And now for something completely different…
In some circles, the idea that Aristotle is an egoist passes for a truism. After all, he claims that the ultimate aim of human action is eudaimonia, happiness or flourishing; everything else is worthy of choice for its sake, while it — and only it — is worthy of choice entirely for its own sake and not for the sake of anything else. Could we possibly find a clearer statement of egoism than that? Yet in contemporary Anglo-American scholarship, the notion that Aristotle is any kind of egoist is extremely controversial. It is agreed that Aristotle, like most or all other philosophers in the ancient Greek tradition, is a eudaimonist, and hence that the flourishing or well-being of human beings has a central role to play in his thinking. But probably most Aristotle scholars would reject the suggestion that he is, at least without qualification, an egoist. To some extent, the dispute is terminological: ‘egoism’ brings a great deal of baggage with it, and in any case tends to suggest that a person should not only make his own well-being or flourishing the guiding aim of his life, but, further, that he should regard the well-being of others as a merely instrumental means to his own. It is widely, if not almost universally, agreed that Aristotle rejects that sort of purely instrumental view of regard for others, and many would take that rejection as decisive grounds for denying that Aristotle is an egoist. Predictably, however, matters are not so simple.
The term ‘egoism’ is used in a bewildering variety of ways, and I have no interest in shaping the way that others use it. For my purposes, though, some standard distinctions may be in order. There are at least three different claims that go under the name of ‘egoism’: psychological egoism, ethical egoism, and rational egoism. Each of these is supposed to be a kind of egoism because it gives an important explanatory role to an individual human agent’s self-interest. But they are claims about different things. Psychological egoism is a claim about human psychology: it is the claim that we always act for the sake of what we believe to be in our self-interest. Ethical egoism is a claim about ethics: it is the claim that we should always act for the sake of what truly is in our self-interest and never act contrary to it. Rational egoism, in the words of David Brink, “is a theory about the grounds of reason for action: it says that an agent has reason to do x just in case, and in so far as, x promotes his own interest, welfare, or happiness” (David O. Brink, Moral Realism and the Foundations of Ethics, Cornell 1989, 67).
It is important to see how rational egoism is distinct from both psychological and ethical egoism. Rational egoism differs from psychological egoism because it is a claim about normative reasons, or what we might call “good reasons,” as opposed to “explanatory” or “motivating” reasons; that is, it purports to tell us what makes it the case that we have good reason to do something, but it does not imply any particular claims about what kinds of reasons actually motivate us. Rational egoism is distinct from ethical egoism, as I have formulated it here, because ethical egoism tells us what we should do, but says nothing about why we should do it; it would be consistent with my formulation of ethical egoism that we should always act for the sake of what is truly in our self-interest because by doing so we will promote the greatest happiness of the greatest number, because God commands it, or because we just happen to feel like it. Conversely, rational egoism makes no claims about the content of well-being or self-interest, and in particular it does not entail that we should never act to benefit others for their own sake or that we should adopt a merely instrumental conception of how our own well-being is related to the welfare of others. In other words, rational egoism is, in principle at least, compatible with an apparently very un-egoistic theory of what is good for an individual human being. To avoid this sort of confusion, some (including me) have opted to abandon the language of ‘egoism’ in favor of less misleading alternatives. One candidate I have offered, drawing on Mark Murphy’s Natural Law and Practical Rationality, is agent-relative welfarism: this is a theory about what gives human beings reason to do something; it is welfarist in explaining all non-derivative reasons in terms of well-being or flourishing, and agent-relative insofar as it makes the agent’s own welfare the source of his non-derivative reasons for action. Agent-relative welfarism is consistent with reductive, instrumentalist ethical egoism about the content of well-being and what we have reason to do, but it does not entail that kind of egoism, since it is also consistent with conceptions of well-being on which positive, non-instrumental other-regarding relations with others are an irreducible aspect of human flourishing. That is the kind of view that many believe that Aristotle holds.
Many, but by no means all. Such prominent and influential scholars as Terence Irwin and C.D.C. Reeve have defended such a view of Aristotle, but likewise distinguished philosophers such as Richard Kraut and Anthony Price have questioned it. Both of these latter two have recently criticized the agent-relative welfarist interpretation of Aristotle as it has been applied in constructive, first-order philosophy by Dan Russell. Both Kraut and Price challenge Russell’s “eudaimonism” in their reviews of his recent book, Happiness for Humans. Here is Kraut:
Russell embraces a certain form of normative egoism, according to which each individual’s deliberative reasoning should have as its single final goal the happiness (that is, well-being) of that individual…
This is perhaps best understood as a two-level theory: at the ground level, one devotes oneself to others and does not treat them as a mere means to one’s own happiness. But why should one take up this non-instrumental stance towards others? In asking and answering this question, we move up a level: these loving attitudes towards others stand in need of justification, and the justification consists in the fact that taking this stance towards others is what makes one’s own life happy.
