The measures of activities

When discussing self-perfective immanent activities we gave the following analysis of activities, with which we were able to delineate three kinds:

… an activity is the measured exercise of powers for the sake of some end, where the end for which the activity is done determines the appropriate measure. A thing’s powers are what determine what it can and can’t do, and whenever that thing engages in an activity it does so by exercising its powers. The end for which the activity is done determines how and when those powers are to be used, which is what we refer to as their measured exercise. Thus, we can distinguish between three things: the activity, its end, and its powers.

Transient activities are when the activity and its end are distinct from one another, while immanent activities are where these are unified. But this unity can happen in two ways, giving us two different kinds of immanent activities: if only the exercise of the powers is unified with the end then we have a non-self-perfective immanent activity, whereas if the exercise and the powers are unified with the end then we have a self-perfective immanent activity.

The question we aim to answer here is how we determine the measure for each kind of activity.

For transient activities the answer seems clear enough: the measure of the activity is the measure of the end for which it is done. The measure of the end will be independently-specifiable from the activity because the end and the activity are distinct from one another. For example, when a carpenter is making a chair this chair will have various specifications to meet, including structural and aesthetic features the customer desires. These specifications of the final product will “propagate backwards” to how the chair is to be made, restricting what options are open to the carpenter during this activity. To the extent that the powers of the carpenter are exercised so as to build a chair that meets the given specifications, they will be in accordance with the measure of the activity.

For immanent activities things are less clear, since in this case we do not have a distinct end from which to derive a measure for the activity. In an orchestra performance — which is an example of a non-self-perfective immanent activity — the end is something given by a conscious choice: when they choose to play a piece of music, the measure corresponding to this end is determined by this choice, since the sheet music of the piece specifies how the piece is to be played. Of course, the orchestra is free to modify the piece for their particular performance, but even in this case the end (and measure) is given by what is consciously chosen. While I don’t have an argument for this, I’m inclined to think that all non-self-perfective immanent activities are the result of conscious choice, and if this is the case then what we’ve said here should apply generally.

Notice that in both these cases, there is a degree of strictness that might apply to the resulting measures. A measure is strict, let’s say, to the extent that it restricts the variety of ways the relevant powers can be exercised. A customer who gave a complete specification for a chair would result in a stricter measure of the activity of building it than a customer who simply wanted something to hold them up. And choosing to play a classical piece of music would result in a stricter measure for your performance than choosing to play a piece of jazz music.

Finally, we have self-perfective immanent activities. Now, at least some of these activities are not consciously taken on by those engaged in them. For instance, the activity of my life is not something I consciously chose to engage in prior to doing so, since it is by the activity of my life that I make any decisions in the first place. In these cases, then, what is it that determines the end and measure of the activity? It seems to me that the end is already given by the fact that it is unified with the underlying powers of the activity. That is, because the end is unified with the powers and their exercise, we know that the activity must just be the exercise, the sustenance, and the development of the powers. And since all of this is unified together with one end, the activity must also involve the proportioning of the powers such that each is expressed without unduly frustrating the others. This will surely be the minimally strict unified exercise of all the powers that sustains and develops them together.

The way to approach the measures of self-perfective immanent activities, then, is to do so bit by bit, conceptually isolating the individual powers in order to understand the requirements each has, as well as the unique contributions it makes to the whole. An important point here is that we should avoid the word “balance” when comparing the contributions of different powers, since some powers will be more suited to particular tasks than others. For instance, it would be absurd to try and “balance” the task of walking between our legs and our hearts. Or again, since our intellects enable us to understand the world as it really is while our passions can overreact to mere appearances, it is right that we temper our passions in accordance with what is appropriate, and this without extinguishing them, lest we turn ourselves into mere robots. Or again, since our intellects and wills are not disconnected from our bodies, it is right to make decisions that contribute to our health. And so on.

Aristotle’s function argument

In the course of discussing the egoist worry, we saw that Aristotle’s own proposal for what happiness is is presented as the conclusion of his so-called “function argument.” This name is a bit misleading, however, since Aristotle didn’t think about function in the way we tend to these days, and he doesn’t so much give an argument as gesture in the direction of one. This is not to disregard his discussion, mind you, but rather to adjust our expectations going in. Here we will unpack the argument briefly, in the hopes of addressing some common misunderstandings as well as elucidating how the function argument fits into Aristotle’s broader project in the Nicomachean Ethics.

Introducing function

Aristotle starts talking about function when trying to work out what happiness could be (NE I.7). At this point in the discussion, happiness is what we call that thing which we choose for its own sake and never for the sake of something else, but as of yet we do not know what this thing consists in. In other words, we know that happiness is the chief good of human life, but we do not know what it is yet. Recognizing this, Aristotle starts as follows:

Presumably, however, to say that happiness is the chief good seems a platitude, and a clearer account of what it is is stilled desired. This might perhaps be given, if we could first ascertain the function of man. For just as for a flute-player, a sculptor, or any artist, and, in general, for all things that have a function or activity, the good and the ‘well’ is thought to reside in the function, so would it seem to be for man, if he has a function. (NE I.7, 1097b24ff, emphasis added)

He proposes that if we could determine the human function, then we could work out from that what human happiness is. This follows from the fact that happiness is our chief good, and the goodness of a thing resides in its function. We’ll return to this in a bit, but first we must clarify what a function is.

One way to think about function is in terms of why a thing does what it does, its purpose or use. This is probably what we think of first when reading Aristotle these days, particularly when he goes on to name occupations as examples of things with functions, to which we might be tempted to add examples of tools or instruments.

