An Analysis of the Human Good in Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle

In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle hopes to answer the question: what is the human good? However, before doing so he must first explain a framework through which the human good can operate. Aristotle’s ergon (“function”) argument helps to establish this framework. He notes the dependence of a good on its function: “For just as the good …seems to depend on its function, the same seems to be true for a human being, if a human being has some function” (1097b25-29). From this line of reasoning Aristotle must (and he ultimately does) explicitly state what the human function consists of.

Aristotle begins his argument with some logical assumptions derived from his experience with the natural sciences. He claims that living things have certain characteristic activities (functions). Although some of these functions are shared, Aristotle hopes to find one in particular that separates humans from animals and plants. Like plants, humans of course have a component of basic nutrition and growth. And, like animals, humans have sense perception. What then, completely distinguishes humans from animals and plants? Aristotle argues that “the remaining possibility, then, is some sort of life of action of the [part of the soul] that has reason” (1098a3 4). It is important to note here though, what Aristotle means by “reason.” In the human soul, he believes one part of “reason” to be reason strictly speaking (the intellect), and the other to be the non-rationally desiring part. Aristotle’s broad conception of reason entails interplay between the two parts, with the intellect serving as a guide for the non-rationally desiring part. So from these implications Aristotle concludes that the human function, or its characteristic activity to be “activity of the soul in accord with reason or requiring reason” (1098a7-8). Now that Aristotle has fundamentally outlined the human function, he makes an important distinction. He brings up the fact that a function can be carried out in an excellent manner. Therefore the human function (leading a life of reason) can be accomplished in an excellent manner versus a normal one. The word function implies that it can be manifested in varying degrees or intensities. One can then excellently live a life where reason is actively involved in the soul.

What about the human good, and more importantly how does the human function connect with it? According to Aristotle, if something has a characteristic activity, its good lies in the excellent performance of that activity. Therefore, the human good is leading an active life of reason in an excellent way. Although Aristotle’s logic in developing the ergon argument is fairly sound, there are some points of contention. First of all, he assumes that humans have a characteristic activity. Now although this flows from his picture of nature, with living things having respective functions, it is a shaky assumption to make. Moreover how does he know that the human function is not something else? For example, the human function could be one of self indulgence, always giving in to appetitive desires. This might seem a little more implausible than his conception of the human function, but Aristotle does not take any time to address and discount these possibilities. Overall, Aristotle’s function argument is fairly stable. Although it is not perfect, it allows for a well-developed and structured context in which the human good can operate. Drawing from his knowledge of the natural sciences, Aristotle takes a bold step by asserting that the activity of reason in the soul is essentially the human function; this separates us from plants and animals. Most importantly it directs the rest of the Ethics as the concept of the human good attains a secure footing.

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