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Aristotle (384–322 BC)

DOI
10.4324/9780415249126-A022-1
DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-A022-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved October 19, 2018, from https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/biographical/aristotle-384-322-bc/v-1

21. The human good

Aristotle’s account of rational agents, choice, deliberation and action is an appropriate starting point for his ethical theory. Ethics is concerned with the praiseworthy and blameworthy actions and states of character of rational agents; that is why it concerns virtues (praiseworthy states) and vices (blameworthy states) (see Aretē).

Aristotle’s ethical theory is mostly contained in three treatises: the Magna Moralia, the Eudemian Ethics and the Nicomachean Ethics. The titles of the last two works may reflect a tradition that Eudemus (a member of the Lyceum) and Nicomachus (the son of Aristotle and Herpyllis) edited Aristotle’s lectures. The Magna Moralia is widely agreed not to have been written by Aristotle; some believe, with good reason, that it contains a student’s notes on an early course of lectures by Aristotle. The Eudemian Ethics is now widely agreed to be authentic, and generally (not universally) and reasonably taken to be earlier than the Nicomachean Ethics. Three books (Nicomachean Ethics V–VII = Eudemian Ethics IV–VI) are assigned by the manuscripts to both the Eudemian Ethics and the Nicomachean Ethics.

Aristotle conceives ‘ethics’ (Magna Moralia 1181a24) as a part of political science; he treats the Nicomachean Ethics and the Politics as parts of a single inquiry (Nicomachean Ethics X 9). Ethics seeks to discover the good for an individual and a community (Nicomachean Ethics I 2), and so it begins with an examination of happiness, (eudaimonia). (‘Wellbeing’ and ‘welfare’ are alternative renderings of eudaimonia that may avoid some of the misleading associations carried by ‘happiness’; see Eudaimonia.) Happiness is the right starting point for an ethical theory because, in Aristotle’s view, rational agents necessarily choose and deliberate with a view to their ultimate good, which is happiness; it is the end that we want for its own sake, and for the sake of which we want other things (so that it is the ultimate non-instrumental good). If it is to be an ultimate end, happiness must be complete (or ‘final’; teleion) and self-sufficient (Nicomachean Ethics I 1–5, 7).

To find a more definite account of the nature of this ultimate and complete end, Aristotle argues from the human function (ergon), the characteristic activity that is essential to a human being in the same way that a purely nutritive life is essential to a plant and a life guided by sense perception and desire is essential to an animal (Nicomachean Ethics I 7). Since a human being is essentially a rational agent, the essential activity of a human being is a life guided by practical reason. The good life for a human being must be good for a being with the essential activity of a human being; hence it must be a good life guided by practical reason, and hence it must be a life in accordance with the virtue (aretē) that is needed for achieving one’s good. The human good, therefore, is an actualization of the soul in accordance with complete virtue in a complete life. This ‘complete virtue’ appears to include the various virtues described in the following books of the Nicomachean Ethics; this appearance, however, may be challenged by Nicomachean Ethics X (see §26).

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Citing this article:
Irwin, T.H.. The human good. Aristotle (384–322 BC), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-A022-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/biographical/aristotle-384-322-bc/v-1/sections/the-human-good.
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