Ends, Goods, and Happiness
I: Ends and Goods
Every end and every inquiry, and likewise every action and decision, seems to
seek some good; that is why some people were right to describe the good as what
everything seeks. But the ends appear to differ; some are activities, and others are
products apart from the activities. Wherever there are ends apart from the actions,
the products are by nature better than the activities.
The Opening of the Nicomachean Ethics
A General Claim About Human Activity
Every end and every inquiry, and likewise every action and decision, seems to seek some good;
The NE begins with an abstract claim concerning all human activity, whether
intellectual, technical, moral, political. Everything we do, Aristotle claims, seems to
seek some good. Is this claim true? That depends on how we understand it.
Is the idea that everything we do, every line of inquiry we pursue, and every decision
we make, has at least something good about it? Perhaps a bully derives pleasure from
his bullying, and this at least is good, even if not good all things considered.
Or is the idea that even though some of our actions and decisions might have nothing
good about them, they at least appear good to the individual who chooses them? A
man fighting for racial segregation is doing nothing good, but he at least thinks he is.
What about actions from spite? Actions under coercion or duress? Whims?
Rational Activity and the Good
Understanding the Behaviour of Others
A certain relationship to perceived goodness does seem to constrain our
understanding of other rational beings, however, allowing us to determine which
of their behaviours are intentional and which are not.
What is the difference between your intentionally stepping on my foot and
accidentally doing it? What is the difference between an arm movement caused
by a decision and one caused by a reflex or nervous tic?
One plausible suggestion is that intentional behaviours are in some sense caused
by the thought that this particular behaviour is good in some way. In fact, this is
arguably what allows us to distinguish actions from mere movements.
We also use this criterion when understanding animal behaviour as rational.
Activities and Their Products
But the ends [that are sought] appear to differ; some are activities, and others are
products apart from the activities.
Aristotle next distinguishes between different kinds of ends or goals involved
in rational choice and action. Some of these ends are products external to the
activities, and in other cases, our goal is simply to perform the activity.
We can usually tell if an activity has a product asking ourselves whether there
is something that, once produced, brings this activity to a close. When I cook
a meal, for example, I engage continue cooking until the food is ready to eat. I
dont keep frying an egg just for the thrill of it.
When an activity doesnt have a product, there is nothing that, once
produced, brings the activity to a close. If I am flying a kite for the sheer
pressure of it, nothing is produced that tells me I am finished.
The Relation Between Activities and Ends
Wherever there are ends apart from the actions, the products are by nature better than the activities
When Aristotle says that the products of productive activities are by nature
better than the activities, he doesnt mean to deny that some people sometimes
make things simply because they enjoy the process.
This is made clear by his use of the word here translated as by nature. He
uses this word often, and clearly states that things that happen by nature
happen only always or for the most part.
When Aristotle uses the expression by nature, however, he also means that
this type of occurrence is somehow more primary and intelligible than other
similar cases. Think about people who knit for fun. If there were no activity called
knitting that in general produced a more valuable product, people could not knit
for fun. And in order to knit to be fun, people must try to make a good product.
What is Aristotle Up To Here?
Sketching the Structure of a Well-Lived Life
It may seem strange for Aristotle to be discussing the structure of choice at the start of
a work of ethics. He has a plan, however, and will use these reflections on choice and
value to help establish what the ultimate end of a well-lived life should look like.
Some individuals, for example, seem more concerned with acquiring things than using
them, or come to want money or fame more than they want the things money and
fame can help them to do.
If Aristotles reflections about activities and products are on the right track, such
people are leading a life that is in some sense unnatural and irrational, and may not be
experiencing as much happiness as they might.
If Aristotle is on the right track here, it also seems that the ultimate goal of a well-lived
human life – if there is one – should be a intrinsically valuable activity.
Since there are many actions, crafts, and sciences, the ends turn out to
be many as well; for health is the end of medicine, a boat of boat
building, victory of generalship, and wealth of household management.
But some of these pursuits are subordinate to some one capacity; for
instance bridle making and every other science producing equipment
for horses are subordinate to horsemanship, while this and every
action in warfare are, in turn, subordinate to generalship, and in the
same way other pursuits are subordinate to further ones.
Subordinate and Superordinate Ends
What does it Mean for an End to be Subordinate?
Since there are many actions, crafts, and sciences, and each of these has some
end, it follows that there are many different ends involved in rational activity.
Nevertheless, these ends arent just a random collection. Some of them are
subordinate to others. Bridle making to horsemanship, horsemanship to
If one end is subordinate to another, it is true to say that its value is by nature
conditional on the value and existence of the other. If we didnt ride horses,
bridle making would be useless, etc.
A subordinate end also takes its orders from a superordinate end. The horseman
tells the bridle maker how many and what sorts of bridles to make, etc.
In all such cases, then, the ends of the ruling sciences are more
choiceworthy than all the ends subordinate to them, since the lower
ends are also pursued for the sake of the higher. Here it does not
matter whether the ends of the actions are the activities themselves,
or something apart from them, as in the sciences we have mentioned.
