Aristotle, Happiness and the Human Good

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Nicomachean Ethics is Aristotle’s great work in moral philosophy, addressing such concepts as the good life, virtue, weakness of will and moral responsibility. In Nicomachean Ethics Book I chapter 7, Aristotle gives a thorough examination of ‘the good’ and just what it consists of. Along the way he discusses the relationship between happiness and the human function and the nature of virtue. Is final conclusion, that the human good is “the soul’s activity that expresses virtue”1 is a bit obscure, but his preceding argument is very thoroughly constructed.

Aristotle begins his inquiry into ‘the good’ by proposing that the good is “that for the sake of which the other things are done.”2 Ends pursued for some further purpose, such as wealth, can be said to be incomplete, because they have not yet reached the final goal. And there must be some final goal, or else action would be pointless—as Aristotle points out in chapter 2, if something is not sought for its own sake, there must be some final end, otherwise all such action would “go on without limit, making desire empty and futile.”3 Surely, Aristotle argues, the good must be something complete, that is not desired for some further end. So it seems that the good is the most complete end, which is pursued wholly for itself and at which all other action aims. Aristotle claims that the most complete end is that which is “always choiceworthy in itself,”4 which is just to say that the most complete end is intrinsically valuable.

Aristotle proposes that happiness is most intrinsically valuable, a premise that most would find easy to accept, and probably chosen for that reason. He contrasts happiness with other virtues and intrinsic goods:

“Honor, pleasure, understanding and every virtue we certainly choose because of themselves, since we would choose each of them even if it had no further result, but we also choose them for the sake of happiness, supposing that through them we shall be happy.”5

This evaluation seems right; if you continually dig deeper and keep asking a person what his motives for a particular action were, he will eventually hit the root of it with “It made me happy.” It makes no sense to further ask why he would want to be happy. All of these other goods have intrinsic value, but they are also pursued for the sake of happiness, and are therefore less complete ends than that of happiness.

Being most complete, happiness is also self-sufficient: “We regard something as self-sufficient when all by itself it makes a life choiceworthy and lacking nothing; and that is what we think happiness does.”6 This seems right; when we say that a life was happy, that alone is enough to consider the life good and desirable. Happiness is not just always choiceworthy, it is most choiceworthy:

“If it [happiness] were counted as one among many, then, clearly, we think that the addition of the smallest of goods would make it more choiceworthy…. But we do not think any addition can make happiness more choiceworthy; hence it is most choiceworthy.”7

This is just part of what we mean by happiness; it makes no sense to say that happiness plus wealth is better than happiness alone. If one is happy, one either already possesses other goods such as wealth, or else the addition of such goods cannot increase one’s happiness or the value of one’s happiness. “Happiness, then, is apparently something complete and self-sufficient, since it is the end of the things pursued in action.”8 Once you have happiness, no other good is necessary; this makes happiness the final and greatest good.

Aristotle goes on to say that all of the above is generally agreed upon—if not so clearly explicated—but to say that happiness is the greatest good and to say what that greatest good actually is are two separate things. In chapter 6, Aristotle discusses the different conceptions of happiness that people have, depending on the sorts of lives they lead. He rejects the first two ideas, that happiness...
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