A second way of thinking about function is in terms of how a thing does what it does, its mechanisms. Korsgaard calls this a thing’s way of functioning, and describes it as follows:

Consider, for example, a complicated machine. Such a thing might have many purposes, but in [this second sense] it has only one function — one way of functioning. For instance, a computer serves a great variety of purposes, things as different as word processing, solving mathematical problems, writing music and playing chess. But to describe its function, in [this] sense, is to describe what we might call its functional construction, the mechanisms that enable it to do all these things. Superficially, we might say that its function is the electronic storage and retrieval of information according to a program, or some such thing. But in the strict sense, only someone who actually understands how computers work can tell you what their function is. (Christine Korsgaard, Aristotle’s Function Argument)

A third way to think about function is in terms of what a thing does. In this case we are not interested in merely the mechanisms by which a thing acts (as in the second way), but the usage of those mechanisms in an activity. This is a bit more tricky to talk about than the first two ways since things can often do many different things, but function, in Aristotle’s sense, is something unique. Accordingly, for this third way we pick out a particular activity performed by something, which we call its characteristic activity or proper act, and which we can think about as follows: the characteristic activity of an X is the activity it necessarily engages in insofar as it is an X.1

The characteristic activity of a professional sculptor, let’s say, is about sculpting statues for customers. This is an activity that spans across years of the sculptor’s life, and in the course of engaging in this activity the sculptor will engage in all manner of more specific activities, like communicating and haggling with particular customers, resting and reflecting, learning and practicing techniques, buying supplies, designing statues, and sculpting this or that particular statue. The sculptor needn’t be doing any of these sub-activities at any given time, but so long as they are a professional sculptor they will be engaged in that activity that subsumes all of them, and this is the characteristic activity of a sculptor.

We add the qualification “insofar as it is an X” to specify the sense in which we’re considering the individual. Someone may be a sculptor, a violinist, and a father, and so without any qualification we could say that he has three characteristic activities. But if we qualify our consideration of him to one of these things, then there will only be one corresponding function. So, if we consider him insofar as he is a sculptor, then he will have the characteristic activity we described above.

This third way of thinking about function seems to fit best with how Aristotle speaks about it. For one, he is happy to speak of “function or activity,” which suggests that he sees a close connection between the concepts, and he eventually concludes that the human function is a kind of activity. For another, the fact that he doesn’t mention tools or instruments as examples of things with functions would be strange if he has purpose or mechanism in mind (since they have both of these kinds of function), but not so if he has characteristic activity in mind (since they don’t act of themselves).

Now, we have previously offered the following analysis of activities:

… an activity is the measured exercise of powers for the sake of some end, where the end for which the activity is done determines the appropriate measure. A thing’s powers are what determine what it can and can’t do, and whenever that thing engages in an activity it does so by exercising its powers. The end for which the activity is done determines how and when those powers are to be used, which is what we refer to as their measured exercise. Thus, we can distinguish between three things: the activity, its end, and its powers.

This applies to activities in general, so it is worth thinking about what qualifications need to be added to make it into an analysis of characteristic activities. Since the ends of characteristic activities can be as varied as the ends of activities in general, and since measures will vary accordingly, it seems the best approach is to start with the powers. The powers we’re interested in are those that are relevant to the particular function we’re considering, and will correspond to the mechanisms we mentioned when discussing the second way of thinking about function. They will be the powers used in the course of the relevant function considered at the generality at which they are used. For example, both a sculptor and a pianist use the movement of their hands when engaging in their respective functions, but the powers relevant to sculpting are things like the power to mold clay, chisel stone, hammer with the appropriate delicacy, and so on, while the powers relevant to piano-playing are things like quick finger movement, timing, applying different amounts of pressure for different volumes, and so on. When we consider powers at the generality of their being used by an X, we will call them the powers “of an X,” so that we can say that what makes an activity characteristic of an X is that it involves the measured exercise of the powers of an X.

On reflection, although function is first and foremost concerned with activity, both purpose and mechanism have something resembling them in the complete picture, in the form of the activity’s end and powers respectively.

That there is a human function

Given that function is to be understood in terms of characteristic activity, Aristotle’s inquiry is whether there is an activity characteristic of humans. In some sense it is clear that there is, since no matter what a human does, they must of necessity engage in the activity of human life. But Aristotle gestures toward a pair of arguments for this conclusion in addition to whatever intuitions we may have about it. We say, “gesture” because he really phrases it more as a pair of rhetorical questions:

Have the carpenter, then, and the tanner certain functions or activities, and has man none? Is he born without a function? Or as eye, hand, foot, and in general each of the parts evidently has a function, may one lay it down that man similarly has a function apart from all these?

Now, it’s possible that he is using occupations and organs as a way of highlighting the intuitions we just mentioned, rather than as a pair of arguments. But, if he is gesturing towards arguments, then one way to reconstruct them is in terms of unity.

While the occupations humans engage in might differ from one another in various ways, there is nevertheless unity between them insofar as they all involve the same fundamental actions, like deliberation, communication, bodily movement, sensation, learning, and so on. While these actions may be expressed in different ways and to different degrees, their pervasiveness points to a deeper activity that underlies all human occupations. And this is evident also in the fact that someone who is a carpenter could equally have been a tanner had they desired, or could switch from being a carpenter to being a tanner, or could even have both occupations simultaneously. The possibility of someone switching between (or having) multiple occupations while remaining the same human suggests that there is some activity that underlies them. And since this could in principle happen between any pair of occupations, this underlying activity must be broad enough to encompass anything a human might do, which must surely be the human function.

