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Aristotle’s best life for humans
Aristotle expresses it directly with the first sentence of his first book of his Nicomachean Ethics: All we’re aiming for is the good life as the highest good. For him, the good life is the reason we live. For this, the pursuit of happiness, called Eudaimonia, is central to his theory. Throughout history, many people have grappled with the question of what makes a good and fortunate life, and even today this topic is very present and controversial.
In the following, I’m dealing with Aristotle concerning the best life, to prove that his principle of Eudaimonia is a convincing theory. It’s to be examined, that his conception of a good life is the objectively desirable one. After the central assumption I’ll outline the main features of Virtue Ethics before questioning the plausibility of the Aristotelian theory. I will do that by relating to two objections: how it should be judged that material goods are a precondition to Aristotle’s best life and how pleasurable the life of a virtuous is. Even though there are more objections, like different interpretations of Eudaimonia or different interpretations of the right measure according to virtue for example, I’d like to retain with the previous two, as they are the most interesting regarding the 21st century. At last I will give a summary to conclude the elaboration.
Aristotle’s best life for humans
According to Aristotle, the goal of a happy life is action itself, aiming to reach Eudaimonia. For Aristotle, Eudaimonia represents the ultimate goal. Every activity is performed for a certain target, which is rated individually as good and makes the best life to an active approach. The goals are not random, instead hierarchically arranged, whereby the subordinate ones are to favour the fulfilment of the highest goal.1 For example, during construction, the goal is not the constructional work, it is to finish the house, which in turn provides necessary security to reach the best life. From this, it can be concluded, which self-sufficient character Eudaimonia resides. Furthermore, there is a reason that gives the ultimate goal additional meaning: Aristotle advocates that human endeavour without an ultimate goal would go on forever.2
Aristotle distinguishes in the first book of his Nicomachean Ethics protruding different life forms (bioi), of which the first three precedents are regarded as unfit for fortune. The enjoyment life (bios apolaustikos), in which one depends on his respective needs and interests; the wealth-oriented life (bios chrematistes), in which money serves as a means to an end and the political life (bios politikos 1) with the goal of honour, in which one becomes dependent on others. Two forms of life remain as fortunate: a life of moral-political virtues (bios politikos 2) and one of the scientific-philosophical virtues (bios theoretikos). The question that arises here is what makes Aristotle conclude, whether or not a life-form is fit for happiness.3 Thus, the first three forms of life cannot be a form of life fit for happiness, because they do not act for their own sake but serve as means to an end or as a function of others. In a life-form that promotes the good life, bliss is put into action, i.e. that the activity itself is desirable and makes happy and is therefore self-sufficient.
Following, a fortune way of life is not only about reaching a goal, also the pursuit of the activity itself is part of the attainment. Aristotle rejects individual needs in this context. Satisfying individual needs isn’t relevant in the context of a happy lifestyle, but rather a happy life as a whole. The concept of virtue is of central importance here, since the activities are virtuous activities that have nothing to do with individual pleasure needs. Virtuous actions avoid extremes and are intent on not only conforming to one's being but also one's fellow man.4 Every action requires a certain driving force. The prerequisite is that one distances oneself in one's immediacy from the natural driving forces, establishes a relationship with them, and through this self-relationship pursues only the individual goals that enter into an inner connection with one another and with those of fellow human beings. But such an order is not innate but is learned by practicing: One is thoughtful through prudent, just and just action. That means that with a good and happy life in no way individual selfish happiness is meant, but that a happy life is realized in a virtuous life.5 For that according to Aristotle, the life-forms of the moral-political (bios politikos 2) and the scientific-philosophical virtue (bios theoretikos) are blissful, because happiness is not first in the reward of virtuous activity, but in life itself, shaped by virtue.
Virtue Ethics is, in its claim, a third type of Ethics alongside Deontological Ethics (e.g. Kant) and Teleological Ethics in the narrower sense (e.g. Utilitarianism, Consequentialism). A short formula might be: "Acting morally right means virtuous according to virtue ethics, acting according to the deontological ethics of duty and according to the teleological ethics with the best possible use." But this is only an approximation.
As a classical elaboration of Virtue Ethics, the ethical writings of Aristotle are usually cited, which is why a brief declaration of this theory cannot be omitted in this abandonment. Therefore, the Aristotelian Virtue Ethics is based on the nature of man and the circumstances relevant to the quality of the actions. Virtue Ethics takes account of the fact that what is good depends on the circumstances and therefore there is no uniform rule that can determine each case a priori. In principle, for Aristotle, ethics is a practical science that cannot do without examples and concrete investigations. For it depends on concrete circumstances whether an action is good, which increases happiness and thus supports bliss as the goal of the human being.6
By a closer look at Aristotle’s theory, virtue is an exquisite and sustainable attitude (hexis), which is determined by reason and which one must acquire by practicing or training. To determine the virtues, one searches for Aristotle in the middle between two extremes (mesotes doctrine), for example, self-control which lies between lust and dullness, or generosity as the mediator between waste and avarice, or the bravery that lies between recklessness and cowardice. The middle is not to be understood as a mathematical value, but as the best, that can be achieved in each case in the field of a character trait. It is individually determined.
So much more to characterize about Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, but after an introduction to his view of the best life for humans and a brief overview of Virtue Ethics, common oppositions of the theory will be examined. To analyse Aristotle's powers of persuasion, the theory is confronted amongst others with two common objections. The first one regarding the necessity of external goods and the second one with respect to the relationship of lust and virtue.
To achieve Eudaimonia various preconditions must be given according to Aristotle. Without these external goods, a virtuous life is almost impossible for him. These requirements are for example healthiness, beauty, material wellbeing, friends and a place in the political society. In summary, these external goods, alongside of an institutional framework, are for him a cornerstone of a fulfilled life.
Therefore, Aristoteles’s theory of fortune can be criticized for its requirement of external goods and precondition of monetary materials to reach Eudaimonia. There are people, who are convinced that you can be happy without a materialistic approach and no need for exaggerated possessions. For some the basic idea is, that happiness is actually a competence.7
First the objection to the materialistic tendency of Aristotle is here to be elaborated in detail on the example of substantive wealth. For the scientific background, the theory of the limits of the swiss Daniel Bernoulli can be used. In economic science, marginal utility is the added value that an economic subject experiences through additional consumption. In the case of goods, the law of decreasing marginal utility usually applies: If a person consumes another good G2 after a first good G1, the benefit of this good G decreases. It is clear that according to this theory there is nothing against basic financial security, but less importance should be attached to it and its growth. The accumulation of material prosperity does not have a positive effect on the happiness of the individual. If a certain amount of the previous described Aristotelian conditions, such as financial independence and wealth, is given, an increasingly insignificant fulfilment occurs as a result. It could not be completely invalidated that at least a minimum amount of money must be available in order to be truly, sustainably happy, yet it is clear that money is not everything.
Second, to get back to the wider scope, also the large number of basic prerequisites of external goods defined by Aristotle can be criticized. It is questionable whether all criteria have to be fulfilled to a certain extent attaining Eudaimonia or if just a few of them are enough.
1 Aristoteles; NE; 2018; p. 13/14
2 Aristoteles; NE; 2018; p. 16
3 Aristotle; NE; 2000; p. 6/7
4 Aristoteles; NE; 2018; p. 8
5 Aristoteles; NE; 2018; p. 22-24
6 Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Virtue Ethics; 2003 /
7 Becker-Phelps; Foundation for lasting happiness; 2010