Lesson 4: Ultimate End

There are two major ways of arguing on behalf of the view that there is one overriding end or purpose of all we do. The first is found at the outset of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, the second is found at the beginning of the moral part of the Summa theologiae. We will examine each of these in turn and then ask how they relate to one another. That being done we will say some things about Thomas's distinction between perfect and imperfect happiness.

Aristotle on Ultimate End

Aristotle's Ethics, Book One, Chapter 1

1. Every art and every investigation, and likewise every practical pursuit or undertaking, seems to aim at some good: hence it has been well said that the Good is That at which all things aim.

2. (It is true that a certain variety is to be observed among the ends at which the arts and sciences aim: in some cases the activity of practicing the art is itself the end, whereas in others the end is some product over and above the mere exercise of the art; and in the arts whose ends are certain things beside the practice of the arts themselves, these products are essentially superior in value to the activities.)

3. But as there are numerous pursuits in arts and sciences, it follows that their ends are correspondingly numerous: for instance, the end of the science of medicine is health, that of the art of shipbuilding a vessel, that of strategy victory, that of domestic economy wealth.

4. Now in cases where several such pursuits are subordinate to some single faculty -- as bridle-making and the other trades concerned with horses' harness are subordinate to horsemanship, and this and every other military pursuit to the science of strategy, and similarly other arts to different arts again -- in all these cases, I say, the ends of the master arts are things more to be desired than the ends of the arts subordinate to them; since the latter ends are only pursued for the sake of the former.

5. (And it makes no difference whether the ends of the pursuits are the activities themselves or some other thing beside these, as in the case of the sciences mentioned.)

I have divided this first chapter into five numbered sections to facilitate commentary.

1. The opening generalization is a very structured statement, not a random list to illustrate the generalization. Every art and every investigation -- that is, every productive skill and every intellectual investigation or science -- aims at an end; and so too does every practical pursuit or undertaking. St. Thomas observes that Aristotle thus covers the full range of the speculative and the practical in his generalization. Thus it is every human pursuit -- with the human being defined in terms of that which is most formal in us, namely reason -- that is said to aim at some good.

Aristotle adds that this is what we mean by 'good', namely, that at which all things aim. This aim or end and good are linked; the chief meaning of good is the end or aim which gives direction and meaning to any process and, in the case in point, to every human, that is, rational, endeavor.

Aristotle maintains that every agent, human or not, acts for the sake of an end, but in the present context the opening generalization asserts that every human act is for the sake of an end.

2. In this parenthetical remark, Aristotle distinguishes between the end aimed at by a productive art and the end of the sciences as well as moral actions. The artisan aims to produce something over and above the activity in which he engages. The whittler's activity is ordered to producing the image of his mother-in-law, say.

The house-builder aims to build a house, the dentist to fill a cavity, the surgeon to do a triple bypass. These activities are just as such ordered to a product beyond those activities which by and large outlasts them. [All of these agents may enjoy what he does, and a nervous whittler may simply produce a lot of wood shavings and no other product, but we don't take such examples as standard. A surgeon may say that he loves to operate whether or not he cures the patient, and we would rightly think something is wrong.] By contrast, there are activities which are their own end; we engage in them for the sake of engaging in them. Knowing has an aim, the truth of the matter, but this is not something over and above the activity. It is immanent to it.

3. Here Aristotle makes explicit that the opening generalization covers a multitude of instances, and if, as Thomas suggests, we think of the generalization in terms of three major kinds of human activity, each of these has numerous instances. Notice how Aristotle makes this point: the end of the medical art is health; the art of shipbuilding aims at producing a ship; military strategy aims at victory; domestic economy is ordered to wealth. The idea is that the list could be extended indefinitely. Every human activity is ordered to an end which has the character of good, but there are innumerable instances of human activity.

