Virtue and Happiness
Live Like an Aristotelian
If, then, there is some end of things doable in action that we wish for because of itself, and the others because of it, and we do not choose everything because of something else (since if that is the case, it will go on without limit so that the desire will be empty and pointless), it is clear that this will be the good—that is, the best good. Hence regarding our life as well, won’t knowing the good have great influence and—like archers with a target—won’t we be better able to hit what we should?
– Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics I.2
For Aristotle, human beings are end-setting creatures. We seek things for ourselves that we believe are good, and some of these things we pursue for their own sake, while others we pursue for the sake of other things. He appeals to this distinction in the quote above, and it’s the same distinction we’ve seen Plato draw earlier in this course between ends and means.
Philosophers often refer to goods that we regard as ends as “intrinsically valuable” and goods that we regard as means as “instrumentally valuable.” Aristotle recognizes also that the goods in our lives that we regard as ends are tied to certain roles that we identify with or pursuits that we characteristically engage in. As he notes at the very beginning of the Nicomachean Ethics, the health of one’s patient is the end of the doctor, a ship is the end of the shipbuilder, victory is the end of the general, and wealth is the end of household management. What any given human being regards as intrinsically valuable will therefore depend on these roles we occupy.
No matter what roles we occupy, however, there is one end that every human being considers of ultimate intrinsic value according to Aristotle—what he calls our “final end” and “unconditionally complete” (NE I.7, 1097b)—and this is one’s own happiness. By “happiness,” Aristotle is not referring to a life filled with short-term pleasures, but a life of long-term fulfillment: a meaningful life. This is what the Greeks termed eudaimonia, a state of flourishing and being happy rather than merely feeling happy.
Today and for the next seven days you’ll begin to craft your own version of a meaningful life, and you will test Aristotle’s view that virtue is essential to living such a life.
- First, construct a table for yourself with three columns labelled “roles,” “actions,” and “virtues.”
- Now list three roles that you identify with. These may be roles you currently occupy and identify with (e.g. friend, student, sister, citizen, bandmate) or roles you aspire to occupy in the future (e.g. doctor, chef, parent, gardener, police officer). You might find it helpful to consult your desire maps from the Introductory Unit of the course for ideas here.
- Next, describe the actions required for you to succeed in these roles. You will likely think of multiple actions here and some of them may simply be instrumental to occupying the role.
- Now identify the virtues or character strengths for each action that would enable you to do them well. Again, you will likely think of multiple virtues for each action, and some may be duplicates from other columns. If you need a sample list of virtues, you’ll find one at the end of today’s assignment.
- Finally, look over the “virtues” column in your table. Are there any virtues that turn up often or that stand out as ones you particularly identify with and/or want to possess? Circle these virtues or put a star next to them.
Included below are two examples that will give you an idea of what your table should look like.
Sample (Non-Exhaustive) List of Virtues: