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1 The role of reason

1 The role of reason

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admits of only a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer—no question of ‘too little’ or ‘too much.’

And when one thinks in terms of fulfilling wide duties in relation to one another,

there appears to be an important role for a concept of living well or flourishing,

which informs all virtuous choices in Aristotle’s framework, but which Kant and

his followers overlook.

How does one judge ‘too little’ or ‘too much’? One way is by a ‘feel for the

outcome,’ an aesthetic response. What might be done to ensure a good, or at

least adequate, aesthetic assessment of some possible outcome? One might rely

on native (untutored) sensibilities (Section 5.2), or one might immerse oneself in

a body of cultural resources in the hope of acquiring proper sensibilities by means

of ‘endless’ amounts of history, tradition and taste—or, if one is a Confucian,

endless amounts of history, poetry and rites (Sections 4.3, 8.2). A properly

tutored sensibility can issue kadi-style (see Section 6.2) pronouncements on how

much is too much and how much is too little. By and large, this is the way that

art criticism proceeds.

Aristotle, as we have seen, would reject nativism as wilful blindness and

would suggest that, whatever role the cultivating influences of history, tradition

and taste might have, much can and needs to be done with deliberative thought to

clarify where the mean lies in particular circumstances. To do this requires an

explicitly articulated account of what we should be aiming to do with our lives

and an accurate assessment of what contribution will be made to this end by a

habit of responding in some characteristic fashion.

The idea that we assess possible courses of action (or general patterns of

response) in terms of what they contribute to or detract from our achieving some

desired outcome is known as consequentialism, and this general approach to

assessing attitudes and conduct is also referred to as teleological (after the Greek

word for goal or end, telos). Where the outcome or goal is assumed to be fixed,

we have what may be called a ‘rigid consequentialism’ (or an approach that is

rigidly teleological). Where a goal is believed to be of overriding importance (the

single most important thing in human life), rigid consequentialism can arouse

anxieties. An end that has overriding importance might justify adopting any

means whatsoever, including the violation of the minimum standards embodied

in respect for persons (see Section 7.4). However, Aristotle’s consequentialism is

not rigid. He does assume that it is part of the task of ethics to provide a

specification of the most important things in life, of a life supremely worth living,

but the specification he provides still leaves a great deal of detail to be filled in.

It remains possible to argue (although Aristotle for historical reasons was not in a

position to consider the matter) that this goal should, for example, preclude

violations of the minimal standards embodied in respect for persons.

A theory, like Kant’s, that proceeds by specifying what is needed, what we are

bound to do, what is due from us (our duty), is known as a deontological theory

(incorporating the Greek word for ‘binding,’ ‘needful,’ ‘proper,’ ‘right,’ deon).3

The accusation commonly leveled at deontological theories is that they serve

only to entrench prejudice and established privilege and to prevent some or all of


us realizing goods that are properly ours. Kant’s theory, however, underwrites

the enforcement only of duties that enhance the freedom of all. In addition to

such duties of right, Kant does specify ends, the perfection of oneself and the

happiness of others, and they are ‘ends that are also duties.’ But the duties here

are ‘wide,’ leaving scope for discretion. Arguably, to make a good job of

fulfilling one’s wide duties, a person should try to frame a more detailed

specification of what it is for a human being to do well, as a human being —in

other words, try to carry out what Aristotle sees as an important part of the task of

ethics. It is clear, in any case, that there is no reason why an ethical theory

cannot combine both teleological and deontological components (apply both

teleological and deontological measures).

Kant and Aristotle are both ethical rationalists in that each treats the human

capacity for discursive thought involving abstraction and general principles not

only as the source of what is peculiarly human and what gives humans special

dignity but also as the main source for the guidance and assessment of conduct.

Kant relies mainly on formal uses of reason: requiring maxims to conform to a

rational requirement and testing outcomes for consistency. Aristotle, on the other

hand, relies almost entirely on deliberative rationality; he appeals hardly at all to

formal features like consistency for guidance. Even working out the specification

of what it is to live well or flourish takes a deliberative form.

This is because Aristotle’s deliberative rationality is not strictly instrumental;

that is, it does not proceed by identifying a goal and then seeking only

instrumental means of achieving that goal. Deliberation does not always start

from a fully specified goal; part of what deliberation may have to do is bring

specificity to an unspecific goal. The ‘means’ that deliberation comes up with

when addressing this task are not instruments but more adequate specifications

of the constituents of the objective being sought. Instrumental reasoning moves

from effect to causes that will realize that effect; constitutive reasoning moves

from general to specifics that will realize that general. (One of Aristotle’s

examples of practical reasoning goes, ‘I need a covering, a coat is a covering,’

701a18—a clear, if somewhat lame, ‘logic teacher’ example of moving from the

general to the specific.) As one may have a choice of causes to realize some

effect, one may have a choice of specifics to realize some (general) end or goal.

