May 7, 2004
Aristotle, McKerlie, Eudaimonia, and Egoism: A Defense of the Egoistic Eudaimonism Interpretation
It is generally accepted that Aristotle's moral theory in the Nicomachean Ethics is egoistic, at least in a formal sense. We are told that eudaimonia is the highest good and therefore we should each aim at our own happiness. Our fundamental concern is with making our own lives realize eudaimonia. This does not specify what eudaimonia involves, but only that we should aim at it. We might call this theory "egoistic eudaimonism."
Dennis McKerlie argues that Aristotle's moral theory is not even formally egoistic. According to McKerlie, by attributing egoistic eudaimonism to Aristotle, we are misinterpreting the text. McKerlie suggests that Aristotle's moral theory is more along the lines of a "self-referential altruistic eudaimonism." His argument revolves around three main claims. The first claim is that in Book I, Aristotle introduces the notion of eudaimonia not as an individual ethical goal, but more as a collective political ideal. The second claim is that chapter 8 of Book IX, in which Aristotle emphasizes the role of self-love in friendship, does not entail any kind of egoism. The third claim is that Aristotle's remarks on friendship, specifically his assertion that a virtuous person loves and values his friend for the friend's own sake strongly suggest that Aristotle does not argue for any kind of egoism.
In this paper, I will attempt to save the "egoistic eudaimonisim" interpretation in the face of McKerlie's objections. I will argue that each of McKerlie's claims is incorrect. His first claim, that eudaimonia is introduced as a political ideal rather than an individual ethical goal, even if it is true does nothing to harm the egoistic eudaimonism interpretation. As to McKerlie's second claim, I will argue that Aristotle's remarks on self-love do in fact suggest a kind of egoism and McKerlie's objections to the contrary are not strong enough to support his claim. Regarding his third claim, I will argue that Aristotle's assertion that I value my friend for my friend's own sake can still be placed within a formally egoistic moral theory and I will back this up with textual support.
In McKerlie's view, scholars misinterpret Aristotle when they treat Book I as a discussion of the ultimate grounds of individual choice. It is thought that in an ideal case, the agent’s deliberation will move through a series of less final or complete ends until the question is ultimately decided in terms of the eudaimonia of the decision maker. But McKerlie contends that "the central application of the notion of eudaimonia is not to the case of an individual deciding what to do with his own life. Eudaimonia is introduced as the goal of political understanding, not as the ultimate end of individual choice. And political understanding aims at the eudaimonia of the citizens of a state, not at the eudaimonia of an individual" (McKerlie 543). Furthermore, McKerlie contends, Book I does not profess to be a discussion of the ultimate basis of rational choice by an individual, but rather professes to be a preliminary account of the nature of the human good. Consequently, Book I does not tell us that perfecting our own life should be our ultimate goal and that moral virtue provides reasons for us to act insofar as it can become part of that project. "Book I makes it clear that eudaimonia is the final good, but it does not make it clear that in deciding what to do I should simply choose the action that will best promote my own eudaimonia." (McKerlie 543). McKerlie does not cite from where exactly in the text he derives this interpretation, but it seems to come from the beginning of chapter 4 of Book I. Aristotle says, "What is it that we say political science aims at and that is the highest of all goods achievable by action? Verbally there is very general agreement; for both the general run of men and people of superior refinement say that it is happiness and identify living well and faring well with being happy" (NE, 1095a15). Aristotle also says at 1099b30, "For we took the goal of political science to be the best good; and most of its attention is devoted to the character of the citizens, to make them good people who do fine actions."
McKerlie points to an interesting aspect of Book I in this respect, though it would be rash to conclude that eudaimonia is introduced solely as the goal of political understanding. Whether Aristotle means it to be the goal of individual choice or a political ideal is somewhat unclear. After he makes his remark about happiness being the highest good at which political science aims, he goes on to examine what individuals regard happiness to be. In addition, the function argument - that happiness is achieved in part by acting in accordance with the proper human function of reason - is clearly an individualistic account of happiness. Of course, the crux of McKerlie’s claim is not to deny that eudaimonia is the good for an individual but rather to deny that what one ought to do is aim only at one’s own eudaimonia as the final end of all his actions. However, McKerlie argues for this claim by pointing out that Aristotle does not introduce happiness in individualistic terms. But this is false. This does not prove McKerlie wrong, but it does create problems for him insofar as he relies on the claim that Aristotle does not introduce eudaimonia in individualistic terms in order to support his greater thesis that Aristotle does not recommend that one always aim at one’s own eudaimonia.
