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)

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.

 

Because God said so

In a recent discussion with some friends, the question of why murder was wrong came up (actually, it was why Aquinas would say murder was wrong, but the discussion equally applies to the more general discussion to be had here). The answer “because God said so” quickly came up and, being a natural law theorist in the tradition of Aquinas, it left me unsatisfied. During later reflection on this, it occurred to me that there are at least three different questions at play here. Each of these questions might be answered in part with “because God said so,” but how each is fully cashed out is very different from the others. The three questions are as follows:

  1. Why is it bad to murder?
  2. How do I know whether it’s bad to murder?
  3. Why should I not murder?

The first question is a meta-ethical question about what makes things good, bad, virtuous, vicious, and so on. The second is a question of ethical epistemology about how we come to know the truth of the notions grounded by our meta-ethical answers. And the third is a question of normative ethics about what I should and shouldn’t do given the answers to the first two.

The three questions are related but very different from one another. Let’s take each of these questions in turn, discuss them in more depth, and outline what “because God said so” might look like as an answer. Now, of course, the details of the answers will depend on the meta-ethical framework we’re working from. For the majority of this post I’ll be working from a Thomistic natural law perspective, which I’ve discussed a number of times on this blog (eg. herehere, and here). Towards the end of this post, I’ll consider how another theistic meta-ethic (divine command theory) would differ from what was said.

Why is murder bad?

The fundamental thing that determines whether something is good or bad is whether it contributes to the fulfillment of your nature, the realization of your natural ends. Initially, it’s obvious why this would account for certain things being good or bad for me, such as not hurting or unnecessarily damaging myself. On the other hand, it is less clear how this would extend to the good of others, as when we say it is bad for me to murder another person. There are a number of ways to “extend” the notion of my good to include the good of others. I’ve sketched one before, and we can very briefly sketch another — in my opinion better — one by combining some previous discussions.

The fulfillment of our natural ends — and therefore the realization of our good — is achieved by us through the measured and unified expression of our natural powers. The active frustration of these powers would, therefore, be to that extent bad for us. Our natural ability, as rational animals, for co-operating toward a common end enables us to acquire what we might call “common powers” which are expressed through the participation in common endeavors. Consider the following example: by myself, I have the power to sing within a certain vocal range, but only with someone else am I able to harmonize within my vocal range. Here harmonization is a common power. Now, just as my frustrating a power is bad for me, so my frustrating a common power is a common bad for us. (Recall the kind of commonness we have in mind here.) Now, living amongst others gives us certain common powers, albeit ones less easily describable than “harmonization”. Murder would involve the frustration of some (or even all) of these powers and therefore be something bad.

Of course, much more needs to be said before this is a full account. The point to take away is that, however we flesh out the details, the way good and bad are grounded is ultimately based on the kind of beings we are (our natures). At this point is there any place for an answer like “because God says so”? Yes and no. Insofar as God creates and sustains us with the natures we have, he is the author of what is good or bad for us. But, he cannot do the impossible, and so he cannot arbitrarily decide what is good or bad for us any more than he can make a married bachelor or a square circle. So long as he creates a living being, he cannot make it good for that being to die. So long as he creates a rational being, he cannot make it good for that being to murder. So when it comes to natural law the “because God says so” answer needs to be understood in an indirect and qualified way.

But wait, there’s more. In section 2.5 here I mentioned that Aquinas distinguishes between four different fundamental kinds of law, one of which is the natural law we’ve been discussing so far. There’s also eternal law, which we’ll leave to one side. Then there’s positive law, which is law given by a legislator, and which is divided into human law (positive law given by a human legislator) and divine law (positive law given by a divine legislator). Now, natural law is often very vague and general and its application in particular cases requires careful consideration by wise people. So, as John Goyette says, “human law is essential for living the good life because it makes the general precepts of the natural law more specific.”[1] The same goes for divine law, with the obvious difference being that God is the legislator as opposed to humans.

In a sense both forms of positive law are authoritative because they’re based on natural law,[2] but they do establish new legal duties on us: so long as I am under a legislator who has imposed just duties on me, it is good for me to fulfill those duties and bad for me to fail in those duties. Because this goodness arises from positive law, we’ll refer to it as positive goodness. This positive goodness differs from the natural goodness mentioned above in an important way: natural goodness applies to us as humans whereas positive goodness applies to us as citizens under the legislator. So whereas natural goodness is applicable insofar as we have our particular nature, positive goodness only applies once the legislator has imposed the duties on us. So, then, with respect to positive goodness “because God says so” has direct relevance.

In the remainder of this post, if we do not specify the kind of goodness (or badness) in view then what we say applies equally to both outlined here.

How do I know whether it’s bad to murder?

This question differs from the first in that while the first concerned itself with ontology (what makes something bad) this question concerns itself with epistemology (how I know something is bad). Because of this, the number of potential answers (and so the potential for “because God says so” answers) increases.

The answers to the first question also apply to this question in the sense that one of the ways I can come to know whether murder is bad is by grasping what in reality makes it bad, or in other words, I can come to understand the ontological grounds for its badness. Indeed, this way of knowing the badness is in a sense primary in that it does not derive its correctness from other, deeper, reasons.

But I can come to know things in other ways, beyond the primary sense of grasping their underlying ontology, because I can come to know from others who know. I can come to learn the badness of murder from my parents, my school teachers, mentors, church leaders, the broader culture I find myself in, or some combination of authorities like these. If God has revealed himself (as some religions think he has), then he also stands as an authority that we can learn from. If God is concerned for our well-being and infallible in his judgments (again, as some religions think he is), then he is the uniquely perfect authority. And so, in this sense, “because God says so” takes on a special significance.

At this point, we must be careful not to forget the distinction between ontology and epistemology. Unlike in the previous section, here God’s revelation does not constitute the badness of murder but only perfectly informs us of it. All things being equal, we are justified in believing what we’re taught by the relevant authorities, and so a fortiori we are justified in believing what we’re taught by the perfect authority.

So we come to know what is bad by grasping the underlying ontological truths or by being taught by others. In the first case, all the “because God said so” answers in some sense carry over to the epistemological answers. In the second case, we have new “because God said so” answers insofar as he is a perfect authority on our nature (for natural goodness), and his will (for positive goodness).

Why should I not murder?

The first question was ontological, and the second was epistemological. This question is normative: it asks why I should act in a certain way. And just as the epistemological question was in a sense broader than the ontological one, so the normative question is broader still. Indeed, here the answers become manifold.

In general, a hypothetical imperative is a statement of the following form:

  1. If I want to achieve X, then I should do Y.

In cases where these apply, there’s something in the notion of X that entails that the way to achieve it is by means of Y. And this is largely mind-independent in that I should do Y even if I don’t understand enough about X to see that I should do Y. Consider a toy example:

  1. If I want to draw a straight line, then I should use a ruler.

This is true just by virtue of what drawing a straight line involves and the possible tools for achieving it. And it remains true even if I don’t know about rulers, or have temporarily forgotten about them, or hadn’t thought to use one, or any number of other reasons.

Now just as there are many motivations (X’s) for action, so too there are many of these imperatives and therefore many answers to the normative question. We’ve explained before that the imperative involving natural goodness is particularly interesting, because of the structure of the human will (section 2.4 here, cf. this and this). Taking the answer about natural goodness from the first question, an argument might be framed as follows:

  1. If I want what is good for me, then I should act so as to fulfill my natural ends.
  2. I do want what is good for me.
  3. Therefore, I should act so as to fulfill my natural ends.
  4. If I should act so as to fulfill my natural ends, then I should not murder.
  5. Therefore, I should not murder.

What’s interesting about this is that (2) is always true, since whenever we desire something it’s precisely because we see some good in it, and as noted above this remains true even in cases where our relevant judgments about what is good are incorrect. As Edward Feser says, “The mugger who admits that robbery is evil nevertheless takes his victim’s wallet because he thinks it would be good to have money to pay for his drugs.”[3]

Can something similar be said for the positive goodness discussed in the first section? It seems so: God is the legislator over all creation in charge of its common good, and since I should seek my good I should also, therefore, listen to his commands. (Again we note the dependence of positive goodness on the notion of natural goodness.)

