15 October 2016

Aristotle and The Good

Most people today consider ethics--when they think of ethics at all--as a set of rules to follow or perhaps ends or goods to be sought. As seen in previous posts, Aristotle primarily considered ethics to be a matter of character. Indeed, the most accurate translation of the title of his book Nichomachean Ethics is Character. Aristotle divided the virtues or excellencies possessed by a man of good character into moral virtues and intellectual virtues.

One character trait or intellectual virtue, however, does appeal to modern sensibilities regarding ethics: prudence.

Aristotle defined prudence as  the "formed faculty which apprehends truth by reasoning or calculation, and issues in action, in the field of human good."

According to Aristotle, "it seems to be characteristic of a prudent man that he is able to deliberate well about what is good or expedient for himself, not with a view to some particular end, such as health or strength, but with a view to well-being or living well."

Some philosophers later called this practical reasoning about well-being or living well natural law.

Aristotle did not elaborate on the details of prudence. In his introduction to the virtues earlier in the book, however, he made some observations that help flesh out this virtue of prudence. Aristotle discusses differences of opinion on the motivations of men and what they seek. He notes that "desire . . . is for the end, but whereas some hold that the object of desire is the good, while others hold that it is what seems good."

Aristotle concludes that "perhaps we had better say that the good is the real object of desire but what seems good is the object of desire to each man."

In other words, every man seeks what seems to be good. What every man ought to seek is what is really good.

So how to distinguish apparent goods from real goods? Apparent goods consist of things that men do IN FACT seek. Another name for these is wants. Real goods consist of things ought to seek. Another name for them is needs. Prudence dictates that men seek those things which are really good for them and not those things that only appear to be good for them.

Real goods consist of those things that fulfill human needs. All human beings by nature possess the same species specific properties. They have the same needs. Some of these are physical such as food, clothing, and shelter. Some of these are psychological such as friendship and love. And because all humans possess the same basic human nature, the maxim that human beings should seek those things that are good for them seems to be a self-evident truth that is universal its application. In other words, ethics is not a matter of "to each his own" or exercising one's "right" to live one's own version of the "good life."

This finally brings us to the point of difference in core beliefs between conservatives and liberals: conservatives believe in the primacy of  the good over the right; liberals believe in the primacy of the right over the good.

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