In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argues that we can recognise the highest good because we do everything else for its sake, while we never say that we pursue the highest good for any other thing’s sake. For Aristotle, the highest good is the happy life.
There is a passage (Nicomachean Ethics, Book I) where Aristotle is concerned with finding out what “the good” is. Not any good, but the highest good.
So he looks at the various sciences and arts, and he finds that they all have different meanings of “good.” In medicine, it is good to be healthy. In strategy, the ultimate good is to win. In music, it is to play a piece well.
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But all these also have something in common. For every activity, the good is that for the sake of which the activity is undertaken. When you go to a doctor, you do so for the sake of your health. When you play music, you play for the sake of playing a piece well. So your health is one possible good. And playing a piece of music well is another good.
But now we can still ask the same question about these things that seem to be good. For the sake of what do I want my health to be good? Why do I care whether I play an instrument well? Perhaps I can find another reason. I want my health to be good so that I can enjoy my life more fully. I want to play music well so that people will like to hear me play and I will be famous.
For the sake of what do I want my health to be good? Why do I care whether I play an instrument well?
But again, I can ask further. Why is enjoying my life a good thing? Why do I want to be famous?
In the end, Aristotle says, we will have to find something that is good for its own sake, not for some other purpose. We will find, Aristotle says, that all other things are good for the sake of that ultimate good. But this ultimate good is not good for the sake of anything outside itself.
So what is Aristotle’s highest good? What could it be? What do we desire only for itself, not for the sake of another thing? Aristotle says: Happiness.
We want to have money, in order to be happy. We want to have a good family, in order to be happy. We want success and fame and a sailboat or a private jet in order to be happy. But we never want to be happy in order to reach some other goal. Being happy is itself the highest good. It doesn’t need any other justification. It is valuable in itself.
This looks like an easy insight, trivial perhaps. But it has far-reaching consequences. The next time I am tempted to work late, I should ask myself: Why am I doing this? What is the ultimate purpose of me working late? If Aristotle is right, it’s happiness, nothing else. But then, can I really reach happiness be working late? Does working late not mean that I will be neglecting my family? And is my family not also a source of happiness, a more reliable one than money? If my ultimate goal is to be happy, shouldn’t I stop working late, and just go home and enjoy the company of those who love me?
Philosophy can only clarify the questions. It’s up to each one of us to find our own answers.
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