So the previous “because God said so” answers carry over to answer the current question indirectly. However, these do not exhaust the possible motivations we might have. In addition to these, we might be motivated by a desire to follow God’s will, which itself perhaps follows from a love for him. We could also be motivated by the avoidance of punishment or the acquisition of reward. Each of these has analogs in human affairs too, of course, but we’re primarily interested in “because God said so” answers.

A different meta-ethical framework

How would things have been different if we’d approached these questions from a divine command theory perspective? On divine command theory, anything we’d get from natural law gets ignored, leaving positive divine law as the only form of goodness. Given the importance that natural goodness played in the discussion, it’s not surprising that this move also accompanies shifts in the logical ordering of things. So the normative force of God’s commands are taken as primitive and “morality” gets lifted to this somewhat mysterious and unique notion (cf. sections 1 and 2.1 here). The consequence of all of this is that “because God said so” takes on a more direct relevance more often, and plays a unique role in the ontological answer. The picture becomes flattened and therefore simpler, but wrong.[4]

Conclusion

If we take anything away from this it’s that the answer “because God said so” can be valid for very different reasons depending on what we mean by it. Let’s try and list the options that arose from the above discussion. Why should I not murder? “Because God said so.” In what sense? Well…

  1. Because it frustrates your natural ends established by God’s creative act, which is bad for you, as I know through philosophical investigation.
  2. Because it is bad for you, as revealed by God.
  3. Because it goes contrary to God’s law, which is bad for you, as revealed by God.
  4. Because it is contrary to God’s will.
  5. Because God will punish you if you do.

I’ve tried to capture this diagrammatically in the following:

Solid arrows represent ontological priority. Broken arrows represent epistemological priority.
Solid arrows represent ontological priority. Broken arrows represent epistemological priority.

Notes

  1. John Goyette, On the Transcendence of the Common Good.
  2. Thomas Aquinas, ST I-II, Q. 90, Art. 4.
  3. Edward Feser, Classical Natural Law Theory, Property Rights, and Taxation.
  4. I take the fact that on divine command theory the term “good” is equivocal (as opposed to analogical), that authority and normative force need to be primitive or reduced to something consequentialist, and that “moral” picks out some special and mysterious class of facts. I consider all of these reasons to reject divine command theory as a viable alternative to Thomistic natural law theory.

How Aristotle starts the Nicomachean Ethics

In the opening passage of the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle seeks to pick out the specific subject of his study for the remainder of the book. His discussion is often misunderstood, but a good understanding of it will serve us well in understanding the study of ethics. We will consider the passage bit by bit with comments and clarifications as we go along, doing our best to read it according to the principle of charity.

The good has the nature of an end

Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and choice, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim. (emphasis added)

Contrary to what some people think, Aristotle is not committing a quantifier shift fallacy here. Rather, he’s picking out some determinable, the good, which is common to all things done for some end. Let’s unpack this.

In general, something is less determinate (and therefore more indeterminate) if it is vaguer or less specific. So, for instance, red is less determinate that scarlet. Furthermore, determinateness comes in degrees: red is less determinate than scarlet, and coloured is less determinate than red. We use the term “determinable” to refer to some partially indeterminate feature which can be determined in some way. So, coloured is a determinable which red determines and red is a determinable which scarlet determines.

When two things resemble one another it is on account of them sharing some determinable feature which they each determine in some way: a scarlet thing resembles a crimson thing in that they are both red (that is, they share the determinable red), and both resemble a green thing in that they are all coloured things (that is, they share the determinable coloured). Just as determination comes in degrees, so too does resemblance: the scarlet and crimson things resemble each other at more levels of determination that the scarlet and green things. Speaking discretely, the scarlet and crimson things resemble each other as red and as coloured, whereas the scarlet and green thing only resemble each other as coloured.

In this opening passage Aristotle seeks to narrow the focus of his study by picking out the determinable that all desired things share, according to which they resemble each other as desired or as aimed at in some activity. He notes that whenever we desire or aim at something it is because of some good in it, and therefore the good is rightly declared to be this determinable he’s looking for. Now, just as what makes something one colour as opposed to another will depend on the particular way in which the determinable coloured has been determined, so too the reason why this or that thing is desirable or aimed at will depend on the particular thing in view. Good ice-cream and good vacations are desirable for different reasons, and so determinethe good in different ways, but they resemble each other in that they are pursued.

Later treatments would make explicit a question which, as far as I can tell, Aristotle leaves implicit or thinks obvious: is something good because I desire it, or do I desire it because it’s good? It cannot be the former, since I often desire things I later realise were in fact bad for me.

For haven’t we all had the experience of wanting something which we ourselves then admitted was not good? I wanted that last drink at the party, but afterwards I admit that it was not good for me. I wanted to drive 100 mph down the winding road, but later, on my hospital bed, I admit that it was not good. If wanting something made it good, then my wanting the last drink would have made it good for me. (Edmund Waldstein, The Good, the Highest Good, and the Common Good, thesis 2)

It must be, therefore, that I desire something because it seems good to me in some way. That is, the goodness I perceive causes the desire in me. Of course this perception may be incorrect, but the point remains that it because of the good I perceive in something (correctly or incorrectly) that attracts me to it as something worth pursuing.

Returning to our passage, Aristotle is noting here that in general the good “has the nature of an end” (cf. ST I-II Q9 A1 corp). An end is “that for the sake of which something is done” and a means is “that which is done for the sake of something”. These are complementary notions such that whenever we have one we also have the other. We see Aristotle make this same connection in the Physics where he lays out his four kinds of causes. In the passage he identifies ends as what later would be called final causes:

Then there are things which are causes in the sense that they are the ends of the other things, and are the good for which they are done. Without quibbling about whether it is an actual good or an apparent good, that at which other things are aimed — that is, their end — tends to be what is best. (Aristotle, Physics II.3 195a23-25)

Note that the Aristotelian “cause” is much broader than the modern’s “cause”. The modern usage most closely approximates the Aristotelian efficient cause. For those unfamiliar with the Aristotelian usage, perhaps “four kinds of explanations” is more helpful for conveying what he’s getting at.

Note also that the phrase “tends to be what is best” is just there to explain how ends and goods relate: something is good to the extent that it fulfills its end, and so to achieve its end in full is best (that is, most good). This is all he means.[1]

In summary, then, this first passage involves distilling this determinable the good, which is what accounts for the resemblance between things as desired in some activity. It picks out something as an end or that for the sake of which the activity is done.

Ends are better than means

But a certain difference is found among ends; some are activities, others are products apart from the activities that produce them. Where there are ends apart from the actions, it is the nature of the product to be better than the activities.

Now, as there are many actions, arts, and sciences, their ends also are many; the end of the medical art is health, that of shipbuilding a vessel, that of strategy victory, that of economics wealth. But where such arts fall under a single capacity — as bridle-making and the other arts concerned with the equipment of horses fall under the art of riding, and this and every military action under strategy, in the same way other arts fall under yet others — in all of these the ends of master arts are to be preferred to all the subordinate ends; for it is for the sake of the former that the latter are pursued. It makes no difference whether the activities themselves are then ends of the actions, or something else apart from the activities, as in the case of the sciences just mentioned.

Aristotle here makes distinctions regarding how activities and ends relate to one another. First, either the end and activity are the same or they are distinct. An orchestra playing a piece is an example of the former, since the performance is both the end and the activity. A carpenter making a chair is an example of the latter, since there’s a real distinction between the production of the chair (activity) and the chair (end). We must note that by “product” we don’t only mean physical objects that result from some activity, as the chair results from the carpentry. Rather, we mean any outcome which is distinct from the activity that brings it about. So, winning a sports game is the end and product pursued when playing the game.

Second, an activity can be made up of other activities. In this case, we might say that the subsuming activity is superordinate (or “master”), and the subsumed activities are subordinate. Subordinate activities are parts of superordinate activities.

Both distinctions show us different ways in which ends and means might arise and relate. Sometimes the end and the means are really the same thing, as when an activity is the end we desire. In this case, the distinction we impose is merely conceptual. Other times they are really distinct, as when an activity produces something external to it. Moreover, when one activity is subordinate to another the former is done for the sake of the latter, and so the former relates to the latter as a means to an end.

