Happiness, Function, Morality, and Virtue
Aristotle argues that happiness, function and morality are closely connected and that virtue is dependent upon all of them. To fully comprehend Aristotle’s theory, we must first examine each of these qualities and then determine how they are related to one another. The deliberation process will show that all of these qualities can be strongly connected, but not exclusively. Happiness, function, morality and virtue can exist independent of one another.
The first deliberation is to define happiness. Happiness is the highest of all practical goods identified with “ living well of doing well”(100). According to Aristotle,
Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim. But a certain difference is found among ends (99).
An example of this reflection would be the final product created by an architect. This individual completed building a structure from start to finish and has reached the end of the project. The architect is pleased by the results of what she created. The architect achieved the desired outcome and is therefore happy. A difference between the actual end and the desired outcome is what makes happiness different for each individual. All ends do not lead to happiness. For example, finishing a painting makes the artist happy but not the autoworker whose preferred end is making vehicles. The fact that not all human beings share the same ends proves that happiness is found at different ends. Aristotle illustrates happiness as being the “chief good”. In the following quote he explains that rational human beings take happiness for itself and never for any other reasons:
Since there are evidently more than one end, and we choose some of these…for the sake of something else, clearly not all ends are final ends; but the chief good is evidently something final. (103).
By this definition, happiness must be only the final end, which is the “chief good” (103). This means that happiness is the pursuit of all that which is desired, and the desire is to reach the final end. If the end is final it becomes the “chief good” (103). In Aristotle’s own words he says, “Happiness, then, is something final and self-sufficient, and is the end of action”(103). To say that happiness is the only chief good is not completely true. If happiness is the only chief good than what is our function as human beings?
Aristotle associates functioning well with happiness and happiness is the final result. He says that the function of human being is, “…an activity of soul which follows or implies a rational principle…”(103). Human beings must have the ability to exercise their capacity to reason in order to function well. Reasoning is the key factor in making decisions. Human beings use reasoning to decide what choices to make in life. The outcome of the choices humans make is what creates desire. As a result, desires are what determine the “chief good” (103). If the chief good is happiness, than the function of human beings and reasoning must also be happiness. One will stay on the path towards happiness if reasoning is used as a function of life.
Having virtue is an essential part of the equation that sustains happiness and the ability to function well. Rather than taking detours down paths of deficiency and excessiveness, one may use reasoning to become a virtuous person. By staying committed to the path toward happiness, one is considered virtuous. Aristotle claims that the, “virtue of man also will be the state of character which makes a man good and which makes him do his own work well”(111). If the above statement is true than only virtuous human beings are happy and if they are happy than they must also be functioning well.
Aristotle then divides virtue into two separate areas: intellectual virtue and moral virtue. He says that moral virtue is the result of “habit”(108). If moral virtue is “habit”(108), it cannot be “nature”(109). Let us bring this to a deeper level. Gravity by nature pulls everything to the earth’s surface at a fixed rate. This rate can never be changed by the habit of something else. For example, no matter how many times running water is diverted from its original path to the lowest point, the laws of physics will always prevail. The running water will once again find its path to the lowest point. This proves that any sort of habit cannot change nature. However, intellectual virtue comes from what is taught and learned throughout life by habit. Aristotle’s example of intellectual virtue is made clear when he says, “…legislators make the citizens good by forming habits in them, and this is the wish of every legislator, and those who do not effect it miss their mark, and it is in this that a good constitution differs from a bad one” (109). If virtue is the state of character, than the state of character defined by Aristotle is, “what makes a man good and which makes him do his own work well” (111). If it is true that virtue gives people a choice, than Aristotle is correct when he states without doubt that we as human beings could, “…take more, less, or an equal amount”(112).
If a person chooses to stay within the mean than they are “intermediate” or equal. If they choose to “take more” than they are excessive. Finally, if they choose to take “less” then they are deficient (112). Therefore, happiness and virtue are in-between excess and deficiency. For example, if one is excessive in the characteristic of courage than others might view them as being afraid of nothing. If an individual is afraid of nothing than they cannot be happy. People do not always admire absolute courage. There is a time and place for courage. The same can be said for those people who are deficient or lacking courage. In other words, happiness is being intermediate.
Aristotle has some good points when he speaks about the concepts of happiness, but his thoughts also imply that happiness, function, morality and virtue are all tied together as if they are inseparable. He states that happiness is the aim of the “chief good”. Function is the ability to reason, morality is knowledge gained through habit of what is right or wrong and virtue is a state of mind of that which is intermediate. The way Aristotle ties these separate elements together is remarkable and in a perfect world his theory would probably be true. The only down fall to his hypothesis is that this world in which we live is not a perfect one. Even Aristotle says that the “chief good” is the “final end”(100). If this is so, than life cannot be considered happy until it ceases to exist. The ability to reason is not the only purpose of human existence. The main function of human beings is instead the ability to survive with the advantage of being able to reason. Morality is the distinction between what is right and wrong and this distinction is dependent on the individual and the situation. Virtue includes all characteristics that have merit and that are held in high regard.
This deliberation with Aristotle’s theory has proven that happiness, function, morality and virtue are tied to one another in a perfect world. These four elements are also inter-mingled in our non-perfect world, but only under certain circumstances. This is because every human being has their own perception of what represents happiness, function, morality and virtue. Finally, Aristotle says that virtue is being intermediate, but how realistic is it to believe that virtue can only exist for those who always stay with-in the mean? Just as we don’t have a perfect world, there is no perfect human being either.
Newberry, Paul A. Theories of Ethics. Mayfield Publishing Company: California, 1999.
Nicomachean Ethics. 2000. Online. Internet. 22 Feb.1994-1998. Available: