Aristotle’s function argument

Aristotle believes that if one wants to live well, one should organize their life by reference to the very best thing that humans can obtain in actionЂ”something he calls “the human good. He portrays that a good life should point towards eudaimonia, which may also be interpreted as happiness. However, unlike our modern understanding of happiness as a mental state, eudaimonia carries more weight in regard to living a full and wealthy life. Due to this we may better interpret eudaimonia as ‘flourishing’ or ‘faring well and living well’. But now that we know that eudaimonia cannot merely be translated as happiness, we are prompted to ask what exactly ‘flourishing’ is: what counts as ‘faring well and living well’? It is within the answer to this issue that Aristotle provides us the Function Argument.

Aristotle believes that all human beings and things retain functions. The Greek word for ‘function’ – ergon – does not convey quite the same connotations as our English counterpart ‘function’: a function for Aristotle is some sort of characteristic activity. A characteristic activity conveys an understanding of what kind of object something is. Thus, it demonstrates an evaluative guideline for that certain object: when something expresses its characteristic activity well it is a good x. In order to fulfill its ergon, a thing will need certain qualities. A quality that supports the fulfillment of an object’s ergon, otherwise known as an arГЄte, can be interpreted as an ‘excellence’, or more precisely, a ‘virtue’. Aristotle states that he can explain what eudaimonia is if he can first inform us about the function of humans. Aristotle writes that a thing will be good as long as it demonstrates its function well and in accordance with excellence. For example, a knife will be a good knife as long as it demonstrates its function of cutting well. Thus, we see that this will consist of the knife possessing special attributes which make it good at cutting – such as sharpness for example. Although it seems apparent that a knife’s main function is to cut, we may find it more challenging to come up with the function of human beings. Aristotle connects his Function Argument to human beings; traits that enable human beings to fulfill their ergon are their virtues.

Moreover, what is the ‘characteristic activity’ of human beings? At the most general level, we are alive. However, this isn’t distinctive of just us, therefore we shouldn’t identify ‘life’ as our characteristic activity. Humans are a form of animal instead of plant; we are conscious beings with a sense of perception. Nonetheless, we share this with many animals. What we do want to know is what the good for human beings, distinctively, is. Aristotle highlights that a human being’s function is whatever is peculiar to human beings. Due to this, it can’t be simply perceiving well or digesting well, for instance, because other animals also demonstrate these activities. Possessing and using the powers of reason is what makes humans peculiar. Therefore, the function of human beings is possessing and using reason, and, in turn, human beings flourish as long as they demonstrate this function well – using the powers of reason effectively to direct them throughout their lives. The life of a human is uniquely a life of a being that may be directed by reason. We are, distinctively, rational animals. A number of readers misinterpret Aristotle to be stating that our ergon is reasoning, however, Aristotle illustrates a more profound point: what deems us characteristic is that no matter what action or activity we engage, we do for a reason. Every single one of our actions, and not just ‘reasoning,’ are, or may be, based on reasons. Being directed by reasons is, of course, related to one’s psychology, and thus Aristotle discusses about the soul’s activity. Furthermore, this will be connected with a variety of virtues, just as sharpness was involved in the knife’s ability to perform its function well.

Aristotle illustrates that a life directed by reason will be a life lived in accordance with the virtues he establishes. Virtues are known as the attributes that allow us to live in accordance with reason. Two types of virtues exist virtues of character characterized by emotion and desire, and virtues of the intellect or attributes of the reasoning. Likewise, the virtues of human beings will be what allows our ergon to live in accordance with reason. Only a virtuous individual is able to attain eudaimonia. To live well and fulfill our ergon, we must be directed by the ‘right’ reasons good reasons and not ‘bad’ reasons. Thus, eudaimonia exists in the activity of the soul which displays the virtues by being in accordance with ‘right’ or ‘good’ reason (orthos logos). Due to our ergon being the activity of the soul in accordance with reason, a virtue is an attribute of an individual’s ‘soul’. Aristotle provides an analysis of the soul that can be divided into two parts. The first part is related to ‘growth and nutrition,’ in which Aristotle thought that all life has soul. The second part is related to desire and emotion; the desiring part we share with other animals, but in us, it can be responsive to reason. For example, if someone who is tempted, but they control themselves, what they seek leads to what they believe is good. That person with the virtue of temperance is not even tempted by what they think is not good. What they seek uses the same voice as their reason.

In conclusion, Aristotle’s Function Argument ties into virtue ethics in a number of ways: it tells us how one will live a good life (rather than telling us about right action like other ethical theories such as utilitarianism and Kantian deontology do), it gives substance to the core concept of eudaimonia, and it concludes that a good life is one which is lived in accordance with virtue.

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