Subordination and Choiceworthiness
Subordination and Choiceworthiness
Aristotle introduces the term choiceworthy here. It will be important in a later
argument when he tries to figure out what the ultimate end of a well lived life
should look like.
Choiceworthy means more worthy of informed rational choice by nature.
Imagine, for example, that I could have either bridle making or horsemanship. It
would make no sense to choose bridle making. It would be better to find
another way to ride the horses.
Since the lower ends are pursued for the sake of the latter, they are governed by
the needs of higher ones. A bridle maker might prefer to make a very ornate
bridle, but it is ultimately the horseman who decides what gets made, and even
what constitutes a good bridle.
A Critical Point
Subordinate Ends Can Be Chosen For Themselves
Here it does not matter whether the ends of the actions are the activities
themselves, or something apart from them, as in the sciences we have mentioned
There are, it seems, some activities that are pursued for their own sakes and also for
the sake of something else to which they are subordinate.
Aristotle must mean this, because he is telling us that the claim that lower ends are
subordinate to higher ones applies even to those ends that are valuable in
Aristotle does not here tell us what activities pursued for their own sake and for the
sake of something else look like, as all of his examples here are said to have
products apart from themselves. NB: even generalship has a product, victory.
II. The Highest Good and Political
Suppose, then, the things achievable by action have some end that we wish
for because of itself, and because of which we wish for the other things,
and that we do not choose everything because of something else – for if
we do, it will go on without limit, so that desire will prove to be empty and
futile. Clearly, this end will be good, that is to say, the best good.
The Best Good
An Infinite Regress
Aristotle starts this section with a supposition. We are to imagine that the
things achievable in our actions have some end that we wish for because of
itself, and because of which we wish for the other things.
Aristotle argues that if our activities do not eventually reach some end that we
wish for because of itself, all of our desires will be empty and futile. We will be
never reach a good that justifies our activities.
I will choose A for the sake of B, B for the sake of C, C for the sake of D, and
so on ad infinitum. But this is ultimately to say that I am choosing each of
these for no reason, as the value of each link in the chain is conditional on
there being something that it makes sense to choose for itself.
What Will the Best Good Look Like?
If there is such an end that we choose for itself, Aristotle argues, it will be the
good, and the best good.
Note that Aristotle hasnt yet given us an example of such an end. In the
previous section, he listed only bridle making, horsemanship, and generalship,
and none of these things has any value in itself.
Note also that Aristotle still hasnt said anything that implies that every human
being shares one and the same end. When he supposes that there is an end
that we choose for itself, the verb might be applied to the collective as a unified
whole or to all members of the collective taken individually.
Compare We are family to We all have a job to do.
Then does knowledge of this good for our way of
life, and would it make us better able, like archers who have a target
to aim at, to hit the right mark? If so, we should try to grasp, in
outline at any rate, what the best good is, and which is its proper
science or capacity.
The Best Good as A Target
It seems proper to the most controlling science – the highest ruling
science. And this appears characteristic of political science. For it is the
one that prescribes which of the sciences ought to be studied in cities,
and which ones each class in the city should learn, and how far; indeed
we see that even the most honoured capacities – generalship, household
management, and rhetoric, for instance, are subordinate to it.
A Fresh Start and A New Approach
Earlier, Aristotle tried to determine the nature of the best good by looking at the
ends of the various sciences and their relationships to one another. Now, he is
going to focus on the relationships between the sciences that try to achieve
This approach seems to pay off immediately. Aristotle looks at the various
sciences in and sees that political science prescribes what other sciences
should be studied and how much.
Political science, Aristotle tells us, gives orders to generals. The need to
convince others for political reasons motivates the study and methods of
rhetoric. Ideally, individual households are managed in a way that best serves
the economic, social, and educational needs of the state.
What is Aristotle Doing Here?
When Aristotle discusses the commanding role of political science, he cant be
offering a descriptive account of his society. According to Socrates and Plato, at
any rate, the biggest problem with democratic Athens was that everyone could
speak and vote without any expertise.
Instead, Aristotle seems to be envisioning an idealized version of an assembly in
which different people speak and vote on the basis of an expert political
understanding acquired by studying a fully developed science.
Alternatively, Aristotle might be describing the fact that Athenians who spoke
and voted on which wars to fight, which public works to build, etc., took
themselves to have an understanding of what was best for the polis. Thus, even
though political science didnt yet exist, the need for it was clear.
III. Common Beliefs and Dialectic
Let us, then, begin again. Since every sort of knowledge and decision pursues some
good, what is the good that political science seeks? What is the highest of all the
goods achievable in action? As far as its name goes, most people virtually agree;
for both the many and the cultivated call it happiness, and they suppose that living
well and doing well are the same as being happy. But they disagree about what
happiness is, and the many do not give the same answer as the wise.