In any event, saying that Aristotle introduces eudaimonia as the goal of political science, as such, is not problematic. But arguing that this entails that Aristotle does not mean eudaimonia to be the ultimate end of individual choice is very problematic. If it is true that political understanding aims at the eudaimonia of the citizens of a state and not the eudaimonia of an individual and if McKerlie is correct that Aristotle introduces eudaimonia as the goal of political understanding, the consequences do not bode well for Aristotle. There are two ways to deal with the claim that eudaimonia is the goal of political understanding and political understanding aims at the eudaimonia of the state rather than the individual. One way is to say that the state is nothing more than the individuals that comprise it. Therefore, if political understanding aims at the eudaimonia of the state, then this can only mean that political understanding aims at the eudaimonia of each and every individual in that state. If we understand things in this manner, then the fact that eudaimonia is introduced as a political ideal does no damage to the egoistic eudaimonism interpretation. Since the state is nothing more than each and every individual that makes it up, each individual should aim at his own happiness. However, another way to deal with the claim is to say that the state is a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts and must be treated as an entity in itself. Therefore, if political understanding aims at the eudaimonia of the state, then it really makes no difference if individuals achieve happiness, but only if the state (whatever that may be) achieves happiness in some holistic sense, perhaps similar to Plato’s three parts of the state working in harmony. This way would do well for McKerlie's argument but this just cannot be what Aristotle means. While Aristotle does seem to suggest in certain places that individuals must be understood as parts of a community, it is an overstatement to say that Aristotle recommends individuals to be the means to the end of some greater entity called “the state.”
McKerlie also contends that Book I does not profess to be a discussion of the ultimate basis of rational choice by an individual. Rather, it is only a preliminary account of the human good. The upshot of this, for McKerlie, is that Book I does not tell us that perfecting out own life should be our ultimate goal. Furthermore, the fact that eudaimonia is the final good does not entail, in McKerlie's view, that in deciding what to do we should simply choose the action that will best promote our own eudaimonia. In some sense McKerlie is correct. Nowhere in Book I does Aristotle ever come out and explicitly state that perfecting out own lives should be the ultimate goal and nowhere does he explicitly state that whenever we have to make a decision in life we should decide based on what will best promote our eudaimonia. But this does little to weaken the egoistic eudaimonism interpretation. First of all, although Aristotle never explicitly says that we should always look to perfect our lives and choose the actions that best promote our eudaimonia, he certainly never explicitly states otherwise. Never does he say anything along the lines of the idea that although eudaimonia is important - being the final good - we should still, in some situations, sacrifice our eudaimonia for the sake of some other goal or for the sake of the eudaimonia of others. And it is worthwhile to ask, since Aristotle posits eudaimonia as the final good and gives an account of the human good in terms of eudaimonia, what else could he mean besides the idea that we should always be looking to maximize our eudaimonia? If it is in fact the final good, what would be the point in denying ourselves eudaimonia? Indeed, from the fact that eudaimonia is the final good and from the fact that the account of the human good is presented in terms of eudaimonia, Aristotle may have simply though it obvious that we should always aim at it in all of our actions. If the aim of Book I is to determine what the highest and final good is, why would Aristotle ever recommend that we not aim at it?
In any event, McKerlie's spin on Book I is not sufficient to ground the claim that eudaimonia is not introduced as an individual's ethical goal in life. To not deny that Aristotle says that eudaimonia is the good for an individual while simultaneously argue that Aristotle does not recommend that we always aim, whether directly or indirectly, at our own eudaimonia, leaves McKerlie in muddy waters. To repeat the point again, if Aristotle does in fact claim that eudaimonia is the highest and final good, why would he ever recommend that we not always aim at our own happiness? If we do aim at the eudaimonia of others, which Aristotle may certainly grant, why would he recommend that we not subsume it within our own eudaimonia if eudaimonia is the highest good?
McKerlie's second line of attack is aimed at chapter 8 of Book IX of the Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle asks, "Should one most love oneself or someone else?" (NE 1168a30). He begins by noting that the common view is that self-lovers are evil, vicious people. "Indeed, the base person seems to go at every length for his own sake, and all the more the more vicious he is" (NE 1168a30). However, Aristotle says, the base person is not a true lover of self. He is sort of a pseudo self-lover, or what we may call a pejorative self-lover. The word "pejorative" is used here because this kind of self-lover is always looking to gain at the expense of others. As Aristotle says, those who make self-love a matter of reproach ascribe it to those who care about nothing but bodily pleasure, money, fame, and glory - and often at the expense of others. Aristotle then notes that the man who is eager to perform just and temperate actions in accordance with the virtues would never be called a self-lover. However, according to Aristotle, this man is actually much more of a self-lover than the vicious man since he awards himself what is finest and best of all, gratifying the most controlling part of himself. We might call this flourishing self-love. The flourishing self-lover is the true self-lover since his life is guided by reason and not whim and since he desires what is fine rather than what merely seems advantageous. Flourishing self-love turns out to be better for the individual than pejorative self-love. Furthermore, since flourishing self-love aims at the fine, it turns out to be better for the entire community. Therefore, Aristotle concludes, a man must be a self-lover if he is to be a good person. It seems that Aristotle takes the position here that self-love is a necessary condition for being a good person.
At first glance at least, Aristotle's remarks on self-love strongly suggest that egoistic eudaimonism is the correct moral theory to attribute to him. The proper conclusion to draw from Aristotle's remarks, it seems, is that as long as "egoism" is understood in terms of flourishing self-love and not pejorative self-love, it is morally permissible for us to be egoists in this sense. But McKerlie does not agree. According to him, nothing in chapter 8 of Book IX amounts to egoistic eudaimonism. McKerlie says that all Aristotle says is that the virtuous man stands more closely to himself in the relations that constitute friendship than he stands to anyone else in those relations. All this amounts to is that the virtuous man is "his own best friend" (McKerlie 543). McKerlie says that the proper conclusion to draw from this is that the good person cares more for his own life than his friend's but not that he only cares for his own life and not his friend's. Since the good person cares for his friend, even though at a lesser degree than he cares for himself, the conclusion is compatible with the idea that the good person cares about the eudaimonia of his friend for his friend's sake. If chapter 8 of Book IX suggests anything, McKerlie says, it is that Aristotle's moral theory "is a kind of self-referential altruistic eudaimonism, not egoistic eudaimonism."
There seems to be a flaw in McKerlie's thoughts on this matter. He seems to implicitly assert that in order for Aristotle to be an egoistic eudaimonist, it would have to be the case that the proper conclusion to draw from chapter 8 of Book IX is that the good person cares only for himself and not his friends. Comments in parenthesis are mine. "The conclusion that the argument leads to is not that the good person is only concerned with his own life (as egoistic eudaimonism would have it?), but that he is more concerned with his own life than with the life of even the closest friend" (McKerlie543). McKerlie's willingness to admit even this much gets him in trouble. If the Aristotelian moral agent cares more about himself than even his closet friend (which I believe, at the most fundamental level, is true) how can any act he performs for his friend be construed as purely altruistic? How can it be that he cares about the eudaimonia of his friend strictly for the friend's own sake, without any relation so his own life? Certainly if the good person cares more about himself than his friend then he will not partake in any grave sacrifices for his friend which is what altruism would require. McKerlie is correct in saying that the fact that the good person cares about his friend in a genuine way though not as much as he cares about himself is compatible with caring about the eudaimonia of his friend. However, McKerlie takes it a step too far when he says that the good person's self-love is compatible with caring about his friend for the friend's own sake in an altruistic manner. Chapter 8 of Book IX might not sufficiently prove that egoistic eudaimonism is the correct moral theory to attribute to Aristotle, but it certainly does not suggest anything like an "altruistic eudaimonism" which almost seems to be a contradiction in terms.
