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Thoughts on Aristotle’s Ethical Egoism

Ethical egoism is a theory prescribing that all human beings ought to pursue their own good.  Gottlieb argues against the controversial thesis of Aristotle being an ethical egoist by examining four familiar objections to ethical egoism.  By examining what makes a theory objectionably egoistic, Gottlieb demonstrates how Aristotle’s theory avoids the first three objections while providing her own counter to the fourth via Aristotelian practical reasoning.

According to Aristotle, the purpose of all particular human desires is ultimately to acquire happiness.  There are five possible ways through which men can attain happiness: pleasure, honor, virtue, wealth and study.  The attainment of happiness through the practice of reason is ‘the highest good.’  Upon first glance, it would seem that his theory promotes ethical egoism since the good person’s ultimate goal is to achieve his own happiness, but upon closer examination it is not conspicuous that the theory is objectionably egoistic.  To confirm whether or not Aristotle was a true ethical egoist depends upon what happiness consists of.  To do this, Gottlieb compares Aristotle’s ethics to the objections given to ethical egoism.

The first objection states that any action performed on another is purely instrumental to the performers own good—a consequence which negates the authenticity of any benevolent act.  The problem with this theory is that it assumes that the good of others has no connection with the good for oneself.  The second objection entails the ‘prisoner’s dilemma.’ The prisoner’s dilemma assumes that because everyone has different interpretations as to what constitutes happiness, conflicts are bound to exist between men and their selected preferences.  The result is chaos; each man becoming potentially imprisoned at the expense of the next.  The third objection gives rise to the problem of moral pragmatism and its correlation to truth.  That is to say, happiness cannot be strictly interpreted as ‘that which is moral is that which benefits me.’  The reason being is that people’s preferences to what they believe constitutes happiness may not be compatible with what is considered ethically correct (e.g. using drugs).   If Aristotle is to avoid these three objections, he must not believe that happiness precludes the happiness of others or is only achievable at the expense of others.  That is, happiness must be defined through an objective methodology—one which negates the possible errors of subjectivism.

The fourth objection entails that ethical egoism gives a person the wrong motive for acting.  Either a person’s motive for pursuing happiness for himself will undermine any other motive to act for others (‘one thought too many’), or,  will consist in Aristotle’s virtuous person as possessing ‘one thought too few.’  In the latter case, a person’s primary motive to act virtuously does not hold precedence over the benefit one personally receives when acting virtuously.  Hence, Aristotle may be objectionably egoistic after all.  Gottlieb, however, will disagree and defend her reasons against such a claim.

First, Aristotle does not believe that true happiness can be predicated upon pragmatism.  To the contrary, he believes happiness has to have hierarchal roots that attach back to the nature of existence—happiness ‘has to be grounded in objective facts’ independent of what humans may think.  Happiness is that which is good for human beings.  Humans must therefore exercise volition and obtain that which is good through consistent actions that adhere back to the nature of reality.  If happiness is strictly associated with pleasure, there is no certainty that one’s method to obtain happiness will not interfere with that same goal for others.  Hence, pleasure is not the standard of obtaining true happiness, but rather can only be derived from pursuing that which is good for human beings.  Pleasure will be a natural accompaniment to the person who directs his focus to that which is independently good.

Second, Aristotle does not believe that true happiness can be predicated upon wealth.  Anyone that associates wealth as the highest good fails to understand the purpose of having money.  Though having money can satiate certain desires within a person, it oftentimes leads to ill will towards others and therefore cannot lead to happiness.  ‘Honor’ can also not be considered the basis of true happiness (though it is an essential component if it is given ‘in recognition of virtuous action on the part of the agent’).  Those who pursue honor through pursuing virtue do so in the correct manner.  Aristotle holds the primacy of ‘self’ over ‘others’ by claiming that having the appropriate attitude towards one’s self entails having the appropriate attitude towards others.  Hence, Aristotle’s ethical theory maintains that happiness cannot be obtained through selfish endeavors or in the exploitation of others.

Aristotle believes that a fundamental component (though not the totality) of happiness is found in contemplation; contemplation being the intellectual exercise of gaining and understanding wisdom.  If one is unable to contemplate, then the only other route to happiness will be to direct one’s attention towards other people.  This is what Aristotle refers to as the separation between theoretical and practical wisdom.  Theoretical wisdom is found by contemplating well, whereas practical wisdom is found by sharing theoretical insights with others.

Critics claim that Aristotle was an ethical egoist due to his promoting of eudaimonisticism (happiness theory for oneself).  However, Aristotle knew that a person could only seek happiness independent of happiness being his primary motive (paradox of hedonism).  Either a person will perform a virtuous action for its own sake, or will seek to promote his own happiness.  Whichever one is chosen will automatically undermine the other.  This is Aristotle’s idea of a ‘thought too many.’ Gottlieb turns to a deflationary theory to solve this problem but concludes it to be null and void.  Just because acting for virtue’s sake means acting in order to achieve happiness does not entail that in order to achieve virtue one must act in order to achieve happiness.  According to Aristotle, happiness is an activity of the soul that is in accordance with virtue.

Though objections have been given towards a person having mixed motives for acting virtuously, none are strong enough to establish Aristotle as an egoist.  By using Aristotelian practical reasoning, Gottlieb demonstrates that there are preconditions for a person to acquire happiness in order to avoid the traps of egoism: 1). Happiness consists in exercising virtues and generosity towards others, 2). Happiness consists in contemplating well.  Since a person’s desire for happiness is only obtained by acting virtuously, the person is justified in their behavior and cannot be blamed.  Furthermore, although a virtuous person is originally motivated by the desire for his own happiness, the desire itself does not appear in the content of his mind for acting the way he did.   Aristotle states that although deliberative desire is a catalyst for a person’s action, the desire itself is ‘not the goal but the source of movement.’  In other words, people do not begin by pursuing happiness directly but by pursuing virtue which consequently results in happiness.  Hence, the good person is virtuous not because he desires what appears to be his own happiness; rather that he has an appropriate understanding of what happiness actually consists of—that which is in accordance with acting generous towards others.

Gottlieb concludes her argument by overcoming the objections of Aristotle’s ‘one thought too few.’ Critics claim that no one acts virtuously because virtuous actions benefit others.  However, one’s primary motive for helping others (to obtain happiness for one’s self) can be in the background of one’s thinking when acting virtuously.  A person can be prompted to help his friend not because of the thought that he is helping his friend, but because there is a genuine concern for his friend in need.  Aristotle avoids giving happiness any content that would lead to an ethical egoist paradigm.  Hence, all or any positions that consider Aristotle objectionably egoistic should be abandoned on grounds of implausibility.

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