Aristotle believed that ethics was more a matter of character than of following rules. He was more concerned with what a person was than what he did. He realized that to a large extent a person’s character is created by his actions. Yet making one’s actions conform to rules was not the goal of morality. A person can obey all the rules of chess without being a very good chess player. So too, a person can follow all the rules of morality—never lie, steal, murder, or commit adultery—without being an especially good person.
The goal of morality, according to Aristotle, is human happiness. One of the questions that has received much attention from modern moral philosophers—Why be moral?—never arose for Aristotle because he simply assumed that achieving a stable and lasting happiness was everyone’s goal.
Of course, Aristotle understood that there is a wide divergence of opinion among people as to what constitutes happiness—some say it is wealth, others say it is power or honor, still others say it is pleasure. People will only know which of these, or which mix of these, really leads to a life well lived, says Aristotle, by first determining the proper work or function of a person qua person.
The function of a carpenter is to build houses, and the function of an author is to write books. Given these distinct functions, it is not unreasonable to assume that a carpenter would feel frustrated if forced to write a book, and conversely, that an author would feel frustrated if forced to build a house. Each of these would rather be doing that which he or she is uniquely suited to do. Aristotle takes this argument one step further and argues that human beings are happiest when they are acting in accordance with their essential nature.
The essential nature of anything is the thing’s work or function, that is, that which it does better than anything else. Observation reveals that humans are superior to all other animals in two areas, reasoning and social organization. Aristotle does not say that only humans are capable of reasoning. A dog can infer from his master’s facial expression that he is about to be punished. Yet dogs cannot discover, or understand, what is common to all punishments because they cannot know (nous) the essence of punishment. Dogs may be able to communicate with a series of growls and barks, but they are not able to create a language that defines and categorizes things according to their essential natures.
Similarly, while dogs live in packs and exhibit a rudimentary social nature, that social structure is determined by instinct. This tendency is evident by the invariant nature of that organization within a single species. Human social organizations are voluntary, and thus, they exhibit a wide variety of political structures ranging from the monarchical to the...
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