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Aristotle on the connection between virtue and happiness


To: Alistair L.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Aristotle on the connection between virtue and happiness
Date: 28th July 2010 14:12

Dear Alistair,

Thank you for your email of 22 July, with your essay for the University of London Ethics: Historical Perspectives module, in response to the question, 'What role does virtue play in Aristotle's conception of eudaimonia (happiness)? Is he justified in giving it this role?'

This is a very good essay, which makes some valid points about the tension within Aristotle's conception of the virtues and how they constitute or enable the achievement of eudaimonia.

I perceive a potential ambiguity in this question which you effectively note in your first paragraph but do not attempt to exploit. (Although later you do allude to the 'circularity' of Aristotle's account of eudaimonia and the virtues.) This is of course the difference between what Aristotle meant by 'eudaimonia' and what we typically mean by 'happiness'. (In what follows I shall use 'happiness' for our conception and not Aristotle's.)

Taking this ambiguity into account, there is a world of difference between the claim that the summum bonum for man is eudaimonia, and the view that the summum bonum is happiness, as utilitarians such as Jeremy Bentham and J.S. Mill claimed. In which case one can read the question as asking, in part, whether Aristotle successfully makes the case that the summum bonum is eudaimonia *rather than* happiness.

Aristotle rejects hedonism, and in doing so was following the lead of Plato (e.g. in the Gorgias). But how good are his arguments for this? Why isn't a life of pleasure, or perhaps (to be anachronistic) an Epicurean life of refined or 'higher' (cf. Mill) pleasure the thing to aim for? Who needs virtue, except as a means to achieving pleasure? (The Epicureans were very keen on temperance, and held the pleasures of intellectual activity in the highest esteem.)

This is not Aristotle's view. No better way to contrast Aristotle's eudaimonia and happiness can be found than in his view that a man can never achieve eudaimonia if he is secretly despised by those he regards as his friends, or in his belief that a man can be harmed after his death.

The main theme of your essay, however, concerns the prominence which (as some would argue) Aristotle unjustly gives to the pursuit of a life of intellectual virtue as the ultimate or highest form of eudaimonia, on the grounds that reason is what uniquely differentiates man from other animals, and therefore constitutes his unique and special 'function'.

I think a stronger defence of Aristotle's view can be mounted if one is prepared to adopt the principle of charity -- as an alternative to relying on the idea that there must be a 'gap in the notes', or that Aristotle got 'carried away' with his theme.

Let's look at the lives which we admire. We admire the good citizen, the good parent, the good employee, the good manager, the good teacher -- all these and more are ways of fulfilling our function in the 'social organism'. We also admire achievement in many areas besides those which would normally be regarded as intellectual -- such as the arts, or sport. What would be Aristotle's view?

What makes football such a 'beautiful game'? Suppose that kangaroos could be trained to play football, and played it really well, indeed spectacularly, would anyone be interested in following the kangaroo football league over the season? What we admire is not just physical skill or attributes, but the practical intelligence of the football player. David Beckham, apart from his legendary capacity to 'bend the ball' is noted for having a supreme ability to sense the flow of play from moment to moment and make finely judged strategic decisions, as well as his ability to judge the abilities of and exert influence on the members of his team, in order to enable them to achieve the maximum performance of which they were capable.

Or consider the things we admire about painting. One important component (as Roger Scruton has argued) is a quality of character which we would term 'moral', a certain kind of integrity the lack of which leads us to criticize a work of art as merely banal, or sentimental, regardless of the skill involved in its execution. Iris Murdoch has some good things to say about this too.

Although philosophy exhibits the character of a person's intellect in the highest degree, what is essential to the intellectual virtues can be found elsewhere. Maybe Aristotle was biased in favour of philosophers. Even if this is true, he still has a case that the best life for human beings is one in which we make maximum use of the virtues of intellect.

All the best,