The argument from organs proceeds slightly differently. The activities of my eyes and heart are unified with one another in a way that the activities my eyes and your heart are not. And the same goes for any pair of organs. Today we might more naturally think of the various bodily systems rather than organs, but the point remains. And it isn’t restricted to activities within the body, but applies as well to the activities of the mind, like deliberation, self-reflection, learning, and choice. Now, the unity exhibited between the activities within a human suggest that they are parts of some overarching activity, and since this would include all the activities within a human this overarching activity must be the human function.

These arguments could be seen as approaching function from the two components of activity, namely the exercise of powers and the measure of this exercise. The argument from occupations notes that all powers exercised throughout our occupations are specialized versions of the general powers we share with one another as humans, so that the human function must involve the exercise of these powers considered in their most general form. And the argument from organs notes that the unity of the various activities within the human is to be accounted for by an overarching measure by which all of these are included in a single activity that is characteristic of all human life.

What the human function is

Having concluded that there is a human function, Aristotle proceeds to state more clearly what it is:

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 has it in the sense of being obedient to reason, the other in the sense of possessing reason and exercising thought. And, as ‘life of the rational element’ also has two meanings, we must state that life in the sense of activity is what we mean; for this seems to be the more proper sense of the term.

When determining what the human function is, we cannot ignore this or that human power as irrelevant, since the preceding arguments indicate that the human function includes all such powers. It is clear to Aristotle that the human function is a kind of life, but it is not enough to leave it at that, since there are different kinds of life and not all kinds share the same sets of powers. As we saw in the second part of our discussion on the egoist worry, the most distinctive feature of human activity is our capacity for reason, by which we perform better the activities of life we share with other living things, as well as perform activities beyond these. Reason is unique in its ability to guide us in our lives, since by it we can understand reality and self-consciously make our way through it.

Eager to include all aspects of a human life, Aristotle distinguishes two components of the life involving reason, namely the process of reasoning and the obedience to reason. The first component involves things like deliberation, reflection, and inquiry, while the second involves acting and feeling in accordance with the results of the first. These two components working together cover the whole of the human function, albeit in a very broad way. His goal at this point is less about giving all the details and more about drawing an outline around everything.2

At the end of the passage he refers to the life of the rational element, saying that there are two senses of this. One way to think of life is as a state that is possessed, as when we say someone has a life or that they are alive. Another way to think of life is as an activity that we engage in, as when we say someone is living well or that they have made a success of their life. Aristotle refers to this distinction in order to clarify which sense of life he has in mind when discussing the human function: it does not consist simply in the possession of a state or set of properties, but in the activity of the element that has reason.

But what is this “rational element” that he speaks of, this “element that has reason”? Well, it is not a way of speaking about the process of reasoning to the exclusion of obedience to reason, since according to Aristotle these are both components of the activity of the rational element. A better way to think of it is as that aspect of all living things that makes them alive, and which in humans also includes the capacity for reason. Aristotle refers to this as the soul of a living thing, which isn’t some immaterial thing that drives the body, but the organizing process of the body which results in the activity of life in the living thing.3 The point of focusing on the soul here is to emphasize that the human function resides in the activity of the element that animates the body, rather than in the body which by itself is passive and unanimated.

Function and good

So far we have determined that there is a human function and stated in broad terms what it is, but if this is to be of any value to us in the study of ethics then we need to explain how function is connected with goodness. Accordingly, Aristotle proceeds to summarize his account of human function and introduce the connection between function and goodness:

Now if the function of man is an activity of soul which follows or implies reason, and if we say ‘a so-and-so’ and ‘a good so-and-so’ have a function which is the same in kind, eg. a lyre-player and a good lyre-player, and so without qualification in all cases, eminence in respect of goodness being added to the name of the function (for the function of a lyre-player is to play the lyre, and that of a good lyre-player is to do so well)…

His point is that if some X has a function, then it is a good X to the extent that it performs its function well. This is what Aristotle meant earlier when he said that, “for all things that have a function or activity, the good and the ‘well’ is thought to reside in the function.” On the face of it, though, this might seem a bit problematic: since “well” is the adverb of “good,” does this not really amount to a tautology, namely that an X is good if it is a good X? Now, while his point is not particularly deep — it’s stated as something obvious on the way to something further — it does not amount to a tautology. There are all sort of things an X might do well or badly that are not related to its function, and Aristotle’s point is that these are irrelevant when judging its goodness as an X. A violin-player, for instance, might be tall and therefore good at reaching up to high shelves, but this has nothing to do with whether or not they’re a good violin-player. A sculptor might be good at wall-climbing or at sprinting, but it is their function as a sculptor which is relevant to whether they’re a good sculptor or not. And so too with everything that has a function.

With this connection between function and good in hand, we can use our earlier conclusions about the human function to give an outline of the human good. And this is exactly what Aristotle does next:

… if this is the case and we state the function of man to be a certain kind of life, and this to be an activity or actions of the soul implying a rational principle, and the function of a good man to be the good and noble performance of these, and if any action is well performed when it is performed in accordance with the appropriate virtue: if this is the case, human good turns out to be activity of soul exhibiting virtue, and if there are more than one virtue, in accordance with the best and most complete.

