Michael Huemer
Fall, 1992

An Examination of Aristotle's Ethics

by Michael Huemer

At the beginning of the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle announces his intention to discover what is the good, or the chief good (book I, chapter 2). In the rest of the work, however, there follow such a multitude of answers to this question endorsed by Aristotle, that at its conclusion one may understandably wonder what the upshot of Aristotle's ethics was. One might wonder whether the good, as Aristotle saw it, was that at which all things in fact aim (as he says in I.1), or rather that at which all things ought to aim if they can (as seems more commonsensical), or happiness (I.4), or the realization of one's function (I.7), or activity of the soul in accordance with virtue (I.7), or activity in accordance with reason (I.7), or pleasure of some kind (VII.13), or the exercise of our faculties (VII.13), or contemplation (X.7). One might wonder how the good could simultaneously be identical with all of these different things. In this essay, I aim first to explain the general purport of Aristotle's ethics and second to criticize it.

Now there are two senses in which one might ask what the good is, or the beautiful, or the rational, or most other things. Hereafter, I will refer to these as the first and the second kind of question, respectively: first, one might attempt to say what it is for something to be good, or what a thing would have to do in order to be good; second, one might attempt to identify which things in the world have this property. It was in view of this distinction that Socrates was always at pains to explain that he was after a definition of virtue and not a list of virtues: i.e., he was interested in the first kind of inquiry. Having been told (for example) that justice, wisdom, and temperance were virtues, he wanted to know what characteristic justice, wisdom, and temperance all have in common that makes all of them virtues. More recently, G.E. Moore was also at pains to explain this elementary distinction between asking, on the one hand, how "good" is to be defined and, on the other hand, asking what thing or things are good.(1)

Two observations must be made by way of clarifying this distinction, to dispel common misconstruals. First, this distinction between what good is and what is good, is not to be confounded with the distinction between particular judgements and general principles about the good. It is possible to make a perfectly general statement answering the second question - for example, to say, "Those things and only those things that cause pleasure are good" - without thereby pretending to define "good"; while, of course, it is also possible to make a perfectly particular statement concerning the second question - for example, "Aristotle was a good man." One would in the former case be making the synthetic claim that everything that has the property of causing pleasure also has a second property, that of being good, and vice versa. That kind of general principle about what is good should not be confused with the quite different, putatively analytic claim that "good" means "causing pleasure."

Second, the question what good is should not be mistaken for an expression of lexicographical interest in the conventions associated with a certain symbol. Rather, the aim should be understood as that of subjecting a certain object of thought, which we assume to already be before our minds, to analysis into its constituents, i.e., to state its real nature.(2)

Now the question arises, which kind of inquiry does Aristotle purport to be carrying out? Does he attempt (a) to analyze goodness, or (b) to find out to which things goodness appertains? In I.2, he motivates the ensuing discussion by the suggestion that the enquiry he is engaged in will help us live better, because by means of it we will know what to aim at. This suggests that he is trying to discover what is good, and not to explicate the nature of goodness - although the latter is also possible inasmuch as knowing what goodness is should presumably also help us in discovering which things have it. So let us consider Aristotle's various answers and decide which concern they may be construed as addressing on a case-by-case basis.

(1) That the good is that at which all things aim (I.1) sounds like an analysis of goodness, and this interpretation would enable us to understand Aristotle's subsequent contention that happiness is the good (or the chief good) as an attempt to answer the other question, viz., which things goodness appertains to, by way of identifying what it is that all things aim at. This interpretation has much plausibility in view of the fact that Aristotle's primary argument for the view that happiness is the good is that people aim at it for its own sake (I.7, 1097a35-b6), while he does not seem to consider the contention that the good is what all things aim at as requiring much, if any, argument. Yet insofar as Aristotle maintains this analysis, it must be acknowledged that he is mistaken, for it is logically possible that all things should have, for example, aimed at unhappiness, and in this case unhappiness would still not be good. Aristotle appears to be confusing the idea of what all things aim at with that of what all things ought to aim at, for it is much more plausible that the latter is what is meant by the good. Much later in the Ethics, Aristotle seems to notice something like this objection (sc. that things might actually aim at evil rather than good) and it is then that he seems to unknowingly change his position (X.2, 1172b35-1173a3):(3)

Those who object that that at which all things aim is not necessarily good are, we may surmise, talking nonsense. For we say that that which every one thinks really is so; and the man who attacks this belief will hardly have anything more credible to maintain instead. If it is senseless creatures that desire the things in question, there might be something in what they say; but if intelligent creatures do so as well, what sense can there be in this view?

