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Sunday, November 02, 2008

on nicomachean ethics

In Nicomachean Ethics Book I, Chapter 1, Aristotle declared that “Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim.” In other words, the activities humans engage in are aimed at some end that is considered good. The inference that there is a single Good at which everything aims is valid because human activities are only means to the ultimate activity that is the highest human good. Said to be happiness, this idea of the highest end for all human behavior has the ethical advantage once accepted because humans will pursue happiness not as a means to an end but already as an end in itself. By seeking happiness for its own sake, humans will be guided by Ethics on how best to attain it.
According to Aristotle, eudamonia is a person’s goal in life and if the person pursues it correctly, he lives well because he behaves virtuously, or acts with virtues for motivation. As mentioned above, eudaimonia is sought for its own sake instead of as a means to an end. In Book I, Chapter 4, happiness is deemed the ultimate goal of a human life. This implies that it cannot be temporary, suggesting too that it takes a lifetime full of virtuous actions to be able to achieve happiness. There is no guarantee of attained happiness until one dies, as stated in Book I, Chapter 9, when others are able to assess whether that faded life ha been happy during its earthbound existence. This eudaimonia is complemented by good fortune because not all people, however virtuous, gain it—they are in fact denied it because good fortune delivers the goods needed albeit insufficiently for a happy life.
The study of Ethics, nonetheless, is not necessarily precise because many things depend on specific contexts. Hence, in Book I, Chapter 3 and Book II, Chapter 2, Aristotle stated that such interrogation is not precise, at best, since virtue is not a rational set of laws but a set of internal dispositions. Therefore, looking for “too much precision” becomes impossible given the lack of absolute laws of conduct to be followed confidently. As said, specific contexts change from situation to situation, so there are no fixed rules but only observed right conduct that resides between two extremes: excess and deficiency. This virtue residing in the middle of such extremes is a mean that changes from one person to another, so absolute rules do not exist regarding the happiness attained by a person who has the natural disposition to behave in a right manner.
Aristotle emphasized recurrently that ethical virtues are imbued through habit rather than by words. A person acquires them via good ethical teaching and once one has imbibed them, one is ready to appreciate the philosophical reflections. Hence, ethical lectures will only be wasted on the young, according to Book I, Chapter 3. It is easy for a non-virtuous man to look like he is otherwise, because he can readily pass for a virtuous one just by imitating the latter’s words somewhat sincerely, and he does believe he is capable of believing his words. The capability, nonetheless, is not as deep as a genuinely virtuous person’s. The youth may have heard words on ethical arguments compelling enough to believe in but not adequate to teach the underpinned principles. One’s soul cannot obtain the words only by listening and believing in them. One must inculcate the ethical words by recurrent actions only, through a continuous ethical learning.
Making a lot of money is not in itself the good life because that human activity is only a means to other ends like having the material capacity to buy things, being mobile and becoming influential. Hence, making money is not teleological, or end-directed. The ultimate human good is not fulfilled until the activity of making money uses yet another means to get to happiness. Besides, making money connotes success and fulfillment on the material level only, so people who become happy with it is just happy because they possess an imperfect look at the good life. A Perfect view of a good life states what a happy life is composed of, and people who find happiness at making money runs the danger of having virtue deficiency, leading to their detour from the true meaning of happiness.
The good life is necessarily the rational life because when one thinks of putting himself in the midst of the mean of two extremes instead of the deficiency or excess itself, one is reasoning that he cannot afford to be involved in the bad behavior of vice. Instead, he reasons that the only way is to be virtuous since this is what will bring him happiness, success and contentment. Reason means being prudent in placing oneself in one’s relative middle ground, aware of the instructions made on him about logos and practicing the same in the right manner in the right time in the presence of the right people in the right circumstances. An activity is rational when it is thought of prudently, with consciousness that one should not go toward either extreme for fear of falling into a vice. There is an awareness that the end goal should be happiness, which should not be used any more as a means to get somewhere else. Virtues are rational because they are mental dispositions regarding which actions right actions and emotions should be performed by one.
Book II, Chapter 6 states that virtue is “a settled disposition of the mind determining the choice of actions and emotions, consisting essentially in the observance of the mean relative to us, this being determined by principle, that is, as the prudent man would determine it.” The Greek original “arete” is close to the meaning of “excellence,” because they refer not only to one’s moral and intellectual virtues, but also to any other type of excellence. It is a natural disposition wherein one resides in a mean between the extremes of deficiency and excess, as stressed in Book II. Also, it is exclusive to humans who may excel in things that animals, plants and objects cannot. The virtues of thought (intellectual, wisdom, sophia, intelligence) and those of character (moral virtues) are acquired via indoctrination and over time through constant practice, in that order. While all humans have potentials of becoming morally virtuous at birth, the training to be virtuous rests on their behavior.
As already mentioned above, virtue is the mean between the extremes of deficiency and excess. It changes from one person to another, so it rests on one’s observation to check whether there is lack or much of a good thing. A person’s balanced state means his body temperature is neither too hot nor too cold. This perfectly analogizes ethics in that a character should not reach the extremes because equilibrium has everything right, from feelings to time to things to people to end to way. Also, the mean to be pursued must be relative to people. Because mean changes from person to person, it means there is a relative mean for everybody. Lastly, all virtues may be found in the middle of two vices. Hence, it represents the mean that mediates the two extremes of vices. If all these things are done in proper moderation, then a person lives a virtuous, happy life.
Modesty is the mean between meekness and arrogance. If one is humble by habit, one is found in the middle of being too meek that one is not prodded into participation and of being too arrogant that one gets to annoy everybody around. One should neither be too meek nor too arrogant, because these extremes will leave someone socially unacceptable. With moderation, one can be modest and win friends in effect because people will like one for being approachable, and for being conscious of what he knows and owns without necessarily flaunting these.
Pride is the right to claim what is due a person. It means having the correct disposition over honor and knowledge of what one is due. Pride is not a vice because its one extreme, humility, can turn false because it does not seem to want the honor due a person. The other extreme, vanity, causes a person to boast what one already has without waiting for others to heap on that person what is due him. Vice involves willing bad behavior, and since pride is far from turning into false humility or into boastfulness (being in the just state—the mean), it can only be a virtue whose practice is done in goodness.

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