If this did not sound odd enough to modern ears, Aristotle has
also said that the study of human good is the province of politike,
the skill of maintaining and running a community (I.2)
Already questions arise: why should the search for human
happiness be tied to a community? What counts as "living well
and doing well," and why? What is virtuous or excellent, and how
can we tell?
A. To modern thinkers, the
idea that the individual's happiness depends on the way the
community is run may suggest that Aristotle means to subordinate
the individual's happiness to the preservation of the community
or its leaders (authoritarianism), and/or that Aristotle would
suppress the values of diverse cultural elements within a
community to the preservation of the community as a whole
I argue that the first inference (authoritarianism or the subjugation of individual interests to the preservation of the community at any cost) is false in that it only looks at one side without seeing the balance that Aristotle envisions. As regards the second (anti-pluralism), I argue that although Aristotle probably did not have experience of cultural diversity within a single citizenry, he was aware of differences between cultures, and of differences of interest and of interpretation of standards within a single culture. I suggest that his frustrating vagueness about arete (virtue) leaves room for cultural and other variation - within certain parameters. The "other" variations might include e.g. different interpretations and priorities based on class or other interests, which certainly existed in Athens in the 4th century BCE.
How then is Aristotle able to support pluralism without
espousing either relativism or absolutism, and how is he able
to support community without loss of the individual's ability
to pursue happiness? Here is an account.
1. Humans aim for "living well and
doing well," a condition that would be both desirable for
itself and worth living in.
a.What most people want in their lives requires some sort of cooperation. Aside from desire for human company, many of our desires can only be fulfilled or even pursued if there is division of labor, trade, some sort of rule-governed social and economic relations, protection, and so on. These things mean that some sort of community, loosely speaking, must be in place. This is true both with respect to basic survival needs and with respect to gaining the time and resources to pursue further goals that make survival worthwhile.
b.Our aim of happiness also requires that we be able to use all our capacities and potentials to their best advantage, especially those most human of capacities, the capacities involved in making and acting on good choices. This excellence in making choices would be "moral excellence" or "moral arete."(I.7)
This condition also suggests that a
community in which some people are not able to use their
capacities is one in which those people do not have a chance to
seek happiness. This in turn implies that such a community is
not worth living in for those people, and thus that they would
be reasonable if they sought opportunities elsewhere when
possible. Aristotle himself notes in Book X, Ch. 6 that a slave
cannot be happy, no matter how comfortable a life the slave has.
The slave, Aristotle say, does not have the opportunity to
exercise what is most human in him/herself.
2. Therefore we need to consider how to make choices well, and how to act on them well. We need to consider this both
a.in order to be able to identify and seek our own goals; and
to live with others in a way that makes such seeking possible.
What then is this virtue/excellence, this making and
acting on good choices?
Aristotle characterizes arete as follows (II.6): "virtue/excellence is a characteristic involving choice; it consists in observing the mean relative to us, a mean which is determined by a rational principle [by reasoning], such as a person of phronesis would use to determine it."
In Book VI, Ch. 5, Aristotle characterizes phronesis(usually
translated as "practical wisdom") this way: "a truthful rational
characteristic of acting in matters involving what is good for
man." This seems to mean not only honesty, but understanding
what is true.
3. Aristotle goes on to describe how several characteristics normally called "virtues" fit this model of observing a mean between extremes: courage is a mean between cowardice an recklessness, generosity a mean between stinginess and extravagance, etc. But he never gives a criterion for determining what should count as e.g. courage, cowardice, or recklessness in a given situation.
Partly this is because there will be
different standards for different individuals depending on age,
strength, resources, etc. But there is another variable:
different societies may have different ideas about what is
worthy of fear, about how much of one's resources others may
claim, etc. Aristotle says nothing about this, and does not
indicate that he subscribes to any one society's value system in
this. Then too, some of what a society deems worthy of fear,
respect, pity, etc. may depend on its beliefs about what exists
(we feel that an epileptic is a person who is disadvantaged and
needs our aid; other societies feel that epileptic fits are
visitations from gods and that the epileptic is privileged to
have them and needs no assistance). Aristotle says nothing about
Therefore it appears that there could be several
different way of adhering to arete and arranging a
society to enable the pursuit of happiness. Are there any
limitations, or is Aristotle advocating ethical relativism? Is
he saying that any value system is as good as any other, or
that any idea about happiness is as good as any other?
4. I argue that
he is not a relativist; yet that he is not an absolutist
either. Rather, there are certain checks or parameters on any
value system and any conception of arete.
phronesis is to be the guide for determining what is
right to do, and phronesis involves truth, then no
value system or custom (and no aggregate of value systems and
customs) that involves contradictions can underlie arete
and enable us to pursue happiness.
viability. Nothing that will destroy law or community or
trust can be virtuous. Again, without a community no one (A.
thinks) could have the opportunity to seek what is worth
must be possible. In Book X, Aristotle finds that the most
"self-sufficient" of goods, and the one that most deeply engages
what is most human in us, is theoria, "contemplation,"
roughly the active consideration of knowledge.
Aristotle does not mention works of art as
objects of "contemplation"; he is thinking more of learning
gained through philosophy and science. However, it is also true
that visual and performing arts in his time appeared only in the
context of religious and social functions; that was the only way
to fund them. It is possible that the arts of today, whose
directions come more from their creators, might be another
source of objects for contemplation; I don't know.
virtuous action is done for the sake of what is kalos
(beautiful; noble); an action done for the sake of something
else may be helpful, but it isn't virtuous (III.9, III.11,
etc.); to perform noble/beautiful and good deeds is something
desirable for its own sake (X.6). Therefore what is
beautiful in itself and what is good in itself are integral to
happiness. A society that does not allow these to be pursued
when resources are available would not be one that promotes (or
allows) virtue. Note too that virtue is not virtue without the
beautiful as its goal.
of the virtues mentioned involve doing the "right amount" of
the "right thing" at the "right time." That means that justice
- balancing claims, actions, desires, needs; giving each
person his/her "due", making restitution or reward, etc. - is
central and no society can have arete without it.
f.The search for knowledge must be possible. Aristotle does not mention this, but he's clear elsewhere that we don't have any significant amount of knowledge for contemplation; we don't always understand what the right restitution or the right reaction is; we don't know much about what is at all; our ideas may contradict themselves or lack warrant. Yet moral decisions are weakened by these lacks. We may believe that we know what would make life desirable, and be wrong; we may be wrong about how to seek it or how to get it; we may be wrong about what people need or about what a person is. Not only is it important then for individuals to question their own assumptions about particular situations, but it becomes the responsibility of the society that wants happiness to foster opportunities for scientific, philosophical, and other research aimed at both useful understanding and beautiful understanding.