Aristotle has sometimes been charged with committing this fallacy: Every activity aims at some end; therefore there is some one end at which every activity aims. Paragraph 3 stands in the way of this misunderstanding. Aristotle rather says: Every activity aims at some end but there are numerous activities and therefore numerous ends.

4. Because of this, he sets out in 4 to introduce ordered finitude into the claim. It can be said of every human activity that it is engaged in for the sake of an end, but this covers an uncountable variety of particular aims and ends. Can we move from the unity of this general truth -- it applies to every human activity -- toward unifying activities in terms of connections between or among their ends?

Aristotle draws our attention to the way in which ends cluster or nest, the ends of some pursuits being brought under a common goal -- common now, not in the sense of predictably common, but some numerically one aim that is common to a number of pursuits each of which has its particular aim. Shoeing, making bridles, making stirrups -- each of these activities has its peculiar product: shoes, bridles, stirrups. But each of these activities and its product is aimed at horsemanship: the equestrian art whose performance depends on these subsidiary arts. So too we might say that the infantry and artillery and cavalry have their specific ends, but they are all subordinated to the end of victory to which the general directs them.

In this paragraph, Aristotle has taken us beyond the apparently undifferentiated claim that every human pursuit is for the sake of an end, to the ordering and hierarchy of ends that we recognize as gathering together subordinate arts under the end of some general art.

There are subordinate arts and there are master arts. The ends of the subordinate arts are pursued, not for their own sake, but for the sake of the master arts.

5. Aristotle concludes the chapter by observing that it makes no difference to such subordination whether the ends pursued are products beyond the activities or the activities themselves. This has the effect of making clear that Aristotle does not mean to confine such subordination to the arts; it is also exemplified in the sciences, to say nothing of moral acts.

Aristotle's Ethics, Book One, Chapter 2

1. If therefore among the ends at which our actions aim there be one which we will for its own sake, while we will the others only for the sake of this, and if we do not choose everything for the sake of something else (which would obviously result in a process ad infinitum, so that all desire would be futile and vain), it is clear that this one ultimate End must be the Good, and indeed the Supreme Good.

2. Will not then a knowledge of this Supreme Good be also of great practical importance for the conduct of life? Will it not better enable us to attain our proper object, like archers having a target to aim at? If this be so, we ought to make an attempt to determine at all events in outline what exactly this Supreme Good is, and of which of the sciences or faculties it is the object.

3. Now it would seem that this supreme End must be the object of the most authoritative of the sciences -- some science which is preeminently a master-craft. But such is manifestly the science of Politics; for it is this that ordains which of the sciences are to exist in states and what branches of knowledge the different classes of the citizens are to learn, and up to what point; and we observe that even the most highly esteemed of the faculties, such as strategy, domestic economy, oratory, are subordinate to the political science. Inasmuch then as the rest of the sciences are employed by this one, and as it moreover lays down laws as to what people shall do and what things they shall refrain from doing, the end of this science must include the ends of all the others.

4. Therefore, the Good of man must be the end of the science of Politics. For even though it be the case that the Good is the same for the individual and for the state, nevertheless, the good of the state is manifestly a greater and more perfect good, both to attain and to preserve.

5. To secure the good of one person only is better than nothing; but to secure the good of a nation or a state is a nobler and more divine achievement. This then being its aim, our investigation is in a sense the study of Politics.

1. This paragraph, brief as it is, is the very heart of the matter. Here we have Aristotle saying that, not only is it the case that each and every human action is for the sake of some end, and not only is it the case that actions can be clustered in terms of subordinate and master arts so that there is not simply unrelated variety -- over and above this, it can be seen that there must be a single overriding end of everything that we do.

We have already pointed that Aristotle does not establish this by the fallacious argument set down earlier: Every human act is for the sake of some end; therefore there is some one end for the sake of which each act is done. How does Aristotle arrive at the single overriding end of human life?