Applying the connection between function and good, Aristotle notes that the function of the good human must be the good and noble performance of the activities of the soul involving reason.4 He then reframes this in terms of “virtue,” with what amounts to a definition of the idea: a virtue is something that enables an activity to be well-performed. Following Plato and those before him, Aristotle recognizes that happiness (the chief human good) must involve virtue in some way, and this is how he incorporates it into his own account of happiness — as a clarification of what he had previously said.

The place of the function argument

The function argument is given at the beginning of Aristotle’s investigation into happiness and goodness, as a starting point and frame for what will follow. We should not be too surprised, then, that by the end of giving the argument we have only a vague outline of what we seek. In the remainder of the first book, he will deal with some outstanding issues regarding the concept of happiness. In books II–V he will give an analysis of virtue, discuss the role of freedom in happiness, and discuss the various moral virtues, with justice getting a book for itself. Then in book VI he will discuss the intellectual virtues. These two classes of virtue have to do with following and exercising reason respectively, a division that arose during the function argument. And after dealing with the virtues, he will move to more general topics. In book VII he will discuss the different ways one’s knowledge might be odds with one’s passions, and in books VIII and IX he will discuss the nature and importance of friendship. Finally, in book X, he will bring it all together into an account of happiness that incorporates the insights gained along the way.


  1. Put more tersely, the function of an X is the per se activity qua X.
  2. As he says, “Let this serve as an outline, for we must presumably first sketch it roughly, and then later fill in the details.”
  3. It’s actually slightly more complicated than this, but the details of this do not concern us here. We discussed this with more nuance in our earlier post on the threefold whole.
  4. Attentive readers might notice that whereas earlier Aristotle referred to the human function as the activity of soul that implies or follows reason, here he refers to it as the activity of soul that implies a rational principle. Really, these amount to the same thing, since even when an activity follows reason it implies a source (principle) of that reason (rational).

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)

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)

Notes on the Genesis Prologue and Leviticus

I don’t have a track record for writing blog posts particularly frequently, but even if we take this into account my output over the past few months has been less than usual. The reason for this is that I’ve been working on bigger projects, two of which I’d like to share here. I lead a weekly Bible study, wherein we do our best to unpack what the Bible has to say and develop a biblically-informed worldview. Since the beginning of last year, we have gone through a number of different studies, but for two of them I ended up writing extensive notes. Both sets of notes are in their predraft phase, and have been made available as pages on this site (you can access them from the bar at the top).

The notes on the Genesis prologue cover the first eleven chapters of Genesis, and are structured similarly to John Walton’s The Lost World of X series, where each section focuses on the defense of a particular conclusion. The notes on Leviticus cover the entire book of Leviticus in about five studies, together with an introduction and an appendix. I learnt a lot from both, and I hope that by sharing them others might also learn something about these two very important parts of the bible.

Natural law vs the moral argument

Up until recently, I had thought that natural law theory was compatible with moral arguments formulated as follows:

  1. If God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist.
  2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.
  3. Therefore, God exists.

Moral arguments of this kind have been made popular by defenders such as CS Lewis and William Lane Craig, and this specific formulation comes from the latter. In a post from a few years ago I explained my position on the compatibility of this with natural law theory as follows:

I think technically we can still use [the argument] as [formulated above], but we must recognise that it is partly dependent upon something like the fifth way for its soundness. At the end of the day I think much moral debate can be had without reference to God, since it is based on what is knowable about our nature. But ultimately I think any viable ethics depends on God, including natural law. (section 4.1)

This is admittedly not giving much credit to the argument, but I have since realized that even this weak support for the moral argument is misplaced. It seems to me that once we clarify the above formulation, the first premise will be seen to be incompatible with natural law theory, or at least some increasingly popular versions of it.

To start on the more technical side of things, the first premise should be understood as a non-trivially true counterfactual with an impossible antecedent (see here for details):

1′. If God did not exist, then objective moral values and duties would not exist.

So far there is still no obvious incompatibility with natural law theory, but we can go further. Presumably, if we are running this argument, then we think that there is something special about moral values and duties that calls out for a theistic explanation. That is, we are not interested in the general fact that anything whatsoever exists, but particularly the fact that moral values and duties exist. If this were not the case, then wouldn’t really be running a moral argument at all, but would instead be running a cosmological argument.

The point of the first premise, then, is that we finite agents are not sufficient to account for objective moral standards, and so the presence of such standards would imply the existence of God. This suggests that another way of stating the first premise is as follows:

1*. If we were to exist without God, then objective moral values and duties would not exist.

(Those of us who are convinced that God is required to account for any existence should also read this as a non-trivially true counterfactual with an impossible antecedent.)

Apart from the reasoning that got us here, further confirmation that (1*) captures the intent of (1) comes from how the premise is often defended. Consider, for instance, the following quote from Craig:

If there is no God, then any ground for regarding the herd morality evolved by homo sapiens as objectively true seems to have been removed. After all, what is so special about human beings? They are just accidental by-products of nature which have evolved relatively recently on an infinitesimal speck of dust lost somewhere in a hostile and mindless universe and which are doomed to perish individually and collectively in a relatively short time. Some action, say, incest, may not be biologically or socially advantageous and so in the course of human evolution has become taboo; but there is on the atheistic view nothing really wrong about committing incest. If, as Kurtz states, “The moral principles that govern our behavior are rooted in habit and custom, feeling and fashion,” then the non-conformist who chooses to flout the herd morality is doing nothing more serious than acting unfashionably. (William Lane Craig, The Indispensability of Theological Meta-Ethical Foundations for Morality)

Notice that this line of argument envisions a world where we exist without God, and puzzles over where moral values and duties are supposed to come from in such a world.