Twice in this passage he picks cases where there is a real distinction between ends and means (the product and activity, and the superordinate and subordinate activities), and notes that the end is always better than the means. This is true because “it is for the sake of the former that the latter are pursued”. That is, the end is more truly the thing desired, whereas the means is desired only in a derivative way. The end is desired through the means.

To make this more precise we need distinguish between the thing itself on the one hand and the thing desired on the other. Now, a thing is desired to the extent that it — and not something else — fulfills that desire, and so the desire for the thing itself is proportional to how closely it relates to the thing desired.[2] Thus, if just this or that feature of the thing is desired, then that feature is more desired that the thing itself. For instance, if I buy a torch because I want the lightbulb inside of it, then I desire the lightbulb more than I desire the torch. Conversely, if the thing itself is just one feature of what is desired, then the greater whole will be more desired than the thing itself. For instance, if I desire a violin performance because I desire an orchestra performance, then I desire the orchestra performance more than the violin performance.

Applying this to the cases Aristotle mentions, we can see why his claims are true. First, there’s the case when an activity is desired for the sake of some product really distinct from it. Here the activity is desired because of one of its features, namely the ability to bring about the desired product, and so the acquisition of the product is desired more than the activity itself. Second, there’s case of a subordinate activity being desired for the sake of some superordinate activity. Here the subordinate activity is desired because it is part of the superordinate activity, and so the superordinate activity desired more than the subordinate one.

We might also arrive at this conclusion from a slightly different angle. We’ve seen that goodness has the nature of an end. Thus to be better (that is, more good) is to be more of an end. Now, something is more of an end if it is closer to some final or ultimate end, as riding is closer to strategy than bridle-making.[3] But if A is a means to B, then B is closer to some final end, and is therefore more of an end, and therefore better.

At this point we must make two clarifications.

First, people sometimes mistakenly interpret Aristotle as assuming that bridle-making is only ever done for the sake of strategy. The passage does not require that we interpret him this way, and given his historical context he surely knew that bridle-making could also be done for the sake of other things, like recreation or sport. What he’s doing here is picking one of these instances as a concrete example of how activities might relate to one another such that some subsume others. If you prefer you could use an example where bridle-making is subsumed under some activity other than strategy, but the point would remain the same.

Second, to say that that ends are always better than means is not to say that things that are ends are always better than things that are means. Rather, we’re claiming that things considered as ends are always better than things considered as means. Part of the import of the first passage is that whenever we consider something better than another thing, it must be with respect to some end. But the complexity of human desires means that the same activity might be desirable for more than one reason, and therefore on account of more than one end. Imagine, as an example, that our friends have come together to study as a group. On the one hand, this might be desirable because studying produces knowledge. On the other, we might desire it because we enjoy spending time with our friends. The conclusion here, and Aristotle’s point, is that knowledge is better than studying considered as a means to knowledge. We’re saying nothing about the relationship between knowledge and studying considered as a part of spending time with friends.

In general, the claim that ends are always better than means is not the same as the claim that if B is ever a means to A, then A is always better than B. Rather, it is that claim that whenever and insofar as B is a means to A, A is better than it.

In summary, then, this passage notes certain helpful distinctions regarding activities and ends. Sometimes the activity and the end are the same, and sometimes they are distinct. In the latter case, the end is better than the activity. Activities themselves can often be divided into sub-activities (called subordinate activities), and in these cases the superordinate activities are better than the subordinate activities.

The chief good has the nature of a last end

If, then, there is some end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake (everything else being desired for the sake of this), and if we do not choose everything for the sake of something else (for at that rate the process would go on to infinity, so that our desire would be empty and vain), clearly this must be the good and the chief good.

This passage has caused much confusion for readers, and it certainly would have been better if Aristotle had spent some more space clarifying his meaning here. Some have thought that by “chief good” Aristotle is picking out some particular final end of all human life. I’m inclined to think that he only introduces such a notion later in the first book, and even then with more nuance than some commentators would grant him. Alas, we will have to leave that for a future post.

But if he is not talking about a specific end, then what could he be talking about? Good question. In the first passage Aristotle arrived at this determinable the good which, having the nature of an end, is that for the sake of which everything is desired. Now, as with all determinables, we can determine this in various ways to various levels of specificity. So we can talk about the good, the good thing, the good artist, the good musician, the good violinist, the good first violinist, and so on. This parallels how we can talk about the coloured thing, the red thing, the scarlet thing, and so on. But notice how we could determine things differently, so that instead of determining coloured to red we could determine coloured to brightly coloured. This kind of “alternative determination” is what Aristotle is doing here in this third passage.[4] We’ll first discuss the structure, and then explain his defense.

The first part of the sentence reintroduces the notion already discussed in the first passage — this determinable the good — which he refers to as the “end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake”. Now in the second passage you’ll recall he discussed ends and means and how they arise in various general ways, and he noted that the ends are always better than their means. Now consider some particular case where A is desired for the sake of B, B is desired for the sake of C, and so on, but where this chain comes to some final end Z. In this case Z is different from all the other members in the chain in that it is not desired for the sake of something else, or in other words it does not derive its desirability from another as a means derives its desirability from its end. This is the property Aristotle wishes to use in his alternative determination of the good, and it gives us this determinable the chief good. Now the chief good is still fairly indeterminate, and there is nothing in the notion itself that requires that it pick out one particular good in all cases. Depending on how we determine it we will get different goods: the chief medical good is health, the chief economic good is wealth, and the chief military good is victory. The important thing here is that the chief military good is not bridle-making, since the latter is an activity subordinated under the activity of strategy and as such derives its desirability from that superordinate activity.

So, if we were to repeat the passage, taking out the parentheses and highlighting corresponding determinables and their names, we would get the following:

If, then, there is some end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake… and if we do not choose everything for the sake of something else… clearly this must be the good andthe chief good.

This, then, is the structure of the passage. But you’ll notice that Aristotle thinks that all chains of desire must end in some or other chief end. He summarises the reason for this in the second pair of parentheses when he says that if a specific chain didn’t come to an end then “the process would go on to infinity, so that our desire would be empty and vain”. Someone unfamiliar with the distinctions and arguments introduced by him in his other works like the Physics and Metaphysics can be forgiven for missing that he is just summarising and applying these here, as opposed to working them out from the start again. For the sake of clarity we will expand his summary slightly.

In those works Aristotle makes use of a general distinction between what would later become called per se causal chains and per accidens causal chains. These days they are also sometimes called essentially ordered causal chains and accidentally ordered causal chains respectively. The defining characteristic of a per se causal chain is that each member in the chain acts only insofar as it is acted upon, so that it derives its power to act from some other member in the chain. The standard example of such a chain is that of a stick which pushes a rock, which it does only insofar as it is pushed by me. On the other hand members in a per accidens causal chain do not depend on each other in this way. Here the standard example is that while my father depends on my grandfather for his coming to be, it is not the case that my father begets me only insofar as my grandfather begets him. (As a reminder note that while I’m using efficient causal chains as illustrative examples, the term “cause” here is used in the broader Aristotelian sense and not in the limited modern sense.)

Now, any particular per se causal chain requires an ultimate cause, by which we mean something with underived causal power in the relevant sense. This ultimate cause is also sometimes called a “first” cause, but when using this term we must remember that we aren’t concerned with something first in the sense of being earlier than all the other cause, but rather something being independent of the other causes and on which they depend. Indeed, when considering chains of final causes, this “first” cause is actually the last end.[5]

The reason why per se chains need ultimate causes is because each intermediate cause merely propagates the causal power it derives from another, so that unless there’s some originating cause there would be no causal power to propagate in the first place. Now because people are prone to misunderstand what’s being said we note that this point isn’t primarily concerned with the number of causes, but their kind — namely, that they are derivative causes. For example, it doesn’t matter how many water pipes you have, they will never by themselves be able to direct a flow of water unless something puts water into the system. Similarly, if everything in a collection can push only insofar as it is itself pushed, then that collection cannot by itself push anything.

Aristotle is here applying this to the notion of final causes: if everything in a collection produces desire in me only insofar as it derives that desirability from another, then that collection cannot by itself produce desire in me. What we need is something which is desired for its own sake and not for the sake of another, failing which the chain would have no power to produce desire in me (or, as Aristotle says, “our desire would be empty and vain”). This ultimate final cause, or ultimate end, would then be an example of a chief good.

