Aristotle and the Good Life
Many view happiness as simply enjoying a variety of different activities. Thus, the Good Life is that spent doing the things one enjoys most, whatever those things may be. However, Aristotle disagrees with this view. Aristotle argues one must enjoy the proper things in life in order to live the Good Life. In this essay, I will outline Aristotle’s argument for this position, and will offer a critical analysis of this view. As well, I will offer my own reasons for thinking happiness can be found in most any activity, thereby allowing many people to live the Good Life.
While most will admit there are different degrees of happiness, many also say happiness can be achieved through almost any activity, whether that activity is a noble activity or a mindless activity. For example, we might say that while John and Jackie are both happy pursuing the activities they most enjoy, neither is more happy than the other. Or, we should say there is nothing preventing John from being just as happy doing activity X, as Jackie is doing activity Y. For instance, we have no reason to believe John is less happy playing tennis as Jackie is playing the violin, if those are the two activities each enjoys doing most. This is so, because there is no objective reason to think that playing tennis is more likely to make its practitioners more happy than the practitioners of the violin. This would appear, for the most part, uncontroversial.
However, we have not, thus far, given an example that Aristotle might object to as an activity that is unlikely to result in happiness. But, let us now change the example and say John is as happy at identity theft as Jackie is at practicing medicine. Is there any reason to think John may not truly be happy at stealing the identity of others? After all, through identity theft, John is able to buy all the material things he desires. Not only does it please John to satisfy his material wants and desires, it most pleases John to think that he has outwitted the investigators who are searching for the identity thief. Identity theft makes John feel smart, and it is a boost to his ego. We might think Jackie is more honourable or praiseworthy in her activities as a doctor who heals the sick, but it is difficult to see what our justification would be in saying she is happier at what she does, compared to John and his activities. On the one hand, we can see that it would very rewarding to heal the sick, and thus, this is a good reason to think Jackie would be happy. But at the same time, John seems very happy with his accomplishment of outsmarting investigators; furthermore, he is now able to fulfill his material wants also. Why not think each are potentially as happy as the other?
Aristotle’s answer to this is that we must enjoy the proper things in life in order to be happy; and it is through proper activities that we are able to live the Good Life (1178a5-9). Hence, Aristotle would say John is not living the Good Life by stealing from others, because stealing is not a proper activity. Aristotle’s argument is as follows: 1) proper activities are those activities that best represent or fulfill the unique nature or purpose of humankind; 2) the unique nature or purpose of humankind is found in that particular quality which separates us from other species of beings; 3) that particular quality which separates us from other species of beings is reason; thus, 4) those activities that best express our reasoning abilities are those activities that will allow us to lead the Good Life; therefore, 5) John’s activities are not able to lead him to live the Good Life because stealing is not a proper activity (1098a13-17).
In other words, Aristotle is arguing that humans have a purpose, and this purpose is found in our unique ability to use reason (i.e., of all the species of things, we are the only rational species). Thus, we are fulfilling this purpose (i.e., doing what we were all meant, or built, to do), when we pursue rational activities. From here, Aristotle goes on to argue that the highest good is to live the life of contemplation, because contemplation best expresses our reasoning abilities (1177a11-18). However, Aristotle admits most are not capable of achieving the life of contemplation. But we will not address this issue here, in our brief essay.
In response to Aristotle’s conclusion, I would argue that John is using his ability to reason in his practice of identity theft, and therefore, if Aristotle is to remain consistent, he must admit that in this case, stealing is a proper activity. John has reasoned in the following way: before I began to steal identities, I was very unhappy, and had a low self-esteem. Now that I steal identities, I am able to buy all the things I once longed for, and in addition to this, I am left with a great deal of confidence in my ability to outwit intelligent people. Now that I steal identities, I feel that I am very smart, and I am very happy, and I will continue to steal identities because I believe I will not be caught.
If we admit that John has used reason in his decision to continue stealing identities, it would appear (if Aristotle’s argument for the Good Life is correct) the Good Life could also consist of those activities involving theft; but only if through the theft, the agent is using reason. Thus, it would appear that the Good Life is far more accepting of a variety of activities than Aristotle would have led us to believe. For, if it is true that the Good Life can incorporate stealing, it may also admit of other activities we previously would not have considered being proper activities. Hence, the Good Life may not be as restrictive as we once thought.
However, Aristotle’s argument seems to go wrong when he assumes that reason will lead us to proper activities. I would argue that it is likely, at least sometimes, for reason to lead us, not to proper activity, but to act in our best interest. Sometimes that which is in our best interest is not a proper thing at all. For instance, it is in John’s best interest to steal the identity of others if he can continue to do so without getting caught. For John, this is a reasonable activity to pursue. But if we follow Aristotle’s account of reason (where reason will result in one choosing proper activities) we would be compelled to say stealing is a proper activity. Yet, we would be hard-pressed to find anyone who would admit identity theft is a proper activity. Thus, it would seem that Aristotle has wrongly assumed that reason will lead us to proper activities. Either that, or activities such as stealing really are proper activities.
Aristotle, A New Aristotle Reader, ed. J.L. Ackrill (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987).