Lesson Page - Aristotle on Ends, Activities, and Goods

Ends and Activities:

Aristotle begins his Nicomachean Ethics with a key passage about activities and ends - the goods that these activities are oriented by and towards.

Every art and every investigation, and likewise every action and every choice seems to aim at some good.

Every purposive activity that we human beings engage in, desire, do -- and also the organized ways of carrying out, teaching, organizing such activities, what we call arts, crafts, sciences, disciplines -- all of these are done by the people who are doing them for some reason, with some goal in mind, on account of some desired object or outcome.

The four terms that Aristotle uses here in this passage are important ones in his practical philosophy.

  • Techne - art, craft, or skill, often understood as a kind of disciplinary knowledge that results in producing, making, or fixing something. Medicine is an example of a techne, as is carpentry, and rhetoric. Aristotle will discuss this further in book 6.
  • Methodos - this is a term that can be translated as study, inquiry, investigation, or other similar terms. We should understand what Aristotle himself is leading us through in his works to be an example of such a methodos.
  • Praxis - this is a term with a wide range of meaning, often rendered as action or act. It can also refer to a pattern or process of action as well.
  • Prohairesis - another tricky term to translate adequately, this can encompass a range of choices and commitments from individual choices in specific situations all the way to lasting, habitual patterns of choice (like virtues and vices, which Aristotle later says are prohaireseis). Aristotle will discuss this further in book 3.

So, Aristotle is saying that the entire range of human activity is in one way or another involved in the pursuit of some goods that provide an end, a goal, a telos. These ends can be quite diverse, and typically for any given person there will be a number of them in play at any given time.

There are also some important differences to be pointed out. Some of the activities or involvements we engage in, attempt to get involved in or do, or at least intend do not have an end outside of their own activity. Other ones do, and are done precisely to bring about something else as a result. Consider playing chess, for example. A person might play chess regularly, improving their game through practice, because of the enjoyment playing the game brings. Alternately, in a society in which chess-playing is a financially well-compensated activity, a person might play chess primarily to earn a good income.

Let's take a very concrete example that has come up with my students in previous classes in which I taught Aristotle. If I were to ask them "why you are reading Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics right now and for the next several hours?", they might give me a variety of answers, like:

  • It's the assigned reading for the next class session.
  • I want to understand what Aristotle says about this topic.
  • I need to pass this class.
  • I like reading books, and this is something I haven't read yet.
  • I'm trying to give myself something to do besides partying again like last night.
  • I enjoy reading Aristotle.
  • I'll need this stuff when I have to make decision later on down the line.
  • I hate philosophers, and I'm putting together a comedy skit about them, so I'm looking for material.
  • I think that reading Aristotle will help me make friends and destroy my enemies.

Notice that each of these says why that person is reading Aristotle, and all of them connect reading Aristotle with other things in the wider matrix of a human life.

Some of these answers reflect evaluations of the activity "reading Aristotle" that view its value primarily in getting something else -- being prepared for class, gaining pleasure, keeping oneself busy, preparing for one's later career -- even rather off-base imaginary ones (Aristotle is not likely to help you in destroying your enemies!).

A few of them reflect the view that reading Aristotle is an intrinsically worthwhile activity, one that is valuable not just by what else it provides but instead on its own account, one that might be a component of the good life for a person.

In each of these cases, in giving an answer to the question, "Why are you reading Aristotle?", in answering you are identifying an end, a goal, a purpose of your activity. You are indicating something you desire, something you want, something you consider good.

It's very important to ask ourselves why we are doing the things that we do. Oftentimes we can lose sight of the actual original purposes of our activities. Or we can get mixed up about them. We might also never realize what they are if we started doing them simply to get something extrinsic to the activity, but important to us at the time -- a sense of accomplishment, pleasure -- or relief from pain -- approval from others, perhaps even dissaproval from or annoyance to certain others. These may not be the best reasons to engage in the activity.

This brings up another point. It's not just important for us to ask ourselves why we are doing - or planning, or intending, or desiring - to do the things that we do. It's equally important to ask why one - why people in general - do those things - to get away from just our own individual perspective and to think about these things in a more universal perspective. Each kind of activity has its own characteristic goals, products, purposes. That is, each has its own ends.

Subordinate And Ruling Ends and Activities

So as human beings, we have a vast variety of activities, skills, inquiries, choices, and so on. Making the picture even more complicated, so does everyone else. We inhabit an environment that, if we stop to examine and analyze it, is filled with the intentions, purposes, and desires of ourselves and of other people.

There are also many of these matters that we share in common - in whatever way or to whatever extent they admit of that. In speaking about various arts or sciences, we make reference to a body of knowledge (or at least know-how) that multiple people can recognize, employ, becomes expert practitioners of, and so forth. We can say similar things about actions and choices. My own action of trimming my beard, for example, falls into a general class of actions that all sorts of people engage in, whatever we like to call it - hair care, personal hygiene, fashion, or something else.

