One of the most influential philosophers who has profoundly impacted modern thought is undoubtedly Aristotle. Among his many contributions, he wrote about an approach to ethics that is different from other philosophers. From Socrates to Mill, ethics or moral right and wrong is determined by one’s actions. The approach is called Principle or Rule-based ethics with its most basic question being, “What should one do?” Aristotle, on the other hand, does not think it is a matter of what one does, but rather what one is. Hence, the question of morality is about what one should be.
“This approach to ethics, which focuses on the kind of people we should be, instead of on telling us the rules we should follow, is now generally called ‘virtue ethics’. It is an approach that focuses on the virtues or character traits of the morally good person” (2). To be a moral person, one must establish the appropriate character traits or virtues, such as patience and honesty. Aristotle pays a great deal of attention to communities and their importance, since it is the place that individuals develop these character traits. He then points out that there is something we devote our lives to seeking, and that something is the reason for living: Our ultimate end.
Our highest end is something we seek in all our actions. It is something we seek for its own sake and for which everything else is a means. After addressing pleasure, fame, and wealth, all of which many people spend time pursuing, “Aristotle concludes that happiness is the ultimate aim of human life” (3). Having pleasure as an ultimate end where sensual enjoyment is the fundamental purpose of life brings human beings to the level of animals, so Aristotle decided that whatever the highest end is, it must be only attainable by humans. As for fame – to be well liked and respected by others – the end is deemed too superficial. Fame is entirely dependent on other people so it is not something you can have within your self. Hence, the highest end must come from within and be intrinsically good. Similarly, wealth is also a means to something else. In conclusion, Aristotle proclaimed that an ultimate end has two features: 1) It is something we seek for its own sake and which is never a means to something else; and 2) Only happiness is something we seek for its own sake and never as a means. So our highest end is something that by itself makes life worth living. And if only happiness by itself makes life worth living, then happiness is our highest end.
How then do we achieve happiness? According to Aristotle, human beings have a “function” or purpose in life. We will achieve happiness by fulfilling our function, achieving what we are made to do. But what are these specific functions? Aristotle answers that one will achieve happiness by performing one’s function well, which entails acting in accordance to reason. He says the ability to perform one’s function well is a virtue. Most importantly, one must know how to arrive at the mean, which is the mid point between doing too much and not doing enough, going too far and not going far enough, and so on and so forth. So virtue is the ability to use one’s reason to hit the mean. Read More