Before actually focusing on the main details of Aristotle’s Argument, we must pay careful attention to the opening remarks he makes in Book I about the nature of his inquiry. The first important point that he stresses is that the study of the character of human beings is dependent on what a human being is. Aristotle states that that a human is not a “man that lives in isolation, but a man that also lives with parents, children, wife, and friends and fellow citizens generally, since man is by nature a social and political being”.
Humans, in other words, derive their identity and accordingly their moral purposes from their participation in their community, from the interaction with their parents, ancestors, friends, customs, institutions and laws. Because of this, every ethical uncertainty or question must be resolved by taking into account the essential and political basis of human life. If one is to discuss what it is that makes a man good, we have to really be considering which decisions will actually benefit or make the society good.
Aristotle sees that individual as being a part as a part of a large and complex group of people with member of all sorts of capabilities. The purpose of each individuals life is evaluated in relation to the other members of the community. Although different communities live by different rules and strive for different “goods”, is possible to reach an understanding of what moral excellence is in any community by studying what it is that constitutes effective community membership. Another important observation made by Aristotle is the fact that to study human ethics, we must focus on the world around us.
We must focus on the traditions of our community, the accepted theories of earlier philosophers, especially those most famous for their wisdom. These theories we must study, not so as to find inconsistencies in them, but to try to discover what it is they have in common and how they can affect our understanding of what the best way to live is. Aristotle also underlines the fact that everything we learn from the observations we make will be nothing more than an approximate approach for dealing with ethical questions.
Ethics is not an exact science. One last introductory point is that this approach is intended only for those who already have some sense of virtue instilled in them. To understand some of the principals of moral conduct requires some existing sense of virtue. Aristotle then proceeds to explain that all human activities have a specific goal or end to them. Although not much proof is given to back this up, it is essential to his argument because it infers that the nature of goodness is linked to some final destination.
The excellence of humans is linked to their growth towards to some realization of his best nature. Once he has established the notion that all human activities are directed by some final goal, Aristotle proceeds to define the final goal in human life should be. He searches for the most important activity that we pursue for its own sake, something above all other goods. This final goal is happiness. He gives a sense that happiness is derived from success. A full happy life will include success no only and necessarily for oneself, but for all of one’s family as well.
We do not achieve happiness by actively seeking it, but rather by following the pursuit of all the other goods. Aristotle then proceeds to explain that every object, living or dead has a specific function for which it is designed. The excellence of a person will be derived by how well he fulfills his function. Sine a human being is designed above all to be a social and political being, then excellence in humans should be measured by how well they can carry out their political or social roles. By putting together all of the above notions, Aristotle offers his listeners a fundamental moral principal.
A good man is one whose life, which should consist of trying to achieve set goals, is in conformity with excellence or virtue. It is understandable that there is a difference between being successful and being morally good. But the truth is that success must be evaluated in how well it is carried out in a social environment. Since human beings are social beings, their excellence must be rated in social terms. Human excellence is a measure of how well one can contribute to their society. Personal pleasure, honor, or money cannot be the final end to human life.
Although happiness is achieved by striving for these goals, human beings would not be carrying out their function correctly if they were to seek these goals for no one else but themselves. It is in striving to attain these goals for one’s society that humans achieve excellence. I am a firm supporter of putting other people’s needs before my own when making an important decision. Yet this is not a completely unselfish action. My own happiness is derived from instilling happiness in the lives others.