Now, while natural law theory may not pose any obvious problem for (1) or (1′), once we recognize that these amount to (1*) the problem becomes clear. The whole burden of a natural law theory is to ground moral truths in the natures of things, and having the nature that we do is part of what it means for us to exist. In the world described by (1*), then, the fact that we still exist with natures means that we still have objective moral duties and values even though God is not in the picture — at least from the perspective of natural law.

Of course, the exact details of this will differ depending on the version of natural law theory we consider. On Platonism these natures will be unchanging Forms in some third realm, on Aristotelianism they are intrinsic teleologies in things, and the new natural lawyers focus more on the nature of practical reason than on the natures of things. And each of these has variants within it. Some versions of Platonism equate the Forms with divine ideas, so that taking God out of the picture will take out natures with him. But other versions have God completely separate, meaning that natures stay even after God is removed.

Thomistic natural law theory is of the Aristotelian variety and is the version I find most compelling. On the one hand, it agrees with Aristotle that morality is fundamentally grounded in the intrinsic teleology built into us by virtue of the natures we have. On the other hand, contrary to Aristotle, it says that this intrinsic teleology still depends on God. Mind you, not in a way that makes it distinct from our nature, as if our teleology could in any way be separated from what we are. Rather, it is by creating and sustaining us as the kinds of creatures we are that God upholds the intrinsic teleology that fundamentally grounds morality. Of course, the details of this are quite complicated, but the point is that on the Thomistic view our intrinsic teleology is not mutually exclusive with God being the cause of our nature.

This brings us back to (1*). This premise asks us to consider the world where per impossible God does not exist and yet we still do. Because in such a world we still exist, we also still have natures and the intrinsic teleology which fundamentally grounds morality. This remains true even our natures arose through blind evolutionary processes since what’s important is the nature we have, not how we got it. So, in this world where we exist without God there is still the foundational morality that arises from the natural law: it is still wrong for us to lie, to murder, to steal, etc.; we still have categorical obligations, are held accountable, and have a basis for moral authorities (see section 2.4 here); we still have objective virtues and vices; actions are still objectively good and bad. Of course, there will be no duties arising from divine commands, but on natural law theories, these are in addition to the natural law, not instead of it.

So, then, for those of us who accept the Thomistic account of natural law, the moral argument we’re considering should be rejected as unsound. And I suspect the same would be true for some other versions of natural law theory, whether they be Platonic, Aristotelian, or from the new natural lawyers. It is certainly true for Aristotle’s own version, which doesn’t even construe God as the cause of our intrinsic teleology. On the other hand, there is also a lesson for those defenders of the argument who don’t accept any of these natural law accounts: a full defense of the first premise requires a thorough critique of these different natural law theories, which is no simple task. Certainly not as simple as the quote above appears. After all, natural law theories have a long pedigree in the history of Western thought.

While this objection doesn’t affect all moral arguments, it is noteworthy because the version it does affect is quite common. The argument might still have apologetic value insofar as it could convince someone who already rejects natural law, but such a rhetorical strategy makes me somewhat uneasy.

Self-perfective immanent activity

At the beginning of his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle distinguishes two ways an activity can be related to the end for which that activity is done: either the activity is distinct from its end, or they are the same. We call those activities that are distinct from their ends transient and those that are the same immanent.

Now, because an activity can be done for a variety of reasons, it’s possible that sometimes it is transient and other times that it is immanent. For example, a paradigmatic example of transient activity is the building of an object, like a chair or house. In the paradigmatic case, you perform the activity for the sake of having the object, and since the object itself is distinct from the activity that brings it into being it follows that the activity is transient. But in another instance, you may not necessarily build a chair for the sake of the chair, but simply because you enjoy the process itself — perhaps you’ll break the chair down again after you’re done, so that you can rebuild it again tomorrow. In this case, the same underlying activity is now immanent. The upshot of this is that while we speak of the activity being transient or immanent, it’s really the activity considered with respect to a particular end that is transient or immanent. If we keep the activity but change the end, then we might also change between transience and immanence.

Moreover, there is a sense in which the distinction between transience and immanence is really between two ends of a spectrum rather than a dichotomy. To see this, imagine building a chair for the sake of developing skill in carpentry. There’s a sense in which this is transient, since the skill exercised in an activity — and future activities of the same sort — is not the same as the activity itself. But even so, the skill of an activity surely has more in common with that activity than the completely separate object it produces. So, we might say that building something for the sake of developing skill is more transient than building something for the enjoyment of building while being more immanent than building something in order simply to have that thing.

Speaking paradigmatically, then, the building of an object is a good example of a transient activity. A good example of an immanent activity, on the other hand, is the musical performance by an orchestra. In this latter case, the orchestra doesn’t perform in order to produce something at the end of it all, but simply for its own sake.

Interestingly, there are other immanent activities which seem qualitatively different from the orchestra performance, and our aim here is to give an account of this difference. The first example that jumps to mind is the activity of life in a living thing — life is, after all, a continual activity that a living thing is engaged in until it dies, and is immanent insofar as it is concerned with developing and sustaining the living thing. Another simpler example is the activity of learning, insofar as learning some things now enables me to learn other things later.

