those who identify happiness with virtue or some one virtue our account is in harmony; for to virtue belongs virtuous activity. But it makes, perhaps, no small difference whether we place the chief good in possession or in use, in state of mind or in activity. For the state of mind may exist without producing any good result, as in a man who is asleep or in some other way quite inactive, but the activity cannot; for one who has the activity will of necessity be acting, and acting well. And as in the Olympic Games it is not the most beautiful and the strongest that are crowned but those who compete (for it is some of these that are victorious), so those who act win, and rightly win, the noble and good things in life. (NE I.8 1098b30–1099a6)

Taking this further, notice that in our second part we did not only say that the activity of life must be done in accordance with virtue, but in accordance with complete virtue. There is some debate among commentators about what is meant by the “completeness” of a virtue, but given how Aristotle proceeds to talk about the complete life immediately afterwards (which we will discuss shortly), it seems that a virtue is complete to the extent that it is not limited by circumstance. To see what we mean by this consider the person who is always honest to their friends but not others. Such a person does not act in accordance with the virtue of honesty, but only in accordance with an incomplete version of it, namely honesty-to-friends. This incomplete virtue approximates the better and more complete virtue but ultimately falls short of it, for the person who has the incomplete virtue only acts in accordance with the more complete virtue when the appropriate circumstance is added to it. If they properly appreciated honesty itself, then there would be no need to add extra things in order to justify acting in accordance with it. Aristotle’s point, then, is that since happiness is the activity of life in accordance with virtue it can only be truly had when we live in accordance with the virtues themselves, rather than qualified and incomplete versions of them.2

But even living in accordance with complete virtue might not be sufficient to make a person happy, which brings us to the third and final part of Aristotle’s proposal. As he says,

… we must add “in a complete life.” For one swallow does not make a summer, nor does one day; and so too one day, or a short time, does not make a man blessed and happy. (NE I.7, 1099a17–19)

If we are not continuously virtuous, then it is not our life that is virtuous but just this or that action every now and then. Life, after all, is a continuous activity, and so if we wish to live life in accordance with virtue then we need to live continuously in accordance with virtue. And this point is not just limited to time, but can be applied to any dimension of life where we might inconsistently live in accordance with virtue. For instance, if we always lived in accordance with honesty but failed to live in accordance with courage, then we would not be living in accordance with complete virtue in a complete life, since life involves both situations when honesty is needed and situations in which courage is needed. Thus, the third part of the proposal specifies that the complete virtues must pervade life completely, which is to say across all dimensions of life.

This, then, is Aristotle’s proposal, which we repeat again now that we’ve gone through each of its parts in detail: happiness is the activity of living a life involving reason in accordance with the most complete virtues so that they pervade that life completely. “Let this serve as an outline,” Aristotle says, “for we must presumably first sketch it roughly, and then later fill in the details.” Which is what he proceeds to do over the rest of the Ethics. This outline, however, is sufficient for to see how his proposal does better than the alternatives at avoiding the egoist worry.

Immanence and nobility

Now, we have said that the chiefest end of human life is happiness and that happiness consists in the activity of life itself, done in accordance with virtue. Since the end and the activity are the same thing, then, the activity must be immanent, and therefore something done for its own sake. In other words, the person aiming at Aristotelian happiness as their chief good does virtuous things for their own sake, since it is the virtuous activity itself that is their happiness and ultimate end. In contrast to this, the person who does virtuous things in order to produce happiness must think of this happiness as something separate from the virtuous actions that produce it, and is therefore not thinking about Aristotelian happiness at all.

To use an example, when you ask a person aiming at Aristotelian happiness why they choose to be honest to their friend, they will not say, “because it will achieve happiness for me,” as the egoist worry maintains. This answer does not see honesty as worthy of pursuit for its own sake, but only worthy as a means to achieving something else. And more broadly, it does not see the activity of life in accordance with virtue as the chiefest end, but rather as a means to some other end. Rather than being representative of Aristotle’s view of happiness, this answer presupposes that he is wrong about happiness, because it does not identify the chief end of life with the activity of virtuous life itself. So how would the person aiming at Aristotelian happiness answer? These days they would most likely say along the lines of, “because it was the right thing to do.” And if they were trying to sound more like Aristotle, they’d say, “because it was the noble thing to do.”