If there is an end which is willed only for its own sake and other ends are willed for the sake of it, this would be the ultimate end and supreme good. Can this hypothetical be stated categorically? That is, if Aristotle is establishing that there is an ultimate end of human action, how does he argue for it? No commentator is of more help than Thomas Aquinas following Aristotle's procedure:

First, he shows from the foregoing that there is a highest end in human affairs. Second, he shows that knowledge of it is necessary. Third, he shows to what science knowledge of it pertains.

He uses three arguments in making the first point, the chief of which is this.

[1] Whatever end is such that we will other things for its sake and will it for its own sake and not for the sake of anything else, is not only good but best.

[This is clear from the fact that the end for the sake of which others things are wanted is the more principal end, as the foregoing proves.]

[2] But there must be such an end in human affairs.

[3] Therefore there is some end that is good and best in human affairs.

That is the basic or principal argument. But [2] is in need of proof and, Thomas points out, Aristotle gives a proof that is a reductio ad absurdum:

* it is clear from the foregoing that one end is desired for the sake of another

* either [a] we arrive at some end which is not desired for the sake of something further, or [b] we do not.

** if [a] we do, the point is made

** if however [b] we do not, it follows that every end is desired for the sake of some other end. But this is to proceed to infinity, and that is impossible.

Therefore [a].

The argument form is: a v b. But b is impossible, therefore a. The disjunction is an aut and not a vel: that is, it is necessary that either a or b; b is impossible, therefore a.

But why is it impossible to proceed to infinity? This assumption is also proved by a reductio.

If there should be an infinite process in the desire of ends, such that one end is desired for another and so on endlessly, a man will never arrive at the ends he desires, but one would futilely and vainly seek what can never be had; so the desire of the end would be futile and vain.

But this is a natural desire, since it was said above that the good is that which all things naturally desire.

It follows, therefore, that a natural desire is inane and vacuous.

But that is impossible because a natural desire is nothing else but an inclination inherent in things thanks to the ordering of the prime mover who cannot be frustrated.

Therefore it is impossible for there to be an infinite regress in ends.

Thomas's commentary, by stressing that it is by means of reductiones that Aristotle establishes the truth that there is an ultimate end of human acts, indicates a point that he does not explicitly make, perhaps because he considered it evident enough. What kind of truths are established or defended in the indirect manner of the reductio? When Aristotle confronts the fact that there are those who at least verbally contest the most fundamental truths of being and knowledge, he first makes the obvious point that nothing more evident than what is denied can be invoked to establish it. If first principles are first there are no principles prior to them. Secondary truths are established by arguing for them from prior truths, more evident and obvious than they. But this path is closed to us when it is first principles themselves that are at issue. What to do?

If first principles are what they are, that is, common truths that no one can fail to know, they must be held even by the one who verbally rejects them. The only way to handle the objector is to show that he cannot consistently deny the first principles, since in the course of doing this he must invoke them.

Is something like this going on in the case of ultimate end? Is the burden of proof on the one who would deny, rather than on the one who would affirm, that there is an overriding end of human action? How would you go about defending the claim that it is self-evident that there is an ultimate end of human behavior?

Among the difficulties you will have to confront are the following:

1. "Look, now I want A, now I want B, later C, and these are just different goals, unrelated to one another. They don't have to be subordinated either to one another or to something else."

2. "Isn't life an infinite regress? I mean, do I ever achieve or acquire some good that is the purpose of it all? Like is more like one damned thing after another, isn't it?"

3. "Any claim that it is self-evident that there is an ultimate end of human behavior has to be able to handle the seemingly infinite variety of overriding goals people do or could pursue. Or is the claim that it is self-evident that everyone has some overriding goal -- already suspect on the basis of 1 and 2 -- or that there is some one ultimate end for all human beings?"

This last objection can be the occasion for our noticing that both Aristotle and St. Thomas observe that, as a matter of fact, human beings pursue a variety of ends as ultimate. Does 3 then lead us to say that the position is this: for anyone something or other functions as the ultimate reason for doing anything whatsoever, but of course this varies from person to person?

