University of St Martin - Fall, 2006 - PHIL232

Wednesday, Sept. 13 - Aristotle (3)

Midterm Essay
Monday, Sept. 4 - What is philosophy?
Wednesday, Sept. 6 - Aristotle (1)
Monday, Sept. 11 - Aristotle (2)
Wednesday, Sept. 13 - Aristotle (3)
Monday, Sept. 18 - Nietzsche (1)
Wednesday, Sept. 20 - Nietzsche (2)
Monday, Sept. 26 - Abortion (1)
Wednesday, Sept. 28 - Abortion (2)
Excursus 1: Historical overview
Excursus 2: Abortion in Judaism and Christianity
Excursus 3: Abortion in Islam
Excursus 4: Pro-choice argument
Monday, Oct. 2 - Suicide (1)
Wednesday, Oct 4 - Revision
Monday, Oct 16 - Suicide (2)
Wednesday, Oct 18 - Paradigm shifts
Monday, Oct 23 - Brave New World (1)
Wednesday, Oct 25 - Philosophical Anthropology (1)
Monday, Oct 30 - Sexual History of the USA
Wednesday, Nov 1 - Philosophical Anthropology (2)
Monday, Nov 6 - Race, death, tragedy, and bad faith
Wednesday, Nov 8 - Race, Biology, and Culture
Monday, Nov 13 - Racism and culture
Wednesday, Nov 15 - Existentialism
Monday, Nov 20 - Political Obligation, Moral Duty, and Punishment
Wednesday, Nov 22 - Kant and Moral Obligation
Monday, Nov 27 - War and Peace
Wednesday, Nov 29 - Non-Western Philosophies (1)
Monday, Dec 4 - Non-Western Philosophies (2)
Wednesday, Dec 6 - The End
Final Paper

Guiding Q&A for the reading of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics:



Q. What 3 types of people did Aristotle distinguish and what would characterize each of them?


1. Vulgar:                               the average man and woman:                    who follows the crowd

2. Political:                             the conscientious citizen:                             who leads the crowd

3. Contemplative:                  the philosopher:                                            who is intent on rationality




For Aristotle there is NO ONE UNIVERSAL GOOD, as for Plato, existing somewhere, somehow. For Aristotle, “good has as many senses as being”: sometimes, the good is good in itself (e.g. intelligence, sight); some other times, it is good only because of and in function of something else (e.g. to employ somebody intelligent so that she helps you get rich). “The good, therefore, is not some common element answering to one idea.”

Furthermore, Aristotle asserts that “even if there is some one good which is universally predicable of goods or is capable of separate and independent existence, clearly it could not be achieved or attained by man; but we are now seeking something attainable.”

Q. What does this statement say about Aristotle’s understanding of reality and his philosophical approach?

A. Aristotle’s view that the fact that there is not ONE being but a multitude of beings and that each one of them has a different telos (aim, goal, purpose, or specific “job to do”) indicates that there will also be a multitude of “goods” according to whether each being is realizing its goals or doing the job it was meant to do (e.g. the eye must be seeing, the legs must be walking, the human must be reasoning).




Each activity, art, science, etc. pursues its own good. The good is therefore manifold and not uniform. While some goods are ends in themselves (= self-sufficient), others are means to other ends.

Q. What is the utmost self-sufficient end of human life, the one that people seek for its own sake?

A. “Now such a thing happiness, above all else, is held to be; for this we choose always for self and never for the sake of something else, but honour, pleasure, reason, and every virtue we choose indeed for themselves (…), but we choose them also for the sake of happiness.” “Happiness, then, is something final and self-sufficient, and is the end of action.”


Q. How did Aristotle think of human beings: as isolated individuals or as social beings?

A. “(…) man is born for citizenship.”


For Aristotle the chief good of every being resides in the realization of its peculiar function (ergon, ergon) (as we said, this is comparable to, although not the same as, the idea of dharma in Hindu philosophy). For instance, as we also said in class, the chief good of a washing machine is that it should wash clean. You would expect from a shredder that it tears to pieces whatever you feed into it, but you would not appreciate a washing machine which starts shredding your clothes, simply because “shredding” is not the function peculiar to washing machines.

Q. What is, according to Aristotle, the function peculiar to human beings?

A. The function (or work) peculiar to us humans, being rational beings as we are, is “the activity of the soul in accordance with virtue, and if there are more then one virtue, in accordance with the best and most complete”. This is what other animated beings (or animals) cannot do. It implies correct knowledge of our own reality and discerning judgement between the extremes that would make our actions be vicious or incorrect either by excess or by deficiency.


Q. What did Aristotle mean by “’in a complete life.’ For with “one small swallow does not make a summer, nor does one day; and so too one day, or a short time, does not make a man blessed and happy”?