As with the word “virtue,” Aristotle uses the word “noble” differently to how we use it these days. For Aristotle, if something is noble then it is worth pursuing for its own sake, and throughout the Ethics he uses these two descriptions interchangeably when talking about the good and happy person.3 In fact, he starts using this language right from the outset: amidst drawing out the conclusions of the function argument he says that the function of a good man is the good and noble performance of activities or actions involving reason (NE I.7, 1098a14), and I don’t know what else the “noble performance of an action” could be other than the performance of that action on account of its nobility. A little after this, he explains that the happy person will have a pleasant life because noble things are by nature pleasant, and the happy person pursues and loves virtuous actions which are themselves noble (NE I.8, 1099a7–17). Then in book two he says that actions are only truly virtuous when they are chosen for the own sakes (NE II.4, 1105a27–32). And he continues to speak in this way, happily describing things as either noble or worth pursuing for their own sakes,4 so that by the end we are not surprised when he summarizes his earlier conclusions as follows:

… happiness must be placed among those [activities] desirable in themselves, not among those desirable for the sake of something else; for happiness does not lack anything, but is self-sufficient. Now those activities are desirable in themselves from which nothing is sought beyond the activity. And of this nature virtuous actions are thought to be; for to do noble and good deeds is a thing desirable for its own sake. (NE X.6, 1176b3–9)

So then, reflecting on the implications of Aristotle’s proposal, as well as the way in which he speaks about it, it is clear that the egoist worry is misplaced. For Aristotle, the fact that happiness is the ultimate goal of human life does not mean that we should do everything for the sake of ourselves, but rather that we should live in accordance with virtue for its own sake.

The paradox of happiness

Still, we might wonder whether there is a qualified form of the egoist worry still lurking in the vicinity. What about the person who is not yet happy, but has happiness as their goal? Surely they will work in order to acquire this happiness for themselves, and so even if for a short while they will have to act for the sake of gaining happiness for themselves?

In order to see why even this qualified form of the worry is misplaced, we must reflect briefly on how virtues are actually acquired. In the second book of the Ethics, Aristotle says the following:

… the virtues we get by first exercising them, as also happens in the case of the arts as well. For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them, eg. men become builders by building and lyre-players by playing the lyre; so too we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts. (NE II.1, 1103a31–1103b2)

Note that justice, temperance, and bravery are here being used as representative virtues to make a point about virtues in general, namely that we acquire them by repeatedly acting in accordance with them. That is, we acquire virtues by habituating ourselves into them through repeated practice. And like any skill, it is not merely practice that is important but proper practice, since if I practice incorrectly then I will form bad habits rather than good ones:

… it is from the same causes and by the same means that every virtue is both produced and destroyed, and similarly every art; for it is from playing the lyre that both good and bad lyre-players are produced. And the corresponding statement is true of builders and of all the rest; men will be good or bad builders as a result of building well or badly. For if this were not so, there would have been no need of a teacher, but all men would have been born good or bad at their craft. This, then, is the case with the virtues also; by doing the acts that we do in our transactions with other men we become just or unjust, and by doing the acts that we do in the presence of danger, and by being habituated to feel fear or confidence, we become brave or cowardly. The same is true of appetites and feelings of anger; some men become temperate and good-tempered, others self-indulgent and irascible, by behaving one way or the other in the appropriate circumstances. (NE II.1, 1103b7–21)

Applying this to what we’ve previously concluded, then, happiness can only be acquired by practicing it properly, which requires doing virtuous actions for their own sake. Paradoxically, then, if we do virtuous actions in order to achieve happiness for ourselves then we will never achieve that happiness, since by repeatedly doing virtuous things for the sake of ourselves we would not get any better at doing them for their own sake, as is required for happiness. In fact, it is worse than this, for not only would we not be training ourselves in happiness, but we would actively be training ourselves in things that are contrary to it!

