Published on February 4, 2008
Aristotle: Aristotle The ‘function’ argument and the good life for man Aristotle: Aristotle Born 384 Entered Plato’s Academy 367, stayed there till Plato’s death in 347 Travelled, taught Philip of Macedon’s son Alexander (‘the Great’), returned to Athens Founded Lyceum, taught 334-323 Died 322 Aristotle: Aristotle Surviving works are lecture notes, including two versions of lectures on ethics, ‘Nicomachean Ethics’ and ‘Eudemian Ethics’ Tension between Platonist and anti-Platonist Book I: two interwoven themes: Book I: two interwoven themes The core argument – employs Platonic scheme of good/happiness/virtue/reason: chapters i, first half of iv, v, vii, xiii Anti-Platonic digressions on method: chapters ii, iii, second half of iv, vi, end of vii Chapters viii-xii compare core argument with popular views Aristotle’s anti-Platonism: Aristotle’s anti-Platonism Chapter vi: there is no Platonic form of ‘good’. ‘Good’ is used in different senses. Contrast between theoretical and practical knowledge. Practical knowledge deals with particulars. ‘Knowing how to…’ rather than ‘knowing that…’. Aristotle’s anti-Platonism: Aristotle’s anti-Platonism End of chapter vi: ‘What advantage will a weaver or a carpenter get from knowledge of “the good itself”? How will someone be a better doctor or a better general for having seen “the idea itself”? The doctor is not concerned with “health”, but with a person’s health, or rather this particular person’s health. He treats the individual.’ Aristotle’s anti-Platonism: Aristotle’s anti-Platonism If ethics is practical and concerned with particulars, it cannot be an exact science. Rough generalisations from experience. Must first have practical knowledge of how to live. ‘Lectures on ethics are not suitable for the young.’ The core argument: The core argument Ch i: All activities aim at an end or purpose which is a good. Ch iv: The highest good which our actions aim at is happiness. Ch v: What is happiness? Some popular answers: pleasure, honour, contemplation, money Ch vii: The ultimate end is that which is never sought as a means to something else - happiness. What is happiness? The ‘function argument’ – activity in accordance with reason – virtue. Ch xiii: The parts of the soul. Virtue = rule of rational part over irrational part. Ch i: All activities aim at some good.: Ch i: All activities aim at some good. Some activities subordinate to others. Must be an ultimate good, otherwise an infinite regress. ‘We do not choose everything for the sake of something else, for this would go on to infinity and our aim would be empty and futile. So there must be some end (telos) of our activities which we want for its own sake. It is clear that this is the good and the best.’ Ch i: All activities aim at some good.: Ch i: All activities aim at some good. A teleological conception. Is this question-begging? Must all activity be end-directed? What about a Kantian conception of morality? Doing the right thing simply because it is right – duty for duty’s sake. Aristotle allows that some activities can be ends in themselves. Does this then make his position vacuous? Ch iv: The highest good which our actions aim at is happiness.: Ch iv: The highest good which our actions aim at is happiness. Again, is this question-begging? Again, what about a Kantian conception? More plausible in Greek – ‘eudaimonia’ not a particular mental state but one’s life going well as a whole. See chapters ix-xi. Ch vii: Further defence of claim that happiness is the ultimate good: Ch vii: Further defence of claim that happiness is the ultimate good Aristotle accepts that other things are aimed at for their own sake – honour, pleasure, intelligence, the virtues. Happiness the one thing aimed at solely as an end in itself – the other goods are also means to happiness – so happiness is the most final good (to teleiotaton). Is this a non sequitur? Does Aristotle regard happiness as a ‘dominant’ end or an ‘inclusive’ end? Ch vii: The ‘function’ argument.: Ch vii: The ‘function’ argument. To know what happiness for human beings consists in, we need to know the ‘function’ (‘ergon’) of a human being. Is Aristotle right that human beings have a distinctive function? Do human beings have a function?: Do human beings have a function? Sartre: ‘If one considers an article of manufacture – as for example a book or a paper-knife – one sees that it has been made by an artisan and…serves a definite purpose. When we think of God as the creator, we are thinking of him…as a supernal artisan…. Thus the conception of man in the mind of God is comparable to that of the paper-knife in the mind of the artisan.... If God does not exist there is at least one being whose existence comes before its essence, a being which exists before it can be defined by any conception of it…. There is no human nature, because there is no God to have a conception of it…. Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself.’ Aristotle’s ‘function’ argument: Aristotle’s ‘function’ argument Aristotle does not use the ‘artefact’ analogy. He uses two other analogies: Analogy between function of parts (eye, hand, foot) and function of whole; Analogy with social roles (carpenters, shoemakers). (a) Analogy of parts and whole.: (a) Analogy of parts and whole. Just as the organs each perform their proper function, so the organism as a whole can function well. A biological conception of humans. The scale of nature: plants have nutrition and growth, animals have sentience, humans have reason. A being flourishes if it lives the life appropriate to its species. (b) Analogy with social roles: (b) Analogy with social roles Humans are not only biological beings but social beings. Chapter ii: Ethics is a branch of politics. Aristotle’s Politics Book I: ‘Man is a social animal’. To live a good human life is to live as a good member of a human society. Aristotle Politics Book I: Aristotle Politics Book I ‘A human being is more a social animal than a bee or any other herd animal. Nature does nothing without a purpose; and man alone of the animals possesses speech (‘logos’, = ‘reason’). Voice can indicate pleasure and pain…, but speech is for indicating what is useful and harmful, and so also what is just and unjust. This is what is specific to humans in comparison with other animals, that they alone have an awareness of good and bad and just and unjust and so on, and it is sharing in these things that makes a household and a polis.’ The ‘function’ argument: The ‘function’ argument Aristotle’s conclusion: Leading a fully human life, fulfilling our human function, is: Living in accordance with reason; Living in accordance with the distinctive human excellences, virtues. (areté) To know what this consists in, we need to look at the structure of the human soul. Chapter xiii: the parts of the soul: Chapter xiii: the parts of the soul The rational part (logos) The appetitive part – not itself rational but responsive to reason The vegetative part – has nothing to do with reason. So human excellence, virtue, consists in the proper relation between reason and the desires and emotions. Again a functional conception – each part playing its proper role. Virtue, reason and happiness: Virtue, reason and happiness Will see in Book 2 how Aristotle spells out details of virtues as dispositions in which desires and emotions are properly guided by reason, and why this constitutes eudaimonia. A very Platonic conception. Concluding question: Is Aristotle’s Platonic core argument consistent with his anti-Platonic remarks about method?