BMCR 2007.02.14

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics: An Introduction

, Aristotle's Nicomachean ethics : an introduction. Cambridge introductions to key philosophical texts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. xvi, 342 pages ; 23 cm.. ISBN 0521817420. $27.00.

Michael Pakaluk’s book is meant to serve students who are encountering Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics for the first time, and it is in every way a success. It would be an excellent selection both for undergraduate and graduate seminars. In fact, because Pakaluk has fresh and interesting things to say about the entire range of topics treated in the Ethics, it is a book that even those who have already carefully studied this treatise will profit from reading. He is familiar with a large body of secondary literature, and often the readings he proposes follow, at least to some extent, the leads provided by other scholars. But that is not always the case, and in particular his reading of Aristotle’s theory of friendship is, in many respects, distinctive and original. (This is no surprise: Pakaluk has written a translation and commentary on Books VIII and IX of the Ethics.) But he also has his own ideas and writes insightfully about every other part of Aristotle’s work. He writes in an engaging way, but without dumbing down or over-simplifying. He is, with few exceptions, on Aristotle’s side; that is, he constantly looks for ways in which Aristotle’s arguments and his whole approach to moral philosophy can be defended. And often the brief he offers on Aristotle’s behalf is clever and thoughtful.

Here is an example, selected almost at random, of the way Pakaluk addresses students who might be skeptical of the value of the Ethics. Aristotle holds that courage is a virtue whose most valuable manifestations take place on the battlefield. Pakaluk rightly asks, “Is it not arbitrary to take [military valor] as a goal that pertains to every human being? Why should not courage be defined relative to something more common, or which is a part of ordinary life?” (162). Perhaps some would respond: “But Aristotle is simply reflecting the common sense of his time, and should not be faulted for doing so.” But Pakaluk instead asks the reader to consider “the manner in which we speak. As a matter of fact, we liken other sorts of courageous behavior to the case of heroic action in battle, but we do not do the converse, and this suggests that the latter is central and primary” (162-163). For example, as Pakaluk then notes, we might urge a cancer patient to summon his courage by likening his struggle to a battle against an enemy force; but we are less likely to urge soldiers to summon their courage by likening the difficulty they face to a dose of chemotherapy. Of course, this is not an argument Aristotle himself advances, but it certainly has an Aristotelian flavor in its appeal to our ordinary ways of speaking, and in its distinction between paradigmatic and derivative usages of words.

Pakaluk then advances a second argument, which is a certainly a much better explanation of why Aristotle himself thought military courage so important: “human beings are intended by nature to live in city-states” and “any other city-state besides one’s own . . . is potentially a competitor and aggressor” (163). Pakaluk might have added that Aristotle’s emphasis on the political value of courage is only one of the many ways in which his treatise is designed as a prolegomenon to political philosophy. His omission of that obvious point reflects his tendency not only to refrain from reading the Ethics as an expression of its time and place, but also to de-emphasize the political framework that Aristotle constructed for his treatise — that is, its announcement that it is a political treatise (Book I, chapter 2) and its concluding argument (Book X, chapter 9) that the practical value of the foregoing lectures depends on their having application to political institutions. (There is no discussion in Pakaluk’s book of that concluding chapter of the Ethics.)

Many philosophical students of the Ethics reasonably treat “the function argument” of Book I chapter 7 as one of the central moments of the treatise, for it is here that Aristotle begins to lay out his distinctive answer to the question, “what should be the ultimate goal of human endeavor?” Pakaluk rightly gives careful attention to the details of the argument, and advances a sympathetic reading of it. “How plausible is the view that human beings have a function?” he asks (76). “To believe some such thing, must we also be committed to a teleological framework, such as Aristotle’s philosophy of nature?” (76) He suggests, in reply, that we can see some plausibility in Aristotle’s whole approach by reminding ourselves that we often assume that people who can excel in some area — who are talented in music or sports, for example — should not leave their talent undeveloped. “The Function Argument can similarly be understood in this sort of intuitive way, but now with respect to the ‘talents’ of the human race as a whole” (77). Aristotle is no doubt right to hold that the under-development of reason is a great loss for any human being (that is one reason why childhood malnourishment is a tragedy), but it is difficult to accept his much stronger thesis that the fullest development of reason is the ultimate end of human life. (To revert to Pakaluk’s analogy: even if a child has a special talent for chess, that by itself does not show that being a good chess player should be his highest goal. Does it even support the conclusion that he should cultivate this talent at all?)

Another question that can be raised about Aristotle’s way of thinking about ethics is whether he licenses or even requires an unseemly dose of self-love. It is part of our common sense outlook that there are times when one should accept some diminution in one’s well-being — namely when such self-sacrifice is required by one’s duties to others, or brings about a sufficiently great increase in their good. But one cannot find in Aristotle’s writings any clear instances in which he admires or even condones giving up something one knows to be in one’s own interest for the sake of the welfare of others. That is one of the major differences between Aristotle’s ethical theory and such modern alternatives as utilitarianism and Kantianism; and upholders of one or the other of these modern approaches sometimes take Aristotle task for having sought an egoistic grounding for practical thinking.