The objection to be made to this is that it does not recognize others as ever constituting a direct source of reasons. Another’s well-being never provides me, all by itself, with a reason to assist him; it does so only if and because I benefit from caring about him. If someone sitting next to me is in great pain, and I can stop the pain simply by lifting the electrical wire that is causing the problem, am I justified in assisting him only if and because my doing so partly constitutes a happy life for me? If I could be just as happy walking away, would that justify my doing so?
And here is Price:
Russell assigns to eudaimonia this privilege: it is ‘the final end, a good that halts deliberation by being the final source of reasons for our other ends’ (23). Following Mark LeBar, he distinguishes two levels of reasons: there are reasons for acting in virtue of the ends one has, and reasons to have those ends in the first place (26). The second level relates to the eudaimonia of the agent, whereas the first level allows me to act for another’s sake; however, the second level has priority in that it makes external considerations first-level reasons for the agent. Russell is willing to write, ‘The point of devoting oneself to another is for the sake of giving oneself a good life’ (27).
While Russell can claim to be doing full justice to NE I.12, he seems to me to be slipping from a tenable position to an unsustainable one. When a man enters into a relationship or obligation, he may reasonably want to make sure that this will occupy ‘a place in his life that he can live with’ (26). Certainly we can’t expect of one another, and wouldn’t desire for our own children, that they should take on burdens that, whatever the benefit to others, will land them with a life that they find unlivable. And we might express this by saying that what might be a reason for action for more robust agents is not a reason for them. Yet we eviscerate virtue of content if we deny that the virtuous agent is aware of reasons for action relating to harms and benefits whose source has nothing to do with his own welfare, and which connect with ends that he does not ‘adopt … for the sake of a good life’ (26). We may still say, if we wish, that, to count as reasons for him, they need to be put through the filter not only of what he can do, but what he can live with; but we concede too much to self-interest if we offer a dispensation not only to the man who can’t cope, but to the one can do better for himself.
Price and Kraut both object to Russell’s view in purely philosophical terms, without much appeal to Aristotle’s texts. This is because Russell’s book is primarily a work in first-order philosophy, not an interpretation of Aristotle. But just as Russell takes his view to be at least largely true to Aristotle’s, Price and Kraut likewise take their criticisms to apply to Russell’s reading of Aristotle, as well. Both of them have written excellent books about Aristotle in which they largely defend Aristotelian theses as attractive and insightful. Yet they agree in rejecting the agent-relative welfarist conception of Aristotelian eudaimonism precisely because it grounds an agent’s reasons for action solely in his own well-being. The disagreement isn’t just a terminological dispute about how to use the ‘egoism’ label; it is a substantive difference between rival interpretations of Aristotle that embody competing conceptions of human well-being and practical reason.
I don’t want to focus on the details of Russell’s argument, in part because I haven’t yet studied it carefully and in part because I have other fish to fry. Suffice to say that, on the fundamental issue, I think that Russell is right and that Kraut and Price are wrong. I think it is far easier, however, to show that Aristotle’s eudaimonism is a variety of agent-relative welfarism (or rational egoism, if you prefer) than it would be to show that his view is true. What I’ll do, then, is consider a passage from the Nicomachean Ethics that has been read as inconsistent with the agent-relative view, and then show, by a consideration of Aristotle’s claims about what it is to be teleios — ‘complete,’ ‘final,’ ‘end-like,’ or ‘goalish’ — that Aristotle is committed to the agent-relative welfarist view and that the allegedly incompatible passage is, in fact, perfectly consistent with it.
