Tuesday, March 13, 2012

University Essay Collection: Part I - Virtue and Self-Interest in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics

During my time at the University of Colorado at Boulder, I have written a number of essays and reports. Some of them may be of interest to people other than the professors they were written for. This post is part of that collection, which includes several philosophical essays and one technical report.
Except for the technical report, all of these works deal with ideas that are highly subject to change as I learn more and my opinions and values shift. Most of them were written within a couple months of my first exposure to the corresponding source works. I also played devil's advocate with parts of a few of them. Because of this, there are some ideas in this selection that I don't agree with, so don't take this as an explication of my personal philosophy.

A couple of these pieces have previously appeared on this blog, but the professor they were written for asked me to take them down after multiple students plagiarized one of them. It's been long enough that I feel comfortable putting them back up, but I want to make the following warning very clear: If you present any of this work as your own in an academic or professional setting, you're an idiot. A simple Google search will suffice to discover your plagiarism, and this is the sort of thing that can do severe damage to your academic or professional career.

The following essay is dated 18 Sep 2009, and it is from a course on ethics.

Virtue and Self-Interest in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics

Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics is one of the earliest philosophical works that is still taken seriously to this day. It is over two thousand years old, yet it is still considered by most to be one of the best and most vital philosophical works of all time. There are certainly some elements within it which most people today would find ridiculous – for example, the implication that women are inferior to men – but it is, for the most part, fundamentally sound. However, one of the vital pieces of Aristotle's whole system of ethics seems, at first glance, to be flawed. That is, Aristotle claims that virtue is an essential component to happiness, but certain virtuous acts seem to be entirely contrary to one's own self-interest and happiness. I will argue, however, that Aristotle is right in this regard – in other words, that being virtuous is in my own self-interest. I will start by providing an overview of the main themes of Nicomachean Ethics, with an emphasis on the connection between virtue and happiness, and then move on to more clearly stating the apparent problem in Aristotle's reasoning, and refuting that objection.
The central argument of Nicomachean Ethics is that the greatest good is happiness, and that each person should therefore pursue happiness as the central goal of their life. Aristotle comes to this conclusion, as well as a broad outline of what happiness is, in the introductory book (Book I). He claims that the greatest good must be the final end toward which everything else strives, and that it must be “always desirable in itself and never for the sake of something else” and must on its own “make life desirable and lacking in nothing” (Book I, Ch. 7). Happiness, Aristotle says, meets these requirements, because “we choose [it] always for itself and never for the sake of something else, but honor, pleasure, reason, and every virtue we choose indeed for themselves . . . [are chosen] also for the sake of happiness.” Happiness is thus the greatest good, the pinnacle of excellence toward which we should all direct our lives and actions.

Aristotle's notion of happiness is, however, considerably different from the modern definition. Indeed, eudaimonia, the Greek word which Aristotle uses that has been translated as 'happiness', seems really to carry a connotation which the word 'happiness' does not. That is, eudaimonia is not a feeling, but a state of being; something which does not change from moment to moment, but rather can be used to describe a person's entire life. Eudaimonia, according to Aristotle, is a broad concept, which encompasses all of the lesser good pursuits of life – including pleasure, honor, friendship, even material wealth – but above all else, virtue.

This idea of virtue being the most vital component of happiness stems from what is known as Aristotle's function argument (Book I, Ch. 7). Aristotle claims that what makes something good can be found by asking what that something is good for; that is, what its function is. For example, the function of an eye is to see, so a good eye is one which sees well, and what is good for an eye is that which helps it to see well, such as glasses. The function of man, Aristotle says, is that capacity which man does not share with anything else. It cannot, therefore, be life, for this “seems to be common even to plants”; or sensory perception, for this “seems to be common even to . . . every animal.” This leaves us, according to Aristotle, with reason, as that which is unique to man. Thus, the function of man is reason; and a good man is one who lives a life full of activities that are in accordance with reason, which Aristotle equates with virtue; so a virtuous man is a good man. Furthermore, being a good person is a central component to leading a good, or happy, life, by Aristotle's definition.

Throughout Book II, Aristotle goes on to describe in detail what virtue is. He starts (Book II, Ch. 1) by splitting virtue into two classes, intellectual virtue and moral virtue. He says that while intellectual virtue can be taught, moral virtue – the more important type in regard to happiness, as it is the type which is concerned with actions and day-to-day life – “comes about as a result of habit.” That is, living virtuously makes one a virtuous person, which then leads to more virtuous actions.

Aristotle moves on to show the difference between virtue and the arts, through which he draws a vital conclusion about virtue (Book II, Ch. 4). He says “the products of the arts have their goodness in themselves”; that is, art can be judged as good or bad simply by looking at it. On the contrary, according to Aristotle, virtue depends not only on the action, but also on the mental state of the one performing the action. “The agent . . . must have knowledge”; that is, he must know that he is doing something virtuous; “he must choose the acts, and choose them for their own sakes”; that is, he must choose to do it because it is virtuous; and “his action must proceed from a firm and unchangeable character”; that is, it is not true virtue if he happens to do something good, but rather doing good things must be part of his character. Aristotle also makes the claim that a virtuous person takes pleasure in doing virtuous things (Book II, Ch. 3).