The two aspects of the function of deliberative rationality, moreover, may not

be easily separable. It does not follow that if some dreadful plan looks like it is

the only way to achieve a goal (as specified) that deliberative rationality has to

accept this plan. If ‘deliberative rationality’ meant only ‘instrumental

rationality,’ it might have to, since instrumental rationality must take its goal as

fixed. But when, through deliberation, we have appreciated the consequences of

setting a certain specific goal, we can ask whether the goal, if it involves those

consequences, was adequately specified. If to run our business in what we think

of as a profitable or efficient manner, we find that we have to lay off half our

workforce or pollute the environment, we may reconsider what profitability or

efficiency involves or what it is we are in business to achieve. If the attempt to


cure a patient involves side-effects that destroy the quality of the patient’s life,

we may reconsider our understanding of what constitutes a cure.

There is here the possibility that deliberation can locate and correct distortions

(even those caused by wickedness: end of Section 8.4) in the specification of ‘the

starting points of action.’ ‘Starting points’ here might refer either to ends one has

set out to achieve or to the first actual step to take in realizing those ends, or both.

To effect the correction, we have to keep open the question of whether our goal

has been adequately specified and be prepared to acknowledge the full effects of

courses of action that we have adopted. Wickedness, however, often consists of

willful blindness to, or refusal to accept responsibility for, deleterious sideeffects of policies one has adopted. Deliberation can perhaps only correct the

effects of wickedness in people too honest to qualify as wicked. Aristotle’s

conclusion that without ethical excellence it is not possible to be good at

deliberating in an unqualified sense may have left his analysis with an

unsatisfactory circle, but its conclusion is profoundly truthful.

Aristotle was quoted in Section 8.4 (under (4), the passage 1142b30–6) as

saying that excellence in deliberation in the unqualified sense, the sense that

qualified as phron sis, was that which succeeded with reference to (i.e. in finding

the means to) the end in the unqualified sense. ‘End in the unqualified sense’

means ‘something not sought for some further end.’ A thing (e.g. food, a

screwdriver) may be sought for some further purpose that it serves (to nourish, to

turn a screw); that purpose may in turn serve a further purpose (health, attaching

something to a wall). Something that is not sought for a further purpose would be

an end without qualification. That is obviously not a sufficient specification of

what a phronimos is supposed to direct deliberations toward, even if we add that

it will be ‘the best of things to be done by a human being’ (1141b13). If the

phronimos has to aim for that which is an end in the unqualified sense, he or she

will need to make this more specific by engaging in the non-instrumental kind of


That addition ‘done by a human being’ in the most recently quoted passage is,

however, already an important specification. The Nicomachean Ethics begins by

noting that everything we undertake, whether it be art, inquiry, action or choice,

is aimed at some good (1094a1), and after three brief discursive chapters

Aristotle identifies the object of his inquiry as the highest of all goods achievable

by (human) action (1095a15), the specification that is explicit in 1141b13. This

means that what a phronimos aims to achieve does not need to be considered in

the light of any more comprehensive end or notion of good, such as how (from

the standpoint of the universe) everything should be, or what is God’s will for

mankind as a part of His plan for creation as a whole. Deliberately placing his

notion of ‘end in an unqualified sense’ outside any more comprehensive end of

this sort (see Aristotle’s rejection of Plato’s ‘form of the good,’ 1096a12–97a14)

may be said to constitute a form of ‘humanism.’ This humanist stance, of course,

opens Aristotle to objections from people who favor accounts based on religious

doctrines or, more recently, from those who seek to subordinate human interests


to some independent conception of what is good for our planet’s ecology (for

‘the biosphere’).

Aristotle’s next step toward specifying ‘the end without qualification’ is to

observe that there is general agreement on what to call this ‘highest of all goods

achievable by human action.’ Greek speakers (both ‘the many’ and ‘the

discerning’) call it eudaimonia and have in mind living well and doing well when

they use this word, although not everyone gives the same account of what it is.

Some regard it as consisting of pleasure, some of wealth, some of honor; when

ill, a person will think of it as consisting of health, when poor, of wealth. But in

general people are not so confident that they know what eudaimonia is that they

will not listen to someone who suggests that it is something quite beyond their

comprehension (1095a20–6).

