One of the greatest ancient philosophers, Aristotle, is considered the father of contemporary ethics. His book, Nicomachean Ethics, is a well-known ethical text, which explains the moral and intellectual virtues, their nature, principles, and ways of development. This book provides an ancient outlook and ideas, concerned with the human lives in the society. It dwells on the main ethical issues and gives definitions of the moral phenomena. In fact, the study of Aristotle’s ethical doctrines is essential for the comprehension of ethics in general. A great role in Aristotle’s ethics belongs to the definition of the highest human good. This is one of the key points Aristotle tried to investigate and analyze.
To begin with, Aristotle made attempts to discover the moral nature of human beings and society, in particular. From this point of view, he tried to research the highest human good in terms of its profitability and value. In fact, it happened to be a difficult question to answer since it is impossible to name a single item, object or idea, which could be considered the highest good for the whole of humanity. Therefore, Aristotle provided several approaches toward the understanding of the highest good.
On the one hand, Aristotle’s ethics have much in common with theological doctrines. The philosopher supposes that there must be something at the end of life, which is worth living for. This “something” is the final goal of human life and is a priori desirable. In other words, people try to achieve this objective not to satisfy some of their needs but because of its exceptional value and desirability.
The achievement of this “something” does not aim at the satisfaction of some other needs and demands. On the contrary, its gaining is the greatest desire and willingness of humans. From this point of view, Aristotle concludes that the highest human good in necessarily self-desirable and valuable.
Nevertheless, Aristotle himself pointed out that ethics had nothing to do with theology. In terms of this divergence, humans try to achieve the highest good not to understand the sense of life but in order to become more successful and gain new advantages and profits in society. In fact, people are asking for the highest good not to gain knowledge and comprehend its theoretical value. On the contrary, they are willing to utilize this knowledge in practice and reach prosperity and some benefits.
In terms of this approach, it is not enough to look for the highest good among items, things, and objects. Aristotle believes that the list of good things is quite easy to fulfill. Without doubts, many will agree that the good is family, friends, health, wealth, intelligence, kindness and other virtues.
Nevertheless, it is impossible to state which good is the highest one of the above-mentioned goods. Neither can we answer, whether some of these goods are more desirable than the others. In this case, it is more appropriate to ask what is good for people, in common.
In my opinion, such treatment of the highest good is similar to the theological concept as well. It also proclaims the desirability of the highest good and its exceptional value for humans. Aristotle considers that all goods are desirable for their own sake and do not aim at the satisfaction of any other. By saying that, he meant that the highest good is the final and self-sufficient goal.
I suppose that self-sufficiency of the highest good can be explained in the following way. If a person has a desire to reach a certain goal, he or she develops a complicated network of plans, strategies, decisions, and actions, responsible for the achievement of the final good. The more valuable and significant the good is, the more complicated the network of decisions that a person fulfills.
Finally, the achievement of that final good may be considered as the satisfaction of the demand in it. Thus, this good is not used as a tool or means of getting something new. On the opposite, it is considered the final aim, objective and purpose itself.
Apart from the theological treatment of the highest good, Aristotle emphasizes the connection between goods, virtues, and pleasures. In fact, he offers three answers to the question of what is good for humans. This is philosophical, political or voluptuary life. It seems that each of these there variants could represent the achievement of the highest good. Nevertheless, Aristotle argues that the highest good is single in its nature and common for the whole of humanity. Thus, it cannot be reached in various ways.
Very often, we combine the concept of the highest good with pleasures and the state of happiness. Aristotle also implemented the notion of happiness, which served as a translation from Greek “eudaimonia”, meaning “living well”. Obviously, that Greek term had a broader meaning than English “happiness” as it implied the state of general well-being, prosperity and flourishing conditions of living and not just the simple feeling of contentment.
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According to Aristotle, happiness is the state of mind, which occurs in case people follow the virtuous way of living and possess different virtues. In fact, the key to a successful and happy life consists of the virtues, which people can develop and improve throughout their lives. Moreover, people can consider themselves happy if they function and work according to their possibilities, skills, and talents.
In other words, human society works as a whole entity, parts of which serve various purposes. Only the right functioning of every member of the society can guarantee its wealth and prosperity. In fact, Aristotle often emphasized that everyone should have a job for his or her soul and willingness. Moral and intellectual virtues also contribute to the concept of a happy and successful life.
The concept of virtues presupposes the existence of good qualities, which are inherited by humans’ nature and manifested in their everyday behavior. Although virtues are inborn qualities, they can be improved, increased or, on the contrary, lost during life. Thus, it is a task of everyone to take care of their moral development and try to maintain their good qualities at a high level.
According to Aristotle, moral virtues are the key points of a happy and successful life. They result in good actions and behavior. Moral virtues control the humans’ lives and contribute to the development of interpersonal relations as well as to the civilization-building.
Moral virtues also mean adequate actions with no redundancy or defect. For example, eating or drinking too much or too little is an example of a lack of virtues. The virtuous person will eat and drink inadequate and essential proportions only.
The same is true in relation to more profound actions and behavior. For instance, a virtuous person does not steal, deceive, envy or gloat. The behavior of such people causes no trouble and problems for others. In fact, it is very important to maintain good relations with other people and treat them with respect. In such a way, the moral virtues help to make the life happy ad faithful. Thus, we can see that Aristotle’s virtue ethics is closely connected with the concept of a happy life and the highest human good.