The thrust of McKerlie's argument is in his third claim - that Aristotle's further remarks on friendship in chapter 9 of Book IX count against egoistic eudaimonism. McKerlie points our attention to 1170a13-1170b19 and 1170b7-8. Here Aristotle says that life is good and pleasant in itself and the good person will take joy simply in being alive and furthermore that it is in our nature as human beings to seek excellent friends since excellent friends are good by nature in themselves. He then concludes at 1170b7-8 that just as a man's own being and life is choice worthy for him, his friend's being and life is choice worthy for him in the same way. "The excellent person is related to his friend in the same way as he is related to himself, since a friend is another self." According to McKerlie, Aristotle is saying here that the excellent person values his friend's existence much in the same way as he values his own existence. This is Aristotle's deepest explanation of what it means for a friend to be another self, in McKerlie's view. McKerlie says:
"Aristotle does not say that the friend is another self because I care so much about the friend that the friend's achieving eudaimonia has become indispensable to my achieving eudaimonia. He does not remind us that by acting in ways that further the friend's good I will also be promoting my own good. Aristotle does not claim that because of the friendship the friend's good has become part of my own good, or that he friendship has created a good that is shared between us. He says that in this kind of friendship I have concern for the friend's good that is like the concern that I have for my own good. My good and the friend's good remain distinct. Aristotle does not assume that my ultimate concern is with my own good and then try to show that at some deep level in friendship self-concern can expand to include another person."
The idea is that the final conclusion Aristotle draws regarding friendship is that the excellent person sees his friend's good as distinct from his own and seeks his friend's good for the friend's own sake, apart from consideration of his own eudaimonia. If this is true - it if is true that we should care about our friend's eudaimonia in much the same way that we care about our own eudaimonia, not necessarily linking the two together, then Aristotle must not take the position that our own eudaimonia is the uniquely fundamental goal for us to pursue.
The conclusion that McKerlie draws here, though well supported textually, is an uncharitable interpretation of Aristotle's thoughts on friendship. First of all, there is an obvious conflict here that McKerlie ignores. If Aristotle does say, as McKerlie suggests, that the good of my friend is independent of my own good and that I wish goods to my friend strictly for his own sake, then there is an obvious conflict between this and what Aristotle says in chapter 8 of Book IX. McKerlie himself admits that Aristotle says in chapter 8 of Book IX that the excellent person cares more about himself than his friend. How is this consistent with seeing your friend's good on equal footing with your own?
This conflict has not gone unnoticed by scholars. Julia Annas tries to resolve this conflict in "Self-Love in Aristotle," 1988. Regardless of whether the conflict can be resolved, it is problematic for McKerlie that he ignores it, that he acknowledges that Aristotle suggests that the excellent person cares more for himself than his friend and then trades on Aristotle's apparent claims that the excellent person sees his friend's good on equal footing with his own in order to support his claim that egoistic eudaimonism is a false interpretation of Aristotle. Nevertheless, let us give McKerlie the benefit of the doubt and examine Aristotle's remarks on friendship in chapter 9 of Book IX.
It is true, as McKerlie says, that Aristotle does not explicitly state that the reason I care so much for my friend is that the friend has become an indispensable part of my own eudaimonia. It is true that Aristotle never explicitly reminds us that by acting in ways that further my friend's good I am thereby promoting my own good. However, we must realize that Aristotle does not deny these claims either and his claim at the end of chapter 9 of Book IX that the excellent person must "perceive his friend's being together with his own" must be put into the proper context and it must be seen as the ultimate result of Aristotle's initial reasons for why we need friends in the first place. That being said, if we take a closer look at the reasons Aristotle gives for why we need friends to begin with, we will realize that the reasons are in accord with egoistic eudaimonism.
Aristotle's ideas on friendship begin at the start of Book VIII. He says right off the bat that friendship is simply a necessary condition for life. "Friendship, it is most necessary for our life. For no one would choose to live without friends even if he had all the other goods. For how would one benefit from prosperity if one had no opportunities for beneficence, which is most often displayed, and most highly praised, in relation to friends? And how would one guard and protect prosperity without friends, when it is all the more precarious?" (NE 1155a). These are all self-regarding reasons for why we need friends. Also, at 1170a, Aristotle says that another reason we need friends is so that we may observe their virtuous behavior so that we may learn to become more virtuous. "The blessed person, therefore, will need virtuous friends, given that he decides to observe virtuous actions that are his own, and the actions of a virtuous friend are of this sort." Again, this is a self-regarding reason for why we need friends. Most important is Aristotle's final conclusion - the last sentence of chapter 9 in Book IX. "Anyone who is to be happy, then, must have excellent friends." This means that friendship is a necessary condition for happiness - another self-regarding reason for why we need friends.
