Nichomachean Ethics is one of those great books that has influence me quite a bit despite never reading it. If you don’t already know, the book is about finding the greatest human good. For me, this is a great topic for a book.
Also, what is up with the name? Perhaps one of the reasons I never read the book was that the name kind of turned me off. I mean, can it be that important if we are just talking Nichomachean ethics, as opposed to, say, ethics in general?
So recently I learned that Nichomachus was the name of Aristotle’s father, and his son. So one way to understand the title is Ethics for My Family. I have no idea if that is what Aristotle intended, but I like it.
Growing up I was always more of a Plato/Socrates guy than Aristotle. Plato seemed to have a knack for cool analogies, and Aristotle seemed more like a cataloger. So I neglected him pretty much entirely. Until now, I don’t think I have ever really sat down to read any complete book written by Aristotle.
So how does it hold up? So far, okay. The book is divided into 10 parts, and so far I have finished one of them. The main argument so far goes something like this:
1. Some of the things we seek are only good insofar as they help us achieve other things. Such an intermediate good cannot be the ultimate good.
The best example is money. Money is only good for buying stuff. So money cannot be the greatest good. “Stuff” might be, but not money. He then argues:
2. The stuff money buys, like food and sex, cannot be the highest good because they are uniquely human. Animals also like food and sex.
Neither one of these arguments is really a home run in my book. They both seem kind of plausible, but some serious issues arise upon deeper inspection. Let’s start with the proposition about intermediate goods.
The problem here is that pretty good arguments can be made that every human virtue has evolved to further the basic goods of survival and reproduction. Thus, all goods are either “intermediate” (i.e., they exist for some other purpose) or “base” (i.e., even the animals enjoy them).
Let’s take something like courage, for instance. I think I already know that in the end, Aristotle is going to end up arguing that various kinds of human virtues are the highest good. But every virtue is there to serve the final end of survival or reproduction. To the ancient Greeks, it might not have seemed like it, because courage can get you killed. But now we know that evolution can have some peculiar results.
Anyway, these days the consensus is that our “higher” faculties emerged to facilitate achieving “lower” ends. So we don’t really have the option of choosing as the highest human good something that is uniquely human and end unto itself.
Still, at the end of the day I actually agree with Aristotle that our conception of the good needs to be uniquely human. Even if all of our higher capacities evolved for base reasons, we do have them and they provide new levels of consciousness.
So, I don’t want to make this one too long, but I will point out two things that I realized in reading this chapter. First, I believe that the ultimate good involves a balance of different levels of good. Second, the ultimate good for human beings is both enabled and limited by our nature as physical beings. We need to recognize and embrace who we are. We can’t be fulfilled by satisfying our base desires alone, but we should not try to engage with the world on too abstract a level, either.