So far we have left one thing in the passage unexplained: if the point about per se chains isn’t primarily about the number of causes, then why is Aristotle concerned that “the process would go on to infinity“? We can take Aristotle’s words in two ways, each of which complements the other. First, it might be that he’s using the term to pick out the notion of an infinite regress in the sense that there is no ultimate cause. This is sometimes how the term is used these days, and in this sense of the term it is consistent with there being infinitely many intermediate causes between the ultimate cause and the final effect (assuming such a thing is coherent). Second, while the point about per se chains isn’t primarily about quantity, it has a secondary consequence about quantity. It follows that the chain must be finite from the facts that (1) for each cause there is a next member of the chain (that which it causes), (2) there is a first member (the ultimate cause), and (3) there is a last member (the final effect).[6]

In summary, then, this last passage combines the insights from the first two and, by way of “alternative determination”, picks out the primary focus of the rest of the rest of his study, namely this determinable the chief good. This is just the beginning, however, and in a later post we will discuss the narrowing of his focus to the particularly human chief good that occurs later in the book.

Related resources

The biggest influence on the approach I followed here was David Oderberg, particularly his papers On an Alleged Fallacy in Aristotle and The Content and Structure of the Good. I quoted Edmund Waldstein’s The Good, the Highest Good, and the Common Good, and I highly recommend reading that too.

The notion of a determinable and it’s distinction from a cause is critically important for precision of thought. Ronald McArthur’s paper Universal in praedicando, universal in causando is an invaluable resource for understanding the distinction between predication (which corresponds to our determinables) and causation. I highly recommend it.

For more information on per se vs per accidens causal chains I recommend Edward Feser’s blogposts Cross on Scotus on causal series and Edwards on infinite causal seriesm Caleb Cohoe’s paper There Must Be a First, and Gaven Kerr’s paper Essentially Ordered Series Reconsidered. Cohoe’s paper is the one where I realised that additional reasons need to be given for thinking that per se causal chains are finite.

Notes

  1. In general something fails to fulfill its end only to the extent that it is prevented in some way, due to either internal defect or external interference. For instance, a carpenter might aim at making a chair which can hold people up and not fall down easily, and will only fail to achieve this if impeded by something internal (like lack of ability) or something external (like bad materials). Unless such interference occurs the carpenter will achieve their end in full, which is the best result. We’ve mentioned before that classical thinkers like Aristotle realised that there is a broad sense in which all things are orientated to certain ends given by their natures. And in the Physics he has this more general notion in mind. For instance, the development process of a dog is directed toward the growth of four legs with which the dog can walk, and only fails to achieve this when the dog has some kind of genetic defect or has some external blocker is present, like an accident or lack of food. Again, unless it is interfered with the process will achieve it’s end in full, which is the best result.
  2. In coming up with this phrasing I thought of a number of alternatives, which I include here for posterity: “the thing exhausts the desire without excess”, “the thing itself, and not some part or some greater whole, is what’s desired”, “the thing itself is desired, and not some part thereof or some whole of which it is part”, “the thing is desired neither merely in part or as a part”, “the whole of the thing is the whole of what’s desired”, “the thing is all and only what is desired”, “the thing in reality matches the thing desired”, “a thing is desired to the extent that it matches the object of that desire”, “the thing satisfies the desire without excess or deficit”, “of the thing itself and the thing desired, neither is a part of the other, but they agree completely”, “the thing itself, and not something more or less, fulfills the desire”.
  3. Shortly we will defend the claim that every chain of ends must have some final, ultimate, or “chief” end. However, this is not required for this point. If we have some infinite series of ends, then to say that B is more of an end than A it is sufficient that it be closer to some end C which is further along the chain.
  4. The rough idea is as follows: when we determine some determinable we contract or qualify it in some way. Now we come to know determinables through abstracting away these qualifications, and so the most “natural” way of determining them is by the same road we took to get there in the first place. But nothing in this constrains us to this, and we are free to qualify or contract in a different way to how we first arrived at the determinable. This different way is what I’m calling an “alternative determinations”.
  5. I’m reminded of the saying of Christ that “the last will be first, and the first last.” (Matt 20:16)
  6. While Aristotle wouldn’t have expressed it in these terms exactly, it seems from his other works that he understood the principles at play here. The three facts combined mean that the causal chain is one-to-one mappable onto a bounded contiguous range of natural numbers, which is only possible if the chain is finite.

From morality to nature and back again

Below is a talk I recently gave at a local apologetics meet-up. The goal was to introduce and partially defend natural law theory to a group of fellow-Protestants who, as far as I was aware, had not engaged extensively with natural law theory before. The talk was recorded in various parts, with video coming in the second part. At the end there is a collection of resources for those interested in some further reading.

In our previous meeting I got the impression that my views on morality as an Aristotelian and Thomist are particularly different from the views of many of you here, as well as Protestants more generally these days. I have two goals here tonight. The first is to introduce and partially defend the views I’ve come to hold on these issues, and the second is to explain how these relate particularly to Protestant approaches to Scripture and modern uses of the moral argument for God’s existence.

We’ll be concerning ourselves primarily with issues of meta-ethics, which is that subfield of ethics that concerns itself with (1) what we mean by certain terms like “good”, “moral”, “virtue”, “justice”, “ought”, as well as (2) how such things are grounded, by which we mean giving an account of what makes things good, moral, virtuous, etc. There are roughly two meta-ethical theories I want to talk about:

  1. Divine command theory, which I imagine is the view many of us here hold.
  2. Natural law theory, which is the view I want to recommend as best.

Now, before we start I should note that these two theories have very different approaches in terms of how they are developed. Like most modern meta-ethical theories, the divine command theory we’ll be talking about takes the term “moral” as picking out some special or mysterious class of facts that need to be defined and grounded by the theory. On the other hand, for the classical natural law theory we’ll be talking about, the term “moral” doesn’t pick out any particularly special, and is defined before we even start the theory. The focus of natural law theory is instead the notion of “goodness”.

This is noteworthy because we’re going to use the word “moral” in both senses tonight, and it can get confusing unless you keep this difference in mind.

1. Essentialist Divine Command Theory

I imagine the divine command theory that is most commonly held here is the so-called essentialist divine command theory defended by people like William Lane Craig and Robert Adams.[1] We can sketch the rough outlines of the theory in about 7 points:

  1. “Moral” picks out those fact which are most fundamental and important. If our government commands us to do something immoral, for example, we still have a duty to refrain from listening to them, since our moral duties are more important than our duties to our government.
  2. We divide moral facts into moral values and moral duties. Moral value refers to the worth or goodness of something. Moral duties refer to the moral obligations or prohibitions that apply to us, what we ought and ought not do, rights and wrongs.
  3. Moral value is ultimately grounded in God’s nature or essence, in the sense that he is the paradigm of moral goodness. Because God is a person, persons are morally valuable. Because God is loving, love is morally good. And so on.
  4. Moral duties are grounded in God’s commands to us, which are given explicitly through revelation or implicitly through conscience. The idea here is that in general duties arise from commands from qualified authorities. For example, when a policeman commands me to do something I have a legal duty to do that, since policemen are qualified legal authorities. God, being the paradigm of moral goodness, is uniquely qualified to be a perfect moral authority, and so his commands constitute moral duties.
  5. God’s commands, and therefore our duties, are not arbitrary because they are based on God’s unchanging nature, which we said in (3) is the paradigm of moral goodness. Nor are they based on something external or “bigger” than him because his nature is something internal to him.
  6. Moral virtues are those habits that dispose us to doing good and right things as they are grounded in God’s nature and commands.
  7. Because moral duties arise from God in this way, it seems that so must our personal motivations for obeying them. In a Christian context this would mean that the reason we follow God’s commands is out (1) love for God and desire to be with him, and (2) fear of just punishment.

2. Thomistic Natural Law Theory

We move now to natural law theory. The particular brand of natural law that I’m interested in here is the one from by Thomas Aquinas, who himself was developing the natural law theory of Aristotle.

