Means and Ends

Last week we looked at the distinction between internal goods, external goods, and shared goods. At that time I touched on a further distinction between means and ends in life. Here again Aristotle can be of assistance, because he discusses these matters in his two major books about character and action, which have come down to us as the Nicomachean Ethics and the Eudemian Ethics.

Significantly, for Aristotle these means to an end are not always or primarily instrumental. Indeed, the phrase usually translated as “means” actually denotes “things toward the end”, i.e., good things that enable us to accomplish our ends or goals. Several modern scholars of Aristotle have observed that these good things can be essential constituents or integral components of our ends or goals. Moreover, for Aristotle the goal or purpose (τέλος) of life is a form of characteristic human activity that simply IS living well. Thus for Aristotle eudaimonia (traditionally translated as “happiness” but often more recently as “flourishing”) is not a feeling but an activity.

Consider the example of marriage. For the sake of discussion, let’s define marriage as (ideally) a lifelong partnership in pursuit of the best that life has to offer founded in mutual love, respect, dialogue, and compassion. Imagine that someone who is offered the possibility of that experience were to say: “that sounds great, but what’s in it for me?” The implication is that it’s not enough for such a relationship to constitute an essential component of their flourishing existence; they want the relationship to provide a guarantee of their own personal pleasure and satisfaction.

From an Aristotelian perspective, this is incoherent. Because we are social animals, the presence of such a relationship in one’s life is directly fulfilling and enjoyable, for it is integral to living the best life for a human being. To view such a relationship in an instrumental fashion is to assume that one’s own pleasure and satisfaction is the primary good in life; that is, it is to accept the ethical philosophy of hedonism. And, in turn, that philosophy is false because it doesn’t do justice to the full range and depth of human activity.

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