POLS 2900 Lecture Summary, Tuesday, October 15
I picked up where I left off at the conclusion of last Thursday’s lecture. On Thursday I
started Aristotle’s Ethics. Like Plato and Socrates, Aristotle believes that everyone really wants
to live a good life. The difficulty is that not everyone knows what it means to live well. There
are many opinions on the subject and Aristotle canvasses several in the first book of the Ethics.
As I explained last time, he argues that the goodness of anything is tied to its characteristic end
(purpose) or function. Thus, for example, a good knife performs the function of a knife
excellently. Since knives are intended to cut things, a good knife is sharp and cuts things easily.
By analogy, a good human life is one that allows a human being to perform his
characteristic function excellently. Aristotle claims that everyone refers to this condition as
“happiness,” or eudemonia, a Greek word that might better be translated as “flourishing.” The
question, then, is what is required for a human being to flourish?
Aristotle tells us that “vulgar” persons (i.e., commoners) associate happiness with sensual
pleasures and material possessions. Aristotle dismisses this conceptions of happiness because
he thinks a life devoted to sensual gratification is a mere animal existence. He says wealth
cannot be the key to happiness, because wealth is not intrinsically valuable. We only desire
riches because of what they can buy.
The cultivated few who are active in politics are said to conceive of the good as honour
(since this is the end normally pursued in political life), or as virtue (because men wish to be
honoured for their virtue). But neither honour nor virtue seem like complete goods to Aristotle.
He comments that our sense of honour depends on the good opinion of others "whereas we
intuitively believe that the good is something of our own and hard to take from us."
Of course, Aristotle was aware of at least one argument concerning the best good offered
by a man he presumably considered wise. This was Plato's doctrine of the Forms, according to
which there is a perfect idea of the Good accessible to the human mind through philosophic
contemplation. However, Aristotle raises four objections to the doctrine of the Forms.
(1) According to the doctrine of the Forms, there is one Idea of the Good and this
singular idea is said to apply to both substances (things, like chairs) and their qualities
(incidental characteristics, like size, weight, height, etc.). So, for example, we say that there are
good chairs and there are chairs of a good height. According to Plato, the word "good"
represents the same idea in reference both to chairs and their height. However, Aristotle objects
that the good chair and the chair of good height cannot be described as being good in the same
sense. By doing so, Plato confuses two analytically distinct categories: substance (in this case,
the chair) and its qualities (in the present example, height). If you find Aristotle's language
confusing, think of it this way: you could have a perfectly good chair, one that is sturdy and
comfortable, and still argue that it was not of a good height. E.g., a chair built for a child would
be too small for an adult. The point of Aristotle's objection is this: what makes a chair a good
chair does not vary from one chair to another (it is fixed by the end or purpose of a chair --all
chairs are meant to be sat on). But what makes a chair of good height will vary with the user (a
1 chair that is good for a child is not good for an adult). The Platonic doctrine of the Forms
misses this distinction.
(2) According to the doctrine of the Forms, the Good is universal and singular. But
Aristotle objects that our understanding of the word "good" means different things when applied
to different things. Thus, for example, a good chair is not "good" in the same way as a good
time. Plato's concept of the Good misses this distinction as well.
(3) If there were a single Form of the Good, Aristotle concludes that there would be a
single science of the Good. But on the contrary, he says, there are as many sciences of the good
as there are goods to study. E.g., knowing how to build a good chair tells you nothing about
how to maintain good health. Indeed, knowing how to build a good chair does not even
guarantee that you will know how to build other things well.
(4) Finally, Aristotle complains that the Platonic doctrine of the Forms adds nothing to
our understanding of things that are good. What more do we learn about the goodness of good
chairs or good health or any other good thing by appealing to the Form of the Good? The Form
of the Good is singular, but good things are diverse and their goodness is unalike. The Form of
the Good is immortal, but the good things of this world are no less good for being perishable.
(E.g., A good chair remains good as long as it lasts.) In short, Aristotle considers his teacher's
doctrine of the Forms so much unnecessary metaphysical baggage.
Having set out Aristotle’s objection to the Platonic conception of the good, I returned to
Aristotle’s functionality argument. To repeat, for Aristotle, something that performs its function
well is usually said to be good. So what is the characteristic function of a human being? In
attempting to determine characteristic human end Aristotle rules out "being alive" because plants
and non-human animals are also alive. He also rules out sense-perception, because humans
share this capacity with brute animals. The one remaining possibility, according to Aristotle, "is
some sort of life of action of the [part of the soul] that has reason."
To be clear about this, Aristotle is not simply saying that human beings differ from plants
and animals insofar as they possess reason. Reason alone does not suffice to describe the
special function of human beings. For Aristotle, humans are distinguished by their capacity for
rational action. The human good, therefore, lies in the perfection of ratio