But this pluralism is not necessarily benign for Aristotle and Thomas. If they do indeed concede that some seek their ultimate end in pleasure, others in wealth, others in power, honor, etc., they do not think that all of these truly fulfill the role of ultimate end.

What is involved here is actually clearer in Thomas's approach at the beginning of the moral part of the Summa theologiae.

Thomas on Ultimate End

At the outset of the first part of the second part (IaIIae) of the Summa theologiae, Thomas asks a series of questions:

* Is it the mark of the human agent that he act for an end?

* Is an act the kind of act it is because of the end for which it is done?

* Is there an ultimate end of human life?

* Can one man have several ultimate ends?

* Is everything sought, sought for the sake of the ultimate end?

* Is there one and the same ultimate end for all men?

The activity that characterizes the human agent is for the sake of an end. It is not the case that some human acts are for the sake of an end and others not: for something to be a human act is for it to be aimed at some end or good.

Of any human act it can be asked, by the agent or someone else, why did I (you) do that? The answer will tell us the kind of act you performed. "To remove a malignant tumor." "To get some bug spray." "To move the runner from first to second." Acts are characterized by the purpose or end for which they are undertaken. This is how we distinguish them into kinds.

[The fact that we sometimes say, "No reason, I just like to hum," is not a counter-example, as your reflections on chapter one of Book One of Aristotle's Ethics have shown.]

The "Why did you do that?" question is always relevant to human action because human acts are deliberately and voluntarily performed: we know what we are doing -- bunting the ball -- and we do so freely.

[Activities that are truly predicated of human beings such as twitching, going bald, digesting, are indeed activities of human beings but not human activities. Such activities are not performed consciously and willingly; in a sense, they happen to us.]

If any human act is performed for the sake of some end or good, each end must be an instance of goodness. That is, any particular end is sought because it is good -- sub ratione boni. The concrete good is something other that has the note of goodness, that shares in or participates in goodness. This end is not goodness as such, nor is that, but each of them is desirable at all insofar as it has or shares in goodness.

This may seem a merely verbal point. The concrete noun is accounted for by appeal to an abstract expression: the good is that which has goodness; a being is that which has existence. And doesn't that take us back to the very beginning of the Aristotelian analysis? There are lots of different ends pursued; the fact that it is true of any human pursuit that it is for the sake of the end was not taken to prove that there is some end for the sake of which each of them is done. Is Thomas guilty of the fallacious transition of which we earlier exonerated Aristotle?

ST IaIIae, q. 1, a. 1 may be said to make the point that any human act is for the sake of some end or other and a. 3 that they are distinguished from one another because of the distinct ends that they pursue. The next step (a. 4) is to show that there is an ultimate end. How does Thomas do it?

He argues that just as an infinite series of efficient causes is impossible, so is an infinite series of ends. This is relevant to human action because of the distinction between the order of intention and the order of execution -- in both of these orders there must be something that is first. In the order of intention, that is first which moves will as a principle or starting point: if that be taken away, the appetite is unmoved. In the order of execution is that from which the activity takes its rise -- I go to the phone to dial the number that will bring us pizza within the hour. Take away my going to the phone and nothing happens.

The principle of intention is the ultimate end; the principle of execution is the first of the means ordered to that end. And on neither side is an infinite regress possible: if there were no ultimate end nothing would be desired nor would any act ever reach its term nor the intention of the agent come to rest; if there were not something first in the things ordered to the end, no one would begin to act nor would taking counsel come to an end but would go on forever. (IaIIae.1.4)

This argument can be taken to establish the kind of connection among actions that Aristotle speaks of in terms of subordinate and master arts. That is, it is not only the case that any action is for the sake of some end, the ends of some actions are so related that the ends of some are subordinate to that of another master art.

Thomas is quick to add that where there is no orderly connection among ends, there can be infinity.

