Deliberative Happiness: Part 1

July 22, 2016

In Aristotelian ethics, all human action aims at some end that we value as good. Such an end brings us closer to our final end of eudaimonia, a happiness aimed at for it's own sake, not for some other alternate end. Such happiness should relate to the characteristic activity and exercise of potentialities whose actualisation constitutes as our function of human life. In other words, for happiness and goodness to coincide, it is important we recognise the term ergon as a type of good reasoning found in our decision making process, the rational aspect of us in accordance with virtue. With virtuous action being noted as those which are praiseworthy, or whatever is good is pleasurable because it is good, we recognise there is much value to be recognised in the decision making process of virtuous choice.

The man who chooses good by reconciling his decision with the worth it will bring to his final happiness is aware of the ergon he exhibits. In contrast, the man who chooses with immediacy bases what he chooses on impulse, on what he wants and desires at that moment, with no acknowledgement of his future or final happiness. It is true that choosing rightly is not a task easily undertaken, individuals exhibit many defaults through weak rationality, and limitations derived from poor moral education and pure luck. Even still, there remains greater respect, obvious in society, for the man who chooses rightly, who is capable of reasoning practically. Aristotle is doubtful whether we are all able to attain the capacity to live this way. I am more optimistic about our potentiality, although I still often find myself wondering whether, even if we could live in this way, whether we really should do so.

Divided into seven parts, this is the first of an investigation into individual's abilities to reach Aristotle's concept of Eudaimonia, assessing whether every individual is capable of practical wisdom by considering a series of case studies. From the akratic (weak willed) man, to the man of utmost virtuous behaviour I will consider whether upbringing, moral education and luck affect a person's ability to be rendered virtuous. Following this, conceptualising voluntary and non-voluntary decision making processes of reasoning I shall address the psychology surrounding virtue and moral responsibility, to evaluate if an agent's temperament and character is fixed, or has some flexibility for change. In light of all of this, we shall turn to our original question, of whether all individuals can reach eudaimonia through practice of phronesis, whether certain individuals remain stuck with an inability to progress to this happiness, or whether there is more to lose than gain by living in accordance with the concept of eudaimonia.

The Basics of Action and Virtue

Actions chosen for their own sakes have intrinsic value, they're chosen through deliberation and deliver an expression of a person's character. However, decision making in this way does not come easily to everyone, in fact it is a rare occurrence to be born with a reasoning faculty of such precedence and calibre. It is through constant habituation and experience that one is likely to recognise good reasoning and subsequently arrive at reasoning in this way. Through empirical despondence with reference to our own independent motives, emotions and acknowledging our own deficiencies, we can then learn to evaluate and conclude at what is to be valued virtuous excellence of character, geared towards eudaimonia. Answering with reference to ourselves leaves us in a better position to consider what is best for us, it is subjective and subjectivity is not without its problems, which we shall later address, however by utilising this individuality we lose sight of a concept of eudaimonia which may be too impartial.

Identifying the right paths of action, aiming at our own individual comprehension of the golden mean, coming to a middle ground formulated by what we, as individuals, understand our final end to be. We comprise a second nature ability to remember to not go to excess, or not to exhibit deficiency in certain virtues. Such a process highlights not only the importance of practical reasoning, but also leaves many questions as to whether everyone is capable of achieving this type of reasoning. Does everyone know not to go to excess? To make choices by utilising our rationality and avoid compulsion, can often seem like a difficult task, but it remains central to Aristotle's concept of a flourishing self-sufficent life, formed upon exercising right reason and appropriate action.

To reason in practical manner is to be adhering to Aristotle's concept of practical wisdom. our reason behind wanting to exhibit phronesis is eudaimonia, our ultimate end and completion of activity as human beings, an activity of a soul exhibiting excellence. Excellence so great is identified as arete ethike. Concerned with the character of individuals, it values virtues such as courage, justice and temperance. An appreciation of such virtues is what lays the foundations of a flourishing life, as we establish what is virtuous and non-virtuous. Decision making in accordance with our final end must abide by the rule that actions must be self-sufficient and overcome our desires. Desires, if part of attaining eudaimonia, must be desired for themselves, not for anything else. We learn how all of our desires depend on our leading, single and ultimate desire of eudaimonia. Through engagement with the final telos we can appreciate why we reason towards this conception of human flourishing. Maybe we are not to see eudaimonia as a distinct means to a specific end?

Imagine someone who takes pride in gaining as much money as possible, whatever the moral cost. An extreme form of greediness for possessions, money and wealth, identified in greek terminology as pleonexia. Due to his current relevance lets consider Donald Trump as someone who exemplifies pleonexia well. To him, everything relies on this end, so much that all his desires revolve around obtaining as much money as possible. He will be kind hearted and giving, he may say all the right things, but not because he believes it to be just and fair, not because he understands it as the right thing in itself, but for the sake of something else, namely, an overriding desire of greed. Eudaimonia should never be seen in this way, not a quick means to an end, but a goal which is forever in constant view, one which we remain aware of in all decision making. Over time it becomes second nature to act in accordance with it, but like everything, virtue requires practice before it is perfect. Valued as an object of pursuit which we desire for itself, yet inherent in all other things, it is not like obtainment of the material kind (either we have it or we don't), but more through development and exercise of ones capacity for theoretical activity, that it is acquired.  It is only through contemplation, investigation and applying theoretical action as intellectual excellence in accordance with the situation at hand that one comes closer to the target of eudaimonia.

But why are certain things 'good' and what things are 'good'?