There is still a vast variety of actions, arts and sciences, and choices, each of which has its own distinctive goods at which it aims. Aristotle is particularly interested in how these various matters, and the goods they aim at, can be - or in most cases are - related to each other.

Some of the specific arts, sciences, or activities that Aristotle discusses are rather removed from our own present-day culture - for example harness-making, horsemanship, and the like. But the general point that he is making is one that we can easily apply to the vastly more numerous specialized activities and expertises in our own experience.

Looking at goods in one perspective, Aristotle notes that there are diverse ends - the distinctive goods - for these different activities or disciplines:

  • Medicine has health as its general end
  • Shipbuilding has as its end the ship as a product
  • Strategy or Military Science aims at victory
  • Economics or Household Management focuses on wealth

In addition to those particular arts and sciences mentioned in the Nicomachean Ethics, there are many others which have their own distinctive purpose, product or goal. Rhetoric, for example, has as its goal, producing persuasion in an audience.

What do these activities and ends have to do with each other? Perhaps in some cases, nothing. In other cases, it may be the case that some goods have to be subordinate to or sacrificed to others, if they cannot all be enjoyed together - for instance, when one has to decide between the good of medicine and the good of military victory.

Looking at goods in another perspective, it becomes possible for us to arrange ends and activities in relation to each other. Some are subordinate, and some are ruling, or architectonic (coming from the term "arche", rule, and "tecton", craftsman or maker).

So, for example, in a certain sense, Military Science is an architectonic discipline, encompassing all sort of subordinate disciplines under its scope. In doing so it also encompasses the characteristic ends of the subordinate activities or disciplines. So, while horsemanship might be something a person could engage in or learn for its own sake - they like riding horses - when considered in relation to Military Science, horsemanship, and its end (perhaps riding horses well, getting to the place one wants to go) are brought into the nexus of military affairs.

Aristotle maintains that, instead of there being a multiplicity of equally top-level, or final, ends for human activities, there is actually one main, most encompassing, end. This would be the supreme good - and he discusses in great detail later in book 1. The question that he asks early on, within the context of ends, activities, and disciplines is instead this one: Which of the various arts or sciences would that final end, or supreme good, be the object? Put in another way: Which of the arts or sciences has the final, most encompassing good as its main goal and occupation?

Here in the Ethics, Aristotle identifies that science as the most "authoritative" (architektonike) of the disciplines, and he calls it "Political Science" (he politike). We must be careful not to imagine that by this he has in mind simply what we tend to call by that name today. He means instead a kind of inquiry that focuses upon human beings living in communities with each other, focused on questions such as of the nature of the good life, the ways to attain it, conflicts that will arise, priorities that have to be decided, etc.

Why is this particular science or discipline the ruling one? Aristotle gives several reasons:

  • Political science determines which of the other arts or sciences exist in the political community. It also determines which persons study or practice which arts and sciences.
  • The other high-level disciplines, including military science, household management, and rhetoric are subordinate to political science. Their specific ends - the goods they aim at - are ultimately for the political community's benefit.
  • The good of human being as such lies within the domain of political science, since the good of the political community is greater than the good of an individual human being.

These points might seem rather contestable when taken as applying universally, but as we shall see in further sections, Aristotle does not construe them in that way.

Arranging or Ordering Ends in One's Life:

It is also important to map out how activities, ends, and means are connected with each other. Many - in fact most - of the activities we and other human beings do, they do not for their own sakes (i.e. for an end internal to the activity) but for the sake of something else. Often, one activity is done for the sake of another activity which incorporates and encompasses - or which relies on the product of - the first activity.

One example of this is the sort of work that one does primarily in order to earn money or to provide for the necessities of life. People go to work, and put in their hours doing whatever they do -- that type of activity, or activities (the work might be quite complicated and involve a whole set of activities) - and they attain their end: a paycheck, with which they can pay for the things necessary for their lives. At this point, we are talking about living - not yet living well.What do you do, once you're off work, when you're fed, housed, clothed? What else do you do with your time? What does having provided for yourself allow you to do? For some people, their picture of the good life, of living well, is eating chips and drinking beer while watching TV shows and movies, and playing video games. Those are indeed activities, whose ends are the pleasures which they bring. And, making those pleasant activities possible is the end of the activity of working. one might also work to provide money so that one can pursue an education and for the end of acquiring knowledge.

Notice that different people can arrange means, ends, and activities differently. The same person can even change their own ordering of goods - perhaps rearranging them for the better, as when one realizes one has made a mistake and reprioritizes goods, desires, and activities - or perhaps rearranging them for the worse, for instance when one becomes addicted to a drug, or when one allows work and the pursuit of money, previously done for the sake of better, more satisfying goods, to become the driving goal of one's life.

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