Now it appears that the fact that all things aim at something is not, as we surmised at the start, simply what it is for a thing to be good, but rather that it is good evidence for thinking the thing is good. For a proposition to be believed by everyone is not the same thing as its being true, although it is a strong indication that the thing is true, being a symptom of its truth; and likewise, for a goal to be universally aimed at is not the same thing as its being good, although it is, as Aristotle argues here, strong evidence of the goodness of the goal. If this is the case, then we must conclude that we still have not been given an answer to the question, what is goodness? Socrates would surely have concurred here, since it is because a thing is true that it is believed, and not the other way around; and because a thing is good that it is sought after, and not vice versa; which indicates that the fact that a certain thing is universally pursued is a symptom of goodness rather than the definition of the good. Incidentally, I am not per se criticizing Aristotle for failing to define good, since I do not believe that any definition is possible (good being a simple quality), except to the extent that he believes, or leads us to believe, that he is going to.

When it comes to interpreting the words of a philosopher in view of some distinctions made by another philosopher, it is often to some extent indeterminate what the former really meant. If, for example, the distinction between synthetic and analytic judgements simply never occurred to Aristotle, then there may be no answer to the question whether Aristotle meant his opinion that the good is that at which all things aim to be construed as analytic or synthetic; or, similarly, if the distinction between consequentialist and deontological ethics was not observed in ancient Greece and never entered Aristotle's mind, then there may be no answer to the question whether Aristotle's ethics is or is not consequentialist. Nevertheless, it would appear most likely that in I.1 Aristotle means to be explicating the essence of goodness in calling it that at which all things aim, and not making the synthetic, moral judgement that the thing all things aim at, fortunately, turns out to be good. One gets this impression from two considerations. First, he might have said, "What all things aim at is the good," or better still, "All things aim at the good," in which case it would have been clear that he meant to address our second type of question; whereas in fact he says the reverse, viz. that the good is that which all things aim at, making "the good" the subject of the sentence. This suggests that the statement is telling us something about good, rather than telling us something about the thing that all things aim at. Second, it is easy to see how someone might think (although I wouldn't agree) that "what all things ought to aim at" was a proper analysis of "the good" (for it seems logically true that one ought to aim at the good), and it is not too difficult to see how someone might confuse what all things ought to aim at with what all things actually aim at, as frequently in fact occurs. The terms, "the end, or purpose, or function of such-and-such," which one finds frequently in Aristotle, are conveniently ambiguous between normative and descriptive readings - e.g., does "the purpose of life" mean what life ought to strive for or what life does strive for? And is "the function" of a doctor what doctors ought to do or what they actually do? The fact that in offering opinions about human nature one often finds oneself required to invoke the concept of the naturalistic fallacy and to distinguish one's opinions about how people are from views of the right way for people to be (as, for example, when one distinguishes 'egoism' as a psychological doctrine from 'egoism' as a moral theory), is testimony to humans' ingrained tendency to confuse the way things go with the way things should go. That Aristotle should have fallen prey to this confusion is no surprise, particularly given his frequent use of teleological concepts, which are all halfway-normative, halfway-descriptive concepts. However, by the time he got to book X, chapter 2, Aristotle was ready to change his view, albeit probably unknowingly, as we have described, to the view that the goodness of a thing naturally causes creatures to seek it, and not that their seeking it is what makes it 'good'. This was quite sensible of him.