The standard translation of eudaimonia into English is ‘happiness,’ but this

English word has a number of unhelpful associations. People who are content

with their lot and at least moderately cheerful—cf. ‘natural happiness (which

consists in satisfaction with what nature bestows, and so with what one enjoys as

a gift from without)’ (Kant 1797:388; cf. Section 8.1) —may claim to be happy,

and there is no basis on which to contradict this claim. ‘Happiness’ is subjective

to the extent that individual subjects (persons) are the final authority on whether

the term ‘happy’ applies to them. Aristotle does not use the adjective eudaim n

in this way. His term is an external, objective form of appraisal; it means doing

well or living well in a way very similar to the way the word ‘success’ means

doing well or living well. Whether something or someone may be claimed to be

a success is a question we can all discuss and dispute; no one can claim to be a

success simply because he or she feels successful.4

Having much in life to enjoy (take pleasure in) or being highly regarded

(honored) are recognized forms of success, but although Aristotle accepts that

these are candidates for eudaimonia, he dismisses wealth (closely associated in

our culture with success) as something one acquires not for its own sake but for

the sake of something else. Eudaimonia, living well and doing well, has to be

something pursued for its own sake. Aristotle acknowledges that we need

external goods (friends, wealth, influence) to live well and do well (1099a32–

b7), but these he says should not be confused with doing well; these are (in the

language of the Eudemian version at 1214b11–26) ‘indispensable conditions’ of

living well. Just as diet and exercise are indispensable conditions of health, but

do not constitute health, external goods do not constitute doing well or living

well. We are trying to determine what in life is to be sought for its own sake and

not for the sake of something else. Pleasure and honor, at least, are not

immediately disqualified from this competition. A third important candidate,

‘contemplation,’ is introduced briefly, but further discussion of it postponed


Before setting up a basis on which to judge the three main contenders,

Aristotle sets out two characteristics that a candidate must possess in order to

qualify as eudaimonia. Apart from being achievable by action and being for the


sake of which everything else is done, eudaimonia will have to be ‘final’

(complete, perfect; teleion) and ‘self-sufficient’ (autark s). The second of these,

Aristotle insists, does not mean that eudaimonia is something we can have all by

ourselves: ‘By self-sufficient we do not mean that which is sufficient for oneself

alone, living a solitary life, but also for one’s parents, children, spouse and in

general for one’s friends and fellow citizens, since humans are by nature city

[dwelling] creatures’ (1097b8–11; cf. the quotation from the Politics under (3),

Section 8.4). What ‘self-sufficient’ means is that whatever eudaimonia is, it will

when considered on its own make life desirable and not lack anything that will

make life more desirable (b15–20). Being final is explained as being chosen

(desirable) for its own sake and never for the sake of something else. We choose

wealth and instruments in general not for their own sake but for the sake of

something else, so they are not final. We choose honor, pleasure, thought and all

the excellences for their own sake, but also for the sake of eudaimonia, so they

are not final in the required sense. Eudaimonia, whatever it is, is something we

think of as chosen for its own sake and not for the sake of something else.

As students of Aristotle’s Ethics have come to appreciate, the text at this point

reaches an important fork in the road—there are two importantly different ways

in which Aristotle might seek to fill out the ‘whatever it is’ in the previous

sentence. He might identify a number of things that we do for their own sake and

for the sake of eudaimonia and try to determine what combination or

combinations of these constituents could lay a claim to constituting eudaimonia.

The relationship between things like honor, pleasure, thought and the excellences

of character on the one hand and eudaimonia on the other might then be thought

of as like the constituent activities of golf, driving from the tee, fairway strokes

and putting.5 As golf includes all these activities, eudaimonia is inclusive of a

variety of constituent activities. This is known as treating eudaimonia as an

‘inclusive end.’ Alternatively, Aristotle might look for a single thing that by

itself will make life worth living—the sort of attitude that one might get from a

sports fan: eudaimonia is not like golf, it is golf! (‘Golf is life, all the rest is

details.’) The problem then is to decide whether it is golf or fishing or

philanthropy or scientific research, etc. that by itself makes life worth living.

This is known as treating eudaimonia as a ‘dominant end.’6

It is not easy to tell, from the passages that discuss the characteristics of selfsufficiency and finality, what exactly Aristotle has in mind. He says, ‘if there is

an end for all that we do, this will be the good achievable by action, and if there

are more than one, these will be the goods achievable by action’ (1097a22–4).

And, within a few lines, ‘if there is only one final end, this will be what we are

seeking, and if there are more than one, the most final of these will be what we

are seeking’ (a38–30). A ‘most final’ end need not be a dominant end; it could be

a composite of things done for their own sake as well as for their contribution to

that combination of things that makes for a flourishing life.

The Nicomachean version thus leaves the matter unclear and goes on to

develop a principle for determining what constitutes eudaimonia in a way that


preserves the unclarity, even to the point of putting new claims in the form

already used: ‘human good turns out to be activity of soul in conformity with

excellence, and if there is more than one excellence, in conformity with the best

and most final’ (1098a16–17). Might the most final be a composite or inclusive

excellence? But at the end of the Nicomachean version (Book X, chapters 6–8),

Aristotle returns to the question and unambiguously argues for the claim that

there is one activity, which he calls theorein, usually translated ‘contemplation,’

which is what eudaimonia consists of—in other words, the Nicomachean version

comes out in the end for the ‘dominant end’ view of eudaimonia.