2.1. Morality is about practical reason

Now, as I said, as a classical theory we have the term “moral” defined upfront: “moral” picks out things relating to the will, and therefore also our actions. For example, classically we can by divide reason into speculative reason and practical reason. Speculative reason relates to our intellect and has to do with applying reason to further expand our understanding of reality. The habits that lead to good speculative reasoning are called the intellectual virtues. Practical reason relates to our will and has to do with applying reason to govern how we will and act. So habits that lead to good practical reasoning are called moral virtues.

So, while we might have inherited the word “moral” from Aristotle, it no longer has the same meaning. Classically, it did not denote some special or fundamental class of value of duty, it wasnot connected with the will of God in such a way that he could be said to be a lawgiver, and it does not carry the psychological weight of being bound by some law. In his Ethics Aristotle discusses both moral and intellectual virtues, with neither being more important than the other.[2] The reason for this is that both moral and intellectual virtues part of being a good human.

As we said, the best starting point would be how classical natural law understands the notion of “goodness”.

2.2. Good has the nature of an end

Aquinas said that in general the good “has the nature of an end”[3] and we’ll use this as our starting point. In a way, though, our modern ears aren’t prepared for this definition, because we’ve been taught to think of conscious deliberation whenever we think of something working for an end. But for Aristotle and Aquinas our consciousness is just a special case of the goal-directedness that exists throughout nature. For them, everything that exists has tendencies toward certain ends determined by its nature.

The thought is roughly as follows: at every level things exhibit certain natural regularities or tendencies toward certain effects. We see this in living things, like how hearts regularly pump blood, or how dogs regularly grow up to have four legs so they can walk, or how seeds regularly grow into trees. We also see this in non-living things, like how matches tend to combust when struck, the moon tends to orbit the earth, salt regularly dissolves in water, rocks regularly fall to the ground, and so on. In each case we have something consistently producing its specific effect unless its prevented from doing so in some way.

And notice that each regularity involves the production a specific effect rather than something else or nothing at all. Matches produce fire as opposed to producing ice or nothing at all. Seeds grow into trees and not into rocks. Salt dissolves as opposed to combusting. Rocks fall as opposed to exploding. And the same goes for all the numerous regularities that exist throughout the universe. But, that things consistently work to produce their specific effects seems to make sense only if “there is something in them that is directed at or points to specifically those outcomes rather than any others”.[4]

So, in some broad sense hearts are directed at pumping blood, the development process of dogs works to produce an organism that walks on four legs, matches are directed at combusting when struck, salt is directed to dissolving in water, and so on. At the end of the day we find that everything that exhibits some form of natural regularity must be directed by its nature towards that behaviour as kind of end or goal. This is the kind of “teleology” that Aristotle and Aquinas have in mind when they talk about goal-directedness in nature, which by-and-large isn’t due to the conscious deliberation of the things themselves. Of course, working this out completely requires a fairly lengthy side-track into metaphysics and philosophy of nature, but hopefully the examples I gave will give you enough of an intuition.

Now, let’s go back to what Aquinas was saying about good having the nature of an end. What he’s getting at is that whenever we talk about an end we can also talk about goodness: something is good to the extent it fulfills its end and bad or defective to the extent that it fails to fulfill its end. If I’m playing a sports match, for instance, then my actions are good for me to the extent that they help me win the game. On the other hand, losing the game would be bad for me, and could happen because I played badly or because my opponent played better than me. A chair is good to the extent that it realizes the carpenter’s end of making something that holds people up and doesn’t fall over. And a music performance is good the extent that it achieves the orchestra’s end of playing the piece.

2.3. Natural goodness

So we have that (1) everything is in some sense directed toward certain ends by their nature and (2) whenever somethings works for an end we have a measure of goodness for that thing. This gives us a very general sense of goodness that applies to almost everything. Because this notion of goodness is so closely linked with the natures of things we can call it “natural goodness”.

It might sound odd, but this natural goodness is in some sense both relative and objective. It is relative because what is good for you is dependent on the kind of thing that you are. If you had had a different nature, then different things would be good for you. It’s bad for cats to have two legs, but it is good for humans to have two legs. A good match causes fire when used, and a good fire extinguisher stops fire when used. However it’s still objective because at the more fundamental levels you don’t decide your own nature, and cannot change it.

Now, this natural goodness serves as the springboard for all ethical reasoning in natural law theory. The basic idea is that because we can study our human nature through various empirical methods and philosophical reasoning, we can also come to a better understanding on how to live well as humans.

2.4. Accountability, duty, and authority

While we can’t go through all the details here, what I would like to do is give you a rough idea of how on natural law theory we can move from this natural goodness to thinks like moral accountability, duties, and authority.

Accountability, it seems to me, is ambiguous between two things, which we’ll take in turn: responsibility and punishment. We noted earlier that moral virtues are a special case of virtues in general, and I think something similar happens when you consider moral responsibility and responsibility in general. In general, being responsible for an action means that that action was up to you. And people typically that one’s responsibility is in some way proportional to one’s knowledge, or at least one’s capacity for knowledge. The idea here is that an action is up to you only to the extent that you understand what you’re doing. So we generally hold adults more responsible for their actions than children, who we hold more responsible for their actions than our pets, who we hold more responsible for their actions than this or that rock.

Now, humans have been traditionally been called rational animals. We don’t mean by this that humans are always perfectly rational: they’re not. Roughly, what makes animals rational is their ability to grasp and be conscious of universal concepts that particular things fall under. So there’s the particular human called Socrates, and there’s the universal concept of humanness which Socrates, Plato, and all other humans fall under. All animals are conscious in some way of particular things, but rational are those animals which are also conscious universal concepts. Now, this ability to understand universal concepts means we have the ability to understand the natural goodness and evil, that we were talking about earlier, both for ourselves and for others, as well as the ability to choose to pursue or avoid this goodness. This additional understanding about our actions results in us being held more responsible for them, and this additional layer or responsibility is what we mean by “moral” responsibility. At the end of the day, we say that an action is morally good or evil to the extent that the end or means willed in that action are naturally good or evil.

For example, if due to genetic defect or accident I have only one leg this is bad for me but I am not responsible it. In this case we have a natural evil without a moral evil. On the other hand, if I cut my own leg off then this is an evil for which I am responsible. In this case we have a natural evil with a moral dimension, since the natural evil is the product of my will.

As for punishment, one way it arises is as follows: humans are not merely rational animals but also political animals, by which we mean that it is natural and good for us to be part of various communities like families, sports teams, companies, friendships, and states. When a part is a detriment to the good of the whole, it is good for that part to be removed from that whole or to otherwise incur some debt so as to restore the good of the whole.[5, 6] For example, if my hand has gangrene it is good for me to cut it off. This removal or debt will be punishment, and if properly administered it will have to be done according to the principle of retributive justice.[7]

What about duties? On divine command theory we have divine legal duties which arise from God’s commands to us. And although it’s not as big a focus in natural law, we can also say something about duties. We’ve seen that our nature sets certain ends for us, and to the extent that an action contributes to our fulfillment of these ends it is good. This gives us the fact that, if I will the good, then I ought act so as to fulfill my natural ends. But if we think about it, in general we act for something because we will it, and we will it because it seems good to us in some way. “The mugger who admits that robbery is evil nevertheless takes his victim’s wallet because he thinks it would be good to have money to pay for his drugs.”[8] What this means, however, is that we always will what seems good to us, even if sometimes we incorrectly prioritize some goods over others. Combining this with our earlier fact we get to the following conclusion:

  1. If I will the good, then I ought act so as to fulfill my natural ends.
  2. I do will the good.
  3. Therefore, I ought act so as to fulfill my natural ends.[9]

After some reflection on our natures this will result in various duties such as “I ought not steal”, “I ought not murder”, “I ought honor my parents”, and so on. But what kind of duty is this? It’s certainly not a legal duty that we get from divine command theory, since it doesn’t arise from any command. We might call it a rational or a natural duty since it arises out of our natural capacity for practical reason. It serves to show us that we should be interested in what is naturally good for us.

And finally, what of authority? Here we combine some of the points we’ve already made. The idea here is that someone has authority over me if they are in charge of my good, since I ought seek my good, and therefore I ought listen to their commands. Different people will have authority over different areas of my life and to different degrees depending on their position and qualification, and in each case something like this idea applies.

