The Nicomachean Ethics

The Nicomachean Ethics

us to address challenges that arise from alternative views, difficult questions, and dilemmas, and helps us resist the power that mere personal desire, tra- ditional or established assumptions, or prevailing cultural trends can have over our own sense of how one should live.

As we mentioned previously, our main source for such philosophical investigations into virtue is the Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. Although he lived and wrote almost 2,500 years ago, his ideas remain familiar and relevant to us today. We now turn to his text.

5.4 The Nicomachean Ethics Start by reading Book I of Nichomachean Ethics in the Primary Sources section at the end of the chap- ter and come back to this point in the chapter.

Book I: The Human Telos Aristotle starts his discussion of ethics not with an account of right and wrong, but by describ- ing what we aim at in living our everyday lives. Think for a moment about various decisions you made today. Why did you choose to do one thing over another? You may have chosen to get up at a certain time, eat certain things for breakfast, do certain chores, take a certain route to work, and at some point you decided to sit down and read this book.

Aristotle’s first observation is that when we make choices, we have some reason for doing so. Whatever our reasons, there is something all of our decisions seem to have in common: we consider them to be, in some way, good.

Now, you may be thinking, “I’ve made lots of bad choices, including some that I knew were bad when I made them. So Aristotle can’t be right.” But perhaps the “bad” choice was intended to bring you immediate gratification or to avoid some pain, even if you knew that it was only momentary and would lead to more problems later. Or perhaps you simply misjudged a situ- ation and made a choice that turned out worse than you hoped. In either case, though, wasn’t there some sense in which your choice was aimed at something good? If we think it was a bad choice, then it may be because it seemed good but wasn’t actually good, or it wasn’t good overall.

If this is correct, then it suggests that when we make choices, we are, indeed, aiming at some- thing good. This reflection leads us to a further question: what is good? What should we be aiming at when we make choices?

PanosKarapanagiotis/iStock/Thinkstock Aristotle, an ancient Greek philosopher.

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