The Best Good is Happiness
The best good pursued by both individuals and political science is happiness.
Happiness translates the Greek eudaemonia. This is the best translation of the
term, but there are at least two issues with it.
First, we tend to think of happiness as a subjective state, and sometimes even a
feeling. Eudaemonia, by contrast, is an objective matter of living a fully realized
life. For this reason, it is sometimes translated flourishing or well being
Second, happiness can be temporary in a way that eudaemonia typically isnt. I
can be happy in the morning and sad by noon.
Third, it is perfectly intelligible to identify eudaemonia with an activity. This is also
possible with the term happiness but it isnt the primary way to use the word.
Aristotles Dialectical Method
Aristotles discussion of common opinion in this section is very typical of his
method of discovering what he calls first principles.
Aristotles epistemology is foundationalist. You have first principles for each
science and from these you derive the rest of the science using logical proofs.
But this raises a question. How do you establish the first principles?
Aristotle thinks that on some level we just intuit or see that the first principles
are right. However, we can engage in an intellectual activity called dialectic
that can put us in a position to see that these are the first principles.
Dialectic relies on common beliefs, puzzles, induction, and intuitions.
We get a grasp of some principles by means of induction, some by means of perception,
some by means of some sort of habituation, and others by means. In each case we
should try to find them out by means suited to their nature, and work hard to define them
rightly. For they carry great weight for what follows; for the principle seems to be more
than half the whole, and makes evident the answers to many of our questions.
Common beliefs (endoxa) on a subject are one of Aristotles primary means of finding
first principles. You survey what views people have and try to find a principle that
accounts for differences of opinion and resolves conflicts.
Aristotle thinks you must consider both what the many think and what the wise think,
but he doesnt favour one of these over the other in every case. The wise may have
thought about X more, but they also take positions to be controversial or appear wise.
The consultation of common beliefs reflects Aristotles deeper epistemological
commitments. He thinks that we are set up, by nature, to get things more or less right,
and so if many people think X, there must be some reason
The importance of to make Aristotles philosophical views far
more conservative of the status quo than those of Socrates or Plato.
Habituation and Common Beliefs
In the special cases of ethics and political science, Aristotle also thinks that habituation
is a major source of information about first principles.
Habituation involves doing the same thing over and over again, usually because a
parent or teacher commands you, and gradually coming to grasp certain facts or
appreciate certain values as a result.
Think of a child who does not want to share toys at first. If they are made to share
enough, they will likely come to see the value of sharing. You can play with others,
build friendships, and also get access to their toys.
Habituation works in the same way in Aristotles ethics, and leads him to restrict ethical
discourse to those who have been well brought up. If you havent had the right
habituation, you cant see the truth.
That is why we need to have been brought up in fine habits if we are to
be adequate students of fine and just things, and of political questions
generally. For we begin from the that; if this is apparent to us, we can
begin without also knowing why. Someone who is well brought up has the
principles or can easily acquire them. (1095a 2-4)
Fine Habits are Required
For the many think [happiness] is something obvious and evident – for
instance, pleasure, wealth, or honour. Some take it to be one thing, others
another. Indeed the same person often changes his mind; for when he has
fallen ill, he thinks happiness is health, and when he has fallen into poverty,
he thinks it is wealth. And when they are conscious of their own ignorance,
they admire anyone who speaks of something grand and above their heads.
[Among the wise,] however, some used to besides these many goods there
is some other good that exists in its own right and causes these things to be
Issues with the Many and the Wise
Aristotle sides neither with the many or the wise when seeking an account of
happiness. Instead, he sides with those who have been well brought up.
The many, he suggests, seem to be too subject to fortune to have a stable opinion,
and perhaps even overestimate the importance of things they dont have. Aristotle, of
course, is arguably underestimating the importance of these things from his upper
The many, Aristotle also tells us, are also too easily swayed by great rhetoricians and
demagogues who attempt to manipulate them.
The wise here are represented by Platos theory of Forms, and the idea of the Form of
the Good. Aristotle doesnt think too highly of this theory, and will attack it in NE I.6
IV. The Three Lives
Let us begin again from the point from which we digressed For, it
would seem, people quite reasonably reach their conception of the
good, i.e. of happiness, from the lives they lead; for there are
roughly three most favoured lives: the lives of gratification, of
political activity, and third, of study.
Lifestyle Influences Opinion
Aristotles claims here expand on his earlier remarks concerning the importance of
habituation to discovering first principles. A person who lives a certain life often
appreciates only the values associated with this lifestyle.
A person who is dedicated to study sometimes has an appreciation of how this life
can be fulfilling and valuable that someone who has led a life of moneymaking does
not. Philosophy? What are you going to do with that?
Likewise, a person who has never engaged in political activities meant to help others
and improve their community can sometimes fail to see why this would be fulfilling.
Finally, a person who has never owned a yacht, eaten caviar, or partied hard enough
may not fully appreciate the fulfillments of a life of pleasure.
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