45 - The Second Self: Aristotle On Pleasure And Friendship

Peter continues to look at the Nicomachean Ethics, discussing Aristotle’s views about the role of pleasure and friendship in the good life.

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Further Reading: 

• D. Frede, "Pleasure and Pain in Aristotle's Ethics," in R. Kraut (ed.), The Blackwell Guide to Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics (Malden, MA: 2006).

• C.H. Kahn, “Aristotle and Altruism,” Mind 90 (1981), 20-40.

• A.W. Price, Love and Friendship in Plato and Aristotle (New York: 1989).

• A.O. Rorty, “The Place of Pleasure in Aristotle's Ethics,” Mind 83 (1974), 481-93.

• S. Stern-Gillet,  Aristotle's Philosophy of Friendship (Albany: 1995).

• J.O. Urmson,  “Aristotle on Pleasure,” In J.M.E. Moravcsik (ed.), Aristotle: A Collection of Critical Essays (Garden City, N.Y.: 1967), 323-33.

LizzieMc's picture

Aristotle Interview

Hello All,
Just thought that you might be interested in this. I came accross it as part of my membership. It is a FREE, previously unpublished Aristotle BioView (virtual interview). They give away free material each month and for October, it just happens to be Aristotle!!
All you have to do is join the club, free, easy and they only send out 1 newsletter every month.
Hope you enjoy this 'different' insight into the great philosopher!

Eric's picture

Aristotle and Ayn Rand on Ethics

Thank you, Professor Adamson for doing this podcast. It’s interesting to hear about the philosophers that aren’t commonly discussed.

Today’s philosophers still occasionally reckon with Aristotle, but, as interesting and attractive as parts of his ethics are, it is clear that modern philosophers don’t take his ethics as all that relevant to their own thinking, let alone as definitive. This is, in part, for good reason. Aristotle leaves the question of the ultimate origin of morality unanswered when he just assumes that the essential identity of everything in the world carries with it a “should.” But what “should” a rock do, in regard to morality? When is a rock good or evil?

He also doesn’t really connect rationality to practical virtue, or virtue to eudemonia, in any solid sense. Rationality somehow leads to virtue, which consists of “moderation” and “whatever admirable men do,” which somehow produces eudemonia. In short, he doesn’t engage in a fully rational, systematic, ab initio study of ethics, and doesn’t provide a convincing answer to the question, “Why do we need morality?”

But, as you mentioned, another part of the reason modern philosophers don’t take Aristotle as especially relevant today is that his ethics are centered on the well-being of the self, or ethical agent. Would you agree, though, that this represents a modern bias? A bias based on the particular, altruistic ethical theories dominantly propounded since the rise of Christianity? In my view, a proper definition of ethics would be simply, “a set of principles and values designed to guide humans’ actions toward the achievement of an ultimate value (end-in-itself.)” To specify at the outset that any ethical actions of ethical agents must be “other-centered,” prejudices the field of ethics with an unsupported premise. Wouldn’t you say that this is something that has to be argued for in the content of the particular ethical theory?

I would say that Aristotle’s view on friendship is definitely on the right track. It is ultimately the self that benefits from what we typically consider healthy, loving relationships. To have a friendship or love affair in which you act for the other’s sake, as apart from your own sake, means that the lover/friend holds no benefit for you, and any desire you have for the lover’s/friend’s well-being is merely a desire to do a selfless duty. Paying for a lover’s facial reconstruction surgery would be no different than paying for the reconstruction surgery of some random drunkard who slipped as he tried to stab you in a bar fight, and both acts should carry the same emotional content.

My view is that Ayn Rand was an Aristotelian philosopher whose thought relative to Aristotle is somewhat analogous to Kant’s thought relative to Plato (really, the ideas we today consider distinctively Platonic.) She brought modern precision, rigor and knowledge to bear on the course of thought that an ancient philosopher started.

In the books, _Viable Values_ and _Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist_, Dr. Tara Smith follows up on Rand’s meta-ethical theory (nature of ethics/source of moral values) and her normative ethical theory that prescribes rationality, and describes how rationality translates into practical virtue.

Smith shows that Ayn Rand provides a solution to the “is-ought gap,” (the factual source of moral values) with an eye towards a natural world that is not teleological, (at least in the sense of serving some overall purpose.)

What do you think of this modern development of Aristotelian philosophy? Has it solved the issues that Aristotle left for future philosophers? Assuming you continue into the 20th Century, will you be covering Ayn Rand?

Peter Adamson's picture

Aristotle to Ayn Rand

Dear Eric,

Wow, there's a lot in that post. Let me respond to it as best as I can:

1. You're right that contemporary ethics isn't generally Aristotelian but actually contemporary "virtue ethicists" like, say, Philippa Foot and Alasdair MacIntyre, draw extensively and explicitly on Aristotle. However you're right that they usually try to do this while avoiding the more general teleological picture Aristotle defends, where there is a kind of "should" or goal-oriented behavior even for things like rocks and trees. MacIntyre tries to locate the source of virtue ethics in social practices, for instance.

2. Your criticism about the loved ones -- that I should treat strangers as equal to myself or family members and friends -- is indeed a problem for non-Aristotelian theories, notably consequentialism and Kantianism. For instance if I am a utilitarian and hence trying to maximalize utility, it should be no different whether I help my mother or a stranger, and I would certainly not be right to bestow N units of utility on my mother if I could bestow N+1 units on a stranger instead. However representatives of these theories have tried to work around this problem, for instance by proposing that in general it is utility-maximizing if people have strong social bonds which might mean preferring our close loved ones to strangers, even if this isn't apparently utility-maximizing in the short run. So to put the point in less technical terms, a world where people are in general nice to their mothers is more utility-maximizing than one where they aren't, so we should be nice to our mothers just in order to further that general goal.

3. Ayn Rand: I don't know a lot about her, but enough to know that she'd make a pretty interesting subject for an episode. But to be honest the idea of reaching the 20th century seems a pretty distant prospect! I've considered various stopping points, like Kant, or even the end of the 19th century, but I find it hard to imagine going on into 20th century thought. Anyway, we'll see, the decision won't be upon me for another 6 or 7 years at least, the rate I'm going!

Thanks again,