There are also many intellectual virtues a person possesses. In terms of the intellectual virtues, Aristotle determines two main concepts: the contemplative and the calculative. Contemplative virtues are concerned with the immortal truths. According to the author, these are truths, which can be discovered in the natural sciences and mathematics and are not connected with human deeds. This reasoning deals with some aspects of intellectual virtues, such as scientific knowledge, wisdom, and intuition.
Furthermore, under the notion of scientific knowledge, we understand logical thinking, inference and “judgments about things that are universal and necessary, and the conclusions of demonstration” (Aristotle 95). Very often, knowledge itself cannot discover the truth. It this case, it is closely connected with the intuition, which helps to reveal the eternal truths.
Furthermore, the concept of the intellectual virtues consists of two more elements, such as prudence and technical skills or art. Aristotle emphasizes that they are also very important for world perception in a proper way. Those features provide practical values of the intellectual virtues and their fulfillment in real life.
Therefore, we can conclude that both moral and intellectual virtues play a great part in human lives. People should pay attention to the development and improvement of their intellectual virtues in order to expand their outlooks and gain a state of happiness.
On the contrary, happiness is impossible in case of wrongdoing. Aristotle determines three main sources of wrongdoing. They are vice, incontinence, and brutishness. Vice is regarded as the opposite of virtue. However, both concepts bear a great resemblance. Thus, they are developed from a young age in the form of habits and practical actions.
The author shows that the incontinent person can clearly distinguish between the good and the evil, and he or she follows the wrong way intentionally. Such people are characterized by a lack of self-control and responsibility. Vice can be observed in inappropriate behavior in society. The difference between those two concepts consists in their nature. Vice is caused by personal character while incontinence is the result of the lack of responsibility and strength.
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Nevertheless, incontinence is easier to cure, than the vice. A person should learn to control his or her feelings and actions in order to get rid of incontinence. Moreover, very often, incontinence is formed under the influence of filthy habits. Therefore, it is necessary to give up all the harmful habits and learn to get pleasure from the right things and actions.
The other way to live happily is to get proper knowledge. Aristotle argues that a person tends to perform bad actions because of a lack of knowledge. Sometimes, people do harm intentionally, even when they have sufficient knowledge. Nevertheless, he is sure that the right knowledge allows people to behave properly and analyzing their deeds morally and rightly. Therefore, we can say that knowledge helps to avoid bad actions and lead a faithful life.
Brutishness is the other form of wrongdoing. This feature does not distinguish between good and bad actions. As a result, a person cannot judge properly about his or her deeds and behavior. In addition, “some brutish qualities are also produced by disease or deformity” (Aristotle 106). In Nicomachean Ethics, we can also observe the author’s opinions about the nature of pleasure. Aristotle argues that pleasure is not a process, but a state of satisfaction, which occurs in case people lead a happy and fair life.
Actually, the concept of pleasures plays a special role in Aristotle’s ethics. In fact, it is twofold and can be regarded from various points of view. On the one hand, it is a state of being completely satisfied, which occurs as a result of the faithful and virtuous life. However, on the other hand, pleasure can be treated as a result of sins and wrongdoings. For example, if some people tend to eat too much, they will definitely feel the pleasure of this process. However, it is not a secret that gluttony is a big sin and quality of the immoral person.
Nevertheless, Aristotle argues that pleasures are essential elements of virtuous lives. To a certain extent, he supposes that the highest human good may lie in pleasures. He explains this opinion in the following way.
According to Aristotle, all living creatures tend to resemble the divine creator. In other words, the lives and actions of all beings are operated, controlled and influenced by the supernatural power, the God. Plants and animals have small possibilities to imitate the behavior of the Creator. They just tend to reproduce themselves and perform primitive activities in order to prove their implication to the supernatural power.
However, human beings are capable of thinking and creating things themselves. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle suggests the idea that happy people resemble the divine being. The state of happiness appears as a result of their faithful life and behavior. Thus, this approach emphasizes the direct connection between humans and God.
Aristotle believes that gods are also able to enjoy the pleasures of lives. Their main pleasure lies in the purity of thinking. The same is true in relation to humans, who also possess the same ability. Therefore, Aristotle sums up that human’ pleasures are in the possibility to imitate divine behavior and think about God.
Such an approach again witnesses the relations of ethical and theological studies. Aristotle points out that pleasures derive from the thought of resemblance of God and humans. Actually, it can be treated as the highest good for humanity.
Additionally, Aristotle supposes that pleasures occur only in the process of the activities and after their completion. In my opinion, the philosopher meant that every good and faithful activity results in positive outcomes and certain kinds of rewards. Pleasure can be treated as satisfaction with the results of a certain work. From this point of view, we can assume that pleasures do not emerge spontaneously. People have to put plenty of effort and time in order to reach this good.
To sum up, one of the main themes in Aristotle’s ethics is the question of the highest human good. There are several approaches, explaining this phenomenon. The great philosopher supposes that pleasure, philosophy or political life can lead to the comprehension and achievement of this good. Moreover, Aristotle believes that the highest good is necessarily self-sufficient and self-desirable. It serves not as a medium but as a goal and final destination. In my opinion, such good is also valuable for humans and significant in terms of understanding the life sense and its purpose.
The question of the highest good is closely connected with the human lives in the society. People possess moral and intellectual virtues, which distinguish them from all other living creatures. These virtues help to reach the state of happiness, which, in turn, leads to pleasures. Pleasure is the result of virtuous action. People can enjoy different pleasures because they are similar to the divine being in terms of thinking and behaving. Therefore, I suppose, it is essential to lead a virtuous and faithful life in order to achieve the highest human good.
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