2.5. The four laws

Now, is there any place for a divine legislator on natural law theory? This is one of the main areas where Aristotle and Aquinas differ. For Aristotle, God is not a divine legislator and the only place he takes in the ethics is as the object of our highest end which is philosophical contemplation about him. Aquinas, however, thinks Aristotle made a mistake here. In unpacking what he thinks is the correct view, Aquinas explains that there are ultimately four kinds of law:

  1. There’s the eternal law, which embodies God’s knowledge of all the various natures of things he could have created, and so what would have been good for them.
  2. There’s the natural law, which is what we’ve been speaking about here. For humans this forms the foundation for all our practical reasoning. It tells us what it means to act well as the kinds of things that we are. It’s called “natural” law because all of this derives from our natures.
  3. There’s human law, which are laws promulgated by a human legislator in charge of a community. Natural law is often very vague and general and it’s application in particular cases requires careful consideration by wise people. “[H]uman law is essential for living the good life because it makes the general precepts of the natural law more specific.”[10] Human law is authoritative because it’s based on natural law.
  4. Finally there’s the divine law, which are laws promulgated by God, the divine legislator. This law most closely represents that law that we think of in divine command theory, and they are the laws that are proclaimed through some form of revelation.

So there is a place for divine law, but it’s embedded in this bigger theory of ethics. Ultimately I think every intuition we have explained in divine command theory can be relocated somewhere in natural law theory, with a richer foundation, since natural law gives us accounts of things like authority, responsibility, and so on.

3. Modern Protestant objections

So with that overview of natural law theory, let’s talk briefly about it means for Protestantism. I think a lot of Protestants these days are quite resistant to the idea that moral prescriptions or substantial moral knowledge might come from somewhere outside of scripture. I say “these days”, because neither the church historically nor the reformers themselves had a problem with natural law theory. John Calvin, for example, said the following in his Institutes:

It is a fact that the law of God which we call the moral law is nothing else than a testimony of the natural law and of that conscience which God has engraved upon the minds of men.[11]

I think our modern hesitance arises from a combination of two things. On the one hand there’s been an increasing loss of acquaintance with natural law thinking in the past few hundred years, because of what I take to be certain philosophical errors of the early moderns like Descartes and Locke. Recently we’ve started correcting these errors, but our culture as a whole has lost its grip on this kind of thinking. And when we consider certain doctrines like original sin and sola scriptura against this backdrop they might seem to be at odds with what I’ve been saying.

So consider original sin, which says that our natures have been disordered, which in turn undermines our ability for unaided reason and therefore the moral conclusions we draw from it. But there’s nothing in this that contradicts what I’ve been saying. The claim that we can come to know ethical truths through philosophical reflection does not require that we be infallible in our conclusions. All that follows from our fallibility is that our understanding of ourselves, like our understanding of any part of nature, needs to be a community effort that spans many generations and societies. And the same thing can be said of our understanding of scripture itself. To quote John Goyette:

The collective effort required for the development of the arts and sciences is, for Aquinas, one of the reasons why man is a political animal. But the same is true of human law: it a collective effort requiring experience and time, and the wisdom of the wise. Just as men perfect the arts and sciences as part of a community, so do men perfect their knowledge of the natural moral law by participating in the [political community].[10]

What about the doctrine of sola scriptura, or “scripture alone”? There seem to be a number of slightly different of ways of formulating the doctrine, [12] but if it’s to be consistent with scripture it can’t claim that scripture is the only source of moral knowledge, for two reasons. First, because scripture itself references other sources like conscience. One of the clearest places where we see this is in Paul’s letter to the Romans where he talks about the Gentiles and he says that even though they haven’t been given the law through revelation, “they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness.”[13]

The second reason is because scripture must presuppose some knowledge of the world, and this knowledge includes some things pertaining to morality. J. Budziszewski gives the following example:

Consider for example the prologue to the Ten Commandments, where God reminds the Hebrew people of their indebtedness to Him: “And God spoke all these words, saying, ‘I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me ….'” How is it that the people of Israel, before the proclamation of the law, already know the law of gratitude? The answer is that the basics of natural law are already impressed upon the innermost design of the created moral intellect. We know a part of God’s will for us even before receiving it in words.[14]

3.1. The role scripture

I suppose we might wonder what does scripture adds if we can to know moral conclusions apart from it. There are a number of things we can say here.[15]

  1. In general there are things about God and ourselves that we can’t know through unaided reason and scripture is needed for these. Things like God’s triune nature or his dealings in human history, particularly what we call redemptive history, what will happen after we die, that marriage is a symbol for Christ and the church, and so on.
  2. Because of God’s revelation to us through scripture and through Jesus we are able know God personally, which wouldn’t be possible otherwise, since friendship requires communication between friends. As Jesus says in John’s gospel, “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.”[16]
  3. Revelation of God’s commands serves to introduce divine law and duties, which we wouldn’t have otherwise.
  4. Revelation about morality serves as a guide and summary of natural law. We’ve already seen that it can be difficult to work out the details of natural law, and besides that not everyone has the gifts or time to work them out. So through revelation God enables more people to know and will the good.

4. Apologetics

As we close I want to say a few things about what natural law means for apologetics today.

4.1. The moral argument

Like most arguments for God’s existence the “moral argument” is really a family of arguments. The one most heard today is 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.

The question I want to address is how natural law effects the prospects for a moral argument like this.

Now, Aquinas gave arguments for God’s existence in various places throughout his writings, although most famous are the so-called “five ways” he lays out in the Summa Theologica. As far as I can tell Aquinas never gave a moral argument. I think the reason for this is that from a natural law perspective morality is not some special part of reality that calls out for an explanation, but is rather the result of the combination of otherwise non-moral features of reality: (1) the goal-directedness we see throughout nature and (2) the wills of rational beings.

The closest thing Aquinas gives to a moral argument is his fifth way, which is a teleological argument.[17] I should note, though, that the teleology Aquinas has in mind is different from the kinds of teleology we see in modern arguments for God’s existence.[18] He’s not concerned with the complexity of living things or the fine-tuning of the universe, for instance, but rather the goal-directedness we spoke about earlier, which is required by the various regularities that exist at all levels of nature both complex and simple.

Now, the question arises of how something can be directed toward and end. It’s clear how this happens with intelligent beings, since there the end in some sense existing in the intellect of that being, and so it can guide the actions of that being. But with non-intelligent things, since they lack an intellect, their ends can’t influence them in the same way. So it seems that non-intelligent things must be directed toward their ends by something with intelligence. And in fact, we could see why this is the case if we spent some time analyzing the notion of intelligence, but we don’t have time for that now. This is how Aquinas summarizes what we’ve been saying in his fifth way:

Now whatever lacks intelligence cannot tend towards an end, unless it be directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence; as the arrow is shot to its mark by the archer. Therefore some intelligent being exits by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God.[19]

Of course there is still lots to be unpacked. After he gives his five ways, Aquinas spends some time explaining why this is the being we call God. He argues for God’s oneness, goodness, omnipotence, omniscience, simplicity, eternity, and a host of other divine attributes, but we just don’t have time to give and defend those arguments now.

Coming back to the moral argument. I think technically we can still use it as I formulated it, 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.

4.2. Cultural apologetics

Finally, from the perspective of cultural apologetics natural law serves as a common ground for Christians and non-Christians to discuss ethical issues, since particular moral conclusions do not depend on whether one thinks God exists or not. For example, atheist philosopher Phillipa Foot has said that,

… the Summa Theologica is one of the best sources we have for moral philosophy, and moreover that St. Thomas’s ethical writings are as useful to the atheist as to the Catholic or other Christian believer.[20]

In the Western world it’s becoming increasingly important that we be able to defend the value of human life, and of family life, and particularly the rights of children. Our culture truly is a “culture of death”, in which people think it’s OK to kill innocent human beings so long as they’re young enough or helpless enough, and more generally in which we ignore the rights of children so that adults can do what they want. All too often these days I see people object to things like these on so-called “religious grounds” and then get ignored because the secular world doesn’t share their religious convictions. But there are good arguments wholly apart from any religious confession, and these need to be the primary go-to point for us.

