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Egoism and Aristotle's view of happiness


To: Chris M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Egoism and Aristotle's view of happiness
Date: 21st Apr 2011 17:30

Dear Christian,

Thank you for your email of 11 April, with your essay for the University of London BA Ethics: Historical Perspectives module, in response to the question, In pursuing his own happiness, is Aristotle's man an egoist?'

This is a good answer to the question. In an exam, it should score a mark in the high 60s.

You assume a particular definition of 'egoism', 'simply selfishness, as being ultimately concerned with one's own interest and using other people as a means to the end of self-interest and personal well being'. On the basis of this definition, you then distinguish between the 'dominant' interpretation of eudaimonia, according to which the ultimate goal of a human being is to enjoy a life of rational contemplation, and the 'inclusive' interpretation which 'recognizes that the nature of humans is composite', the importance of friendship and the social element in our nature.

I wished you'd said more about the point you make towards the end of your essay, where you seem to argue that the focus on rationality and reason is not a form of egoism because it 'transcends' the human individual as such. I think I can see what you are trying to say. To love rationality for its own sake, means that you gain the most enjoyment from exercising your capacity for reason. But how does this succeed in transcending egoism?

There is a possible argument here which alludes to Kantian considerations about the categorical imperative, strange though it might seem when we are talking about Aristotle. If the only thing that moves me is 'doing what reason demands', then it will seem simply absurd to seek to gain anything for myself, at the expense of others. There is nothing I desire for myself other than the necessary tools or environment to enable me to pursue a life of reason -- which so far as it results in knowledge benefits humanity at large and not just myself. I might have to behave in a way that seems selfish in order to achieve this, but my motivation isn't selfishness. I am not using other people, rather, Reason is using me (e.g. to discover geometrical theorems, philosophical theories etc.).

Thus, my rational side is 'godlike', as you describe. Reason liberates me from my egoistical concerns. Focus on reason is a form of self-transcendence.

But Aristotle just doesn't talk in this way. I don't find it plausible that he took this view of reason, which involves an ascetic view of the good for man which is seriously at odds with other things he says about what it means to live well.

Nor am I happy with this idea that there is a tension between a dominant and inclusivist view of the nature of eudaimonia.

Aristotle surely isn't saying that reason is very important but *other things* are important too, such as friendship and other pleasures. How are these two aspects to be compared with one another? More to the point, how can Aristotle take such a view when he has *defined* our nature as being 'rational'? But the alternative seems just as bad: the idea that reason is the only thing that really matters or counts, so that the 'best' life would be an ascetic one, focused exclusively on the activity of reasoning for its own sake.

There must be a better account than this.

Here is what I would suggest: At every point in his Ethics, Aristotle emphasises a *role* for reason. Finding or judging the mean is an exercise of reason. All the things we enjoy, our participation in the polis, the pleasures of friendship are all the activities of rational beings, reason is their element. The very idea of a virtue involves the capacity for judgement and reason.

For Aristotle, there is no part or aspect of human life where reason does not have a role. Consider sport. We don't just admire athletes for their muscles. We admire them for their skill and judgement, human attributes involving reason, as well as for other virtues such as courage or steadfastness -- which themselves have a rational component because they require an ability to discriminate and 'find the mean'.

One thing I haven't looked at is your definition of egoism. You have assumed that the question is talking about a certain 'narrow' egoism, according to which one uses others as a means to one's own satisfaction. However, it could be argued that Aristotle is not in the least bit worried that his account of the good life is meant to appeal to the individual as being that which they would find most desirable. This is in stark contrast to a Kantian view, where what we want, the things we find pleasant or unpleasant, pleasurable or painful, is completely irrelevant and the only question is what the categorical imperative demands. In other words, there's nothing wrong with calling Aristotle's view an enlightened egoism, by contrast with narrow, 'selfish' egoism.

All the best,