(2) Much of the foregoing will be applicable also to Aristotle's contention (I.7, 1097b25-30) that the good is the fulfillment of our function. This too sounds like an analysis of "good"; but we are immediately led to wonder in the face of it what exactly is meant by a "function," and especially, as the above discussion suggests, whether it is a normative or a descriptive term, or perhaps a confusion of the two. "The function of x" seems to be synonymous with "that which x aims at" or "that which x ought to aim at" (being equivocal between these two interpretations), so that this is a paraphrase of Aristotle's original definition of the good, but with a slight modification: now the good is not that at which all things aim (there being perhaps no such thing), but is relative to the particular function of each thing - so that there will be such a thing as the good for man, which will be what we seek, and this will be the realization of the function of man.

In this, however, Aristotle is being doubly inconsistent with himself: First, because he did originally tell us that the good was what all things aim at and reinforced this contention with the statement in VII.13 (1153b25) that "the fact that all things, both brutes and men, pursue pleasure is an indication of its being somehow the chief good;" whereas in I.7, using diametrically opposite reasoning, he actually disqualifies certain things (nutrition and growth) from consideration as the chief good on the ground that they are common to all creatures as goals (1097b33-1098a3). Second, since Aristotle has, by the time we get to I.7, already declared that happiness is the good on the ground that we all aim at it above all other things, strengthening this contention in chapter 12 by declaring of happiness, "it is for the sake of this that we do all that we do" (1102a2), the question of what our function is would appear to be already answered - and the answer would seem to be not "activity in accord with a rational principle" but "happiness". The latter contradiction can be resolved if, and only if, we suppose (implausibly) that activity in accord with a rational principle is identical with happiness - and this is precisely what Aristotle does maintain, and apparently on this very ground. We will come back to this point later.

(3) Now about Aristotle's view (I.7) that eudaimonia is the chief good, we are brought to wonder in the first place just what he meant by "eudaimonia." Although I don't know Greek, I will venture to suggest, unsurprisingly, that what he meant by eudaimonia was happiness, intending it to be understood, though, as a general condition (lifelong happiness) rather than a temporary state. This interpretation has three virtues. First, it is simple and straightforward. I have three translations of the Nichomachean Ethics (W.D. Ross, Terence Irwin, and Martin Ostwald), and all of them translate "eudaimonia" as "happiness." I simply accept this.

Second, Aristotle's arguments in favor of eudaimonia as the chief good make sense on this reading; for it is apparently true that everyone would choose to be happy, that they would choose happiness for its own sake and never for the sake of something else (1097a35-b1), and that happiness is sufficient to make life desirable and lacking in nothing (1097b14-16). Further, Aristotle's contention on this reading is clearly true, and almost a platitude (as he says at 1097b23), for it seems that of any other descriptive state in the world one might reasonably ask, "Why do you want that?" but no one would ever ask, "Why do you want what makes you happy?" This seems to show that happiness is indeed the final end.

Third, this enables us to resolve the apparent contradiction that would result from Aristotle's maintaining in VII.13 (1053b25) that "the fact that all things, both brutes and men, pursue pleasure is an indication of its being somehow the chief good." This argument, which he also attributes, seemingly approvingly, to Eudoxus at X.2 (for he does not criticize Eudoxus but defends him against objections), is consistent with his original contention that what all things aim at is the good, and his admission here (1053b30) that all creatures pursue pleasure (which, incidentally, he is clearly right in) is the only other premise needed to derive hedonism. This will be consistent with the claim in I.7 that eudaimonia is the chief good only if eudaimonia is pleasure, or happiness (these being essentially the same thing - the main difference seems to be that "pleasure" tends to have a more physical and short-term connotation - which Aristotle did not want).

(4) But how can we square this with the contention that 'eudaimonia' is activity of the soul in accordance with a rational principle or in accordance with virtue (I.7, 1098a3, 7, and 17)? How can it simultaneously be this and also be pleasure/happiness? I suggest that Aristotle here misspoke, and that what he thought was not that happiness was identical with activity in accordance with virtue, but that activity in accordance with virtue is what brings happiness. There are several considerations that recommend this interpretation.