A secondary point is that as we show the reasonableness of so-called “traditional” moral conclusions, we also show in part the reasonableness of the Christian worldview. In this way natural law can help show our culture that Christianity is an intellectually viable worldview, which is something they’ve forgotten amongst all the hype with the New Atheists.

Other resources

For more on natural law, Feser’s blogpost Whose nature? Which law? which goes into more detail about this technical word “natural”. There’s also his article Natural Law, Natural Rights, and Private Property, which has a short introduction to natural law as well as an example application of it to property rights. If you’re interested in structure of the approach many natural law theorists take when unpacking the specifics of natural law, see my blogpost Goods, basic goods, and facultiesand David Oderberg’s paper The Structure and Content of the Good.

On the topic of original sin, there’s J. Budziszewski’s three-part blogpost series Natural Law and Original Sin (part 1, part 2, part 3).

On the relationship between God and natural law see Edward Feser’s blogposts Natural law or supernatural law? and Does morality depend on God? While the fifth way is a sound argument for God’s existence, I tend to prefer the second way. See Edward Feser’s An Aristotelian Proof for the Existence of God for a good talk on this, as well as a taste of how we might go about arguing why we call this being God. If you’re interested in the fifth way, I recommend his paper Between Aristotle and William Paley: Aquinas’s Fifth Way.

Finally, one of the things that cam up in the question time was the notion of divine simplicity. William Lane Craig on divine simplicity is a blogpost by Edward Feser where he discusses some contemporary objections, and On Three Problems of Divine Simplicity is a paper by Alexander Pruss doing likewise.

For more, see the notes below, as well as the long list of categorised resources over at my blog.

Notes

  1. See, for instance, Robert Adams’s Finite and Infinite Goods. In contrast to essentialist versions of divine command theory there are the voluntarist versions like the one put forward by Ockham, which place both values and duties at God’s commands. I’ve also discussed what I call derivative divine command theory, in which duties are prior to values.
  2. I mean more important in the sense of needing to be studied. He thinks that the intellectual virtues are better than the moral virtues, since the highest end of man (or, to use modern terminology, man’s superordinate basic good) is philosophical contemplation of God.
  3. ST I-II Q9 A1 corp.
  4. Edward Feser, Scholastic Metaphysics.
  5. “Now every part is directed to the whole, as imperfect to perfect, wherefore every part is naturally for the sake of the whole. For this reason we observe that if the health of the whole body demands the excision of a member, through its being decayed or infectious to the other members, it will be both praiseworthy and advantageous to have it cut away. Now every individual person is compared to the whole community, as part to whole. Therefore if a man be dangerous and infectious to the community, on account of some sin, it is praiseworthy and advantageous that he be killed in order to safeguard the common good…” (ST II-II Q64 A2 corp)
  6. “… whatever rises up against an order, is put down by that order or by the principle thereof. And because sin is an inordinate act, it is evident that whoever sins, commits an offense against an order: wherefore he is put down, in consequence, by that same order, which repression is punishment.” (ST I-II Q87 A1 corp) This is a more general version of what was said in [5]. I’ve briefly discussed this comment elsewhere.
  7. The argument, very briefly, is as follows: in order for the good of the whole to be best upheld, punishment ought only be of guilty people, ought be proportional to the crime, and ought be equal (ie. like punishment for like crimes). There are at most four putative theories of justice: deterrence, correction, preventative, and retributive. Only the last safeguards all three of these conditions. This is not to say that punishment couldn’t also include deterrence, correction, and prevention, but it must minimally be based on the principal of retribution. A supporting argument is that only retributive justice sees the agent as a human, and is therefore the only theory that affords them proper respect. Deterrence sees only a behaviour, correction only a patient, and prevention only a future threat.
  8. Edward Feser, Classical Natural Law Theory, Property Rights, and Taxation.
  9. Compare this argument to the following: (1) If I will to draw a straight line, then I ought use a ruler, (2) I will to draw a straight line, (3) Therefore, I ought use a ruler. (3) is consistent with me not realising that rulers are the best way of drawing straight lines. Similarly, that I will the good is consistent with me not having a perfect grasp of what that involves. And even once I realise it involves acting so as to fulfill my natural ends, I still won’t have a perfect grasp of what such fulfillment involves.
  10. John Goyette, On the Transcendence of the Common Good
  11. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV. XX. 15
  12. This arises because we need to find a formulation that is not the Roman Catholic doctrine ofprima scriptura but at the same time doesn’t lead to self-defeat.
  13. Romans 2:15, New International Version.
  14. J. Budziszewski, Does Sola Scriptura Mean “No Natural Law”?
  15. I’m particularly fond of what John O’Callaghan says about the general relationship between theology and philosophy here. A noteworthy quote is: “Theology doesn’t take place in a vacuum just because it something heard from the mouth of God… and so we need to understand what’s presupposed to being able to hear what is being preached to us or what is being revealed to us, and then a systematic reflection upon it. Theology shouldn’t take place in a vacuum.”
  16. John 15:15, English Standard Version.
  17. For a lengthy and substantive defense of Aquinas’s fifth way see Edward Feser’s Between Aristotle and William Paley: Aquinas’ Fifth Way.
  18. See Edward Feser’s Teleology: A Shopper’s Guide.
  19. ST I Q2 A3 corp.
  20. Phillipa Foot, Virtues and Vices.

That orders regulate

In Summa Theologica II-I Q87 A1 corp. Aquinas says the following:

Now it is evident that all things contained in an order, are, in a manner, one, in relation to the principle of that order. Consequently, whatever rises up against an order, is put down by that order or by the principle thereof. And because sin is an inordinate act, it is evident that whoever sins, commits an offense against an order: wherefore he is put down, in consequence, by that same order, which repression is punishment.

The idea is that when one is directed (or “ordered”) toward an end, one is also directed away from contrary ends. Thus insofar as a part moves contrary to the ends of the whole (or “rises up against the order”, an “inordinate act”), it will be counteracted (“put down”) because of the directedness of the whole towards its ends (“by that order or principle thereof”). This will apply to substantial activities which, as we’ll see in a later post, gives us the correct analysis of common goods and human communities in general.

What’s particularly interesting is that from this simple fact we can derive the three, otherwise intuitive, criteria for just punishment:

  1. Guilt: we should only punish those who go contrary to the good of a community, since the order of the whole will only counteract those parts which move contrary to it.
  2. Proportion: punishment should be proportioned to crimes, since the order of the whole need only to counteract enough to restore itself from the part’s deviation.
  3. Equity: punishments are alike to the extent that their crimes are alike, since the reason for the counteraction is the deviation itself and not some irrelevant factor.

On the transitivity of strict preference

The notion of comparing alternatives often comes up in philosophy, particularly when discussing practical reason. There are various names for this (we can talk about the reasons for choosing A over B, or how A is better than B, or how A is more desirable to B, or how A is preferred to B) but they all amount to the same thing.

The other day I was reading the SEP article on preference and was struck by this counterexample to transitivity of strict preference (I recall my friends mentioning it to me in the past, but I only thought about it critically this time around). In this quote, X≻Y represents that X is strictly preferred to Y, and X∼Y represents indifference between X and Y:

In an important type of counterexample to transitivity of strict preference, different properties of the alternatives dominate in different pairwise comparisons. Consider an agent choosing between three boxes of Christmas ornaments… Each box contains three balls, coloured red, blue and green, respectively; they are represented by the vectors ⟨R1,G1,B1⟩, ⟨R2,G2,B2⟩, and ⟨R3,G3,B3⟩. The agent strictly prefers box 1 to box 2, since they contain (to her) equally attractive blue and green balls, but the red ball of box 1 is more attractive than that of box 2. She prefers box 2 to box 3, since they are equal but for the green ball of box 2, which is more attractive than that of box 3. And finally, she prefers box 3 to box 1, since they are equal but for the blue ball of box 3, which is more attractive than that of box 1. Thus,

a. R1≻R2∼R3∼R1,
b. G1∼G2≻G3∼G1,
c. B1∼B2∼B3≻B1; and
d. ⟨R1,G1,B1⟩≻⟨R2,G2,B2⟩≻⟨R3,G3,B3⟩≻⟨R1,G1,B1⟩.