For Aristotle, things which are rational are good, they are rational because they are based upon the principle of doing what is most likely to promote a good end. Individuals who can do so, understand this practical reasoning demonstrating phronesis. In contrast, non-rational desires do not encompass a reflective reasoning in such a way. Instead, they're based upon feelings and appetitive desires. Donald Trump and his pleonexy highlight how individuals accustomed to choosing non-rationaly central their aims to the pleasurable, solely because it is pleasurable in a primitive way, acting from basic human nature and not through learned reasoning. Taking a more basic example, a choice I know I am often met with at work. Lunchtime decisions. Cake? No cake? I know what is healthy and right for me, five a day, the food diagram blah blah. If I choose through pleasure and basic human nature I will become devoid of all this knowledge surrounding healthy life-choices and opt for cake. All in an impulsive, most pleasure-satisfying form of thought. However, if I reflect, as Aristotle believes I should, adding to my lunchtime considerations of what I think is truly good, with reference to my overarching aim of leading a healthy life, I choose something else. Perhaps pasta and a side salad? Such a choice makes reference to rational reflection and a final aim. Aligning what is pleasurable appetitively and what is really good comes from practice of the non-rational element being persuaded by rational principle.

Importance placed on the end being fixed and through the use of the analogy 'a doctor does not deliberate whether to heal', Aristotle identifies the inherent pursuit of happiness in all of us, noting we deliberate not about ends, but about the means of arriving at it. A virtuous man is not virtuous through nature, but from habit. Being disposed to behave in the right ways, for the right reasons results in feeling pleasure when acting in accordance with rightness. To determine what is right and wrong, we look to passion in decision making. Passion is felt when we desire things. A desire for an excess of money which we do not necessarily need is understood as greed, it doesn't add anything to our end of eudaimonia as it remains a passion built upon through what is appetitive in us. Those of virtue do not act appetitively, but instead acts through reasoning faculties. Once capable of reasoning in this way and not through pleasure, the individual has an ultimate end which he is in constant pursuit of throughout his life which he works towards. Trump then, is incapable of aligning his pleasure of wealth with his reasoning faculties. Such a strong want for money overcomes his rationality, in extreme cases of such pleonexia money is obtained in unlawful, immoral ways, like stealing and money laundering. By choosing our own actions we are responsible for such choices. We warrant ourselves as the makers of our own decisions as means, and the ends, which we strive for through our actions. We arrive only at right action and decision through a process of reasoning, turning this into a habitual process before action to arrive at practical wisdom.

As already mentioned, not born with virtue, it arises from habit. However it is vital we acknowledge the distinction between intellectual virtues and virtues of character. The former are acquired through teaching, for example a child may possess an impressive mathematical ability at age five. Virtues of character however, as one would learn a new skill, like learning the guitar, we get better through practice, like our discussion of habituation. Primarily focussing on the later, virtues of character are central to developing the self, through constant practice of virtues, naturally we can become better, more virtuous beings. Understanding virtues in this way, we see the association virtuous behaviour has to dispositions learnt through both practice and habituation. The more just actions we reflect upon and choose, the more just we become in our nature. By forming habits and sticking to them we get closer to reasoning well.

Virtues, for Aristotle are to be recognised as non-changing, but still very much depend on our independent character. To identify the mean behaviour appropriate to the virtue we are striving for we should reflect inwardly. I may wish for the virtue of courage, to successfully obtain such a virtue it is evident I must show confidence in the face of fear and not cower or run away during difficult situations. By using the doctrine of the mean, it is not uncommon for individuals to sometimes go wrong when choosing and acting. With every virtue there exists two extremes. Considering generosity, to be generous would be the mean virtue, the one worth striving for, consisting of giving at the right time, to the most worth and in need. However, if we do not realise generosity defined in this way we can become either to miserly or not give enough, even when time requires it. In contrast we may become too wasteful, giving to the wrong people and unnecessarily. Prior to reaching the mean we are all accustomed to being pulled towards one of two extremes. Therefore, prior to action we must tread carefully, taking note of the extreme we are most tempted by whilst analysing the situation. By choosing the opposite of what we are most drawn to, it will be more likely that we arrive at the virtue we are reaching for.

The difficulty of considering virtues in this way is that we must learn and determine what is true and right through judgement of our own, it must come as second nature to ourselves and this is only possible if we avoid extremes which we are tempted by. But aren't we all ignorant to our own downfalls? Perhaps I am more egocentric than others, but unless pointed out to by friends or family, or whoever is feeling ballsy enough to confront me, I am usually more often than not, convinced I have made decisions I would class as right and good. Either that, or it is only in retrospect, that I come to realise my choices may have been counterproductive. Is this retrospect too late? Is there anything to be taken from recognising non-virtuous behaviour after the choice has already been made? It is probable I am still in the early stages of learning what it means to practice the wisdom and phronesis Aristotle speaks of.

Next week we shall consider akrasia and phronesis in individuals' conceptions of what virtue is. 


Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Edited by Roger Crisp, (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2000)
Benn, Piers: Ethics: Fundamentals of Philosophy. (Routledge, London, 2002) 
Broadie, Sarah: Ethics with Aristotle, (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1991)
Cooper, John: Reason and Human Good in Aristotle, (Hackett Publishing Company, Indiana, 1986) 
Kraut, Richard: Aristotle on Human Good in Aristotle’s Ethics: Critical Essays, Edited by Nancy Sherman, (Rowmann and Littlefield Publishers, Oxford, 1999) 
Lear, Jonathan: Aristotle: The Desire to Understand, (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1988)  
Lear, Gabriel Richardson: Happy Lives and the Highest Good: An Essay on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, (Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 2009)
Polansky, Ronald: The Cambridge Companion to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2014)
Rorty, Amelie: The Place of Contemplation in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics in Essays in Aristotle’s Ethics, Edited by Amelie Rorty, (University California Press, Los Angeles, California, 1980) 
Williams, Bernard: Justice as a Virtue in Moral Luck, (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1981)

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