Lesson 5: Moral Philosophy in Aristotle

The theoretical use of the mind aims at achieving truth about the things that are, whereas the practical use of the mind orders knowledge to an end beyond knowing (On the Soul, 3, 10). Practical knowledge can be exemplified by art and morals. In art, the mind directs activities other than thinking -- e.g. the movement of the hands -- to the end of the perfection of some artifact, e.g. a birdhouse. When we think morally, we are concerned to direct our desires and choices to that which is truly perfective of us, our good as human agents.

The human good is the good of individual agents, but a human agent cannot reach his fulfillment in isolation, but only in the society of fellow humans. "Man is by nature a political animal." This does not mean that we have a tendency to decide to live in groups; it means we are born into a community, the family, a community of families, a city. Only when we keep this in mind can we give an account of what is good for us that applies to us as we naturally are. Moral philosophy in a fully adequate sense is political philosophy, the pursuit of the good we share with other members of the community, the common good. There is also the common good of the family which is less extensive than that shared by members of the same city, and our actions must be directed to that lesser common good as well. Of course it is in the family and in our being brought up to regard the common good of the family as a good that takes precedence over goods which are merely our own and not ours as members of the family.

Moving back from the more and less comprehensive goods of the city and the family, Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics discusses the good of personal integrity, the virtues we must possess as individuals before we consider the virtues that enable us to act well in the home and in the city.

The Ultimate End

The objects of moral appraisal are human acts which are voluntary -- that is, one does something both knowingly and willingly. Such acts are undertaken for a purpose. There are as many different purposes as there are acts, of course, and to say that they are all undertaken for a purpose does not of course mean they are undertaken for the same purpose. But ends can be related among themselves. Some things are sought merely as means to an an end, but some ends are sought as means to further ends. Sometimes many subordinate ends cluster under a dominant end, as the building is the term of the many activities on the building site, each of which has its particular end. So, too, in the military, the various components of the armed forces, each with its special mission, are ordered to the overall end of having an army in the first place. Is there such an overriding end for everything we do, an ultimate end to which each act is ordered? Aristotle says there is.

He provides two kinds of consideration in favor of this claim. One is factual. The law orders all overt acts in a society to the common good of that society which is therefore the ultimate end of all those acts, though fishing is fishing and driving is driving and drilling teeth is drilling teeth. Each of these has its own purpose or end but all are governed by laws which relate them to the common good. Aristotle also notes that we have a word for the purpose behind anything we do: happiness.

The second is an argument, and an argument of a very interesting kind. Aristotle argues that anyone who denies that there is an ultimate end renders human action -- and his denial -- absurd. In any ordered set of actions, there cannot be an infinite series of ends for the sake of which they are undertaken. If an action aims at A, and A at B, and B at C, and so on ad infinitum, we are far from giving a reason for action; we are saying there is no reason for what we do. This is counterintuitive, as might be said. The rather amazing upshot of this argument is that the burden of proof is on the shoulders of one who denies there is an ultimate end, not on those of the one who acknowledges it.

But how can we articulate this overall good of the human agent? It must perfect or fulfill him as human, but what marks the human agent off from others is the possession of reason, the conscious directing of his deeds. The good of the human agent must be the good of reason, the perfecting of rational activity. But rational activity is of different kinds, the most notable distinction that between theoretical and practical reasoning. Further, some activities are rational because they come under the sway of reason -- sense desires, for example. Now if the perfection of an activity is its virtue and if the distinctive human activity, rational activity, is of various kinds, there will be a variety of virtues perfective of the human agent. The virtues of sense appetite as it comes under the law of reason, temperance and courage, for example, are moral virtues and virtues in the strong sense, as is justice, which perfects will, the rational appetite. Virtue is defined by Aristotle as that which makes an activity and the agent good. Good is the object of appetite, as true is the object of cognition, so the virtues which reside in appetite save the definition most obviously. The virtues perfective of practical reasoning are art (the know how to perfect the thing made) and prudence (the know how to perfect the agent). The sciences are examples of virtues of speculative intellect.

Aristotle will distinguish between the happiness that comes from the possession of the moral virtues, but he goes on to speak of a higher happiness, that of contemplation, which orders all the virtues to the end of philosophizing itself, the divine. Book Ten of the Nicomachean Ethics indicates how Aristotle unifies the whole philosophical enterprise. The quest for knowledge is made by an agent whose moral acts must be virtuous. Like Plato, he feels that the moral virtues remove impediments to a proper understanding of the divine. But the ordering of that speculative knowledge to the overall end of human life, the contemplation of the divine, the convergence of all activities on this culminating and most fulfilling one -- that is Aristotle's understanding of the point of human life.

Of course, being of flesh and blood, needing eight hours sleep, having to provide for ourselves and families, we cannot devote ourselves non-stop to such an exalted activity. But insofar as whatever we do is seen as conducive to or necessary for that activity, however episodically engaged in, one will have achieved the ultimate end of human life.

Writing Assignment

Write briefly on one of the following:

1. How does one go about establishing man's ultimate end?

2. Discuss the range of virtues: what kind is first and why?


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