In EN 1.2, Aristotle tells us that the goal of politics — which is what he takes himself to be doing in the Ethics as well as the Politics — is none other than the human good (1.2 1094b6-7). Politics, in the relevant sense, is the most authoritative or controlling science or capacity (1094a24-26). It is controlling (architechtonikēs) and authoritative (kuriōtatēs) in the sense that (a) it determines which subjects people in cities should study and how far they should study them (1094a27-b2, 5), and that (b) all other sciences and capacities are subordinate to it (1094b2-5). Because it bears this relationship to all the other sciences and capacites, its end embraces the ends of those others. It follows, says Aristotle, that the end of this most authoritative and controlling capacity is the human good. It follows, he suggests, because (gar 1094b7) “even if it is the same thing for an individual and for a city, the good of the city is nonetheless evidently greater and more complete (teleioteron, 1094b8) both to attain and to preserve” (1094b7-9). My colleague Don Morrison has drawn on this passage to argue that, for Aristotle, the good of a political community is the highest object of practical reason and the ultimate end of human action (see his ‘Politics as a Vocation, according to Aristotle’, History of Political Thought 22, 221-41 and his ‘The Common Good’, in The Cambridge Companion to Aristotle’s Politics). On this sort of view, eudaimonia retains its central place in Aristotle’s thought, and a virtuous person will aim to achieve it for himself, but he will also aim to achieve it for his city, and not simply because this somehow contributes to his own eudaimonia, but more fundamentally because the good of the city is a greater and more complete good.
I want to challenge this reading of EN 1.2 by considering EN 1.7 1097a30-b6, where Aristotle tells us what he means in describing one thing as “more complete” than another. John Cooper, among others, has recently stressed (‘Plato and Aristotle on Finality and Self-Sufficiency’, in Nature, Knowledge, and the Good) the connection between being complete (teleion) and being an end (telos), arguing that we should abandon “complete” as a translation in favor of “final.” Leaving aside the details of his interpretation of the passage from 1.7, he seems right about this. Though there may still be something to be said for “complete” as a translation, Aristotle leaves no doubt about the connection between being teleion and being a telos insofar as a telos is an object of choice. In the passage in question, he distinguishes several degrees or scales of finality:
1. That which is pursued for its own sake is more final than that which is pursued for the sake of something else.
2. That which is never chosen for the sake of something else is more final than those things which are chosen both for their own sake and for the sake of something else.
3. That which is always chosen for its own sake and never for the sake of something else is unqualifiedly final.
This analysis gives us three levels of completeness. If we allow that goods are objects of pursuit and choice, we get:
a. Goods that are always chosen for the sake of something else and never for their own sake
b. Goods that are chosen both for their own sake and for the sake of something else.
c. Goods that are chosen solely for their own sake and never for the sake of anything else.
By the argument that follows, there is only one good of the third and highest grade: eudaimonia. It is always chosen for its own sake and never for the sake of anything else. Other goods — honor, pleasure, intelligence, and every virtue — are chosen both for their own sake and for the sake of eudaimonia. We choose these goods for the sake of eudaimonia, “supposing that we will be happy through them” (1097b5), but nobody chooses happiness for the sake of these things “nor for the sake of anything else at all” (b6).
If we try to apply this schema of grades of finality to the claim in EN 1.2, we encounter a problem. What that text seems to say is that the good of the city is more final than the good of an individual. By the analysis of 1.7, the good of the city could only be more final than the good of an individual if the good of an individual is chosen for the sake of the good of the city. Since, by the argument that follows, eudaimonia is never chosen for the sake of something else, the good of an individual either cannot be chosen for the sake of something else or it cannot be eudaimonia. Despite considerable controversy over Aristotle’s theory of eudaimonia, there is no question that he takes it to belong to individual human beings. It is a practical activity of the rational soul in accordance with excellence; living happy lives is something that individual people do, however much they need to do it together with others. So it looks like the good of an individual cannot be chosen for the sake of anything else: an individual’s good is eudaimonia, and nobody chooses — nobody could coherently choose — eudaimonia for the sake of anything else.
So if the good of the city is to be “more final” or “more complete” than the good of an individual, it can’t be in the way that eudaimonia is more complete than honor or pleasure or intelligence or virtue.
Or can it? We might be able to defend the consistency of Morrison’s reading of 1.2 with the claims of 1.7 by considering alternative ways of understanding the latter. We could take these as claims about types of goods or tokens of those types. Interpreted in terms of token goods, we can make sense of the idea of choosing some good for its own sake and for the sake of other, distinct tokens of the same type of good. Suppose Alcibiades chooses some course of action — say, entering four chariots in the races at Olympia — for the sake of honor. He pursues this honor for its own sake, and not simply as a means to power or bodily pleasures or what not. But now suppose that he also pursues this honor — the honor he receives for having entered so many chariots in the games, and the honor he receives for winning the race — for the sake of additional future honor, as well. He is pleased to be honored for entering so many chariots in the games, and would choose this honor even if nothing else were to result (cf. 1097b3-4). Yet he also chooses this honor because, he thinks, it will lead to even greater honor in the future; this act will draw people’s attention to him and lead them to honor him for his future exploits, as well. This seems to be a case of one token of honor being chosen for itself and for another token of honor.
