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Aristotle on virtue and happiness


To: Craig S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Aristotle on virtue and happiness
Date: 19th January 2011 12:08

Dear Craig,

Thank you for your email of 6 January, with your essay for the University of London BA 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 knowledgeable and fair exposition of Aristotle's views on virtue and happiness, which captures the subtleties in Aristotle's account of the interplay between reason and emotion.

I note that the question says, 'virtue' and not 'the virtues', which implies on my reading at least that the question of whether Aristotle is 'justified' in putting forward his view concerns the general question of human virtue and its relation to happiness rather than the issue of *which* 'virtues' are properly so-called. But there is no harm in noting, as you do, that Aristotelian and Christian ethics show a marked disagreement here. It is true that the somewhat 'self-serving' nature of Aristotle's account, which you note, sits more easily with the claim about virtue and happiness. The Christian view requires a God of justice to set right the sufferings encountered in this world by the virtuous, and the unjustly earned gains of the vicious.

I am deliberately using the term 'happiness' rather than 'eudaimonia' which commentators often substitute, on the grounds that Aristotle didn't 'exactly mean' what we mean by happiness, but only something similar, or at least similar in some respects. But this is the crux of the issue isn't it?

Many mobsters and 'sensible knaves', you admit, are 'eudaimonic'. It is arguable whether this is true. Not by Aristotle's view of eudaimonia. Consider Joe who is the head of a powerful Mafia family, all-powerful, fawned on by his underlings, 'respected' by other heads of Mafia families. And hated. This seems closer to the reality of criminal life, the need for ignorance about certain matters in order to enjoy one's ill-gotten gains. (I'm not saying that robber barons or some Humean 'sensible knaves' couldn't be genuinely loved and respected but that's a different case.) This would be like the example of the blissfully happy cuckold, despised and laughed at who goes to his grave oblivious of the true state of affairs.

The question concerns what we *really* want. Is Aristotle right that what we want, the aim of all human life is eudaimonia? Or is it (subjective) happiness? Has he made his case, or is he to some extent begging the question by introducing a value-laden definition of happiness which fails to capture fully our untutored intuitions about the relationship between happiness and pleasure?

You also note that Aristotle's view is far more realistic than Plato's response to the Ring of Gyges. Your defence of Aristotle is, 'To argue that Aristotle's recipe for living well should be rejected on the grounds that it is neither sufficient or necessary is like rejecting advice that non-smoking benefits health on grounds that some lucky smokers live to be a hundred and a few non-smokers have the bad luck to get lung cancer.'

The problem with this defence is that it reduces the virtues to something like 'rules of thumb' for living the good life. General advice is just that, it doesn't take account of specific cases. If all you have is general information, then you have to go by your best judgement of probability. But if you know that you are the exception (unlikely in the case of smoking advice, admittedly) then the general advice is no interest to you.

I do agree with the point that counterexamples to the claim of necessity and sufficiency do not automatically defeat Aristotle's thesis about virtue and happiness. I just don't think that the smoking example captures the reason. Aristotle isn't making a claim about a mere empirical correlation. The basis for his position is a powerful theory in the area of the philosophy of mind. He is making a conceptual claim, albeit one which has its underpinnings in empirical observations of human nature.

I would be prepared to go the extra mile in defending Aristotle against at least some of the counterexamples. He never says that all we require is virtue. (I think you do note this.) On the contrary, according to Aristotle there are various sorts of additional empirical requirements bound up with the circumstances which enable one to exercise virtue, conceptually so and not just as a matter of chance. If through no fault of your own you are homeless, friendless and poor then that's just your bad luck, so far as the opportunities to fully exercise 'the virtues' are concerned. (No chance to be magnanimous, for example.) Interestingly, on this point Aristotle disagrees not only with Christian ethics but also with Stoicism.

All the best,