30 augustus 2007


Over Ethiek, Normen en Waarden


Ik schreef eerder op deze plaats over Aristoteles, en ook wel eens over ethiek. Hier is een deel van n noot (van ruim 700) bij Aristoteles' Ethica - waarbij de lezer(es) mg bedenken dat het (tennaastebij) even waarschijnlijk is dat onze premier dergelijk proza over normen en waarden zelfstandig schrijft als dat ik een symfonie van Mozart komponeer. Het blauw gezette is geciteerd naar Aristoteles.

[4] Eudoxus thought pleasure was the good because he saw all things, both rational and irrational, aiming at it, and because in all things that which is the object of choice is what is excellent, and that which is most the object of choice the greatest good; thus the fact that all things moved towards the same object indicated that this was for all things the chief good (for each thing, he argued, finds its own good, as it finds its own nourishment); and that which is good for all things and at which all aim was the good.

Let me first discuss this rather important argument in some detail, and then consider three more general arguments.


In more general terms:

First, there is this argument:

It seems that human beings, like other animals, are naturally attracted by what pleases, and naturally repelled by what hurts, but that even so what human beings and animals like best is not so much pleasure itself but to do what they please. This was very well expressed by Sophocles:

"The fairest thing of all is to be just;
The best to live without disease; most sweet
Power to win each day the heart's desire."
   (Quoted in Bowra, "The Greek Experience", p. 92)

In a similar vein (see [39] in Chapter 1) the Greek inscription at Delos:

 Most noble is that which is justest, and best is health;
       But pleasantest is it to win what we love.

It is not happiness nor pleasure that people seek, but power - the ability to do as they please when they please. And indeed, it is true that the main motive for this is that power gives happiness, which need not be pleasure but may be any feeling of well-being produced by seeing an end one has satisfied.

And it is well in this context to give a clear definition of power: A person a has power over a person b in respect of F iff b has F iff a desires that b has F. This also shows why self-control is desirable, and an end in itself, for if b=a in the definition of power, then a has power of himself precisely to the extent that a can do and achieve as a pleases - which is a condition that is very close to happiness.

Second, there is the argument of note [41]:

There are things people choose for their own sakes, such as knowledge, health, leisure, power, money, reputation, honor and other things that seem to improve our chances, our social standing, or our situation, that are not chosen because of their pleasure or happiness (as judged by the people who do the choosing), even if they may be considerations that enter.

And it is simply a matter of fact, for very many people, that they choose something else than their own present pleasure or happiness, quite possible as that may be, if only for reasons of gain, reputation, fear, egoism, etc. when they are given the choice.

And third, there are the points made earlier:

  • There are things that are valued and things that are pleasurable, and not everything that is positively valued is pleasurable and not everything that is pleasurable is positively valued.

  • People - and presumably also animals - generally do things consciously because of the value or the pleasure they attribute to it.

  • People call good what they hold to be valueable or pleasurable - and there are various kinds of things (activities etc.) men may hold valuable, in various degrees.

All of this seems to me to show that neither pleasure nor happiness, nor indeed any one other specific - kind of - thing or experience, is the good or the end, in any plausible sense, but what people take to be valueable or pleasurable, for their own reasons.

But these reasons are subject to - well: reason and argument, and may be more or less rational, well-supported, knowledgeable, informed, fair, equitable, practicable, realistic, feasible etc. and there is therefore little that is relative about it, other than states of ignorance or prejudice or intelligence - and indeed also moral fairness, honesty etc.

And there are good criterions to measure such arguments by, namely what is scientifically and technology possible or realized, and what is not, and by what is known about human nature, human societies, and human history, and by what is known to be fiction or utopian or well-sounding (political or religious) ideals with bad consequences for many.

And if "The Good" is anything realistic, in general human terms, it must be a humane, free, tolerant, fair and scientifically advanced human society, because this seems to give the largest proportions of humans the best chances to find their own kinds of satisfaction and happiness, and to produce high human civilization while doing so.

Finally, here is a note of mine to Leibniz's New Essays:

People seek to satisfy their desires rather than seek happiness

I noted already on p. 193 that happiness doesn't seem to move our desires, but rather that satisfaction of our desires results in happiness. Also, people do not merely and generally desire "happiness" but satisfaction of specific desires, resulting also in different kinds of pleasure (and lack of pains).

So Leibniz's reply

True happiness ought always to be the object of our desires, but there is some reason to doubt that it is. For often we hardly think of it, and unless appetite is directed by reason it endeavours after pleasant pleasure rather than that lasting pleasure which is called happiness (..)" (p. 199-200)

is correct, but he would have been more correct still if he had said that, then, the object of our desires should not be true happiness but to be directed always by reason, since reason is best able to provide the most satisfaction to our ends.UP


Maar dit was maar een enkel voorbeeldje van een noot van mij bij Aristoteles, al zijn de meeste andere wat korter. Ik hoop dat u het minder tegenstond, verveelde en onzinnig voorkwam als Balkenende's wormen en naarden proza mij.

Maarten Maartensz


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