So, then, even the person who is not yet happy but who has happiness as their chief end would not be served by doing virtuous actions as a means to acquiring happiness for themselves, for this will only frustrate their ability to acquire it. Rather, they should aim as far as possible to do virtuous actions for their own sake, and over time they will train themselves to this consistently across all dimensions of their lives, and as a result become happy.

In what sense happiness is a goal

But this “paradox of happiness” might seem to go too far. Surely, we might protest, there is some sense in which our happiness is something we strive for, an end toward which we can make progress? Indeed there is, and in working this out we will make sense of a thread of Aristotle’s thought that we have been ignoring up until now.

The relevant sense is made possible because we have the ability for self-reflection, whereby we can think about the kind of person we are as well as the kind of person we want to be. Given this, we can introduce a distinction between first-order desires, which are the everyday desires we have that don’t require self-reflection, and higher-order desires, which are the self-reflective desires we have about the kind of person we want to be and the kinds of desires we want to have.5 For example, we might choose to hang out with friends because of a first-order desire for companionship, or to eat particular foods because of a first-order desire for certain tastes, or to go to a doctor because of a first-order desire for health. On the other hand, a recovering alcoholic might have a (higher-order) desire to be rid of their very strong (first-order) desire for alcohol. Or, when asked why they are honest to their friends someone might say, “because that’s the kind of friend I want to be.”

In fact, this last example is a special case of the more general way in which we can aim at our own happiness. The person who is honest because that’s the kind of friend they want to be is not desiring honesty for selfish reasons, quite the opposite — it’s because they value honesty and their friends so highly that they want the former to be characteristic of how they interact with the latter. More generally, someone’s higher-order desire of a virtue for themselves is perfectly consistent with their first-order desire of that virtue for its own sake. More than this, the higher-order desire is often a natural outworking of the first-order desire. For instance, upon learning to appreciate a virtue for its own sake, we might develop a higher-order desire to never lose sight of this, to never fall back into the state when we fail to see the virtue for all its worth. In this case the higher-order desire maintains and perhaps even strengthens the first-order desire of the virtue for its own sake.

This situation clearly avoids the paradox of happiness we outlined above. Once we come to see that the person who is happy in Aristotle’s sense is indeed living and fairing the best, then we will come to desire to be the kind of person who acts in accordance with virtue for its own sake. And this higher-order desire will drive us to continually practice such action, to the point that we become proficient in it, and thereby achieve happiness. And having achieved it, we will also have the higher-order desires that help us to maintain it, desires to have first-order desires for acting virtuously for its own sake.

Now, Aristotle doesn’t speak in exactly these terms, but he does speak in a way that amounts to roughly the same thing. In order to see this, notice that when we have a higher-order desire for our own well-being and happiness, we put ourselves in effectively the same position as someone distinct from us who has a first-order desire for our well-being and happiness. And for Aristotle, the desire for the well-being and happiness of other people is the focus of politics.6 So, while he may not discuss the distinction between first- and higher-order desires, he gets at the same thing when he discusses politics. In order for us to appreciate the relevance of this to his discussion on ethics, it is crucially important that we understand the relationship between the two topics. In modern thought, politics is often disconnected from ethics, but for Aristotle the two are intimately connected. Indeed, right at the beginning of the Ethics, when discussing the importance of studying the chief good of human life, Aristotle says this:

Will not the knowledge of [the chief human good], 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? If so, we must try, in outline at least, to determine what it is, and of which of the sciences or capacities it is the object. It would seem to belong to the most authoritative art and that which is most truly the master art. And politics appears to be of this nature; for it is this that ordains which of the sciences should be studied in a state, and what each class of citizens should learn and up to what point they should learn them; and we see even the most highly esteemed of capacities to fall under this, eg. strategy, economics, rhetoric; now, since politics uses the rest of the sciences; and since, again, it legislates as to what we are to do and what we are to abstain from, the end of this science must include those of the others, so that this end must be the human good.

