Nicomachean Ethics

“The Function Argument” is Aristotle’s proposal that the function of being human is the soul’s aspiration for reason.  Aristotle says,

If we declare that the function of man is a certain form of life, and define that form of life as the exercise of the soul’s faculties and activities in association with rational principle, and say that the function of a good man is to perform these activities well and rightly, and if a function is well performed when it is performed in accordance with its own proper excellence–from these premises it follows, that the Good of man is the active exercise of his soul’s faculties in conformity with excellence or virtue, or if there be several human excellences or virtues, in conformity with the best and most perfect among them (Book I, Ch. 7 PP Nic.+Eth.1098a14-15)

Aristotle’s argument essentially stems from chaos.  It is the reaction to a chaotic world where there are many options but very few results.  He is basically recognizing that it is one’s duty to make rational sense out of the world with which they most immediately identify.  In other words, one must find their purpose, or as Aristotle calls it, their “souls faculties”, and then perform the divine duties of this purpose to the best of their ability.  Therein lies the challenge.

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This final good for human beings is eudaimonia (happiness), which is always an end in itself. (6; 15)”  This statement cuts to the core of his argument basically acknowledging that to strive for good for its own sake is to actualize the good nature of one’s purpose.  He identifies this purpose as happiness.  This is a vague goal, because happiness is an abstract concept, and the exactness of it is entirely dependant on the person pursuing it.  But, key in the statement is the realization that if one does as Aristotle advises and they aspire to perfectly carryout the will of their soul (the work they were designed to perform), than they will committing the most reasonable and rational act.

“To act in accordance with reason is a matter of observing the principle of the mean relative to us (finding the appropriate response between excess and deficiency in a particular situation).”  This denotes an emphasis on moderation.  When Aristotle refers to “the principle mean relative to us” he is acknowledging that everyone is different and that individuals must free themselves first from believing their portions are in association with those of everyone else, second from the desire to overindulge.

Aristotle rejects Plato’s teachings about Forms in his Nicomachean Ethics because he doesn’t believe the otherworldly aspect of Plato’s theory.  Plato assumes that the human mind contemplates a specific object and its abstract eternal form separately, and he sees this as proof that they both exist separately.  Aristotle argues that just because one can separate forms from objects in their mind it does not mean that they are separate.  Aristotle organizes his critiques of Plato’s Forms in a list of six main arguments three of which he titles: (2) Problems in the Current Beliefs About Moral Strength and Moral Weakness, (5) Moral Weakness and Brutishness (6) Moral Weakness in Anger.

In Problems in the Current Beliefs About Moral Strength and Moral Weakness, Aritstotle points out Socrates view that one can not commit an immoral act knowingly.  He talks about the blameless aspect of moral weakness, which he basically opposes and views as opinion.

The problems we might raise are. [As to (3):] how can a man be morally weak in his actions, when his basic assumption is correct [as to what he should do]? Some people claim that it is impossible for him to be morally weak if he has knowledge [of what he ought to do]
Here it is clear that Aristotle basically feels the term morally weak should not be applied to those who have an understanding of their moral responsibility but lack the willingness to accept it.

In Moral Weakness and Brutishness, Aristotle argues that brutishness can not be classified as moral weakness.  He basically constitutes brutishness as habitual wicked acts that aren’t committed in a conscious manner but as the result of disease or cultural tradition.

He describes this best when he says, the female who is said to rip open pregnant women and devour the infants; or what is related about some of the savage tribes near the Black Sea, that they delight in eating raw meat or human flesh…these are characteristics of brutishness (pg 228, line 20-25).  Aristotle is very devout in pointing out that as heinous as these acts are these individuals are in a culture where they have no sense that what they are doing is wrong.  He makes this same connection with homosexuality, which he says is often the product of sexual abuse.

Aristotle’s argument corresponds with his position on the many and the wise in the sense that he is arguing individuals stay true to their personal nature.  His argument pertaining to the many and the wise is basically that the wise are often find themselves in direct opposition to the many.  Their views are always contrary to popular opinion.  This argument would be the rationale behind the initiative for one to go out on their own and follow the path of their true nature as opposed to the crowd.  It is also a good rationale behind questioning the crowd.  It is a message that promotes free thinking.

Ins sum, despite the intent of Aristotle’s argument on function, it does have its weak spots.  Aristotle says, “Every art or applied science and every systematic investigation, and similarly every action and choice, seem to aim at some good; the good therefore, has been well defined at that at which all things aim” (1094a).  The problem with this statement is that Aristotle argues that all things aim at the good which is a decree that everything and everyone has positive purpose.  He also stresses a value in community, arguing to improve the quality of life of those out there living and disregarding those who seclude themselves.

The problem with Aristotle’s statement arises when one realizes he is trying to force a specific type of divine destiny on people.  While it is true that people can be gifted at positive things that nourish humanity, they can also have talents that degrade or bring down communities as well.

Essentially Aristotle might argue that everyone has a function to coincide with the function of society, but it would be arrogant to assume there is no one alive whose sole talent is to earn money, or eat the most hot dogs, or even look attractive.  Essentially Aristotle is arguing that we must lead a life that is influential.  While it is inspiring to imagine that all people have a good purpose in life, society fails to imply the same message.

Work Cited

Nicomachean Ethics: Aristotle with an introduction by Hye-Kyung Kim, translated by F.H. Peters in Oxford, 1893. (Barnes & Noble, 2004)

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