Aristotle: Nichomachean Ethics

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There are too many classic discussions in this book for it to be ignored.  Especially in the chaos of the Social Justice movement, any rigorous discussion of justice is to be welcomed.  That’s not to say that all of Aristotle’s conclusions are good, but the discussion itself is excellent.

There is Aristotle’s famous line that all human activity aims at some end.  This leads us to ask, “What is the good?” He correctly rebuts Plato’s idea that Knowing the Good makes me better at what I am doing.   The one simply doesn’t follow the other.

Specifically, human good is the function of the soul in accordance with virtue.  Further, a good life will aim at happiness (eudamion).  Happiness is a good life and good actions.

Choosing the mean

The good action will be the mean between two extremes.   The problem with this, as Aristotle seems aware, is that it doesn’t apply to some actions.   Aristotle says a just man acts justly. Okay, that tells me how he acts; it doesn’t tell me what justice is.

Book I

The good is that at which all things aim.  The supreme good is eudaimion (unhappily–sorry for the pun–translated as “happiness”).  Happiness is living well and doing well (1095a). But where is happiness located? Not in the Forms, contra Plato, but in an activity of the soul.

Book 2

Moral virtue comes about as a result of habit.  Contra the later Christian tradition, virtues do not arise by nature in us (1103a).  Virtues are modes of choice located in the intermediate between two extremes. The intermediate is between excess and defect.

Book 3

A compulsory action is when the cause of the action is external and the agent contributes nothing.  Anything that is done by reason of ignorance is not voluntary. A voluntary action is when the moving principle is within the agent.

Temperance is a mean with regard to pleasures. It only applies to the irrational (bodily) parts.

Book 4

Liberality and Wealth

Definition of wealth: “all the things whose value is measured by money” (1119 b25).

Justice is complete virtue in relation to others.   There is general and particular justice. Particular justice concerns transactions.  It is an intermediate that implies equality between two. Therefore, justice has four terms: the two people and the two objects.  Therefore, the just is a species of the proportionate. As it is an equality of ratios, it involves four terms (1131 a30).

Rectifying justice: distributes common possessions in proportion. The goal is to restore equality.  What does “equal” mean? It is the intermediate between greater and lesser (1132 a15). Imagine a dotted line of unequal parts.  The judge takes away that which makes them unequal.

Money: there must be reciprocity in exchange (1133 a30).  Money acts as a measure.

Aristotle says that there must be a proportional reciprocity in a just exchange.  But this begs the question: who would knowingly enter into an unjust exchange? In which case, all that can be condemned is simply fraud.

Murray Rothbard summarizes the issues in Book 5:

Aristotle’s famous discussion of reciprocity in exchange in Book V of his Nichomachean Ethics is a prime example of descent into gibberish. Aristotle talks of a builder exchanging a house for the shoes produced by a shoemaker. He then writes: ‘The number of shoes exchanged for a house must therefore correspond to the ratio of builder to shoemaker. For if this be not so, there will be no exchange and no intercourse’. Eh? How can there possibly be a ratio of ‘builder’ to ‘shoemaker’? Much less an equating of that ratio to shoes/houses? In what units can men like builders and shoemakers be expressed?

The correct answer is that there is no meaning, and that this particular exercise should be dismissed as an unfortunate example of Pythagorean quantophrenia (Rothbard, Austrian Perspective on Economic History Before Adam Smith, 17).

Aristotle argues that there must be an equal ratio between the two objects in the exchange, but this is impossible to determine with dissimilar objects.  It is precisely because they are dissimilar that persons A and B do not view them as equal.

Book 8

His take on friendship is interesting.  It was later perfected by the Christian doctrine of koinonia.


One thought on “Aristotle: Nichomachean Ethics

  1. Pingback: Natural Right and History (Leo Strauss) | The Correctness of our Sentiments

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