Nicomachean Ethics

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Transcript Nicomachean Ethics

Nicomachean Ethics
Don’t expect more precision than the
subject matter admits of:
• Before embarking on an examination of what the
nature of the best life for a person, Aristotle
offers the above caveat.
• Wealth and courage are generally good, but have
on occasion contributed to the ruin of people.
• One should not expect precise proofs out of an
ethicist or political scientist because they have to
deal with things that are just generally true;
similarly one should not expect approximate
proofs out of a mathematician, who deals with
things that are determinate and definite.
The Function Argument (briefly)
1. Every action is aimed at some goal (end).
2. Accomplishing that goal then is the “characteristic function” of
whoever aims at that goal. In other words, what makes a thing
what it is is the goal that it is aimed at. For example the
characteristic function of a house builder is the goal of building
good houses, and the characteristic function of a flute player is
playing the flute well. What makes a house builder a house builder
is that they have the goal of building houses well. Nobody else has
such a goal.
3. Every goal has standards of quality that come with that particular
Therefore, human life has a characteristic function.
But what is the goal of human life, and what are the standards of
quality for it?
The goal of human life
• Aristotle says that everyone agrees that the goal
of human life is happiness.
• However, this is a translation mishap. When the
modern English speaker thinks of happiness they
think of the feeling of being happy (a sort of
• The word Aristotle used is εὐδαιμονία
(eudaimonia), which means something more like
“well-being” or “fulfillment” than “happiness”.
• But what does happiness consist of?
• Aristotle dismisses some answers that others
supply to the question “what is hapiness?”
• The masses say that the life of pleasure is
happiness, but Aristotle contends that this is
vulgar and not fitting of a human being.
• Politicians say happiness is in honor, but
Aristotle points out that that requires other
people to honor you. Surely someone could
be live well without others honoring them.
3 lives:
• The life of mere survival (the vegetative life):
– This cannot be the characteristic life of a person because
even plants do this, so there must be more to life for us.
• The life of pleasure (the animal life):
– This cannot be the characteristic life of a person because
even animals do this, so there must be more to life for us.
• The life of virtue and reflection (the best life for a
– Since only human beings can live the life of virtue and
reflection (uses our faculty of reason) this is the
characteristic function of human life.
The Swine Objection
• We will return to Aristotle’s account of virtue
in the virtue ethics section.
• For now, the important part of Aristotle’s
account is that he provides a strong objection
to hedonism as a theory of morality or
• Briefly put, hedonism is the life of the pig in
slop, and is not fit for a human being.