Aristotle's Ethics (book)

A curious fact about the history of ethical theory is that the ancient Greeks did not have a word for happiness; it made no sense for them to speak about the final goal of human action as individual or general human happiness. The Greeks used the word eudaimonia, which is generally translated as flourishing. To flourish, in the eyes of Aristotle, is to fulfil one’s potential as a human being, or to be excellent at being what one truly is.                                                                                                                                                                                                            For Aristotle, in order to know what it means to flourish, it is essential to have a view of human nature. This means, that to know if an individual has flourished as a human, we must have a notion of what it means to be a human so we can determine what kind of things an exemplar human being would do. Aristotle believed that this answer had to be found in biology grounded in sound metaphysics. For example, by nature, human beings are social, so part of human flourishing will entail forming relationships with people, being trustworthy, and caring about others to a reasonable level.

Aristotle’s view was not that we perform a particular action because it is in line with some law outside of us, or because it will bring about a further state (such as a maximisation of human happiness: see Utilitarianism for such a theory). If the action itself is a manifestation of flourishing, then it is a ‘good action’. For Aristotle, the word ‘good’ only makes sense in relation to what the thing is: what its function is. A good knife is one that cuts well, and a good human is one that performs her biological functions well: i.e. is sufficiently social and uses her intellect to plan for the future yet avoid immediate threats.

This view of ethics is appealing because it does not rely on any speculative, eternal ethical laws. The other benefit is that it does not fall into the utilitarian trap of demanding that we act for the benefit of human happiness in general. I can see why I should act for the benefit of myself, or my close family and friends due to natural human sentiment: emotions and ideas springing from basic biological and psychological realities. In contrast, stating that I should act to enhance the happiness of all of humanity seems to stretch my concern for others to excessively abstract and unattainable levels: it becomes unnatural.

The problem facing Aristotle’s ethics is that it is unclear if it would produce the kind of individuals that we typically consider ethical. Looking back at history and around us today, human beings seem inclined to engage in relentless war and atrocity driven by fabricated divisions. Possibly, to flourish as a human is to aggressively dominate anyone outside of my immediate circle. On the other hand, sophisticated arguments can be made that due to the benefits that complex social networks provide to humans, honesty and concern for others are aspects of human flourishing. Quantum physics also indicates that a human being cannot be separated from their environment and other people, so selfishness is against our fundamental nature. 

For me, the appeal of this kind of ethics is that it is fundamentally tied to notions of human nature and can therefore change in accordance with a growing understanding of what human beings are. It can be used by those who are atheists or religious: the only difference is that the conception of what it means to flourish will differ in accordance with what we take humans to be: purely biological beings, or being with souls where connection with God is the highest kind of flourishing. In politics, it means that the final goal of state action is for as many people to flourish or "make the best of themselves" as possible and such behavior should be activity encouraged by the state.  

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