Aristotle begins with the premise that all actions aim at “the good,” though he does not begin with a clear definition of what the good is. The end goal of some actions is the achievement of a higher goal, while others are a good in and of themselves. The latter are higher, whatever that may mean.
If there is an end that is higher than all other ends, then it is the “highest good.” If there is a highest good, shouldn’t we study it? Wouldn’t it be the thing for which we ought to aim at with all of our actions (recognizing that this is already the goal at which we are presupposing all of our actions aim at anyways).
Let us also note that if the highest good is the same for an individual as it is for a city, then the political is higher. Therefore, ethics is in a certain way political.
Ethics is the kind of thing about which one cannot be precise, so one should be content with rough truths. There is no formula that will calculate right action in all situations. It is also the kind of thing in which only those educated in each discipline (or body of knowledge) can be trusted to know how much precision a topic is appropriate for that discipline. For this reason a young person should not be a student of politics, nor should a foolish, uncontrolled person. A political leader or thinker must keep one’s desires in accord with reason.
Back to the highest good: most people say happiness is the highest good, and that living and doing well are the same as happiness. We observe here that Aristotle is using his dialectical method in order to consider what others have said, what experience says, and what reason says. He moves between them in order to arrive at the truth.
Aristotle considers starting with First Principles versus moving to First Principles. First Principles are the truths that cannot be proven. They are the axioms of existence. Since there is dispute over what the First Principles are, Aristotle prefers to move towards them, rather than from them.
Ethics is the kind of thing that, in order to know the First Principles, one must have been brought up to recognize them, such as Justice and Beauty, by means of habits. This person easily understands the truth about truth and justice, and doesn’t need arguments why, or have to be convinced about what is just.
There are three kinds of lives: enjoyment and pleasure, the political life, and the contemplative. Most people, the crudest people, think the first is happiness. Refined people choose the political and the contemplative.
One premise of ethics is that it is sacred to give preference to truth over one’s friends.
Unrelated: there are many areas of knowledge. Each area of knowledge has its own good. Oneness is greater than many, so we must continue looking for a good, if only a kind of good, that is shared by all areas of knowledge. But maybe this is not an area in which we can pursue accuracy. Besides, knowing this will not help us achieve that good in individual areas of knowledge, such as in being a better craftsperson, etc…
Aristotle returns, again, instead, to the highest good, rather than the good in which all good participate. Rather than continuing to investigate hints about what the highest good is, he points out that it is generally accepted that eudaimonia is that highest good. It is a good in and of itself because a life that is happy is lacking in nothing.
If there is an art of being human (living is shared with plants, perceiving is shared with cows) it is in speech. There are two kinds of speech: passive and active. The passive involves a human being persuaded, but the active involves using a uniquely human skill, reason, in order to place intentionality into one’s actions. The good, then, of active reasoning is found in excellence of reason. The human good is in the being-at-work of the soul in accordance with the best and most complete virtue. Note that this highest good is found in a complete life, not just a single day of being blessed and happy.
Aristotle addresses his method again. The starting point of an investigation should not only be analyzed from its conclusions and premises, but also from common opinion. When something is true common opinion aligns with the truth, but when something is wrong, common opinion is in conflict with it. We’re talking about different kinds of goods, of which there are three classifications: 1) external goods, 2) goods pertaining to the soul, and 3) goods pertaining to the body. Common opinion, even from ancient time, agrees that the soul is the most governing of these three. Since we’re discussing the being-at-work of the soul in accordance to virtue, we’re on the right path.
One who is happy is said to live well and do well. There are many different ideas about how this is achieved. Some say virtue. Some say practical judgement. Others say wisdom. Some even say it is a mix of these three, while others say it also involves something external.
Aristotle says we’re in agreement on virtue, we just must articulate that it must be at work. Virtue is inherently active. One is not virtuous while asleep. You can’t just look pretty like the aristocracy. You must be accomplished.
The virtues are pleasant by nature, so they are not in conflict with each other, and the pleasure they bring is not an external appendage to them. The virtues are pleasurable in and of themselves. Virtuous people delight in virtue.
Aristotle takes a(n important) rabbit trail for a minute. One has to be fortunate to be happy. Being ugly, poorly born, and childless gives you a bad start.
Since we are looking for the being-at-work of the soul we must discuss politics. The one skilled in politics wants to make the people good and obedient to the laws. Therefore the politician must know something about the soul. The soul is broken up in the following way:
- The irrational
- The vegetative part
- The desiring part: has some part of reason because in a virtuous person all parts of the soul are in harmony with reason. There is no inner conflict.
- The rational (I’m not confident about the accuracy of this)
- The governing sense
- The rational itself
- The thinking part: wisdom, astuteness, and practical judgment (intellectual virtues)
- The character part: generosity and temperance (virtues of character)
Aristotle wonders through his argument, evaluating different opinions, looking for logical consistency, until he arrives at a conclusion. The Nicomachean Ethics is an exploration into human behavior. Is there something that humans are inherently seeking? If so, does it make sense that we are seeking it, and what is the most effective way to reach it?
In order to answer these questions Aristotle evaluates the highest human good, happiness, reason (as a uniquely human experience), the role of irrational desires in helping (or harming) or attempt to achieve happiness, and excellence.