First, what Aristotle thinks on this interpretation is evidently true, rather than being evidently false as it would be on the other interpretation. Happiness obviously is not the same thing as activity in accordance with virtue, but it does correlate strongly with the latter, as a natural result of it. People who act in accord with virtue generally tend to become successful materially, to gain friends, to like themselves, and to enjoy what they do. People who act in accord with vice generally wind up in jail, having a lot of enemies, and/or just feeling bad about their lives.

Second, people do frequently talk this way. For instance, if someone were to say, "Happiness is spending the holidays with your loved ones," we would naturally interpret this as meaning, not that happiness is really identical with spending the holidays with loved ones but that it results from the latter.

Third, Aristotle's view of science endorses this kind of talk, as in the eclipse example: Initially, we understand a lunar eclipse as the phenomenon of the moon's losing its light; however, once we find out that it is the interposition of the earth between the sun and the moon that causes the moon to lose its light, Aristotle says, we can say that an eclipse is really the interposition of the earth between the sun and the moon. This way of speaking is certainly deceptive, since it implies that a thing can be identical with its own cause; nevertheless, Aristotle endorses it, and it accords with this principle that he should say, because activity in accord with virtue is the cause of happiness, that happiness is activity in accord with virtue.

Fourth, the present interpretation meshes with and explains the significance of Aristotle's frequent statements about what things are pleasant: He says that virtuous activity is pleasant (I.8, 1099a20; IV.1, 1120a27). He maintains that contemplation is pleasant (X.7) because the exercise of our faculties is the cause of pleasure (X.7, 1178a5-8). At the beginning of the Metaphysics he says that perception is inherently enjoyable. In VII.13 (1154a1) he identifies pleasure with the activity of our faculties ("if pleasure, i.e. the activity of our faculties, is not a good ..."), but here again it is clear that the latter cannot really be identical with pleasure but must be understood as the cause of pleasure. In X.5 he seems to realize the inaccuracy of his way of speaking (1175b30-35):

But the pleasures involved in activities are more proper to them than the desires ... the former are close to the activities, and so hard to distinguish from them that it admits of dispute whether the activity is not the same as the pleasure. (Still, pleasure does not seem to be thought or perception - that would be strange; but because they are not found apart they appear to some people the same.)

All this suggests that Aristotle meant to say that the activity of our faculties, especially reason (our most essential and best faculty) is the cause of pleasure/happiness, and, since pleasure is the chief (intrinsic) good, this is why activity in accordance with a rational principle is so good.

It now appears that virtuous activity is not an end in itself, as Aristotle was wont to maintain (VI.5, 1140b7; X.6, 1176b7), but rather only a means to happiness, for in the end it must be admitted that there is no way to reconcile the former contention with Aristotle's simultaneous claim that we do everything for the sake of happiness (I.12, 1102a2; X.6, 1176b30-32). The initial temptation that we may feel to reply that perhaps, in Aristotle's view, virtuous activity is desirable both for its own sake and for the sake of the happiness it produces, is discouraged by Aristotle's insistence (I.7, 1097b14-23; X.6, 1176b6) that happiness is 'self-sufficient' and cannot be made better by the addition of anything else, whereas any good can be improved upon by the addition of another good (X.2, 1172b27). This indicates that happiness must, in Aristotle's view, be the total good - that is, it must contain every thing that is desirable for its own sake. Aristotle failed to see the contradiction this view makes with the view that virtuous activity is an end in itself because he wrongly thought that the fact that virtuous activity is a pleasure, and even the primary pleasure, and the main source of happiness, licensed him in saying that virtuous activity is happiness.

(5) How we get from here to the conclusion that contemplation is the chief good is relatively simple. In saying (X.8, 1178b31), "Happiness, therefore, must be some form of contemplation," Aristotle was speaking in the same loose manner we have just described, for happiness obviously is not the same thing as contemplation; rather, what Aristotle believed was that, of the various pleasures we have, the pleasure of contemplation is best and pleasantest because contemplation is the activity of our highest faculty. It is for this reason that those of us who can should devote our lives primarily to contemplation (which is not to deny, of course, that one should also accept the other pleasures and practice the other virtues in addition). And this, we may suppose, explains why Aristotle lived the way he did.