The main difference between the immanent activities that we’ve mentioned so far is that living and learning both involve a feedback loop of sorts, where earlier actions in the activity can enable or hinder later ones. If I start with learning correct things then this sets me up to learn more correct things later, but if I am taught mistaken information then this will hinder with my ability to learn correct things later — or, as Aristotle and Aquinas said, a small error in the beginning will lead to a large error in the end.[1] Something similar could be said for life, although in this case there are many feedback loops that we could consider. To take a simple one, if I eat improperly then this can interfere with my ability to eat food that is good for me, which in severe cases can even lead to things like refeeding syndrome. Or, again, if I damage my legs to the point where I can’t use them anymore, then moving myself to food and drink becomes more difficult.

Now, orchestra performances do not involve feedback loops of the kind we see in living and learning. Certainly what happens earlier in the performance will influence what should happen later in the performance, as the orchestra reacts to tempo changes or unplanned off-keys. In fact, such influence will occur even if everything is going exactly as planned, since the performance itself depends on the proper ordering of the actions within it. The difference here, though, is that earlier actions in the performance will not enable or hinder any musician’s ability to act later in the performance: the cellist playing a certain set of notes will not affect the violinist’s ability to play the violin.

In order to give an account of this difference between immanent activities, we must start with an account of activities in general which is expressive enough for us to point out where the difference lies. And indeed, we can give such an account: an activity is the measured exercise of powers for the sake of some end, where the end for which the activity is done determines the appropriate measure. A thing’s powers are what determine what it can and can’t do, and whenever that thing engages in an activity it does so by exercising its powers. The end for which the activity is done determines how and when those powers are to be used, which is what we refer to as their measured exercise. Thus, we can distinguish between three things: the activity, its end, and its powers.

We’ve already said that the difference between immanent and transient activities lies in the unity of the activity with its end: they are the same in immanent activities but distinct in transient activities. Going a step further, we can see that the difference between the two kinds of immanent activities that we’ve been discussing lies in the unity of the activity with its powers: either the activity influences its own powers, for better or worse, or it doesn’t. The orchestra performance does not affect the powers by which it exists, but the activities of living and learning include within themselves the development and sustenance of their powers.

Now, if the activity consists in the exercise of its powers, then what is happening when it influences its powers like this? To answer this we borrow a series of distinctions from Kenny: a power can be distinguished from its possessor, its vehicle, and its exercise.[2] The possessor is the thing (or things) that has the power, and the exercise is the manifestation of the power in a particular context.[3] The vehicle of the power is that feature (or features) of the possessor which grounds the power by providing the components used in its exercise. To give an example, I am the possessor of the power to walk, which I exercise whenever I use my legs to move, and the vehicle of which includes the bone and muscle structures in my leg together with the relevant parts of my nervous system. And the vehicle of a musician’s power to play an instrument includes their skill in playing that instrument, the relevant body parts, and the instrument itself. Influencing the vehicle of a power will influence the possessor’s ability to exercise that power, for better or worse, which is precisely what happens when an activity influences its own powers. When I stub my toe while walking, for instance, I hinder my power to walk by damaging a part of the vehicle of that power. And when I do physical exercise, I enable my power to walk by developing the strength of that vehicle.

All of this helps us see more clearly the difference between the immanent activities we’ve been considering. The orchestra performance does not affect the vehicles of the powers of the musicians to play their instruments, but what we choose to do in our life can and does affect the vehicles of the powers we exercise when living, causing our muscles to strengthen or weaken, our blood pressure to raise or lower, and so on.

Oderberg has called the latter class of immanent activity self-perfective, where the sense of perfection is that of completedness or wholeness or actualization rather than of moral perfection.[4] Self-perfective immanent activities are immanent activities which are unified with the powers that underlie them so that part of the activity is the further enablement of those powers. We might wonder, could there be an immanent activity which is done for the sake of hindering its powers rather than enabling them? Reflecting on what we’ve already said we can see that there could not: an immanent activity is done for its own sake and consists in the exercise of its powers. Thus, the hindrance of those powers would go contrary to that activity, and so if it were done for the sake of this hindrance the activity would both be done for its own sake and against its own sake, which is absurd.

Of course, this is not to say that a self-perfective immanent activity always succeeds in enabling its powers, for any number of things could cause it to fail to one degree or another. But in order to fail, you are nevertheless still aiming at the goal you failed to achieve, which is the point. Moreover, what it means for an activity to enable its own powers cannot be divorced from the appropriate measure of those powers. For example, part of human development is an increase in height, but it’s not as if increasing your height is always better for your life as a human. At some point, increasing your height will hinder your ability to live well.

Notes

  1. Paraphrased from the opening of Aquinas’s On Being and Essence, himself citing Aristotle’s On the Heavens and the Earth.
  2. I got this from Feser’s Scholastic Metaphysics (p. 45), who was citing Kenny’s The Metaphysics of Mind (pp. 73-74).
  3. For a detailed discussion of this, see Oderberg’s Finality Revived: Powers and Intentionality.
  4. See Oderberg’s Teleology: Inorganic and Organic.

 

Review of The Dictionary of Christianity and Science

Disclaimer: I was given a free copy of this book so that I could do this review.

The question about the proper relationship between science and religion has a long history in Western thought, going back to at least as far as the fifth century with St. Augustine. Over the centuries Christians have approached this question in a number of different ways and from various different angles, with new approaches being developed all the time. This overabundance of ideas can make it difficult for the layperson, the apologist, or the theologian to know where to start when it comes to answering their own questions about how science relates to Christianity, and what options others have proposed.