Pakaluk raises this issue near the beginning of the book, and distinguishes three strategies Aristotle might use for addressing it. He might try to show that no one ever knowingly acts in a way that conflicts with his own good; it might then be inferred that because this pattern of motivation is universal, it cannot plausibly be thought objectionable. Alternatively, he might reject the thesis that one’s ultimate end should be nothing but one’s own well-being. Third, he might hold that in certain relationships — namely, those of best friends — it is “impossible to draw any sharp distinction” between the good of one individual and that of another” (12).

When Pakaluk returns to the problem of egoism in the final pages of his book, he argues that we have no basis for finding fault with Aristotle’s stance. He does not explicitly say which of these three strategies he favors, but if I understand him correctly, he employs both the second and third. Aristotle’s psychology, he suggests (329), does not hold that children are by nature purely self-interested, and his theory of education never suggests that their altruistic leanings must be unlearned and replaced by dedication to their own good as their sole ultimate end. That seems to fit with the second strategy: the idea is that normal children who learn good habits do not give their own good priority over that of others. But Pakaluk then adds: “. . . [Aristotle] regards a human being as originally a private person, with loves and concerns that in the first instance develop within a family, in which the other members of the family are regarded as not entirely distinct from oneself” (329). The first part of the last sentence apparently pursues the second strategy, but the last words — “not entirely distinct from oneself” — seem to adopt the third. But this third strategy sounds puzzling; I myself am unsure what to make of the suggestion that in Aristotle’s analysis of the best friendships it is “impossible to draw any sharp distinction” between their interests.

Does this simply mean that whatever is good for one is also good for the other? If so, there is still a distinction to be made in something’s being good for one and its being good for the other. Or is Pakaluk proposing something more radical — that, according to Aristotle, in the best friendships there is no basis for saying that a joint activity is good for one of the friends and also for the other, because the very distinction between one person and the other has been erased? I doubt that Pakaluk means to attribute that idea to Aristotle. In his discussion of the books on friendship, he takes Aristotle to be saying that in ideal relationships “A’s promotion of B’s good is not constrained by any relationship B has to A, and, in particular, A might promote B’s good even if this were inconsistent with A’s interests” (270). Here Pakaluk takes for granted our normal willingness to make a distinction between the good of one person and of another, and does not take Aristotle to be trying somehow to blur this line. That is why I am uncertain what to make of his third strategy for responding to the problem of egoism. He apparently thinks that Aristotle employs it, but his idea that Aristotle’s theory of friendship countenances acts of self-sacrifice is difficult to reconcile with the thesis that Aristotle blurs the line normally drawn between the good of one person and another.

I am also puzzled by Pakaluk’s discussion of a well-known methodological remark Aristotle makes near the beginning of his discussion of akrasia (lack of self-control). In it, Aristotle announces that his treatment of this topic will proceed in the same manner as in other cases: he will take note of the phainomena (how things appear), go through difficulties ( aporiai), and vindicate as many of the endoxa (reliable opinions) as possible (VII.1 1145b2-7). Pakaluk claims that Aristotle “hardly uses” this method, even in the Ethics itself (236). At any rate, so he claims when he cites this passage in his chapter on akrasia. But in his first chapter he devotes several pages to Aristotle’s philosophical methods, which, he says, are “especially prominent in the Ethics” (25), and among these are saving the phenomena and going through difficulties. How can these philosophical methods both be devices that Aristotle “hardly uses” and also “especially prominent”?

Pakaluk’s discussion of Aristotle’s category of “the fine” ( kalon) is marred by his practice of translating sumpheron as “materially advantageous” (154, 156, 157). There is nothing in Aristotle’s Greek corresponding to “materially,” and Pakaluk offers no justification for his translation. He takes Aristotle to be saying that justice in the general sense (as opposed to justice as equality) is a “spurious virtue, . . . and not one of the virtues of character” (188). That goes far beyond anything Aristotle says, and it is not clear what justification Pakaluk has for dismissing general justice in this way. Aristotle says that this quality consists in being lawful ( nomimos), and that is not a term that figures at all in his discussion of any of the other virtues. This distinguishing feature of justice in the general sense (its unique tie to lawfulness) is a reason to count it as a distinct and genuine virtue, in Aristotle’s eyes, just as justice in the narrow sense is a separate virtue (because of its tie to equality).

Pakaluk takes Aristotle to believe that “we either affirm that we are responsible for our character, or we make nonsense of human action and indeed all of ethics” (146, see too 144). Aristotle of course does believe that we are responsible for our character, but Pakaluk is making a much stronger interpretive claim than that: he is saying that, according to Aristotle, if we are not responsible for the formation of our characters, then we cannot be held responsible for anything we do. That is an assumption that many readers bring to their reading of the Ethics, but it is far from clear that it can be found in the text. It has been challenged by one of the works Pakaluk cites at the end of his chapter on Aristotle’s discussion of voluntary action (S. Meyer, Aristotle on Moral Responsibility). But Pakaluk gives his readers no indication that his reading is controversial.

It is not possible to write an interesting book about Aristotle’s moral philosophy with which all readers will agree. My complaints are small, in comparison how much I find to admire in Pakaluk’s book. Those who are looking for a highly accessible introductory work on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics could not do better than this.