Now one might think that it was contradictory of Aristotle to maintain that happiness was activity in accord with virtue and that happiness was contemplation, unless he thought - as would be very strange and which he does not say - that activity in accordance with virtue was the same as contemplation; and it is indeed contradictory if he hangs on to those two claims as identity statements. But I surmise that Aristotle thought, as I have said, that activity in accordance with virtue was the chief cause of happiness; that contemplation was an activity in accordance with virtue; and that of virtuous activities, it is contemplation that most of all brings happiness.

(6) On to Aristotle's definition of virtue, for it does seem as if his doctrine of the mean purports to define virtue. His theory is that virtue is a disposition to choose things in just the right amount (X.6, 1106b35-1107a3):

Virtue, then, is a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean, i.e. the mean relative to us, this being determined by a rational principle, and by that principle by which the man of practical wisdom would determine it.

The preceding context makes it clear that "the mean" does not mean halfway between the two extremes (e.g., running away in fear just half of the time) but whatever amount is correct, i.e., neither too much nor too little (1106a29-33).

Now the objection that is coming is probably predictable to any modern philosopher. Initially, we thought, as Aristotle led us to believe, that we were going to find out what we should do, i.e., identify the right, by reference to the good. This is consistent with Aristotle's claims (I.1, 1094a1) that every action is aiming at some good, that the purpose of the Nichomachean Ethics' examination of the good is to tell us what to do in life (I.1, 1094a23-27), and that we do everything for the sake of happiness (I.12, 1102a2-3). These remarks clearly indicate that in Aristotle's opinion what one should do must be determined by means of a knowledge of what is good. Next, we find out that the good is happiness. So we want to know what will produce happiness. We find out that it is activity in accordance with virtue that will produce happiness. So we ask, "All right; and what is virtue?" And we come full circle at last with the discovery that virtue is, in essence, the tendency to do what is right. We could not know what activities accorded with virtue unless we knew what things were virtues, and, as we now discover, since virtue is defined in terms of "the right rule," (1104b31-5) we cannot know what is or is not virtuous until we know how people should act, i.e., we identify the right. So if someone who had no knowledge of what is the right thing to do in any circumstance were to read the Nichomachean Ethics, he would go away disappointed. All he would know is that if only he could find some way of determining what actions were right, he would then know what traits were virtuous (viz., the dispositions to do such actions), thereby being able to figure out what would cause happiness (viz., activity in accordance with such dispositions), thereby knowing what would produce goodness, and thereby, finally, being able to deduce what was the right thing to do (viz., the actions that would produce good) - but, sadly, he could not get started on the first step, being ignorant of the right. Perhaps this is the reason why Aristotle tells us that only someone who has been brought up in good habits can understand lectures on ethics (I.4, 1095b4-6). Since he also tells us that virtue is acquired by habit (II.1, 1103a17), this would appear to be an admission on Aristotle's part that his Ethics is useless, inasmuch as the Ethics is supposed to help us to become good (I.2; II.2, 1103b27: "for we are inquiring not in order to know what virtue is, but in order to become good, since otherwise our inquiry would have been of no use"), but no one could profit from it, as we have just said, unless he was already good.

The objection here is not merely epistemic, although it does have the epistemic aspect I have just explicated. The fundamental difficulty is not just that Aristotle's views deprive us of a means of acquiring knowledge of what is right, good, virtuous, or conducive to happiness; it is that Aristotle's views are actually inconsistent. He states or implies that

(1) an action is right (ought to be performed) because it promotes the good,
(2) a thing is good because it promotes (or contains) happiness,
(3) activities produce happiness because they are in accordance with virtue, and
(4) a character trait is a virtue because it disposes one towards performing right actions.

The transitivity of the "because" relation indicates that an action will now be right ultimately because of the virtuousness of the state of character it accords with, while said state will be a virtue because of the rightness of the actions it disposes one towards, which is impossible since the because relation is also asymmetrical.

