Monday, September 5, 2011

Aristotle's ethics as confining

In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle understands good things to be either good in themselves (i.e. pleasure, honor, wisdom, sight) or good as a means to the inherently good things. Consequently, humans are not inherently good but must be actively good to acquire those things good in themselves; to Aristotle, good is a way of living for those who wish for proximity to or for the qualities of inherent goodness. Aristotle acknowledges that the human pursuit for these good things, then, is a selfish one. He writes that honor is too superficial to be good “since it appears to depend on those who confer more than on him upon whom it is conferred” and because “men’s motive in pursuing honour seems to be to assure themselves of their own merit” (15). Wealth and pleasure, other “good things” cited by Aristotle, also exist clearly to comfort man’s body or ego. Thus, human goodness is somehow impure. Aristotle writes, though, that the Idea of Good – a transcendent idea of goodness – is “not relevant to Ethics” because “it clearly will not be practicable or attainable by man” (23). Instead, he believes that “the Good which we are now seeking is a good within human reach” (23). So, man cannot achieve Goodness, for there is no Goodness to for him to achieve. He can merely adhere to good action to obtain inherently good things, and, at best, his good action will be voluntary but superficial or impure, since “pleasure and nobility supply the motives of all actions whatsoever” (121,123). Aristotle writes, “it is our choice of good or evil that determines our character” and here raises a question of desire (133). For though both good and bad choices can be self-serving, a man must decide whether he desires a good or an evil character as recognized by his society. In this way, character becomes somewhat of an act determined by society. It seems to me that both Aristotle – with his view of human goodness – and a stringent society confine the ultimate understanding and the potential of human character to transcend into the realm of Goodness.


  1. Christina, you bring up a good point when you define the "Idea of Good" and oppose it to goodness in itself. I agree that man can't truly ever obtain this elusive goodness which he seeks since he is vainly trying to pursue it in order to satisfy his own selfish definition of goodness.

    You say in your post that you believe society plays a major part in shaping character and that a man will decide to make a good or bad choice based on society's standards for goodness and evilness, but what do you make of involuntary actions? In Book II of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle delves deeply into categorizing voluntary and involuntary actions. Do you think that the results of a person's involuntary actions should count towards determining a person's character as well even though that person may not have full choice or control over the circumstances?

  2. Society constructs the notion of the good or evil man, but these terms seem inadequate and, furthermore, reductive. When Aristotle discusses involuntary action near the opening of Book III, he describes the involuntary action of a man on a cargo ship in the midst of a storm: “apart from circumstances, no one voluntarily throws away his property, but to save his own life and that of his shipmates any sane man would do so” (119). Aristotle suggests sanity as a reason for involuntary action and – to me – this complicates any other point he makes. How can his preceding example of the tyrant be considered involuntary? One must wonder what Aristotle’s definition of sanity is; from the given examples, Aristotle could believe sanity to be either the comprehension of survival or the recognition of good and evil.
    Aristotle’s understanding of character is limiting in that it does not expand upon the notion of good. In Aristotle’s examples, a man acting involuntarily is threatened either by evil or by death. Love and spirit and other abstract concepts are not addressed. In this essay, man is simplified into a being that can be understood and manipulated by a society or by the construct of ethics – i.e. when Aristotle writes that “pleasure and nobility supply the motives of all actions whatsoever” (121). However, when Aristotle writes, “it is absurd to blame external things, instead of blaming ourselves for falling an easy prey to their [pleasure and nobility] attractions,” I agree but remain confused at the logic. Aristotle’s examples of the man acting involuntarily because of ignorance – Merope mistaking his son for an enemy, a man with good intentions giving another medicine that kills him – obviously do not determine this man’s character. Good actions performed for mere pleasure and nobility seem tainted if one cares more for his own gain than the assumed beneficial consequences of his action. Aristotle’s statistical way of explaining ethics is not satisfying, as it seems that complications such as how wealth affects a man’s capacity to be “good” or how love causes a man to kill one while protecting another (murder is a voluntary act and a choice of evil to, perhaps, defend good or at least goodness) are not understandable within his terms. I guess I understand Aristotle's idea of involuntary ignorant action as explained by his examples, but I do not agree with his idea of involuntary action in general...


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.