The described situation yields a preference cycle, which contradicts transitivity of strict preference.

(Note that I’ve added the labels to the listed conditions for the sake of this discussion.)

Now, I haven’t read much of the modern discussion on transitivity of preference (indeed, I didn’t even finish reading the article), so perhaps what I’m about to say is really obvious.

It seems clear to me that the above counterexample motivates the otherwise very natural distinction between (1) being better in some respect and (2) being better simply. Ultimately it has to do with why we prefer something over another. For instance, assume I prefer red balls over blue balls. Then I prefer this red ball over that blue ball simply, and I prefer this box of green and red balls over that box of green and blue balls in some respect.

I say this distinction is “very natural” because it seems necessary if we are to make sense of trade-offs, which are manifold in everyday experience. As a trivial example (which I find myself in often), imagine you need to pick one of two routes to your destination. Route A is longer but has prettier scenery and conversely route B is shorter but has uglier scenery. You have to pick one, but whatever choice you make will involve a trade-off. On account of what is this a trade-off? Well, surely it’s because shorter routes are preferable to longer ones and prettier routes are preferable to uglier ones. That is, A is better in some respect (prettiness) and B is better in some other respect (length).

This distinction resolves the above counterexample by showing us that (a)-(d) equivocate on “≻”. In (a)-(c) X≻Y means X is strictly preferred to Y simply, but in (d) it means X is strictly preferred to Y in some respect.

The SEP article immediately goes on to say the following:

These and similar examples can be used to show that actual human beings may have cyclic preferences. It does not necessarily follow, however, that the same applies to the idealizedrational agents of preference logic. Perhaps such patterns are due to irrationality or to factors, such as lack of knowledge or discrimination, that prevent actual humans from being rational.

Perhaps, but I’m inclined to think life’s more complicated than that. It seems pretty intuitive that there are various types of goods that are incommensurable. One way we might make this intuition precise is as follows: in general there seem to be two ways in which A is better than B:

  1. A and B are both means to C and A is a better means.
  2. B is a means to A.

(1) is where this whole business of comparing of alternatives comes in. Given our above discussion we realise that A can be a better means either in some respect or simply. Aristotle mentions something like (2) at the beginning of the Nicomachean Ethics. The guiding intuition here is that ends are preferred to means because “it is for the sake of the former that the latter are pursued” (I.1 1094a15-16).

Now, combining this with our previous discussion on basic human goods, the fact that there are multiple basic goods suggests that at least sometimes two goods will be incommensurable.

Goods, basic goods, and faculties

We’ve mentioned before that the goodness of some thing is relative to that thing’s nature. It is good for a human to have two legs because our biology is structured in such a way that having two legs is conducive to our flourishing. By the same token, it is not good for a cat to have two legs.

Now, these various goods can be grouped together and structured hierarchically: colour sensitivity, amoung other things, is a good which is subsumed under the good of seeing. Good seeing is itself subsumed under the goods of sensing, which in turn is subsumed under the goods of animal life.

A breakdown of the goods that are subsumed under the good of animal life.
A breakdown of the goods that are subsumed under the good of animal life.

At this point three things can be said. First, the goodness of the lower goods is dependent on the higher goods. Put another way, the lower goods are for the sake of the higher goods. Colour sensitivity, for instance, is for the sake of seeing and is good to the extent that it enables us to see well.

In the opening passage of the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle, while discussing human acts, makes the same point:

Now, as there are many actions, arts, and sciences, their ends also are many; the end of the medical art is health, that of shipbuilding a vessel, that of strategy victory, that of economics wealth. But where such arts fall under a single capacity — as bridle-making and other arts concerned with the equipment of horses fall under the art of riding, and this and every military action under strategy, in the same way other arts fall under yet others — in all of these the ends of the master arts are to be preferred to all the subordinate ends; for it is for the sake of the former that the latter are pursued. (I.1 1094a7-16)

We might visualise his scenario as follows:

A breakdown of the acts that are subsumed under the act of strategy.
A breakdown of the acts that are subsumed under the act of strategy.

The second thing to note is that this hierarchy has a limit. That is, the tree does not go up indefinitely. Aristotle says that “we do not choose everything for the sake of something else (for at that rate the process would go on to infinity, so that our desire would be empty and vain)” (I.2 1094a21-23). If you are familiar with the distinction between per se and per accidens causes, what Aristotle is getting at here is that the relationship between the lower goods and the higher goods forms a per se final causal chain, and as such has an endpoint. If you are unfamiliar with this distinction, unfortunately space doesn’t not allow me to argue for this here, so you’ll just have to trust me.

Aristotle called these highest goods chief goods, and Aristotelians these days typically call them basic goods. Basic goods are desired for their own sake and not for the sake of another. Now, in simple things there might be only one basic good, but for many things there is more than one, and they can often be quite broad. David Oderberg, for instance, thinks the basic human goods are life, knowledge, friendship, work and play, appreciation of beauty, and religious belief and practice (The Structure and Content of the Good).

In some sense the basic goods
In some sense the basic goods “make up” the nature of a thing.

So how do we figure out what the basic goods of a thing are? This relates to the third thing to be said: the basic goods correspond to the various distinctive faculties something has according to its nature. After all, broadly speaking, being a human is an activity and the basic goods represent the broadest aspects of this activity by which we measure it good or bad. Given that the way a thing acts correspond to the faculties it has, it seems that the basic goods and faculties of a thing would correspond to each other.

Now, at this broad level it’s not always clear how we are to carve up reality, but we can make some comments that will help us on our way. First, it isn’t particularly informative to say that “given that humans are rational animals, the basic human goods must be rationality and animality”. What we’re looking for are the various aspects of what being a good rational animal involves. Second, the basic goods might overlap, but their faculties should not be wholly reducible to one another. This would be a clear sign that we’re not thinking at a broad enough level. Third, Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics can be seen as his attempt at studying the basic goods by means of studying the various human virtues.

One clear example of a basic good, given our recent discussion about substantial activities, would be what Aristotle and Oderberg call “friendship”, which corresponds to our faculty for working together toward a common end. More on this another time.

Joy and hope

In a previous post, I took joy to be happiness with respect to our ultimate good. We also spoke about two ways in which happiness is achieved: through the acquisition of a good or the continued possession of a good.

The Aristotelian inside me was unsatisfied with this, for we usually take happiness to be identical with the ultimate good. Clearly in the earlier post I was using the term in a less precise sense. After thinking about it a bit more I realised that what I actually meant by happiness was “pleasure” or “delight”. But then what is delight? Aquinas takes delight to be the appetite’s rest in good. Appetite, here, is the faculty with which we desire the good, and rest presumably involves the achievement of good (either by acquisition or continued possession).

So delight is to good as joy is to ultimate good. This leaves us free to use happiness in the Aristotelian sense, which pleases me greatly. Indeed, we can say that delight is to good as joy is to happiness.

Let’s take the account further. Hope can be taken as expectation with assent. That is, we expect an outcome to occur that we see as good. To compare this with alternatives: expectation with dissent is dread, doubting with assent is wishing, and unknowing (neither expecting nor doubting) with dissent is fear.

Consider hope with respect to our ultimate good.[1] It seems that this hope supports joy, and is to some extent necessary for it. That we’re looking forward to our ultimate good is clearly related to joy, which just is delight in our ultimate good. However, the expectation part is also important. After all, if in our life we contribute to something that we’re not expecting to achieve at the end of the day, then our efforts will seem to be in vain.[2] That the good is ultimate means that joy and hope involve good that is stable, that is, for continued (indeed, indefinite) possession. We don’t always desire goods in a way that we necessarily desire their continued possession. For example, we desire money for the sake of spending it. Because an ultimate good is not desired for the sake of something else, however, we necessarily desire its continued possession. Our joy, then, needs to be proportioned to (1) the goodness and (2) certainty of achieving our ultimate good as well as (3) the stability of that good.

Perhaps this is at the heart of the problem faced in Ecclesiastes. The Teacher is looking everywhere for an appropriate place for his hope, but finds nothing that is good, certain, and lasting.

Notes

  1. This is what the New Testament usually means by hope.
  2. Or ultimately meaningless. It is no mistake that the word in Ecclesiastes is translated as “meaningless” by some translations and “vanity” by others.