The result is for many reasons not very satisfactory. There are problems,

which we will take up later, with the relationship that this activity has to the

moral excellences, the way the case for theorein appears to be mounted on the

very sense of ‘self-sufficient’ that Aristotle repudiated in his initial discussion,

and the fact that there is not much plausibility in the view that human fulfillment

consists of what the word ‘contemplation’ suggests. The Greek verb theorein

would be used to describe what spectators do at a theatrical event, but the best

contemplation is, Aristotle says, of the highest and most permanent of things,

God, the cosmos (order of the universe), etc. Can this be the only or even the

best way for humans to find true fulfillment?


The appeal to human nature

For the standard of what it is to live well

The reasoning by which Aristotle attempts to adjudicate between his candidates

(pleasure, honor and contemplation), and which leads to this questionable

outcome, starts from the premise that what we want is the highest thing we can

achieve by human action, and to specify this we will have to say something

about what human beings are and what human action is. Knowing what a thing is

and what it does are in Aristotle’s view, inseparable. The nature of a thing, he

says clearly (in one of his works of what would now be thought of as ‘natural

science,’ 390a10–11), is to be expressed in terms of its ergon (work, function,

characteristic activity). These two inseparable notions, nature and ergon, are in

turn closely tied to our ability to evaluate a thing and its performance. If you want

to know what a good X is, you have to know what an X does; a good X, then,

does well what X’s do. This applies to instruments including bodily organs: a

good knife (eye) does well what a knife (eye) does, namely cut (see). It also

applies to examples of natural species and kinds of stuff: a good example of a

waterwort, elatine hexandra (a good, pure, sample of sodium bicarbonate) does

well what a waterwort (lump of sodium bicarbonate) characteristically does, viz.

lives through a cycle of life characteristic of waterworts (interacts with other

chemicals in characteristic ways).

As human beings are a naturally occurring species, a good human being will

do well what humans characteristically do, and it can be claimed that a human


who lives and acts in this characteristically human way may be said to be

eudaim n. One reason for not translating eudaim n as ‘happy’ is that it might

well not seem convincing to say that a person who does well what humans

characteristically do will be happy in the sense of ‘will feel good about his or her

life.’ The kind of inquiry that Aristotle is conducting is not ‘what will make one

feel good about his or her life?’ but rather ‘what sort of a life would a person have

the best reason to feel good about and have no reason not to feel good about?’

Aristotle’s assumption in answering this latter question is that whatever else we

identify ourselves with or as, we should be prepared to identify ourselves as

human beings and with whatever can convincingly be argued to belong to us as

members of our species.

It is interesting that for all his deep suspicions of our natural condition, Kant’s

argument on behalf of the authority of reason has a formal similarity to

Aristotle’s. Kant in effect argues that, how ever our natural inclinations may lead

us to think of ourselves, we should be prepared to identify ourselves as rational

creatures and endeavor to live in a manner true to that condition. Rationality, as

we will see shortly, is the characteristically human part of our physical nature for

Aristotle. Rationality is for Kant also a characteristic of our essential nature, but

one that may well stand opposed to our physical nature. The beginning of the

Foundation contends that we are prone to misunderstand ‘the purpose of nature

in attaching reason to our will as its governor’ (1785:394–5). If it were only a

matter of preserving mankind, seeing to human welfare and happiness, Kant

suggests (probably with some irony), we would be served far better by instinct.

Reason offers only such ‘feeble and defective guidance’ to satisfying our

appetites that it must clearly exist for something else, for, indeed, the purpose of

producing a will that is good, not as a means to something else but as an end in

itself (396).

At the end of the Nicomachean version, Aristotle will also tend to make into

an end in itself an exercise of our rationality that is possibly independent of our

physical nature. But the line of argument at the beginning of that version goes on

to connect living well with the excellences, aretai. Since what humans do arises

from their dispositions (hexeis), humans who do well and live well must do so

because their souls (psuchai, ‘souls’ in the sense of whatever it is that

distinguishes them from inanimate objects) possess and exercise dispositions that

count as ‘excellences’ or ‘virtues.’ Thus Aristotle sometimes offers as a

definition of eudaimonia, ‘activity of the soul in accordance with complete

excellence’ (1098a17–18, 1102a5). This formula is very uninformative; it does

little more than distinguish Aristotle’s view from those who are confused enough

to want to treat eudaimonia as strictly identical with possessing excellence. (One

can after all possess an excellence, be able to act well but never have occasion to

use it; Aristotle insists that only actually doing well, actualizing an excellence,

counts as eudaimonia.) To provide some genuine specificity for his conception

of eudaimonia, Aristotle has to spell out what the ergon (or characteristic

activity) of a human soul is.7

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