Does this mean that Thomas reads the Aristotelian argument given above, reducing to absurdity the denial of ultimate end, is applicable only to those situations Aristotle had illustrated with horsemanship and the master builder?

How can we move from there being an ultimate objective in this set of actions and another in that, to there being a single overriding end of human action? That Thomas recognizes that there is more work to be done is clear from articles 5 and 6 of this opening question of the moral part of the Summa theologiae. Article 5 asks whether a given person can have more than one ultimate end. He denies that this is possible and does so, it is clear, because he does not restruct ultimate end to that which is ultimate in this range of actions (those making up the military and ordered to the end of victory, on the one hand, and the ends of all the building trades which, on the construction site, are ordered to the ultimate end of this edifice), but that which is comprehensive of all human actions.

This will surprise us. Needless to say, if there is an overriding, comprehensive end of human action, one will be enough and two will be too many. An examination of this article can prompt us to notice what we can overlook in what has gone before. Here is the first of three arguments why there cannot be a plurality of ultimate ends governing one's actions.

Whatever seeks its perfection, seeks it as its ultimate end, which it seeks as its perfect and fulfilling good. (A.5)

"Perfection?" you might say. "I thought we were sending out for pizza." Where did this notion of what is ultimately fulfilling come from, this perfect good? We thought we were awaiting an argument that there is such an end, and now it seems to have been snuck in without fanfare. We must accordingly back up and see what Thomas thinks we have already acknowledged in article 1.

Every human action is undertaken for the sake of some end which has the character of a good. This action differs from that because this pursues this good and that pursues that good. Verbally, we noticed, a particular good can be seen to be something that shares in goodness. That is, "good" = "x has goodness." It is because we are aware of the vast variety of things that x can stand for, that can be values of x, that we do not think the generalization, "Every pursuit is for the sake of some good" takes us very far, goods being as numerous and various as they are. But we have not taken sufficient account of what "goodness" commits us to here.

If I say that x is good and y is good and z is good, and I am speaking of things it is good for a human agent to do, however different x and y and z are from one another, they are being commended as constituents of my comprehensive good. When I say that x is good, I don't mean that y and z can be ignored; y and z are good even though x is good because x is a particular good and as particular it is part of a whole, my complete good.

Thomas is in effect pointing out that the account of the particular good, the ratio boni, is already the acceptance of the fact that there is a comprehensive, complete, perfect good which is sought in the pursuit of particular goods. It is their raison d'etre.

The pursuit of any particular good has latent in it the desire for the comprehensive good of which that particular good is a part.

So there is a sense in which Thomas argues from there being particular ends to their being a single comprehensive end. Not only is this not fallacious, it is self-evidently true.

Comparison of Aristotle and Thomas

If we continued our reading of Book One of Aristotle's Ethics we would find him setting down the characteristics of the ultimate end. It is sought for its own sake and all other things are sought for the sake of it; it is lasting; it is completely fulfilling of our desires.

So too we have seen Thomas Aquinas suggesting that the pursuit of any particular good is an implicit pursuit of the comprehensive, perfect good.

In their different ways, then, both Aristotle and Thomas argue for the necessity of an ultimate end and indeed that it is self-evidently true that there is such an end. Yet both must then confront the question: but in what does this ultimate end consist? What goal or good could possibly count as the comprehensive end of human action?

Their procedure makes it clear that they distinguish between (a) what is meant by "ultimate end" and the fact that there must be such an end, and (b) the identification or articulation of precisely what the ultimate end of human life is. Later on, for example, Thomas will claim both that there is a single ultimate end for all human beings and that there is disagreement as to what it is because it is not easy to achieve clarity in the matter.

Aristotle notices that we have a word for the ultimate end of human action, namely, happiness. But we still must make clear what happiness is and in what precisely it consists.

Reading Assignment

Thomas Aquinas Selected Writings, selections 12 and 21

Ethica thomistica, chapters 2 and 3.

Writing Assignment

What is Aristotle's argument for there being an ultimate end?


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