Deliberative Happiness: Part 3

September 01, 2016

Due to its value as seeking of the greatest happiness, Aristotle's concept of eudaimonia has been under attack by some who regard it in its very definition, egoistic. Supporters of such a stance believe advocates of eudaimonia are either illegitimately helping themselves to Aristotle's discredited natural theology or producing mere rationalisations of their own personal or culturally inculcated values. The question posed is whether Aristotle's concept of happiness understood as everyone pursuing their own happiness eventually ends up in what Irwin best identifies as 'useless triviality, saying that people desire most whatever they desire most'. Are we on the right track by comprehending eudaimonia this way? I am dubious.

To believe ultimate happiness revolves around desires is to remove all morality from the very moral concept it is identified as. Eudaimonia is concerned with flourishing in addition to happiness and most importantly, motives for happiness themselves constitute towards our telos of final, ultimate happiness. Advocating the idea that humans are by nature social animals, Aristotle understands that both the psychology and evolution of humans show how dependent on each other we are. We choose to live together, work together and engage with one another. We could live as hermits, secluding ourselves to achieve these egoistic aims, however, we give them up. We volunteer ourselves to cooperation in a society. Our necessitating of a society does not mean we rely on natural impulses solely directed towards our own independent desires, but acknowledging action in respect of the society and communities we are a part of, action arises from altruism and recognition. To argue that a virtuous agent would act on the basis of doing something just because she wants to, is to be confused about the concept of eudaimonia. The individual does not act through selfishness, instead she acts because she thinks her action will result in the best outcome of a situation, such as someones suffering being avoided, someone benefitting from a  situation where they otherwise would not have, were her action to be different to the one she performed. The virtuous individual concentrates on these reasons for acting, not because she believes acting in a specific way will get her closer to eudaimonia, but through striving for happiness as flourishing, thus leaving all arguments concerning egocentric aims redundant.

Central to the our proper idea of eudaimonia is our ability to reason well. Those we can reason well are exhibiting their ability to make rationalised practical decisions, eventually leading to skilful phronetic behaviour, choice and action. Necessary in our understanding of eudaimonia is an inner consideration of what is right. To act because it is what we want is not enough to justify our actions, we need reason which must be good in itself. For an agent to do what they want is to act from impulse, passion and desire, like the akratic individuals discussed, they do not take time to deliberate and consider their reasoning faculties. Subsequently, they prevent the full development in themselves of certain desires, which would allow them to grow and realise their telos. To exercise ones virtues, eudaimonia is naturally to be partially constitutive when making decisions and acting, however this is not to mean that it is all the individual is geared towards; he must judge for himself the best course of action, not only for the fundamental aim of flourishing, but to truly value the actions which lead to him arriving at it. A life successfully lived, one of contemplation requires individuals to act altruistically not in a means to end self-centred way, but through an evaluative process of reasoning.

The egocentric individual is aware of his minor premise however they cannot make the connections to the further major premise. For example consider I have a friend named Ken who gets talking with an attractive lady at his bus stop, after talking for a few minutes he discovers she is married, but also, flirting with him. He knows adultery is wrong, but at the same time believes she is attracted to him. The man who can identify the minor premise of action then and there in accordance with his major premise of eudaimonia and the good life, recognises it is in his best interests to end the conversation, walk away, act in a way which would not tread on the toes of the man married to the flirtatious bus-waiting lady. However, the akratic man cannot make this connection, instead he may catch the same bus to spend extra time getting to know her, his passions leading him down the possible path of contributing to the woman's act of adultery. As a result, it is only those who are unaware of the highest, overarching premise and it's contribution to action central to eudaimonia, who can be deemed egoistic.

Acting with only the minor premise, in a manner with focusses on action as usefulness to ones own aims, is egocentric. Individuals who do so do not asses whether their action leads to the greatest goodness, happiness. They are only committed to what satisfies their immediate needs, not aware of their self-sufficency acting with so much passion they infringe upon their own ability to reach the highest good, hindering themselves and their own ability to reach phronesis. The difference then, between the agent displaying virtuous behaviour and the akratic individual is that the former acts a result of what he believes he should do, whereas the individual who is akratic in his decisions merely acts because it is what he desires and is pleasured by. Those who display virtue act in this way even if it means the situation is not favourable for them. For example they give to charity even if it means they cannot spend the money on a drink with friends at the bar, this is because they are aware the same amount would mean more to the charity than it would were it to be wasted away at the bar. This sense of other-regarding as opposed to self-regarding is central to our understanding of eudaimonia, the benevolence and justice inherent in such actions make them anything but egocentric. As a result, it seems that to render the process of eudaimonia as egocentric is to misunderstand eudaimonia and its requirements; the virtuous individual is not egocentric but altruistic, other regarding and takes great time in reasoning well so that their actions are justified and virtuous in their own right.

But what about if an individual is intrinsically prone to more egocentric action than most agents? Is this a possibility, is there room for change in ones nature? Next time we shall investigate as to whether character is to be valued as fixed or flexible.


Cooper, John: Reason and Human Good in Aristotle, (Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis, Indiana, 1986)
Crisp, Roger: Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2000)
Irwin, Terence: The Metaphysical and Psychological Basis of Aristotle's Ethics in Essays on Aristotle's Ethics, Edited by Amelie Oksenberg Rorty, (University Press California, London, 1980)
Mele, Alfred: Aristotle on Akrasia, Eudaimonia and the Psychological Action of Aristotle's Ethics, Edited by Nancy Sherman, (Bowman and Littlefield Publishers, Maryland, United States, 1999)
Nussbaum, Martha: The Fragility of Goodness (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1986)
Ross, David: The Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2013)
Williams, Bernard: Justice as Virtue, in Moral Luck (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1981)

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