But this seems not to be the sort of case that Aristotle is discussing in 1.7. He seems interested instead in distinguishing among types of good in terms of degrees of finality or completeness. After all, there is nothing remarkable about choosing one instance of pleasure for its own sake and for the sake of additional instances of the same kind of pleasure later, or mutatis mutandis for virtue, knowledge, or honor. In these cases, the future instances of the same kind of good do not supply any additional explanatory value or add any distinct kind of reason for the choice of the first instance. Choosing honor for the sake of pleasure, or knowledge for the sake of honor, however, is a different sort of thing than choosing one instance of pleasure for the sake of future instances of pleasure. If Alcibiades pursues honor not only for its own sake but also because it will improve his chances of seducing the most beautiful boys of Greece, this tells us something more about why he is acting in the way that he is, because the pleasures of sex are providing him with further reasons for seeking honor, in addition to the intrinsic attractions of honor. Pleasure is capable of motivating the pursuit of honor in place of or in addition to the motivational pull that honor can exert on its own accord.
Suppose something like that is what Aristotle has in mind. Would it help us to reconcile 1.2 with the claim that nobody ever chooses or pursues eudaimonia for the sake of anything else? Read in this way, the claim is that eudaimonia is capable of motivating the pursuit of these other goods in addition to the pull that those other goods exert on their own accord, but that no other good is capable of motivating the pursuit of eudaimonia (and this because we can’t coherently suppose that living well is something we can choose for the sake of anything else). But this would not exclude choosing or pursuing eudaimonia for the sake of other instances of eudaimonia: this might be the interpersonal parallel to Alcibiades’ choice of this honor now for its own sake and for the sake of some more honor later. The denial that eudaimonia is chosen for the sake of anything else, then, would amount to the claim that no other type of good can explain or motivate the pursuit of eudaimonia, not that one cannot pursue one token of eudaimonia for its own sake and for the sake of other token instances of eudaimonia.
But the claim, construed this way in terms of types, seems true in the intrapersonal but false in the interpersonal case. For any given agent, the pursuit of honor or pleasure or knowledge or virtue does not seem capable of explaining the pursuit of eudaimonia; nobody can seek to live well in order to enjoy themselves or to understand the universe. They seek those things, rather, in order to live well through them, as Aristotle says. But now consider one agent A acting in relation to some second agent B. It does seem sensible to suppose that A can act for the sake of B’s happiness not because of any motivational pull that B’s happiness exerts on its own accord, but only for the sake of the honor that A stands to gain from others as a result of being the sort of person who seeks other people’s happiness, or only for the sake of the opportunity to seduce beautiful boys that he thinks will result from promoting the well-being of others. Stated less in terms of motivations and more of ends, it is possible to pursue other people’s happiness solely for the sake of something else. One’s own happiness, however, can never be a means to anything else, not because of any contingent features of human psychology, but as a matter of what a final end is.
Notice that this conclusion is not the same as the claim that it is never possible to seek other people’s happiness for its own sake, nor even that it is never possible to seek other people’s happiness for its own sake and not for the sake of anything else. Aristotle may think that we cannot seek other people’s happiness for its own sake and not for the sake of anything else without ceasing to be distinct rational agents; the closest thing we find in Aristotle to a description of someone who acts for the sake of another person’s good with nothing more than an incidental concern for his own welfare is in his description of slaves, whom he regards as functioning not as fully independent rational agents, but as something like physically separate, practical-metaphysical parts of their masters (Politics I.4-6). But that is a different matter. What my argument above shows, unless it’s mistaken, is that we simply can’t pursue our own eudaimonia for the sake of anything else. But we can pursue other people’s eudaimonia for the sake of other things, whether or not we pursue it for its own sake.