A. Aristotle is not thinking of “happiness” as a fleeting sensation or a quick pleasure that we may experience. Happiness encompasses the whole of one’s life. Feeling happy is not happiness. Happiness is something that we must become, not by isolating our own wants from those of the community, but by playing our part within the social (or political) game.




Q. Read from the point of view of methodology, when can you say, according to this paragraph, that a hypothesis or a theory is consistent?

A. When a hypothesis is correct, all the data harmonize. When it is incorrect or inconsistent, the alleged facts or principles clash against one another.


Q. What conclusions for a definition of happiness can you draw from the expression “the happy man lives well and does well”?

A. “(…) for we have practically defined happiness as a sort of good life and good action”. Happiness is a life lived according to one’s telos. An entity that goes against the purpose of its existence can never be said to be “good,” nor truly “happy.”


Q. Is that the way most people think of happiness round about you?

A. Answers will surely vary.


Q. Why do you think Aristotle described “the good man” as the one who enjoys doing the good?

A. Because in that case virtue would have become that person’s second nature, rationality being the usual principle of his or her activity.




Q. How can one acquire happiness?

A. If it is not a God-sent present, it is acquired by learning and habituation (by hands-on practice of what a virtuous life means).





Q. Can we, according to Aristotle, ever be fully happy for as long as we live?

A. The truly contemplative and virtuous man will be happy throughout his life. Neither prosperity nor adversity can derail the person who habitually does what is good (and is therefore him or herself good); he or she does not have to wait till death to experience happiness since happiness is the habit of constantly living up to his or her telos in every single situation that he or she is part of.



Essential concepts:

The main framework for the first part of Aristotle’s argument, laid out below for clarification, goes something like this:

1. Every science, investigation or action aims at some good. Such goods exist in a hierarchy: the lesser goods are instrumental in seeking the higher goods, but many things are good in and of themselves.

2. The highest good will be the final goal of purposeful striving, something good for its own sake. This final good for human beings is eudaimonia (happiness), which is always an end in itself.

3. The goodness [N. trad. “virtue”] (arete) of anythingincluding human beingsresides in its proper function (ergon).

4. The proper function of human beings, and therefore their moral excellence (arete), resides in the “active life of the rational element.”

5. Therefore, the good for human beings “is an activity of the soul in conformity with excellence or virtue, and if there are several virtues, in conformity with the best and most complete.” Such a life necessarily involves acting in accordance with reason.

6. To act in accordance with reason is a matter of observing the principle of the mean relative to us (finding the appropriate response between excess and deficiency in a particular situation).

7. The traditional virtues (e.g., courage) all fit this scheme (Books II to IV).

8. We must distinguish between voluntary and involuntary actions, since not all human actions arise from deliberation and choice (Book III).

9. A complex set of intellectual virtues is necessary for human excellence. The most important of these in the sphere of moral action is practical wisdom (phronesis) (Book VI).”



Virtue ethics:

This is ethical theory that ethics should develop character traits or virtues in a person so that the person will do what is morally right because they are a virtuous person. Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) was a famous exponent of this view. Aristotle felt that virtue ethics was the way to attain true happiness. Thus, instead of defining ethics by rules that ought to govern our conduct, virtue theorists prefer to advocate the learning and development of character habits.

The Greeks noted that a kind of middle way was possible; a self-respecting man, for example, could become vain if he had too high an opinion of himself, just as he could become desperate if he lacked the trait completely. The same could apply to prudence in financial matters, where too much could lead to living like a pauper in the midst of riches while too little could result in genuine poverty.


Although this seems to reflect the way we often think or talk about ethical conduct, there are a number of shortcomings. Firstly, habits of character or admirable traits do not tell us how to deal with moral dilemmas or those instances of applied ethics that come up regularly, like abortion or the death penalty. It is unclear how we are to deal with lapses in conduct; suppose a normally brave soldier is cowardly once—how should we judge this? What, also, of specific acts like the murder of a child? Should we pass over a temporary period of failure in the hope that a person's conduct will improve in the long run? Is there any sense in saying we have found the true habits of character that should be advocated, or do they differ and depend on circumstances? Lastly, what of the wide variety of cultures and the different modes of conduct they each value?



To think about       

"Any society that values creativity also needs to enable criticism. If we cannot question the way we are doing things and thinking about things at present, it will not occur to us that they could be thought of or done differently. (...) So philosophy is important partly because cultural criticism is so important."

CHRISTENSON, Tom (2001). Wonder and Critical Reflection. An invitation to Philosophy, p. 37. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall Inc.


This page was updated on Nov 21, 2006
at 10.00 PM St Martin Time (-4 UT)