To those who are in this situation, or who are simply interested in the intersection of science and the Christian religion, The Dictionary of Christianity and Science will prove to be a very useful resource. It aims to be the definitive reference on these questions, and having spent some time with it I can say that it seems up to the task. The editors have clearly given careful thought about who they asked to contribute to the book. Some notable contributors are James Hannam, author of The Genesis of Science and God’s Philosophers; Craig Keener, new testament scholar and author of the voluminous Miracles; and Michael Murray, philosopher and author of the Nature Red in Tooth and Claw. Reading over the list of all the contributors and their credentials at the beginning of the book, one can’t help but anticipate a well-researched and helpful discussion of a wide variety of topics. And what follows does not disappoint.

The word “dictionary” in the book’s title might give the false impression that its only aim is to outline the meanings of words. Really, each entry is one of three kinds. There are introductions, which most resemble normal encyclopedia entries in giving a brief explanation of a particular topic. Then there are essays, which are much more long-form entries, giving the contributor space to unpack some specifics of the topic. And finally, there are multi-view discussions, which have different contributors defending contrasting views on a particular topic. We will have more to say about this third kind below.

Breadth and depth

By far the most impressive feature of the book is the variety of topics and views it is able to include. At the broadest level, we see topics including the early chapters of Genesis, the ancient Mesopotamian flood accounts, the hominid fossil record, the nature of explanation, the mind-body problem, life after death, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, epigenetics, the multiverse, the image of God, and infinity. Peppered between these are entries on important figures in scientific or philosophical thought, such as Kant, Leibniz, Polkinghorne, Aristotle, Einstein, and Hawking.

As we zoom into more specific groups of topics, there continues to be significant variety, with entries covering theme from many angles. The group of topics surrounding the early chapters of Genesis, for example, are covered by separate entries on Adam and Eve, the age of the universe, the role of genealogies, interpretations of the days of creation, interpretations of the Genesis flood, the serpent in the garden of Eden, the Tower of Babel, and more.

The individual entries themselves are very well written and in-depth; and while this may be easier for the essays and multi-view discussions to achieve, the shorter introductions also succeed in this. Each of the contributors has put a lot of effort into conveying the important points of each topic, giving the reader a good idea of how it fits together. And after every entry, there is a list of references and recommended reading, so that the interested reader can delve more deeply into the relevant literature on that topic.

Multi-view discussions

Of the three types of entry, the multi-view discussions differ the most from typical dictionary entries. I was very pleased that the editors thought to include these, because some topics can only be fully understood when they are discussed in a debate where alternative perspectives are defended. And indeed, the way the multi-view discussions are handled in the present book does, for the most part, enable this to happen.

An interesting decision made by the editors is that the contributors for these multi-view discussions would not see each other’s contributions before writing their own. Now, for many of the discussions, this poses no problem at all. This is because the major points of disagreement between the represented views are well-known, and since each contributor is cognizant of this they endeavor to say something about them. The result in these cases is a very helpful contrast of the different views on the particular topic, without the drawback of one the views being given the “final say” on the matter.

Sometimes, however, things do not go so smoothly, as with the entry on divine action, which has two views represented. The concursus view, defended by Robert Bishop, holds that God continually works in and through natural causes, rather than winding up creation like a clockwork machine that is left to run by itself. While the engaged-governance view, defended by Jeffrey Koperski, holds that God can work miraculously in creation without undermining or violating the laws of nature. These views are not alternatives to one another, since they focus on different aspects of God’s action: the first affirms that God generally acts in creation by sustaining and concurring with it, and the second affirms that God can and does act specially in creation without violating its integrity. Indeed, each of these entries the contributor affirms the truth of the other view in a passing comment!

Now, I hasten to add that this problem of talking past one another is not a common one. Far more often than not the multi-view discussions provide a healthy contrast of opposing views on the topic. I mention it only in the interest of a thorough review. I can, however, propose that in future editions the topic of a multi-view discussion be specified more clearly. This could be achieved by giving each of the contributors a brief description of what is meant by the title of the entry. Or it could be achieved by giving them suggested key points to touch on during their discussion. Or it might be sufficient to simply disambiguate the topic in the entry name itself, so that rather than there being an entry on divine action there could be separate entries on general divine action and special divine action.

Topics included

I’ve already mentioned that the book covers an impressive number of topics, but I was quite pleased to see the value of casting such a wide net when deciding which topics to include. For instance, Michael Murray’s entry on animal pain discusses the problem of reconciling the reality of suffering in the animal kingdom with a good and powerful God. In the course of this, he references work in neuroscience and the role evolutionary biology might play in developing an explanation of this suffering. Thus, the entry is an example of how scientific work might be deployed to answer a theological and moral question. This and other entries like it show us that there is more to the relationship between religion and science than the resolution of conflict.

Some topics covered are less directly related to modern scientific notions, but paint a picture of science as an ongoing and developing human enterprise. So, there is an entry on human dissection which discusses the role the medieval church played in it and how it developed over the centuries. There is an entry on alchemy which discusses its principles and aims as well as its relation to the development of chemistry. And there is an entry on just-so stories which discusses the origins of the term and how it gets used by scientists to refer to overly-speculative hypotheses.