The most important component of Aristotle's definition of virtue, though, is known as the doctrine of the mean (Book II, Ch. 6-9). The basic concept here is that “virtue must have the quality of aiming at the intermediate” (Book II, Ch. 6); that is, for all passions and actions – such as fear, pleasure, anger, and honor – there can be too much, too little, or just the right amount. For example, it is possible to have too much fear – that is, to be cowardly; but it is also possible to have too little fear – that is, to be reckless. The middle ground here is a healthy, intermediate degree of courage, such that one does not run away from fearsome things, but also does not pursue them. Aristotle goes on to say (Book II, Ch. 8-9) that, while both the excess and the deficiency are inferior to the mean, in most cases one of them is closer to it. For instance, Aristotle says that recklessness is closer to courage than cowardice is.
Ultimately, much of the question of what is virtuous or not virtuous in any given situation is left to the reader to decide; after all, it would be impossible for Aristotle to look at every possible set of circumstances and actions and decide what the virtuous course of action is. Thus, Aristotle leaves us with these basic principles, and tells us to pursue happiness as our primary self-interest, and to do so primarily through performing virtuous acts.

The most profound and reasonable objection that can be raised against the position that it is in my own self-interest to be virtuous , by Aristotle's definition, is that it requires a lot of self-sacrifice. For instance, in his discussion of self-love (Book IX, Ch. 8), Aristotle claims that a good man “does many acts for the sake of his friends and his country, and if necessary dies for them.” For me to sacrifice my life for the sake of someone else would be the ultimate sacrifice; and this seems at odds with my own self-interest, as well as self-love, which Aristotle is promoting when he makes this claim. If I were to do such a thing, I would certainly be seen as noble by most people; but what good does that do me if I'm dead? A selfish person would most likely not be willing to give their life for someone else, precisely because they would see such an act as being in conflict with their self-interest. This conflict, furthermore, is not limited to the sacrifice of life. Indeed, Aristotle goes on to say that a good man will also sacrifice wealth, honor and office to his friends; but someone acting with their own self-interest in mind would not likely do these things, either. This seems, at first glance, to be a fatal flaw in Aristotle's reasoning.

Upon closer examination, however, there are several clear and powerful responses to this objection which, taken together, thoroughly refute it. The first comes from Aristotle's concept of true friendship, as discussed throughout Books VIII and IX. This is relevant because, when Aristotle said sacrifice is often a necessary component of virtue, he was talking about sacrificing for the sake of a friend (or one's country, and by extension all of one's friends). In a true friendship, according to Aristotle, both parties want what is good for each other. Indeed, Aristotle says “those who wish well for their friends for their sake are most truly friends; for they do this by reason of their own nature and not incidentally” (Book VIII, Ch. 3), and “as the virtuous man is to himself, he is to his friend also” (Book IX, Ch. 9). In other words, if I am virtuous and a good friend, what is good for my friend is what I want by nature, and is therefore in my self-interest. In light of this, my act of sacrificing my life for my friend no longer seems entirely contrary to my self-interest.

Another reason sacrifice is in my self-interest is that acting virtuously is pleasant to the virtuous person, as mentioned earlier. This applies even to the extreme case of sacrificing my life for a friend; indeed, as Aristotle says in the very same sentence as he mentions dying for a friend (Book IX, Ch. 8), the good man “would prefer a short period of intense pleasure [brought about by his extremely virtuous act of self-sacrifice] to a long one of mild enjoyment.” In other words, if I am a virtuous person, then my one act of sacrificing my life for my friend will be the happiest moment of my life, and is thus in my own interest. Furthermore, if I shy away from the moral obligation of self-sacrifice, then I will have to live the rest of my life knowing that I did so. That would be a fate worse than death, and would permanently cripple my ability to find happiness in life; and going through with the sacrifice would be the only way to avoid that.
The final, and most profound, rebuttal to the apparent conflict between sacrifice and self-interest lies in the relation to society of my willingness to sacrifice for my friends or country. That is, the more people there are in society who are virtuous, to the point of being willing to sacrifice anything – even their lives – for their friends, the better off society as a whole is. In his discussion of political friendship or unanimity (Book IX, Ch. 6), Aristotle says bad men “aim at getting more than their share of advantages, while in labor and public service they fall short of their share”; and clearly, the fewer of such men there are in society, the better. Conversely, then, what society needs is more people who are willing to be virtuous, even if it leads to them receiving less than they give. Furthermore, what is good for society is also good for me, because a better society would be more just, and would provide me with greater benefits. Therefore, my willingness to sacrifice myself for a friend if necessary is in society's interest, and by extension my own interest.

The argument that, because sacrifice is necessary for virtue, virtue is opposed to happiness and self-interest, certainly does at first glance seem to damage Aristotle's views. However, the closer inspection I have given to the issue has convinced me that his views clearly win over these objections. In my view, Aristotle's notions of virtue and happiness are not at all in conflict. That is, being virtuous is in my own self-interest.


Zachary Freier said...

Please excuse, if you will, the excessively wordy, as well as overly comma-filled, language; in particular, forgive me for the atrocious use of semicolons; I decided, in the end, not to edit any of these essays before posting them, so they would provide honest snapshots of my development, as a thinker and a writer.

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