So - friendship is necessary for life, it is necessary for the cultivation of virtue, and it is necessary for happiness. The bottom line is that we need friends, according to Aristotle, for no other reason than to greatly benefit ourselves. Of course, a virtuous person needs the right kind of friend. He needs to befriend a virtuous person and cultivate a virtue friendship. An important passage is found at 1156b8, one that McKerlie might have used to support his claim, where Aristotle describes the relationship between virtue friends.
"But complete friendship is the friendship of good people similar in virtue; for they wish goods in the same way to each other insofar as they are good, and they are good in their own right. Hence they wish goods to each other for each other's own sake. Now those who wish goods to their friend for the friend's own sake are friends most of all; for they have this attitude because of the friend himself, not coincidentally. Hence these people's friendship lasts as long as they are good; and virtue is enduring."
Here Aristotle says that we wish goods to our friend for the friend's own sake. The most important part of this passage for defenders of the egoistic eudaimonism interpretations is "Now those who wish goods to their friend for the friend's own sake are friends most of all; for they have this attitude because of the friend himself, not coincidentally." This means that friendship has to be earned. A virtuous person grants friendship only to those similar in virtue. Before the excellent man develops a virtue friendship with another man, he has to be sure that that man is virtuous in order that he may be sure he will gain properly from the friendship.
So far I have pointed to Aristotle's reasons for why we need friends as well as an aspect of the relationship between virtue friends in the effort of weakening the idea that Aristotle's claim that we see our friend in the same light as ourselves and that we wish him goods for his own sake suggests that the egoistic eudaimonism interpretation is false. One thing that should be clear now is that before friends reach the eventual state of where they care about each other's good as much as their own, wishing goods to each other for each other's own sake, they go through a myriad of steps that involve the justification of the friendship on self-regarding grounds.
Still, it might be objected that nevertheless the end result of friendship for Aristotle is a relationship that rests on no self-regarding concerns. Once a true virtue friendship is achieved, I do not help my friend only insofar as helping him conduces to my own eudaimonia. I help him simply because he needs the help. However, I think it would be wrong to sever the friendship at this point from its initial justificatory foundation. The fact that the excellent person might be willing to undergo great suffering for his friend cannot be separated from the fact that initially, the excellent person chose to become friends with this person on purely self-interested grounds. What we must ask is: Is it possible for a person to care about his friend as much as he cares about himself and to wish goods to his friend for the friend's own sake within a formally egoistic ethical theory?
This is possible as long as Aristotle's reasons for why we need friends are kept in place. In light of Aristotle's remarks on how and why friendships begin, it is not unreasonable to construct the following picture of Aristotelian friendship. The virtuous man, in seeking a virtue friend, will only choose that person with whom he shares the same values. He will choose his friend on self-interested grounds based on how his own eudaimonia can and may prosper from the friend. Once this is determined, perhaps the agent no longer consciously thinks of maximizing his own eudaimonia when helping his friend since he has already long ago determined that being friends with this person would advance his own eudaimonia in the long run. This is where the other-regarding, "for the friend's own sake" concern enters. We must realize that whenever the Aristotelian moral agent helps a friend in need, he does so because of how greatly important the friend is to him and his life. And most importantly, no where does Aristotle ever advocate explicit self-sacrifice for the friend's sake. He might not ever explicitly advise us, as McKerlie points out, to help our friends only insofar as helping them conduces to our eudaimonia, but neither does he ever advise us to sacrifice our own good for the sake of our friends which would warrant McKerlie's label of "altruistic eudaimonism." Indeed, just as I suggested that in Book I Aristotle assumes that since eudaimonia is the ultimate good we therefore should always aim at our own eudaimonia, he may very well also assume that helping a virtue friend in the right situation will always conduce to our eudaimonia. In response to McKerlie, just because Aristotle does not explicitly state that my ultimate concern is with my own good does not mean that he does not implicitly assume that it is. In light of eudaimonia being posited as the ultimate and final end (notwithstanding McKerlie's arguments as to what this means), it is not unreasonable to attribute this assumption to Aristotle.