I wonder, however, if the net was cast just a bit too wide, with some entries seeming out of place. For instance, there is an entry on natural law theory, a family of meta-ethical views on how ethics is grounded. While the entry is well-written, I struggle to see its relevance to the question of Christianity and science, apart from having the words “natural” and “law” in its name. I found no entry on divine command theory (another popular meta-ethical view), so it doesn’t seem as though the editors thought meta-ethics as such warranted inclusion. Other examples of entries that seemed out of place were the one on the incarnation and the one on the trinity, both of which seemed more relevant to the broader question of the coherence of Christianity than its relationship to science. Fortunately, these out-of-place entries are few and far between, and for the most part, the wide casting of the net did not come at the expense of relevance.

Cross-referencing

Any good reference book should enable readers to cross-reference effectively, so that they can properly explore the topics covered within. This is all the more important for a book that covers as many topics as the present one, and the editors were evidently cognizant of this. As you read through any entry, the words or phrases that make up the title of another entry are set in bold, to signal to the reader which of the ideas covered in the entry have further information elsewhere in the book.

One thing that might be worth adding in a future edition would be entries which have the sole purpose of linking to other entries on the same topic under a different title. This would make it easier to find an entry on a topic which a reader might know by a different name to the one the book uses. I experienced this when trying to find the entry on animal pain, which I only managed to find after looking for entries on animal suffering, then suffering, animal, then pain, animal, and then suffering, problem of. Not all topics would admit of multiple names like this, but for those which do these “pointer” entries would make them easier to find.

Conclusion

The Dictionary of Christianity and Science is a valuable resource for the layperson, the scientist, the apologist, and the theologian. It collects the effort of many experts walking the reader through a vast array of topics related to the questions surrounding Christianity and science. With the multi-view discussions, it introduces readers to ongoing debates on various topics, while at the same time using these debates to define key terms and ideas within those topics. I can recommend it without hesitation to anyone interested in exploring this question that has been with us for centuries, and will probably continue to be with us in the centuries to come.

A simple matter made complex

Alice: I just bought a shelf from Ikea.

Bob: Strictly speaking, you bought the matter of a shelf from Ikea.

Alice: Well, that’s the thing that matters, isn’t it? 😛

Bob: Not really, since it’s the form that makes the matter a shelf.

Alice: That’s a different matter entirely, I was just —

Bob: Not so, it would be the same matter, just with a different form.

Alice: I was trying to say that there’s no disagreement of any substance here.

Bob: Agreed. For there to be a disagreement regarding substance, one of us would need to think the shelf had a substantial form.

Alice: No, I had something much simpler in mind.

Bob: Come now, you can’t seriously be considering whether the shelf is simple? It is evident that it must be a form-matter composite.

Alice: My point is that we’re talking in different categories.

Bob: Well, I wasn’t really thinking about the categories at all.

Alice: Yes, that was evident.

 

A web of links

I’ve been working on a number of larger projects over the past few months, and so haven’t had the opportunity to post anything in a while. I hope to be finishing up with some of these in the next few weeks. In the meantime, I’ve collected a number of interesting links (mostly videos) for your viewing pleasure.

Robert Kuhn over at Closer To Truth has recently interviewed Eleonore Stump on a number of interesting questions: What are persons? Do they have souls? Do heaven and hell really exist? And what is God’s eternity? Be sure to also check out earlier questions to her about God’s eternity and his relation to time.

Interested in music? Vox has some great videos discussing Rap and Kanye West, and Polyphonic asks what about John Bonham makes him such a good drummer.

If you thought American Sniper was obviously a pro-war movie, it might be worth reconsidering that assumption a bit more carefully. In their video essay, Storytellers argues that it is really a subtle and careful anti-war movie, and follows this up with a response video. On the topic of war movies, Storytellers also has an interesting discussion on the movie Jarhead.

Sticking with the theme of movies, Films&Stuff discusses the first Matrix movie and how it was structured around the theme of breaking rules. NerdWriter discusses how Lord of the Rings uses music as part of its story telling and what Logan means for superhero movies. The two Franco’s and Seth Rogen do a Q&A on the Disaster Artist. And Christopher Nolan does a Q&A on Dunkirk.

If like me, you quickly became tired of the Assassin’s Creed formula, then you might be pleasantly surprised by what the upcoming installment is shaping up to be.

If you enjoy (1) Let’s Play videos and (2) difficult platformers, then I can recommend BaerTaffy’s playthrough of The End is Nigh.

If you’re interested in Game Design, then I highly recommend Mark Brown’s discussion of Ori and the Blind Forest’s Ginso Tree level.

A while back Ian Bogost gave a talk on what makes things fun, and it turns out gameifying everything is not the way to do it.

Ever wanted to be able to speak backward? Well, Kurt Quinn can, and on Smarter Every Day they put this skill to the test.

You might have heard of the recent memo by Google employee James Damore, now commonly referred to as “the anti-diversity manifesto,” but more correctly called “the criticism-of-the-mechanisms-and-measures-used-for-increasing-diversity-without-consideration-for-alternative-solutions memo.” I guess the former is pithier. The reaction has been divided, to say the least. Some people seem to have not really read it all that charitably, while others have discussed the merits and possible corrections of the approach (see particularly the discussion between Grant and Alexander, and the responses of four scientists in relevant fields). Damore himself has recently been interviewed by Bloomberg.

Ever wondered why lowercase numbers don’t exist? Turns out they do!

A while back, over at the Augustine Collective, David Nolan discusses the role of emotions in Aquinas.

Feser on how to go to hell, how to think about angels, and the Benedict option.

Finally quantum mechanics. There’s William Wallace’s review of Smith’s book The Quantum Enigma, and Aaron Wall on intepreting the quantum world.