What are the implications of this for Aristotle’s discussion of the grades of finality? Evidently, that the unqualifiedly final eudaimonia discussed in EN 1.7 is the individual agent’s own eudaimonia. This is hardly surprising if Aristotle supposes, as seems sensible, that finality is an agent-relative property, as it must be if it is to retain the essential connection with ends that Cooper et al. see in it (ends are necessarily agent-relative in that every end is an end of or for some agent). So the good of the city cannot be more final than the good of an individual by the analysis of EN 1.7. That analysis makes eudaimonia final without qualification because it is never chosen for the sake of anything else. Only the good of the person doing the choosing meets that criterion as Aristotle lays it out. So it seems that the good of the city can’t even be equally final with the good of an individual. If the good of the city were to be more final than the good of the individual, the good of the individual would have to be chosen for its own sake and for the sake of something else, and hence would have to cease to be eudaimonia as Aristotle characterizes it.
There is, however, a perfectly natural alternative way to read the passage from 1.2. When Aristotle tells us that “the good of the city is evidently a greater and more complete good both to attain and to preserve,” we need not take him as asserting that the city’s good is greater and more complete than the individual’s without qualification. Rather, we may read the infinitives as limiting the scope of application of the adjectives: it is a greater and more complete good to attain and preserve. It is not that the city’s good is worthy of choice for its own sake independently of its good for the people who attain and preserve it; it is instead a greater and more complete thing to attain and preserve than the good of any single individual taken on his own would be. The contrast, that is, is not between an agent’s interest in his own welfare and his interest in his city’s welfare; it is instead between an agent aiming to benefit one person and an agent aiming to benefit an entire city. If he is thinking straight, an agent who knows how to benefit an entire city and a single individual will rightly choose to benefit the entire city, precisely because benefiting the whole city will do as much good as would benefitting the single individual (assuming that he is a part of the city) and a great deal more good on top of that. We need not read “more complete” here in the precise sense it bears in 1.7, but even if we do, the idea will be not that the city’s eudaimonia is more complete than an individual’s, but that obtaining and preserving the city’s good is more complete than obtaining and preserving the good of some single person. The sensible political expert will not see his own welfare as a mere means to or part of the city’s greater good, but he will rightly regard benefiting a whole city as more worth doing, because it does more good, and thereby more fully actualizes his capacity for virtuous rational action.
Granted that this is the sort of view Aristotle holds, is it right? Some people are inclined to object that even if it allows for, or even demands, genuine benevolence and respect for others, it nonetheless makes our other-regarding reasons too derivative. Surely, some will urge, we just owe it to people to respect and promote their good simply because they are human beings, or persons, or beings-with-interests, or what not, and insisting that respecting and promoting their good must be good for us in order for us to have good reason to do it just taints benevolence and justice with an unpalatably narcissistic sort of self-centeredness. To some extent, I think this objection persuades because many of us have encountered people who help others less out of concern for those people than out of concern to prove to themselves and others that they are virtuous, perhaps even superior to others in their virtuousness. I’m happy to agree that if that were the kind of thing Aristotle endorses, he would be urging us to cultivate an unattractive sort of character.
But I suspect that we often overlook the ways in which we benefit directly and non-instrumentally from our own benevolence in part because it comes so naturally to most of us. Excepting sociopaths, most of us often encounter others as people whose well-being is to be respected and promoted quite independently of any instrumental benefits we may gain from doing so. This can easily suggest to us that their welfare has reason-giving force entirely independent from our own. But one way — an Aristotelian way, if not quite Aristotle’s way — to understand our experience of others as to-be-respected is as our attraction to the goods of friendship and benevolence (in their broad senses). To be sure, this is not a good in which the welfare of others is merely instrumental; but it is, I think, a good for the agent. We might find some evidence for this in the extent to which we want and enjoy respectful and benevolent social relations for their own sake. Philosophical literature sometimes suggests that we find these inherently burdensome, because it focuses excessively on cases in which respect or benevolence seems to conflict with some purely self-regarding interest we happen to have. But, to conclude, it seems to me neither implausible nor excessively self-centered to think that rational animals like us benefit in and through respectful and benevolent relations with others and that this benefit supplies us with a powerful reason to cultivate these relations and to resist whatever would threaten them. To complain that this falls short of purely disinterested benevolence is to accept what Rawls, following W.D. Ross, called “the doctrine of the purely conscientious act” (Rawls, A Theory of Justice revised ed., p. 418) — the notion that morally praiseworthy action must be motivated solely by considerations of rightness without any concern for what is beneficial, especially to the agent herself. Rawls rejected this doctrine in favor of the view that we each have a fundamental interest in expressing our natures as rational beings in the form of a commitment to justice, and he is rarely accused of proffering an unappetizingly self-centered philosophy. Aristotle, I think, is no worse off, and perhaps in considerably better shape.