His point is that since politics governs all human activities to some degree or another, it must be aimed at something that includes all of these activities, namely the activity of human life itself. So while in modern times we tend to separate the study of ethics and politics, Aristotle’s Ethics explores what politics aims at, while his Politics explores how to best achieve this. Indeed, as he continues, it is clear that he is interested in the study of ethics precisely because of its close connection to politics:

For even if the end is the same for a single man and for a state, that of the state seems at all events something greater and more complete whether to attain or to preserve; though it is worth while to attain the end merely for one man, it is finer and more godlike to attain it for a nation or for city-states. These, then, are the ends at which our inquiry aims, since it is political science, in one sense of that term. (NE I.2, 1094a23–1094b11)

This lends credence to our interpretation of Aristotle. Our switching between first- and higher-order desires parallels his switching between the desires of the general human and the desires of the student of politics. In fact, once we recognize this parallel we see him say the precise equivalent of what we’ve said above:

… political science spends most of its pains on making the citizens to be of a certain character, namely, good and capable of noble acts. (NE I.9, 1099b30–31)

Given what we’ve seen up until now, this statement amounts to saying that the proper way to think of our happiness (or chief good) is to strive, by means of higher-order desires, to be the kind of person who does, as a result of first-order desires, virtuous (or good) actions for their own sake (noble). Which is just what we’ve been saying.

Conclusion

With this we are finished with our investigation into Aristotle’s claim that happiness is the ultimate goal of human life. According to his account of happiness, life is about doing virtuous things for their own sake, and even when happiness is something we strive for, it is as a result of a higher-order desire to be the kind of person that does virtuous things for their own sake. Thus, when properly understood, Aristotle’s ethics does not make life a self-centered endeavor, but a pursuit of things intrinsically worthy of pursuit.


  1. For a detailed discussion, see Christine Korsgaard, Aristotle’s Function Argument, section 4.
  2. Our account of what it means for a virtue to be complete raises the question of how complete virtues relate to cardinal virtues. Aristotle doesn’t use the cardinal virtues as an organizing principle, and it seems that we should rather take to be complete those virtues that explicitly names and discusses, which include the cardinal virtues but are not co-extensive with them. This notwithstanding, he is clearly cognizant of the cardinal virtues and recognizes their importance: he dedicates an entire book to justice (NE V), his go-to moral virtues are justice, temperance, and fortitude, and his discussion of intellectual virtues (NE VI) has practical wisdom (or prudence) as the primary virtue of the intellect regarding action.
  3. There is some debate over how best to translate the underlying Greek word, with the two most common options being “noble” or “beautiful.” And there is also some discussion over what exactly nobility (or beauty) is. Whether it consists in something being worthy of pursuit for its own sake (as I think it does) or whether being worthy of pursuit is a consequence of nobility, it does not affect our discussion here. My own view is that nobility, honor, and love are all related to one another. Love is the orientation of the will toward something desired for its own sake, honor is the recognition of the intellect that something is worth pursuing for its own sake, and nobility is that feature of the object that makes it the proper object of love and honor.
  4. For example, with noble, “brave men act for the sake of the noble” (NE III.8 1116b30), “the appetitive element in a temperate man should harmonize with reason; for the noble is the mark at which both aim” (NE III.12, 1119b15), “virtuous actions are noble and done for the sake of the noble” (NE IV.1 1120a23). And with pursuit for its own sake, “while making has an end other than itself, action cannot; for good action itself is its end” (NE VI.5, 1140b6–7), “some people who do just acts are not necessarily just, ie. those who do the acts ordained by the laws either unwillingly or owing to ignorance or for some other reason and not for the sake of the acts themselves” (NE VI.12, 1144a16). And the close connection between the two is evident in book seven, when upon saying that some “appetites and pleasures… belong to the class of things generically noble and good” he starts his explanation saying, “for some pleasant things are by nature worthy of choice” (NE VII.4, 114a22).
  5. For an interesting discussion and account of first- and higher-order desires, see Eleonore Stump, Sanctification, Hardening of the Heart, and Frankfurt’s Concept of Free Will.
  6. As he explicitly states: “The true student of politics, too, is thought to have studied virtue above all things; for he wishes to make his fellow students good and obedient to the laws.” (NE I.13, 1102a8–9)

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