#1 is an implication of the view that all actions aim at the good; if this be so, then the goodness of the end must justify the action. #2 is an implication of the view that happiness is the sole intrinsic good. #4 is an outcome of defining virtue in terms of the mean and the mean in terms of the right. And as for #3, if, as we discussed above in section 4, virtuous activity causes pleasure and happiness, then it would seem most likely that this is because the virtuousness of the activities makes them pleasant. But this is perhaps the weakest link. It might be, alternately, that the propensity to cause happiness is what makes certain activities virtuous. Aristotle does not, as far as I can tell, say anything that conclusively decides for either of these alternatives. However, unless virtuousness of an activity is the source of its ability to produce happiness, Aristotle's digression into virtue will be irrelevant to the task of determining the cause of happiness. That is, if it is rather that the production of happiness is the criterion of virtue, then, having gone through the discussion of virtue, Aristotle still hasn't said anything about what will cause happiness (beyond the trivial observation that those activities which produce happiness do produce it). The work is supposed to be dedicated to uncovering the good: first we learn that it is what all things aim at. Then we learn that all things aim at happiness. Then we learn that activity in accordance with virtue causes happiness. Now this progression will be informative only if virtue can be identified independently. That is some reason, though not an absolutely decisive one, for thinking that Aristotle meant virtue to be the source of the ability to produce happiness, rather than the other way around. Unfortunately, we have also seen that Aristotle's other views (#1, 2, and 4) imply that the ability to produce happiness is ultimately the source of virtue.

Let us now take an overall retrospective of Aristotle's ethics, having just examined its main elements individually. We can make a coherent picture if we alter Aristotle in a few small ways. It would have been wisest for Aristotle to have conceived his work as an inquiry into virtue rather than an inquiry into the good. What is virtue? Virtue is a disposition to choose the mean. What is the mean? It is just the right amount of anything, where the right amount is the amount one ought to choose. So virtue is the tendency to do things as one should. We don't have a definition of "should" or "right", but we can ask, what should one do? Well, one should promote the good. Now since the goodness of some end tends to cause creatures to want it, if there is some one thing that all of them aim at, we can be pretty sure that this thing must be the good. And all creatures aim chiefly at pleasure, for its own sake and not for the sake of anything else, so pleasure is the chief good. But since happiness is the best form of pleasure (including not only physical but emotional/intellectual pleasures, and extended throughout life), happiness is really the chief good. But there are different pleasures, and, especially, different kinds of creature derive pleasure from different sources (1153b29-30). So whence do we human beings derive happiness or pleasure? We derive it from exercising our faculties, but most of all, we derive it from exercising our most important faculty, intellect (X.7, 1178a5-7):

that which is proper to each thing is by nature best and most pleasant for each thing; for man, therefore, the life according to reason is best and pleasantest, since reason more than anything else is man. This life therefore is also the happiest.

(This passage appears in the discussion of why contemplation is the chief good.) So the main thing we should do with our lives is spend it in contemplation, and the conclusion of the Nichomachean Ethics is that the most important virtue is philosophical curiosity (N.B. not wisdom, for wisdom is the result of contemplation, whereas virtue is what causes us to act rightly, i.e., in this case, what causes us to contemplate). We now have a coherent ethical system integrating all the main theses Aristotle held on to, and the only changes we have had to make are altering the significance of the inquiry into virtue by making it the point of departure of the ethics instead of part of how to find out what causes happiness, and reinterpreting most of Aristotle's claims about what x is (what good is, what happiness is) as claims about what x appertains to or what causes x. The first change is certainly contrary to Aristotle's intent, but either it or an omission of the discussion of virtue is necessary to remove the circularity from Aristotle's theory that we discussed above. The rest of this reconstruction I claim Aristotle would have gone along with, upon reflection, as reflecting what he really thought.


1. See Principia Ethica, esp. sections 1-14.

2. Cf. Moore, op. cit., sections 6-8.

3. All quotations are from W.D. Ross' translation.