Aristotelean Eudaimonia and Value Theory

In the following, I shall discuss the principles of Aristotle's ethical and political theory, paying close attention to what Aristotle meant by eudaimonia, and what he didnt'.

Most of the following quotes are from the beginning of Book 1 of the Nicomachean Ethics (as published on the web by MIT).

Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good;

By saying, "is thought", Aristotle seems to be expressing a commonplace notion.  As is consistent with his general method, he is preparing to derive non-commonplace implications from commonplace notions.  The "some good" here is not eudaimonia, otherwise he would be making an unbacked philosophical assertion and declaring it as an axiom, which is not his style.  Rather the "some good" is simply referring to individual agathos ("good", as in a useful thing) that individual arts and inquiries aim at.

and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim.

The which all things aim" is tempting to be characterized as eudaimonia.  But again, he uses the word agathos (useful thing), which he just finished speaking of regarding arts and inquiries.  He certainly didn't present an argument for eudaimonia theory being an implication of the commonplace notion earlier in the sentence, and it is certainly not self-evident how that would be; so this also must be interpreted as speaking of a commonplace notion of particular human ends.

But a certain difference is found among ends; some are activities, others are products apart from the activities that produce them.

Here he is setting up a simple means (activities) / ends (products, as well as activities not intended to produce anything) dichotomy.  He shifts from speaking of agathos (useful things, or human ends) to telos (ends).  It seems obvious to me that he thinks of agathos as a sub-set of telos; good-aimed-at/useful things/human-ends as a sub-set of ends in general. Where there are ends apart from the actions, it is the nature of the products to be better than the activities.

In this I see a faint shadowing forth of Austrian subjective utility theory.  "Ends are naturally better than their means," is but a short distance from, "Ends impute value to their means."

Now, as there are many actions, arts, and sciences, their ends also are many; the end of the medical art is health, that of shipbuilding a vessel, that of strategy victory, that of economics wealth.

Here we have concrete examples of the generalities he was speaking of earlier.  The end (telos) of the art (tekhne) of shipbuilding is a vessel.  The vessel, as a human telos, is also an agathos. We can see here the commonplace level he is still speaking in regards to "the good": eudaimonia is nowhere yet to be seen.

But where such arts fall under a single capacity- as bridle-making and the other arts concerned with the equipment of horses fall under the art of riding, and this and every military action under strategy, in the same way other arts fall under yet others- in all of these the ends of the master arts are to be preferred to all the subordinate ends; for it is for the sake of the former that the latter are pursued. It makes no difference whether the activities themselves are the ends of the actions, or something else apart from the activities, as in the case of the sciences just mentioned.

More pre-Austrian foreshadowing here.  Bridle-making derives its value from it usefulness for furthering the art of riding, so the latter is "preferred"; the art of riding derives some of its value from its usefulness for furthering the art of war, so the latter is "preferred".  Value is imputed backward through the production process.  Aristotle is explicit regarding such a value theory in the following passage.

The cause of this is that existence is to all men a thing to be chosen and loved, and that we exist by virtue of activity (i.e., by living and acting), and that the handiwork is in a sense, the producer of activity; he loves his handiwork, therefore, because he loves existence. And this is rooted in the nature of things; for what he is in potentiality, his handiwork manifests in activity.

Now, back to the beginning of the Ethics...

If, then, there is some end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake (everything else being desired for the sake of this), and if we do not choose everything for the sake of something else (for at that rate the process would go on to infinity, so that our desire would be empty and vain), clearly this must be the good and the chief good.

The "chief good" we "choose everything for the sake of" might be interpreted as eudaimonia. But again, I think Aristotle is saying something more down-to-earth here.  I don't think he means there is;one ultimate telos for all the individual things we do. For as he said earlier, "as there are many actions...their ends also are many." The idea he is introducing here is not that the philosopher should seek for the "one end to bind them"; rather, he is making the point that the philosopher, when considering the ends of actions, should seek out ultimate ends (which may still vary from action to action), and not be content with discovering subordinate ends.  Again this is a very pre-Austrian insight.