There is also one other possibility we should consider. I emphasize again that Aristotle's remarks on the role of self-love in friendship in chapter 8 of Book IX clearly conflict with his claims that the virtuous man wishes goods to his friend the friends own sake and that the virtuous man sees his friend's good on equal footing with his own. In chapter 8 of Book IX, Aristotle says that the virtuous man loves himself most of all and that even in cases where he appears to "sacrifice" himself for his friend, he actually is better off than the friend since he gains what is fine from acting virtuously. The possibility we should consider is that in chapter 9 of Book IX, where Aristotle seems to say things that contradict what he says in the chapter 8, he is simply being unclear. Perhaps he is gushing a little bit at the joys and wonders of friendship. It also might be do to the fact that the Ethics is more or less a collection of Aristotle's notes.
McKerlie’s main project is to show that Aristotle does not recommend that we aim, in all our actions, at our own eudaimonia – and therefore, the egoistic eudaimonism interpretation is false. I have tried to show in several ways that the textual evidence McKerlie uses to support this thesis as well as his own arguments do not damage the egoistic eudaimonism interpretation. Once we admit that Aristotle posits eudaimonia as the final good (which, of course, is obvious) and once we further admit that he does not deny that eudaimonia is the good for the individual, we are well on our way to the egoistic eudaimonism interpretation. McKerlie tries to argue that this does not mean, for Aristotle, that we should not aim at the eudaimonia of others, totally apart from our own eudaimonia. I have tried to point out that there is nothing in the text that suggests that Aristotle recommends that we aim at the eudaimonia of others completely outside and regardless of a framework of our own eudaimonia.
The two main points I wish to stress are: 1 – Nowhere does Aristotle explicitly state that there are times when our own eudaimonia must be put aside in order that we sacrifice ourselves for others in our pursuit of someone else’s eudaimonia, and 2 – that the good person cares about his friend and does good things for his friend, apparently in pursuit of his friend’s eudaimonia, does not entail that the good person is not thinking overall of his own eudaimonia. Sure, the good person will help his friends, even at what might appear to be a great expense to himself. But I think that in order to ground the claim that Aristotle says that we should strictly aim at the eudaimonia of others and that our own eudaimonia is not of the utmost importance, it must be shown that Aristotle says that there are cases in which we should aid a friend even at the expense of our own eudaimonia, even when our own eudaimonia suffers from the action. And nowhere does Aristotle say this. The fact that we might help a friend, perhaps even thinking only of his good, does not damage the egoistic eudaimonism interpretation so long as the act does not damage the eudaimonia of the agent acting. McKerlie makes a strong case, but there is not enough in the text to support his position, and what is in the text seems to lean more to the side of the egoistic eudaimonism interpretation.
1. Aristotle, Nicomachaen Ethics, trans. Terrence Irwin, Hackett Publishing
2. McKerlie, Dennis. “Aristotle and Egoism” in The Southern Journal of Philosophy
(1998) Vol. XXXVI.
 Perhaps McKerlie need not assert that “acts of friendship” are purely altruistic. However, if they are altruistic just in the sense that they are kind acts toward another person, there is no reason why this cannot be fit into an overarching egoistic eudemonism framework – especially if, as McKerlie even admits, the good person cares more for himself than his friend.
 McKerlie does not make it quite clear what definition of “altruism” he is working with. I understand altruism to be the doctrine that says that the moral good is to sacrifice yourself for the sake of others. This may be a radical take on altruism, as most people assume it to simply mean doing nice things for other people. The reason I suggest that “altruistic eudaimonism” is a contradiction in terms is that eudaimonistic ethical theories posit that happiness is the ethical goal. I assume (I hope not wrongly) that this means that ethics should teach me how to achieve happiness, my own happiness. Altruism, construed in the way I have explained it, requires that we sacrifice our happiness for the sake of others.