Will not the knowledge of it, then, have a great influence on life? Shall we not, like archers who have a mark to aim at, be more likely to hit upon what is right?

Aristotle may here be saying that, for example, if the bridle-maker knows that a less-subordinate end of his bridle is for the art of war, this awareness might inform his art more completely than only knowing of the more-subordinate end of simple riding.

If so, we must try, in outline at least, to determine what it is, and of which of the sciences or capacities it is the object. It would seem to belong to the most authoritative art and that which is most  truly the master art. And politics appears to be of this nature; for it is this that ordains which of the sciences should be studied in a state, and which each class of citizens should learn and up to what point they should learn them; and we see even the most highly esteemed of capacities to fall under this, e.g. strategy, economics, rhetoric; now, since politics uses the rest of the sciences, and since, again, it legislates as to what we are to do and what we are to abstain from, the end of this science must include those of the others, so that this end must be the good for man.

The expression, "the good for man" seems to scream "eudaimonia". It should be noted that this Greek word has still not occurred in the text. "The good for man" here is translated from "tanthrôpinon agathon". We can recognize the second word as a form of agathos(good, useful thing). The first word is related to our "anthropo-" prefix. Here Aristotle is asking what science is most appropriate for studying human ends. From the following passage...

Further, the state is by nature clearly prior to the family and to the individual, since the whole is of necessity prior to the part; for example, if the whole body be destroyed, there will be no foot or hand, except in an equivocal sense, as we might speak of a stone hand; for when destroyed the hand will be no better than that. is evident that Aristotle has an organic view of the state, with individuals as organs.  Just as the telos of the liver is the telos of the man, the telos of the man is the telos of the state.  That is why he thinks the science of the state (politics) is the science of man's ultimate telos: the ultimate "good for man". Evidently, for Aristotle, this is "one end to bind them", but it is more like "raison d'état" than eudaimonia. Such an interpretation is resoundingly supported by the next passage.

For even if the end is the same for a single man and for a state, that of the state seems at all events something greater and more complete whether to attain or to preserve; though it is worth while to attain the end merely for one man, it is finer and more godlike to attain it for a nation or for city-states. These, then, are the ends at which our inquiry aims, since it is political science, in one sense of that term.

The bridle-maker makes the bridle for riding, which is for the sake of war, which is for the sake of the state. The farmer raises grain for the sake of feeding himself. But, since he is an organ of the state, even this is ultimately a matter of politics.

Let us resume our inquiry and state, in view of the fact that all knowledge and every pursuit aims at some good, what it is that we say political science aims at and what is the highest of all goods achievable by action. Verbally there is very general agreement; for both the general run of men and people of superior refinement say that it is happiness, and identify living well and doing well with being happy; but with regard to what happiness is they differ...

In the above passage is where we finally meet the word "eudaimonia". It is translated here as "happiness". But the footnote at the Perseus translation is enlightening: "This translation of eudaimonia can hardly be avoided, but it would perhaps be more accurately rendered by ‘Well-being’ or ‘Prosperity’; and it will be found that the writer does not interpret it as a state of feeling but as a kind of activity." So here, he is saying that the ultimate telos of the polis is eudaimonia for the people, although he has not settled what eudaimonia really is. Later he defines eudaimonia as "an activity or actions of the soul implying a rational principle." Thus, to Aristotle, human actions are for the sake of the state, which is itself for the sake of further particular human actions which implies a rational principle. The exercise of reason, it seems, is the "one end to bind them": a rather convenient conclusion for a philosopher, I should say.


# wombatron said:

Very interesting post.  I especially like how you point out the links between Aristotle and Austrian theory.  If you haven't already, you should check out Roderick Long's "Wittgenstein, Austrian Economics, and the Logic of Action" (available here:, especially the last chapter on Socrates and praxeological ethics.  It really builds on the link between the classical eudaimonists and the Austrian School.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009 6:35 PM